I ain't no nigger

The Gospel
Study Guide



1908 German Map Of African Inhabitants

The word "nigger" originally was used to the describe dark skin people of Africa. In 1908 the German word for black was "neger" which has its roots in Latin. The German's and English used the term to describe the dark skin people of Africa near the equator. American slaves originally lived near the equator. Oppression and de-humanization of black American slaves led to the derogatory meaning of the word "nigger" that replaced the word neger in the English language.

Index of 1908 German Map

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines a nigger as “A Negro or member of any dark-skinned people. An offensive term used derogatory. [Earlier English dialectal neeger, neger, from French negre, from Spanish Negro, Negro.]

Although slaves labeled themselves with the term nigger, like anyone, they really wanted to be more. Slaves were freed by the emancipation proclamation in the states under Confederate control. As the Union army moved through the south slaves were freed. Freedom meant that they were no longer niggers but free Blacks that took the last names of their former owners. Eliza Evans describes her transformation from nigger to Negro.  

“One time, some Yankee soldiers stopped and started talking to me. One asked me what my name was. I say, "Liza," and he say, "Liza who?" I thought a minute and I shook my head, "Jest Liza. I ain't got no other name. " He say, "Who live up yonder in dat big house!" I say, "Mr. John Mixon. " He say, "You are Liza Mixon. " Den he say, "Do anybody ever call you 'nigger'?" And I say, "Yes, Sir. " He say, "Next time anybody .call you 'nigger, ' you tell 'em dat you is a Negro and your name is Miss Liza Mixon. " The more I thought of that, the more I liked it, and I made up my mind to do jest what he told me to.  My job was minding the calves, while the cows was being milked. One evening, I was minding the calves and Old Master come along. He say, "What you doin', nigger?"  say real pert like, "I ain't no nigger, I's a Negro, and I'm Miss Liza Mixon. " Old Master sho' was Surprised, and he picks up a switch and starts at me.  Law', but I was skeered! I hadn't never had no whipping, so I run fast as I can to Grandma Gracie.” I hid behind her, and she say, whats the matter wid you, child?” And I say, Master John gwine whip me.” Sha say she know better, and ‘bout that time Master John got there. He say, “Gracie, dat little nigger sassed me.” She say, “Lawsie, child, what does ail you?” I told them what the Yankee soldier told me to say, and Grandma Gracie took my dress and lifted it over my head and pins my hands inside, and Lawsie, how she whipped me, and I dassen’t holler loud either. I jest said dat to de wrong person, didn’t I?

 -Eliza Evens, Bull Whip Days, p341

When Black men went from slave to Civil War soldier there was a significant shift in identity. Now the Black man had power to protect his dignity and what was his. He now had self respect.

"The fact is, when colored Soldiers are about they [whites] are afraid to kick colored women and abuse colored people on the Streets, as they usually do. "

                                                        Chaplain Henry M. Turner

J. T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, p213

“Our regiment was ordered to Tallahassee on the 19th of May. On the evening of the 20 th we marched to Baldwin, and on the morning of the 21st took the cars at Baldwin Station, enroute for Tallahassee. Nothing of note occurred until we arrived at Olustee Station, where one year before, we fought the Confederate forces. The cars stopped for wood, when the platforms of the cars were immediately crowded with white and colored persons all eager to catch a glimpse of the "black soldiers." Some deep-dyed citizen made the remark that all the niggers should be in ----- (a place of not very moderate temperature). A moment afterward, twenty guns were pointed at his heart; and one man more angry and revengeful than the rest discharged his piece, the ball grazing the speaker's head; and if it had been a little closer Johnnie would have been nowhere and would in all probability have received a through ticket for the locality which he named.”

                      William B. Johnson, [Private]
                            Co. A, 3rd USCI
                           Jacksonville Florida, June 22, 1865

  E. S. Redkey, A Grand Army of Black Men, p178


“White officers were subjected to the same prejudices as their men. For example, while marching through Philadelphia to catch a train, the 2nd USCT were pursued by an angry mob. One black soldier knocked a civilian down for calling an officer a “white nigger”.”

                            Forged in Battle, J. T. Glatthaar, page 244


Black Civil War soldiers did not commonly refer to themselves as niggers, because they had a great deal of self respect. However, they were frequently called niggers by both Northern and Southern Americans.

      "In a compariable incident, a captain in USCT  tried to sneak out of camp without proper authorization. When the guard refused to let him pass, the captain threatened to "shoot you, you damned nigger." The corporal forcefully responded that he was not a "nigger" but "a Federal soldier and wear the Federal uniform. I have taken the same oath that you have," he insist. Again, a general court-martial dismissed the captain from the service."

 J. T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, p90


Congressional Medal of Honor winner Milton Holland did not like to be called a nigger by rebels at the Battle of Petersburg.

"One thing that I must mention which attracted the attention of the whole division. It was that brave and daring but strange personage that rides the white charger. We could see him plainly riding up and down the rebel lines, could hear him shouting from the top of his voice to stand, that they had only niggers to contend with. This peculiar personage seems possessed with supernatural talent. He would sometimes ride his horse at lightning speed, up and down his lines amid the most terrific fire of shot and shell. But when the command was given to us, "Charge bayonets! Forward double quick!" the black column rushed forward raising the battle yell, and in a few moments more we mounted the rebel parapets. And to our great surprise, we found that the boasted Southern chivalry had fled. They could not see the nigger part as the man on the white horse presented it. We captured here one gun and caisson. "                      Milton M.  Holland

                      Orderly Sergeant
                              Co. C, 5th USCI
                              Petersburg Virginia, July 24, 1864

                       A Grand Army of Black Men pg 106


 At Millikens Bend, some Illinois cavalrymen sneered, "A man ud be a dam fool to try to make soldiers out ah niggers. . . . Any one ough to Know a nigger wont fight: they'r running now. before they seen a reb. . . . We will show them how it is done if we find any of them." Several minutes later the Illinois horsemen raced past in retreat, pursued closely by the Confederates. The black company then rose up and delivered a volley that drove the Rebels back and saved the day. ”( J. T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle)


The term nigger is usually associated with disrespect. Black Civil War soldiers earned the respect of both Union and Confederate soldiers on the battlefield. They were determined, brave and did not commit atrocities. The term nigger took on a new meaning.

In a letter to his mother a Union officer wrote: "I have talked with numbers of Paroled Prisoners in Vicksburg, and they all admit it was the hardest stroke that there cause has received-the arming of the negrow.  Not a few of them told me that they would rather fight two Regiments of White Soldiers than one of Niggers.  Rebel Citizens fear them more than they would fear Indians. "







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Revised: 07/25/08.