THE NEGROES OF NEBRASKA
Origin and Background
(6) The story of Nebraska's Negroes properly begins in Africa, yet this part of the story must remain untold. With but one or two exceptions, even though their African origin is obvious, the history of Nebraska's dark-skinned citizens cannot be traced in time beyond the days when, in the South, their status as slaves allotted to them individually no place in the recorded history of the United States of America.
The Negroes of Nebraska constitute, from an ethnic standpoint, one of the most sharply defined of all racial elements in the State. Several factors have operated in this preservation of their racial integrity. The great majority of them who migrated to Nebraska came from the South, bringing with them a common culture, heritage, and mode of living. Once settled in Nebraska, both social and economic motives directed their concentration in relatively circumscribed districts. Segregation, proscription of intermarriage, social and economic discrimination, racial differences and divergent living standards all comprise, however veiled, a nonetheless tangible barrier which to this day has maintained at a singularly low level, as compared with other immigrant groups, amalgamation between Negroes and Caucasians.
It could be pointed out that lack of leadership among the Negroes has retarded their development along many lines. Yet it must be noted as a correlative that, even when able leaders have arisen among them, the group as a whole has not always exhibited a unity of opinion or fixity of purpose sufficient to reward the efforts of intelligent and judicial leadership.
On the other hand, it is unfair to assume that the Negroes themselves are alone responsible for their failure to achieve a higher status than that now assigned to them. Starting with nothing but hope and determination, sometimes almost aboriginally ignorant and usually illiterate, mere chattels before their emancipation from slavery, they have taken enormous strides toward social and economic parity with the white race. Coincident with this advance there has developed a pride in race and racial accomplishment that has sustained them in the face of heavy odds.
There are a few ex-slaves still living in Nebraska, as well as a few who were born shortly before the slaves were freed. What they remember and can tell of their lives during slavery indicates that their individual treatment was as varied as were the natures of their several masters. They are all agreed, moreover, that the only cultural heritage brought to Nebraska by the State's early Negro settlers was what little they could assimilate as plantation toilers. They were, with few exceptions, allowed no educational privileges. Occasional gatherings after the day's work was done, with what religious activities the slaves themselves could devise, constituted almost their entire social life.
The necessity for earning a living in the field of competitive labor in the South faced the erstwhile slaves soon after their emancipation. Since their training during slavery had fitted them chiefly for agricultural pursuits, and since Southern industry consistently refused to recognize the freedman as an industrial worker, numbers of the ex-slaves found themselves with no means of livelihood. Plantation owners, now forced to pay wages to their colored employees, were financially unable to offer work to considerable numbers of the ex-slaves. A few, it is true, found employment in Southern industries, yet low wages and discriminating treatment (7) offered them little encouragement in this line. It is not strange, then, that the Negro began to look for a new place where he could establish a permanent home and earn a livelihood.
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