- The African American Delegation to Abraham Lincoln:A Reappraisal
Abraham Lincoln's August 1862 meeting with a delegation of black Washingtonians has always been crucial to those interested in assessing Lincoln's views on race and on African Americans' future in the United States. At that meeting, Lincoln famously told the five delegates "you and we are different races" and it was "better for us both . . . to be separated."1 Lincoln hoped the Chiriquí region of what is now Panama would be an auspicious destination for African Americans, whom he doubted would be able to enjoy prosperity and peace in the United States. Black abolitionists' response to Lincoln's colonization proposal is also well known. Men like Robert Purvis and Frederick Douglass denounced it, charging Lincoln with racism and insisting that African Americans should demand rights and equality in the nation of their birth. The coming months would reinforce the logic of their position. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and black men began enlisting in the U.S. armed forces, opening the way for African Americans' claims to full citizenship.2 [End Page 117]
Despite the considerable attention to Lincoln and the black abolitionist response, however, fundamental questions about the delegation itself have long gone unanswered or, in some cases, answered incorrectly. Many have seen Benjamin Quarles's pathbreaking 1953 book, The Negro in the Civil War, as the definitive account of the delegation. Quarles wrote that Lincoln's colonization agent, James Mitchell, "hand-picked" the five delegates and that four of them were recently freed "contrabands." This assertion helped Quarles make a key interpretive point. Mitchell and Lincoln had sought out freedpeople rather than bona fide community leaders, Quarles argued, because he wanted a pliable delegation that would not challenge his Central American colonization proposal. Quarles's account implied that little more could be known about the composition of the delegation and, relatedly, that black institutions in Washington mattered little for understanding the outcome of the famed meeting with the president.3
As it turns out, there was much more to the story than Quarles's account suggested. First, none of the delegates to Lincoln was newly freed from slavery. In fact, all five were members of Washington's antebellum black elite and had strong ties to local religious and civic associations. Moreover, neither Mitchell nor Lincoln chose the delegates. Rather, the delegation emerged from institutions and decision-making processes that black Washingtonians had developed before the Civil War and put to use in the dynamic wartime context. Far from being sympathetic to the prospect of government-sponsored colonization in Central America, the delegates who [End Page 118] met with Lincoln were inclined to oppose emigration. In fact, three of the five men were active in the Social, Civil, and Statistical Association (SCSA), a black organization that, just weeks before the meeting with Lincoln, had attempted to banish several emigration promoters from Washington.4
But Washington's African Americans were neither unified in opposition to emigration nor universally accepting of the delegation itself. To the contrary, the leaders of black Washington who sought to present a unified front against emigration faced a myriad of challenges. Several prominent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) ministers supported emigration or at least an open debate about the topic. Edward Thomas, the chair of the Lincoln delegation, unexpectedly decided to support Lincoln's proposal for a black colony in Chiriquí, and hundreds of black Washingtonians volunteered for the first voyage. Meanwhile, Lincoln's invitation to the White House itself ignited controversy in black Washington. Local African American religious and civic leaders used longstanding practices, developed through inter-denominational collaboration among churches, to select the delegation. But some black Washingtonians—including members of the delegation itself—questioned whether a small group of representatives could purport to represent masses of people whose perspectives and interests varied a great deal. Black Washingtonians' disagreements about the Lincoln delegation help explain the peculiar fact that the delegation never issued an official response to the president's proposal. Beyond that, they bring to light a remarkable debate not only focused on emigration but also on the responsibilities of leadership and the mechanics of representation.
To an extent rarely...