“Send us back home”: Early Black Nationalism in a Letter to President Woodrow Wilson

This is a guest post by Sarah Shepherd, who participated in the fall 2021 Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Internship in the Manuscript Division. Sarah is a graduate student at Simmons University studying for dual master’s degrees in history and library science.

In a 1913 letter to President Woodrow Wilson, Elizabeth Sykes declared, “Something must be done. We are producing educated and refined representatives, what for? They are denied their ambitions simply because of color. So I say let us gracefully go home where we can sit in any room we choose.” Her letter reflected a rising Black racial consciousness and nationalism in the early twentieth century.

Elizabeth Sykes to Woodrow Wilson, letter, August 29, 1913, p. 1, File 152, Series 4,Woodrow Wilson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Elizabeth Sykes (August 25, 1880-unknown) was born in Tennessee to Julius and Virginia E. Walker Broughton. Her mother, Virginia, was a famous Baptist leader who traveled, often alone, in the Jim Crow South to spread the word of God. The first Black woman to graduate from college in the South, Virginia believed that a woman was “man’s partner—not his slave—and that in all the affairs that pertain to the training and elevation of the races she should be given a splendid opportunity to reach the highest limit of self-development and to exert the noblest influence possible.”[1]

Raised under a feminist philosophy of equality, Elizabeth was educated at Howe Institute and secured a scholarship to Moody’s School for Girls in Northfield, Massachusetts, before she returned home to study medicine at Roger Williams University, a historic Black Baptist college in Tennessee.[2] Already a widow, Elizabeth wrote this letter four days after her thirty-third birthday and in the first six months of Wilson’s presidency. Wilson was initially heralded by Black Americans for his progressive campaign promising fairness and equality. Many were bitterly disappointed when Wilson’s administration instead instituted racial segregation in many federal agencies and demoted or fired large numbers of Black federal employees.

Equality was not possible in America, Elizabeth wrote to Wilson from her home in Memphis on August 29, 1913. She argued that the “American Negro, and the White race would be better off if we were further apart . . . I don’t believe the Negro Race will ever attain the position here in America where he can demand the recognition of other races as being a man like one of them!” In the face of intense racial discrimination and indiscriminate violence, many Black Americans did not see a future in the United States. This sentiment was a familiar one. Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism appeared in many different forms from Black abolitionist Martin Delany in the nineteenth century to Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, in the early twentieth century, and later to Malcom X, who argued for the creation of a separate Black nation and a return to Africa. Elizabeth was familiar with the Black Nationalism movement inspired by Garvey’s precursor, Henry McNeal Turner, whom she mentioned in her letter. Turner was the Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and organized ships of emigrants to Liberia after the first Jim Crow laws were enacted.

Rev. H. M. Turner, chaplain First United States Colored Regiment, 1863, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With a bit of dark humor, Elizabeth wrote that “I think the Race is old enough & far enough emerged from slavery to stand alone and I think the white people would be glad to assist them move ha! ha! Don’t you think so.” Confident in her views as a Black woman, she argued that she also understood white people as she had “enough of the Caucasian Race in my makeup to fully realize his feelings, treatment and regard of my half-brother.” Here Elizabeth invoked her family’s lived trauma to establish herself as an authority on race in America. Her grandfather and grandmother were the children of their enslaver.[3]

Living with the threat of daily violence in the Jim Crow South, Elizabeth reflected sardonically on her situation and those of her peers: “We are guests of the White People and they have become bored with us and its our move now. They are knocking us & killing us out and as long as we stay here it grows worse.” She grew up with stories of the Memphis Race Riots in 1866 where nearly fifty people were murdered. More than two hundred people were lynched in Tennessee during the Jim Crow era.

Elizabeth gave up on true freedom in America and urged Wilson to take the drastic action of making the return to Africa “compulsory.” She argued that other colonizing nations should be cleared out since “the poor negro has none save Africa & is not wanted anywhere else.” Realizing the highly controversial nature of such a policy, Elizabeth confided that “I have sounded no cymbal nor communicated to everyone else my views on this affair.” Her drastic solution attests to the daily terror of living in the South for many Blacks and reflected a determination by some to seek a new and better life in Africa.

There is no record of Wilson ever reading Elizabeth’s letter nor is there even the common acknowledgment sent by his secretary, Joseph Patrick Tumulty. Elizabeth later traveled to Liberia as a medical missionary. She had planned to stay for four years, but for an unknown reason, her trip was cut short a year later. She remained in Memphis, taking care of her aging parents, and remarried, first to Henry McNewsum and later to Benjamin Branson.

Elizabeth Sykes’s letter is part of File 152 in Series 4 of the Woodrow Wilson papers. File 152 contains letters written to President Wilson on his segregation policies in federal agencies and his handling of numerous race riots during his presidency. To explore the topic further, see Speaking Truth(s) to Presidents: Letters from Ordinary Americans to President Woodrow Wilson.

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[1] Virginia Broughton, Virginia Broughton: The Life and Writings of a National Baptist Missionary, ed. Tomeiko Ashford Carter (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2010), xxxv.

[2] Virginia Broughton, Twenty Years’ Experience of a Missionary: A Machine-readable Transcription (NY: New York Public Library, 1997), Retrieved from https://s3.amazonaws.com/nypl-aaww/SCAAWW_book_4_Twenty_years_experience_of_a_missionary.pdf

[3] Broughton, Virginia Broughton, xxii.

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