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The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become: A Critical and Practical Discussion by William Hannibal Thomas

The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English- Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian- Americans, or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality than with the other citizens of the American Republic.

The men who do not become Americans and nothing else are hyphenated Americans; and there ought to be no room for them in this country. The man who calls himself an American citizen and who yet shows by his actions that he is primarily the citizen of a foreign land, plays a thoroughly mischievous part in the life of our body politic. He has no place here; and the sooner he returns to the land to which he feels his real heart-allegiance, the better it will be for every good American.

Theodore Roosevelt addressing the Knights of Columbus in New York City on the 12th of October 1915

William Hannibal Thomas was as wrong as any other racist in looking for physiological reasons for differences between black and white people – he was as much a child of Darwinism as most of the “leading” minds of the 19th century [and almost all of the social thinkers of the 20th]. However his failure of diagnosing the cause of the illness did not mean that there was no illness nor that its symptoms were not pernicious and persistent. Unfortunately the protestant church in America was, and would remain, the most thoroughly segregated institution in the country and, truth be told, other than the obligatory number of do-gooders displayed no interest in being anything else.

Black Judas : William Hannibal Thomas and The American Negro    Athens : University of Georgia Press, 2000 John David Smith Thomas, William Hannibal, b. 1843. American Negro Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xxvi, 386 p. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [289]-367) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text VG/VG  

William Hannibal Thomas was born in Ohio in 1843, descended from free blacks from Virginia and Ohio. He was denied entrance to the Union army because of his race and worked as a servant in a white regiment. Thomas achieved notoriety and infamy with the publication of his most famous work, The American Negro, in 1901. His critique of blacks, especially women, drew the ire of prominent black spokesmen and Thomas spent the remainder of his life in obscurity, drifting and working as a janitor in Columbus, Ohio until his death in 1935.

Thomas was a vitriolic critic of what he calls “Negro characteristics” and suggests that African-Americans will only achieve a desirable standard of living – in both the economic and moral sense – through association with and emulation of Anglo-Saxon society. Though Thomas acknowledges the destructive effects of slavery and the difficulties that restricted freedmen during Reconstruction, he contends that continuing illiteracy, lassitude, moral degeneracy and religious corruption is the result of the inferior intellect and animalistic sensuality with which all blacks are burdened. He looks to the church as a source of moral and intellectual instruction for African-Americans.

In describing the role of the church within the black community, Thomas writes that “most of the ignorance and degradation endured by the race is justly chargeable to a false system of Christianity, intent on blinding the consciences of men by burdening their souls with shams and pretence. The freedman’s ethical notions, with their insidious and execrable teachings, as well as his false social ideas, inflict degradation on the race.”. He describes the black clergy as shallow-minded and arrogant men who are unable to make sense of right and wrong instead focusing on ritualistic frenzy and energetic displays.

Thomas bemoans the lack of church-based moral instruction within the black community. In an effort to remedy these problems he hopes to see the African church subsumed by the larger white Protestant churches, and black clergy trained by reputable ministers. He echoes this idea when suggesting that white women (whom he judges as morally strong) undertake the moral instruction of the freedmen and women. Despite these proposals, Thomas is not optimistic about the future for African-Americans; he suggests that too many blacks are constrained by ignorance and indolence and will not be able to contribute to American society without the moralizing power of true Christianity.

This a compelling story of a black man who became a pariah among his own people: William Hannibal Thomas’s transformation from a critical but optimistic black nationalist to a critic of our first experiment with the nanny state – Reconstruction – although this was a nanny state at the point of a bayonet and its total failure to incorporate blacks into the mainstream of American society. After working as a preacher, teacher, attorney, and journalist in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Thomas in 1901 published his infamous book The American Negro – Cosby on steroids. It became a national sensation and became a rallying cry for angry blacks of all ideological bents who made Thomas their special target. In Black Judas, John David Smith analyzes the dilemmas of racial identity that confounded both whites and blacks and opens a whole new perspective on the question of race in American history.

You may find a complete copy of the book published in 1901 here.


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