Written by Pearl Mallick

You can’t demand truth and reconciliation. You have to demand truth – people have to hear it, and then they have to want to reconcile themselves to that truth.

  • Bryan Stevenson, American lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

During the 1860s and 70s, racist beliefs were so deeply ingrained and fundamental in U.S. society that the superiority of white Western culture was an unwarranted assumption, an assumption that pervaded daily life, politics, religion, and even science of the era. This racism was not new, but stemmed from a long history of European colonialism that was thought to be pre-ordained by God. Although suffered by all different races in distinct ways, the racial bias during the civil war era was particularly impactful for the African Americans in the US. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln emancipated all slaves, and society was forced to wrestle with the ideas and policies specifically surrounding African Americans as fellow citizens. These important discussions about the role of equality, politics, science, and religion in American civic life once again came to Philadelphia, a city that had been at the center of American intellectual life ever since the American Revolution.

 The Civil War era for America was a time of great reflection and change in society. Beyond the recovery from the terrible cost of lives, there were enormous numbers of foreign immigrants as well as internal migrations of freed slaves to the northern states. For Philadelphia, the population jumped by 366 percent from 1850 to 1860. However, by 1870, the “percentage of black residents reaches a nadir” of 3.3 percent. With all this population growth but also tensions from the civil war, Philadelphia was in a crucial time for forming ideals of their society— and amidst all this societal change white supremacy was very much alive.

Even in the scientific community that was gaining momentum during these years, racism affected the design and execution of studies. Nowhere was this more apparent and devastating than in the study of human variation, the origin of which had become one of the outstanding scientific questions of the time. The origin of species, and different ‘types’ in nature was the subject of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” written and published during this period. The theory of evolution and natural selection quickly spread through the intellectual world and mingled with the complex societal reflections happening in pre and post Civil War America.

The big assumption underlying all the reflections of the time was that white European superiority was natural and God given. Ideally, science should start with questioning all assumptions before investigating further, but in reality, it may be that many scientific studies accept societal assumptions without first critically examining them. And— even when the scientists don’t explicitly outline race, their work can be interpreted in light of the societal assumptions of the moment and used to justify terrible actions. Philadelphia in the mid 1800s, working to establish fundamental societal principles leading up to the civil war and then in postwar reconstruction, found itself at this intersection of science, religion, and racism.

As Philadelphia transitioned from the 1860s to the 1870s, citizens looked to scientists to provide information about different races. Curiosity about human differences and the spread of the scientific process as a means of knowledge combined to elicit Social Darwinism, which involved misguided interpretations of Darwin’s natural selection and survival of the fittest as a fundamental rule in structuring human society. One Philadelphian scientist who became particularly influential in the moment was Samuel Morton, who earlier conducted an enormous comparative study of human skulls entitled Crania Americana. Morton’s work laid the foundation for the justification of racism based in science and religion, which would later be applied to Darwin’s Origin of Species by means of Social Darwinism.

Philadelphia in the 1860s-70s: Racial tensions, reliance on science, and respect for religion

During the mid-1800’s when Morton was working in Philadelphia, a hub of political thought, large constitutional decisions were being made about legal rights that different races should be given. Although America was founded on the idea that a divinely-chosen king was unnecessary for people to create a functional society, the idea of hierarchy in society was deeply imprinted from the origin of the United States – note that the vote was only given to white male property owners initially – and the biblical idea of God’s creation of man was a commonly held belief. Samuel Morton’s Crania Americana exhibits Morton’s intentional use of God in his argument— in 1839, he concluded his scientific processes by aligning his position with the idea that race was divinely constructed and that God intended for white people to be superior. 

The people of Philadelphia knew Morton’s work, but another scientific theory from England became a widely discussed phenomenon of great influence as Morton’s work continued to be discussed; that is, Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (cite) which was published in 1859.  In contrast to Morton, Darwin did not incorporate the role of God into his Origin of Species, however, misinterpretation of his theory in reference to human society, a philosophy later called “Social Darwinism” (although unrelated to Darwin) began to gain traction in Philadelphia. Citizens used the similar strategy that Morton had invoked— the idea that God created races of different capabilities and inherent superiority— to support societal interpretations of race. Intriguingly, Morton and Darwin’s work actually pointed to completely separate conclusions scientifically in terms of explaining the biology of different races. Nevertheless, Morton helped pioneer this strategy of justifying racism through connecting science and religion, and as readers of Darwinism utilized that strategy, Philadelphian society promoted a practically unstoppable narrative that justified racism— a narrative that combined three extraordinarily deep and powerful pillars: religion, science, and race— that would influence how Philadelphia, a major city with great intellectual influence, discussed race during the fundamentally shifting time of the post civil war era, which would have major implications for the US in its future.

As Philadelphia navigated through the 1860s, Philadelphian newspapers communicated the city’s involved attention to black people and their roles in society at the time. Blatantly racist ideas were openly presented in the newspapers of the day. In 1867, one quote from a meeting on politics in the US was published in the Philadelphia newspaper, The Philadelphia Times. The quote from Postmaster Petroleum V. Nasey outlines his opinion on the how to preserve Democracy with the presence of African Americans, saying that the Ohio and Pennsylvania “hed declared the n****** inferior to the Caucashen, wich he undeniably is, and they must keep him so. The n***** must be kept jist eggsackly wher he is to serve ez a irritant to Dimocrisc”. He continues to outline his fear of education and declares that “So soon ez a man begins to reed he begins to hev an inquirin mind, and begins to feel a dissatisfaction with his speer”, and thusly concludes that “Heaven ordained the n******s to be inferior to us, and serve us…”. Evidently, this Philadelphian felt that there were threats from the black community in terms of power roles, thus spoke with fear and racism to invoke a harsh sense of hatred towards black citizens. Furthermore, his reference to “heaven” and the divine as proof of superiority was a tactic used in this article that outlined the argument that Morton would have invoked prior to the civil war. His alignment of heaven with his personal views on the superiority of the white man also pushes others who believe in Heaven that it indeed “ordained the n*****s to be inferior”. 

In 1868, The Philadelphia Inquirer outlined the ideals of the Ku Klux Klan, describing that the group organized “wherever the insolent negro, the malignant white traitor to his race, and the infamous squatter are plotting to make the South utterly unfit for the residence of the decent white man”. The fear that the KKK evoked by having these words published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, coupled with the logic that they use of “negros” undermining the peaceful lives of “decent white man” speaks to the conversation that was present in Philadelphia during the time of the civil war.

Thus, as racial tensions increased, Philadelphians became, more than ever, vulnerable and susceptible to logically flawed ways to explain racial differences. Further, many worked to utilize tools, like scientific research, to justify their own pre-determined biases.

 Samuel Morton: Measuring human skull variation to justify racism

The vulnerable state of Philadelphia at the time allowed Samuel Morton, a Philadelphian scientist and philanthropist, and his work Crania Americana, to have an influential role in helping to understand and frame the conversation surrounding race; as his science supported deeply rooted ideas of racism and white supremacy, the systemic racist tendencies of predominantly white  Philadelphians accepted his racist work and particularly supported Morton as he aligned justifications of racism through science and divine law. Morton’s Crania Americana was a published comparative study of skulls of human populations, including African Americans among others . Morton’s work stemmed from a plethora of assumptions and misconceptions. Firstly, at the time, any of the morphological differences discovered in this anatomical study were simply treated as evidence of how superior or inferior races looked physically and how they acted. For example, while his physical description reported that people of African ancestry are “characterized by a black complexion, and black, woolly hair; the eyes are large and prominent, the nose broad and flat, the lips thick,”. Beyond this, he further assigned behavioral and intellectual interpretation as associated with the physical traits: that “the Negro is joyous, flexible, and indolent; while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity,”. His deep generalizations on both the physicality and the personality of all black people emphasized the narrative that all black people were the same and so distinct and simple in a way that made them less human. 

 This problematic conflation of morphological trait with an assumed ‘natural’ status of inferiority in intellect was compounded by evidence of flawed methodology.  In later re-analyses of his work, the measurements that Morton took of the skulls have been suspected to be slightly inaccurate and his sample size too small to be creating assumptions on behalf of entire races. An analysis from the Public Library of Science reports that at least “four crania” were left unrecorded and broader, that his work was “inevitably bound up with questions about slavery, colonialism, and differential human worth”. Today, we understand that Morton’s skull measurements were, in many ways, “deeply flawed”. 

Morton’s unique combination of reasoning for racism simultaneously through both science and divine law created a deeply interesting and persuasive narrative for Philadelphians at the time. In the beginning of his Crania Americana, Morton posed  to Philadelphians, and his greater audience of readers, that he could prove that God, “the Omnipotence that created man”, had intentionally designed different races as distinct. He stated that the differences identified were not simply those stemming from “climate, locality, habits of life, and various collateral circumstances” but rather divine makeup. In doing so, Morton could then design his racist argument that would support the spiritual ideals of Philadelphia at that time. Moreover, in grounding his theological assumptions in scientific study, Morton, and his readers, felt he had proof that all men were not in fact, created equal. Philadelphians of the time appeared to be comfortable with endorsing this view.

Moreover, as Jefferson had written in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” Morton specifically tore down the concept of unity between all humans, depicting them as scientifically and divinely distinct, from the beginning of time, and thus he could make inhumane acts like slavery plausible. This utilization of God was effective— in 1867, years after Morton had died and just after the civil war, one Phliadelphian remarked in The Evening Telegraph that “the negro race God has marked as a separate and distinct people, and this cannot be ignored by the teachings of fanatics and fools.” 

In fact, Morton’s work was, in essence, an attempt to align two highly respected fields— science and religion— to justify the already established and systematic racist tendencies that existed in Philadelphia. The scary fact is that Morton’s work was extraordinarily popular and gained him worldwide recognition. Morton’s work was so “significant” that army surgeons around the world would “take great risks to obtain Crania” for him, not excluding robbing graves. Perhaps that is what is most striking about Morton— his utter popularity and prestige; in just Philadelphia, in the 1860s, Morton’s name popped up in over 4000 news articles; in 1870, over 7000. Newspapers like The Philadelphia Inquirer auctioned Morton’s book publicly. This popularity and attraction to Morton’s work stemmed from a subconscious or conscious desire to confirm what Morton and many Philadelphians at the time had already decided in their own mind— that white people were superior. Upon Morton’s death in 1851, the Charleston Medical Journal wrote, “We can only say that we of the South should consider him as our benefactor, for aiding most materially in giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race”. It is frightening and dangerous, and it is what allowed Philadelphians who read his work in the 1860s to deepen their willingness and even support for racism, hatred, and inequality. 

The misuse of Darwin’s theory of evolution 

Samuel Morton died several years before Origin of Species was published, but Charles Darwin, although introducing a completely new theory from Morton, was understood by some parts of the Philadelphian community as a further confirmation of the idea that divine will played a role in the creation of race and reinforcing natural distinctions of superiority for white people. In 1859, Darwin’s theory of evolution “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” was published and became increasingly accepted and popularized over the next few decades. This theory provided mechanisms, notably natural selection and survival of the fittest, for population differences to emerge, but it was interpreted to mean that the presumed levels of superiority/ inferiority among human populations were evidence of natural selection. Moreover, the oppressive, racist tactics in Philadelphia that forced black people to seem weaker and less successful, such as denying them educational opportunities or housing, were overlooked. Rather, the systemized inferiority black people were ascribed was paired with Darwin’s description of the scientific processes of natural selection and the ‘struggle for existence’. The black people of the country, it seemed to many Philadelphians, were suffering because they were naturally weaker and would eventually go extinct. The Evening Telegraph published a column that communicated this thinking, wrote on Darwin’s theory that “the hardships which kill off the weak must tell more or less prejudicially upon the strong who survive” and then continued with “the capacity of the negro to survive competition with the white man is still a very doubtful problem”. This Social Darwinist view of Darwin’s actual work is a tragic misunderstanding, as it fails to recognize any imposed hardships that black people in Philadelphia and in the country had faced. Furthermore, it manipulated the cause of “struggle’ by implying that, by Darwin’s law, struggle among peoples was inevitable and natural, not a force driven by the hatred and oppression of others. Historian Dan McMillan analyzed this unique line of thinking, understanding that it “produced several ideas that were attractive and convenient”, where it “promoted racism, justified social and political inequality, and glorified war”. Evidently, this strand of thinking proved extremely destructive leading up to the civil war and reconstruction era. “Superior” peoples had every right  to enslave, exploit, and even exterminate “inferior” ones. If such aggression let superior peoples expand and become more numerous, it follows from this reasoning that the entire human race would  improve in the long run;  the extinction of lesser races was a cause for celebration rather than pity.” 

In forming a mindset that misinterpreted Darwin’s theory, one of the most important and rigorously tested theories in biology, in such a way that framed black Philadelphians as weak, in inevitable struggle, and with an expectation of ‘extinction’, many Philadelphians could justify being more destructive and inhumane than ever. 

Furthermore, Darwin’s portrayal of natural selection as “competition” invoked a sense of fear— not only were, in the minds of some white Philadelphians, black people inferior, but they also presented a subtle natural threat if not eliminated, thus pushing for their ‘extinction’ is almost “practical”, as The Evening Telegraph puts it. The Philadelphian newspaper continued to outline this damaging thought process with probing questions that speak to the type of questions Philadelphians were asking themselves during the time leading up to the civil war: “Is it probable that at some distant period the world will be peopled by civilized beings of European descent, and that from them will arise a still nobler race, with larger brains, greater physical capacities, and more highly developed social affections?”. These sorts of questions bred violence, hatred, and justification for every sort of racist oppression that was already accepted into Philadelphian society. Furthermore, in this article’s reference to brain size, it illustrates reflections from Morton’s impact in conversation with Darwin’s line of thinking— which confirms the heavily constructed and culminating processes of thinking in terms of race. Indeed, interpretation of Darwin in a way that supports violence and white supremacy could neatly complement the assertion of innate inferiority that Morton had outlined a couple decades earlier. Even though their theories were strikingly different in actual content and reasoning, they were both used as tools for societal purposes in terms of justifying racism and oppression on behalf of science.

This scientifically-revealed Darwinian mechanism of evolution was further misinterpreted by Philadelphians of that period as the hand of God, strengthening the ideas of social Darwinism and the popular conception of racial superiority by suggesting it was actually divinely decided that evolution would take this path to create hierarchies of human races. One preacher reflected, “I said to myself, Is not Charles Darwin’s sentence, ‘the survival of the fittest,’ not only the law of nature, but also the law of God?” He continued later on, “The physical weakling inevitably is either trampled underfoot or another pushes him out of his position in the line of the advancing human army of progress.” This preacher used this language of “weaker”, which in Philadelphia during the 1860’s, supported the nuanced, science-based argument that black people would suffer because of biological differences. These deep implications of the idea of inferiority being “natural” and “permanent” shift a racist argument to a more well-defined and easily justiyable, especially when given additive support from both science and divinity.

The effect of implementing God, in addition to warnering racist support from churches and religious figures, was revolutionary, especially when considering the implications it had for Christian values. If black people were, in fact, biologically and divinely intended to be equal, then Philadelphian society would have required complete systematic uprooting. More desirably, when black people were marked as subhuman, inferior, and all so by the intention of God and proven by science, the ideas that surrounded treating others with kindness and respect became irrelevant. In other words, “love thy neighbor as thyself” can not apply when the humanity of the neighbor is taken away.

Further, in 1859, Darwin’s theory came just in at the time of a precipitating civil war, and his theory and how it was interpreted became crucial for influencing Philadelphians during the formative years of the civil war and reconstruction era. In his proximity to Morton’s pioneering efforts, Darwin’s theory of natural selection and social darwinism landed “on fertile soil already tilled” by Morton’s legacy. However, what’s actually quite ironic is that, in many ways, Morton and Darwin reached completely opposing conclusions. While Darwin argued for evolution and traits that are shaped by the environment, in a speech that Morton gave in 1842, he specifically argued that “God, not the environment, had shaped” skulls, and therefore the inferiority and superiority of certain races. Morton writes on the first page of his Crania Americana that not even “three thousand years made any difference in the skin and hair of the Negro”. In fact, he even explicitly parallels Darwin’s language but argues directly the opposite of Darwin, saying that “physical characteristics” are preserved through “numberless generations”. In comparison, Darwin argued that in a lineage, traits are not static but can constantly adapt to fit the environment over generations of natural selection..

This contrast is ironic, but more so frightening, because it illustrates the fact that, on some level, regardless of the scientific evidence provided, Philadelphians, but also the greater public, have the ability to interpret science and religion in such a way that might complement the deeply rooted, oppressive structures that are already present in society.

Understanding the implications of Morton and Darwin and the use of religion, belief, and unexamined assumptions that lead to flawed understandings

Evidently, the implications for the usage of Morton and Darwin’s work as tactics for racist purposes are enormous— not only has our history been deeply marred by racism, hate, an inclination towards supporting oppressive systems, and devaluation of human lives, but also our minds and biases have been so greatly affected that we, citizens of the US and people who take in the news constantly, are able to subconsciously manipulate facts or the thought processes of others into narratives that complete our own, predetermined conception of the world. These interpretations create spiraling effects, as both Morton and Darwin gained public support, had impacts on medical research, public policy, political power, and ultimately, countless consequences that are unidentifiable but rooted in the fundamental being of our country today. In fact, Darwin’s work today is known as one of the most influential scientific theories ever written; Along with many others, Hitler utilized Darwin’s theory to advocate for extermination of all Jews, understanding how such language could invoke fear, hatred, and violence. Hitler dangerously proclaimed “Whoever would live, let him fight, and he who does not want to do battle in this world of eternal struggle, does not deserve life”.

An analysis of the work of Morton and Darwin demonstrates the power of some of their most remarkably convincing interpretations— interpretations that connect scientific study, religion, and racism. Their work and its impact shows the necessity of being skeptical and actively thoughtful when engaging with newspapers, public thoughts, and personal biases. Specifically learned from the case of Morton, it is crucial to be thoughtful when engaging in all forms of material. Evidently, scientists do not and can not be devoid of bias. Simultaneously drawing from the case of Darwinism, we must be able to take in facts without putting a subconscious twist on what the facts really convey. In the case of Darwin, his assertions on natural selection and survival of the fittest were evolutionarily and scientifically sound, but the public interpretation of his work compellingly shows that even language that doesn’t specifically correlate to race or God, when published into society at such a crucial time, can be artificially used to support deeply rooted beliefs already established. 

The effect of the work of these two scientists, of course, remained long after their deaths and remain today. In 1904, 65 years after Morton’s Crania Americana was published, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article outlining how scientists still support the idea that the “negro brain is deficient”. In 1911, just several years after that article, along with other promotions of the use of God as a tool for justifying oppression, citizens of Chester County, a town one hour’s drive from Philadelphia, publicly lynched a black man named Zacariah Walker. Patricia Lowry remarked that spectators in the mob included “men, women and children of a Christian congregation fresh from church”. Evidently, racial hate remained completely present in Philadelphia and areas proximate to it and The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the lynching on August 27, 1911, when discussing who was at fault. The article outlined the difficulties of tracking down who was responsible for the lynching, which demonstrates the community of secret support for the lynching. Further, when police in Chester County were accused of  “inaction” when the “mob” arrived for the lynching, it was suggested that the police chiefs might have been most concerned about “re-election in the fall”. The police chief answered this accusation “slowly”, remarked The Philadelphia Inquirer, and said “Politics may be controlling the situation, but I doubt it. Of course, influence may be used to keep certain persons out of jail, but that remains to be seen”. Evidently, hesitancy from the police illustrated a lack of desire to prevent murder, but a deeper concern for the self-interest of maintaining public approval, implying that further, the greater public, even in Northern Pennsylvania and near Philadelphia, would prefer the police condone the lynching. 

The legacy of Morton’s strategy of understanding religion and science as pillars to justify racism remains today. The continual, convenient racist assertion that black Americans are less than human and fundamentally different than white people, and further that this was divinely ordained creates deep structural problems for the US— as this lets our society come up with biological and divine excuses that allow continued oppression for black Americans in the form of lower wages, poorer neighborhoods, over policing, and mass incarceration which ultimately compels Philadelphians today, but the US as a whole, to question whether slavery truly did end in the 1860s. We can understand that while slavery as a named institution, might have been outlawed, racist theories and the institutionalized racism allowed for systematic and more acceptable forms of slavery to be implemented, even today.

Philadelphia, despite its history of institutionalized racism, continues to grow as a city today. Just recently having elected a progressive district attorney Larry Krasner, Philadelphians are showing that they will vote for those who encourage societal change. Deputy director Alissa Heydari remarks that this election is “an indicator that people have been ready for change and are happy with the change, which is the move away from using jails or prisons or other punitive measures for every social problem we have in our community and the need to look more holistically at each case as a prosecutor”. Evidently, today Philadelphia, as a city, is working towards a vision of justice and truth.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, worked with his foundation, The Equal Justice Initiative, to memorialize and honor the lives of lynched black Americans. From his deep engagement with the racist past of our country and his pursuit for justice, he remarks on how to find truth and reconciliation. He asserts that people must hear the truth and then actively want to reconcile with that truth. It is only then, in recognizing, understanding, and uprooting, can we challenge the most fundamentally corrupt parts of our society and begin the search for truth, reconciliation, and justice.


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Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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