Sankofa Studies

Before Lincoln Became the “Great Emancipator”

August 23, 2019

Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had other plans. Lincoln appointed James Mitchell as Commissioner of Emigration (with an “E,” in charge of overseeing the exit of people from the United States) on August 4, 1862. In this capacity he oversaw the establishment of colonies abroad for freed slaves. Mitchell organized Lincoln’s infamous 1862 address to a “Deputation of Negroes” at the White House. Lincoln advocated voluntary methods, not coercion, that would convince blacks that it was in their best interests to leave America. A race war was inevitable if former enslaved people settled among white Southerners, he thought, so both blacks and whites would benefit from colonization. To this end Lincoln held a meeting with five black ministers on August 14, 1862, during which, in an attempt to convince the ministers to propagandize for colonization, he came close to blaming the Civil War on the presence of blacks in America.

In his address to the black ministers, Lincoln proclaimed:

” You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side.

We look to our condition, owing to the existence of the two races on this continent. I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of Slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race. See our present condition—the country engaged in war!—our white men cutting one another’s throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.

It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”


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