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Secret Blows: African American Intelligence Operations

By DIA History Office

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Washington, March 2, 2017 — Editor’s Note: This article is brought to you by the Defense Intelligence Agency’s History Office In honor of February’s African American History Month.

Who would be free themselves must strike the blow." Frederick Douglass, noted African American social reformer and statesman

I had no educated Negros in my household. Varina Howell Davis, 1905, responding to an inquiry that the Confederate White House harbored an African American spy.

While the issue of slavery was not the only issue leading to the South’s secession from the United States beginning in December 1860, it played a significant role. In the debate over states’ rights, the right to secede from the Union, and the expansion of slavery as an objective in the conflict, Southerners had to reconcile slavery with Christian faith and the American notion of equality before the law. Many Southerners justified slavery through belief that slaves were not equal to whites, and that they were improving the lives of African-Americans even in their indentured state. As such, when the Civil War began, most Southerners could not fathom that African Americans could be a threat – whether as spies or soldiers. Acknowledging African Americans as equals, and therefore a legitimate threat, undermined the entire notion of slavery in Christian society.

Even those that did not think African Americans were inferior could not acknowledge it without undermining the culture and political institutions of the South, of which slavery was a fundamental component. By 1860, this Southern mindset was pervasive, engrained, and almost subconscious.

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