Northern Racism and Abolitionist Legends


General Otis O. Howard was a Leeds, Maine abolitionist who ended the war as the head of the infamous Freedmen’s Bureau. His mother, who remarried a man named Gilmore, did not hold the same antislavery convictions as her son. Like many Northern officers during the war, Howard had black contraband servants, one named Washington Kemp, and the story below reminds one of the "devout Puritans" trying to make the poor Africans on the Amistad into properly dressed and fed New Englanders while awaiting the verdict of the trial. While the Puritans were not looking, the Africans shed the strange clothing to appear more like they wished. Howard tried to fit Kemp into a mold of New England farming which he was not suited for, and must have forgotten the New England (and his mother’s) brand of racism that could sustain the profitable old slave trade, but not want black residents living among them.

The second quote shows the lack of respect for ex-slaves displayed by Northern soldiers, and that Howard was mindful of his postwar antislavery credentials as were Northern abolitionists who preened themselves for higher office by exaggerating their role in the legendary "underground railroad." As author Larry Gara (The Liberty Line, 1961, page 18) points out, "the great bulk of material on the underground railroad appeared after the war. In reminiscences and histories, elderly abolitionists told of the institution and their part in it. They tended to enlarge its scope and exaggerate its importance, and thus contributed much to one of America’s best known but least examined legends." Howard was no different in his Autobiography.

Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402

Northern Racism and Abolitionist Legends:

"The Howard brothers’ mother was once again a widow. Alone she had moved back to their father’s old farm and was trying to manage it with the help of hired hands. Otis, whose career had carried him so far away from her that they had little to say and seldom wrote to each other, sent (Washington) Kemp to Leeds in the spring of 1865. He was to learn how to manage the farm, and Mrs. Gilmore would in time move from Leeds to be with one of her sons. (Otis’ brother) Charles arranged for the mortgage on the farm to be amended so that the farm could be rented to "Wash"….(and) would begin buying it over a long period of time. If all worked out, a freedman would own the Howard homestead.

But Eliza Gilmore neither shared Otis’ desire to see Kemp become a freeholder nor understood the symbolic worth of his succeeding in the opportunity Howard had given him. She did not treat Wash as a prospective equal of an Otis or a Howard….She complained of his incompetence and rudeness and wanted him to leave. She deprived Howard of the chance to point to his own family and Washington Kemp as a New England example to follow. The Kemps…left the Howard farm and bought a much simpler farm (possibly with the General’s help) and kept a cow, a horse and some chickens. He became a subsistence farmer, but it was as a minstrel…that Washington Kemp and his daughters toured county fairs in Maine as "The Kemp Family from the Old Sunny South."

In another incident involving Howard and his black servants, Howard’s brother Charles wrote that "the two Negroes were riding back from town when they ran into some soldiers of the "Irish Brigade" walking back from picket duty. The soldiers ordered the Negroes to get down from their horses. One, frightened, rode away quickly. The other, Jackson, told his challengers that his errand was for General Howard and, confident that this would ensure his safety, he refused to dismount. They shot him. He was taken to the hospital where his arm was amputated. General Howard visited the dying man. The story of this incident was told very differently by Otis Howard in his Autobiography forty-five years later. He disconnected himself with the event entirely. The man for who the errand was being done was identified as an officer from Minnesota, and the Irish picketers became "enlisted men" holding "views similar to the New York rioters of 1863." Not only did the General neglect to mention that the laundry was his, but also failed to take credit for visiting the man in the hospital. In his autobiography the person Charles had told about became a symbol. He was now a "mulatto" of "handsome figure, pleasant face and manners, and rather well dressed for the field," out riding as usual." In the General’s memory a Negro of a superior sort had been murdered by base and undiscoverable kinsmen of city rioters who "hated a Negro except as a slave and….kept alive in their circle of influence an undercurrent of malice more or less active."

The General gave this version of the story in the Autobiography to establish his own and his army’s antislavery credentials. Speaking of the murder he said, "Friendly voices murmured against the crime, and with set teeth echoed the settled thought, slavery must go." The trouble was that the story did not fit such usage.

The murdered man would have been safer in prewar Virginia, where doing an errand for the master was sufficient reason for the Negro to be on a horse while white men walked."

(Yankee Stepfather, General O.O. Howard and the Freedman, William McFeely, Yale University Press, 1968)