A Racist Offers

A Comparison of the Communities of Color in the U.S. South and Cuba

By N. G. Gonzalez

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The unsettling document below is from a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina called The State. The author was the editor and one of the newspaper’s founders, N. G. Gonzalez. Gonzalez met his death in 1903 when he was shot by South Carolina Lieutenant Governor, James Tillman.

Gonzalez was born in South Carolina to a Cuban father and American mother. He apparently strongly identified with his Cuban ancestry – so muchs so that in 1898, he joined a Cuban Insurgent expedition to Cuba, spending several months with the Cuban forces under Maximo Gomez. Shortly after Spanish American War, Gonzalez returned to Cuba, and this article is based on his observations.

The Spanish American War healed many wounds between the North and South that had lingered since the Civil War. However, it did not have an impact on the racial conditions, especially in the South. Many Americans from both North and South believed in fighting for "Cuba Libre," but were somewhat shocked to find that many of those for whom they were fighting, and at times fighting beside, were, in fact, men of color. It is curious that this should have beena surprise, but shows how little the public actually knew of Cuba. The soldiers had to reconcile their belief in fighting for a free Cuba with the racial beliefs they brought with them.

The value of Gonzalez's article, below, is that it is a comparison of the status of the Black community in the American South compared to the Black community in Cuba as seen through the eyes of a racist. His comments tell more about the views of his southern elite culture at the time of the Spanish American War than the life in the Black communities themselves. His observations should not be taken as fact as they are slanted by his own views. He is not an impartial observer, but an observer who is concerned about the threat of racial ideas that are alien to the norm in the South being brought back from Cuba by the soldiers and other visitors to the island.

The importance of the article is the sad insight it provides as to the author's thoughts on race as a member of the southern elite class during the Spanish American War era.

The Article: 


In yesterday's installment of these notes I said that I found conditions in Cuba in every way better than I had anticipated. This observation applies to the negro question as well as to the others which are in process of solution on the island.

[Words missing] Spaniards in Cuba, the negro is allowed a measure of social equality which, while it does not, in the great majority of cases, imply the miscegenation it would indicate in the South, the line as a rule being drawn at intermarriage, was yet distinctly offensive to Southern ideas, and greatly to be deplored; but I have strenuously insisted, on the basis of two years’ residence in Cuba, that, among the upper classes, the negro is not admitted to any social privileges, and the line between the races is drawn as strictly as in the South. During six weeks in 1898 I had seen in West Tampa and Ybor City, Florida, among the white and colored cigar-makers, the extreme of social equality which could be witnessed in Cuba; but while, from personal recollection and information, I knew that a similar state of affairs could not exist among those Cuban whites pretending to social position, I also knew that old “civil rights" laws and ordinances of Spanish origin still existed in Cuba, and was prepared to see some mingling of the races in reputable places of public entertainment when I should visit the island. The law permitted it, and I supposed that custom did. Under the old Spanish law, two American saloon-keepers had been heavily fined last year in Habana for refusing to serve drinks to negroes, and I assumed that negroes would be found in the Cuban cafes and restaurants, even of the better class, enjoying the privileges guaranteed by the law.

With this in mind, I looked around with some care while in Habana and Matanzas, and, although daily and nightly in these places of popular resort, I did not in more than a week see one negro or mulatto in any of them. Doubtless I could have found them if I had sought out the lower range of places, but it is significant enough that they did not frequent the resorts of the better class of white people. Neither law nor poverty forbade them, for many negroes in Cuba have accumulated means, and refusal to serve them would have been punished. The only theory by which this state of things can be fairly explained is that negroes knew that they were not wanted in these places, would be snubbed and ignored by their guests, and therefore very sensibly avoided them. I have observed before, in other fields, the general indisposition of Cuban negroes to force themselves upon the society of white men. In this they are so unlike many representatives of their race in this country that the average reader might well be disposed to doubt the fact; but the reason for the difference, probably, is that in Cuba the same pains have not been taken to hold them down by law, and they have not the same incentive to triumph over resistance. At any rate, I have never seen among Cuban negroes the almost morbid desire to be familiar which afflicts many of their race in this country; those of any official status had a certain poise and dignity, which was, perhaps, a reflection of old Spanish custom.

So much has been loosely and ignorantly written about the lack of color-line in Cuba that I kept my eyes open for evidences of the existence of the condition described. I not only scanned the crowds in the cafes, but looked through the iron gratings into the parlors of hundreds of homes, open to the street, and in not one of them did I see a negro, except as a servant. Not once did I see white women and colored driving together, nor a white girl walking accompanied by any negro, except a woman servant following in the old duenna fashion; nor can I recall three instances in which I observed well-dressed white and negro men sauntering together, in a land of evening saunterings. These things are evidences, without taking further testimony, of the complete social separation of the upper class of the white people from the negroes. As I have already intimated, I did not visit the slums: the slums nowhere are representative of a people, and I know and admit that the social cleavage between the races does not extend to the bottom, even in South Carolina, and less in Cuba.

One very ugly spectacle I stumbled upon, not expecting it -- a mixed masked ball in the great Tacon Opera House on the Parque Centrale, next door to the Inglaterra Hotel. It was a sight such as this, I presume, that caused Colonel Orr and other “innocents abroad" to assume the existence of social equality between the races. These balls are of Sunday night occurrence, and the one I observed was the last of the carnival season. Hundreds of women, nearly all masked and nearly all colored, danced to fantastic music a slow, curious, native waltz, called the danzon, with hundreds of white men. It was by no means a delectable sight; it was repulsive to Southern ideas; but it proved no more than that the Latins parade immoralities which are usually carefully covered up by the Anglo-Saxons. The women were of the demi-monde, and the men, as a rule, were obviously the men supporting them; they met in this public place and flaunted their connection in the faces of the curious; it was the seamy side of the social fabric turned up with a sangfroid peculiar to the Latins, who regard their Northern neighbors as hypocrites, because, having the same vices, they take great pains to conceal them.

This function, in short, was nothing but the famous “quadroon ball" of New Orleans, once made famous by the participation of "visiting statesmen" still high in Washington society; color aside, it was the same sort of thing as the Mabille balls of Paris and the “French balls" of New York, but--unlike them-held by a vigilant civil administration to the strictest propriety of conduct. It was very shocking, of course, for in South Carolina white men do not dance in public with their colored friends of the other sex; nevertheless, it revealed as little of the true measure of social conditions, the home and the family, as the interracial associations outside the ball room do here. That anyone should judge New Orleans society by a public mixed ball, to which the payment of a silver dollar admits anybody of any degree of color or of morality, would seem absurd to every South Carolinian; but it does not seem absurd to some of them at least that Habana society should be judged by precisely this illegitimate incident. For our own part, we would not think of judging the city of Greenville by what the census takers will find in certain quarters there next summer, nor could we wish that Columbia might be judged in like manner; and probably even Charleston would not like to be judged by the discoveries of the Rev. Arthur Crane of the First Baptist Church. We do not like the Latin way of exploiting the social evil, but we are not therefore to assume that it exists only where it is exploited; and, as to the color feature, yellow and brown skins are in evidence elsewhere than in Cuba, and it will be well to avoid pharisaism on this subject.

 Cubans lay the responsibility for most of the outward effacement of the color-line upon Spaniards, who, coming from a country of few negroes, do not make the distinctions of former slave-holders. Be this as it may, the constant influx of Spaniards to Cuba has not only, in this century, put the negroes finally in the minority in the island, but has infused and reinfused European ideas on the race question, which are not, as every well-read or traveled man must know, the ideas of Americans, who for hundreds of years have been accustomed to think of the negro as a slave and an inferior. Very probably the fact that the negro is in a minority in Cuba obtains for him a certain consideration which he could not have if he were in a majority and therefore regarded as a menace. We see that the social line is not so closely drawn against inferior races in states where they are few in number as in those where they are formidable.

Neither in the North nor in the South is there the anti-Chinese feeling which prevails on the Pacific Coast, where the bulk of American Celestials live; and neither in the North nor in the Pacific states is there the same feeling that the negro must be kept down in the social scale as there is in the South, where he is so great a factor. There is little difference between the status of the negro in Cuba and in the North, and it is largely because in each locality he has not been used politically, and his smaller numbers forbid his political ascendancy.

lt was a real surprise, I think, to all the South Carolina visitors that they saw so few negroes in Habana. I should say that they cannot number over one-fourth of the population either in that city or Matanzas. I am sure that not one man in twenty I saw in the island was colored. What the negroes do in the cities, an except work in the tobacco factories and in domestic service, it is hard to conjecture. So far as I observed the waiters in hotels and cafes, the seven thousand hack drivers, the wagoners, the boatmen, and other laboring classes most in evidence, were almost exclusively white. Negroes constitute, of course, the bulk of the agricultural laborers employed on the large estates, but they are not much in evidence along the railroad between Habana and Matanzas. Unless the mortality from Weyler's reconcentration was almost exclusively among the whites, the negroes in the island are still in a considerable minority in five out of the six provinces. There is no possible reason to fear negro domination in Cuba as a political entity.

In my notes printed yesterday I said that Santiago was the only province with a negro majority; that certain negro leaders were trying to draw the color- line and that, if they should succeed, it would soon be proved to the world that Cuba was and would remain a white-man's country, for the white Cubans would meet the issue squarely. I did not see until it was printed the dispatch from Santiago which also appeared yesterday and went toward the confirmation of these statements. This dispatch shows that in that city the negroes had drawn the color-line in the municipal campaign; that candidates had sought to compose the differences, and that a mass-meeting been held to seek agreement upon a combination ticket; that everything went smoothly until the whites found that the negroes were in a majority in meeting, and that they then made occasion to break it up, and it was broken up, after something like a riot between white and colored. You can perceive that the whites are resolved to rule. If like efforts shall be made elsewhere to form a negro faction with, a view to control politics, like results will follow. The only political chance for the negroes is to follow white leadership, in which case they may get a few of the offices: otherwise the political situation will soon be what it is in the South.

It is hardly necessary to point out the fact that there could be no color-line in politics if there were not already a color-line in the home if the white Cubans, without differing as to issues with the colored Cubans, were not resolved that their race is superior, and should be supreme. But if any reader of these notes should regard me as a partisan, and should wish on this question of "social equality” the testimony of another South Carolinian-one who has not merely visited the island fora week, but has spent a year there in high official position, has acquired the language and has free access to the homes of Cuban gentlepeople let him write to Lieutenant M. B. Stokes, formerly major of the First South Carolina Volunteers and now acting as collector of customs at Cardenas, and ask him to repeat what he said to me on this point last week in Habana.


Gonzalez, N. G., In Darkest Cuba. (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1922) 417-424

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