FOREWORD To Howard Fast's Freedom Road
By W. E. B. Du Bois
To err is human; but a human error easily slips into three crimes: the initial mistake becomes deliberate wrong; attempt is then made to cure this wrong by force rather than reason; finally the whole story is so explained and distorted as to preserve no lesson for posterity, and thus history seldom guides us aright.
This is illustrated by the history of slavery in America. It was no unexpected mistake for a new continent in the 18th century to use slave labor. It became a crime, however, in the 19th century to build new commerce and industry on the African slave trade and make black slavery the foundation of the Sugar Empire and the Cotton Kingdom. This cancer of American economy might have been cured peacably by reason and religion, but stubborn men preferred murder and war. When emancipation was the inevitable result of the Civil War between the slave states and the free, but one decent and logical path faced the nation and that was to educate the freed men for full citizenship in the land which they had helped to build and to free.
This an aroused philanthropy led by Sumner, Stevens and Douglass, and helped by some churches, tried to do. This was so frustrated by stubborn slave-holders that all that could be accomplished was immediate enfranchisement of the freed men by permission of greedy Northern merchants, without giving the Negroes education, land or tools. Despite this, the Negro vote gave the South manhood suffrage, free public schools, the beginning of land sub-division, and a new social legislation.
Thereupon the nation permitted a sordid bargain between northern industry and southern reaction the former slave-holders offered to submit to northern commercial supremacy, provided they were allowed to return the Negroes to slavery in all but name. This agreement was sealed by the Bargain of 1876, and disfranchisement and color caste followed, held back only by the persistent struggle of the Negro and a few white friends.
Then the third crime ensued: today history almost without exception teaches that slavery was a mistake which benefited the Negro; that white America, from the highest motives, freed the slaves; that fanatics tried to push the freedman too fast and beyond his ability, resulting in such threats to civilization that the blacks had to be put back into their places, first by violence, and finally by law. That as a result the American Negro today is as happy and prosperous as he deserves, even if he is not treated as equal to the whites.
This is what white America for the most part believes today and tells the world; and this distortion of history and apology for crime is what Howard Fast sought to begin to counteract in 1944, in his novel on Reconstruction, Freedom Road. His story is fiction, but his basic historical accuracy is indisputable; its psychological insight is profound; and thousands of readers can testify to its literary charm. That many more may read this book, a new edition is now being issued; and I am glad to commend it to all people who want to know the Truth and be free.