The Scapegoat by Paul Laurence Dunbar
The law is usually supposed to be a stern mistress, not to be
lightly wooed, and yielding only to the most ardent pursuit. But even
law, like love, sits more easily on some natures than on others.
This was the case with Mr. Robinson Asbury. Mr. Asbury had started
life as a bootblack in the growing town of Cadgers. From this he had
risen one step and become porter and messenger in a barber-shop. This
rise fired his ambition, and he was not content until he had learned to
use the shears and the razor and had a chair of his own. From this, in
a man of Robinson's temperament, it was only a step to a shop of his
own, and he placed it where it would do the most good.
Fully one-half of the population of Cadgers was composed of Negroes,
and with their usual tendency to colonise, a tendency encouraged, and
in fact compelled, by circumstances, they had gathered into one part of
the town. Here in alleys, and streets as dirty and hardly wider, they
thronged like ants.
It was in this place that Mr. Asbury set up his shop, and he won the
hearts of his prospective customers by putting up the significant sign,
Equal Rights Barber-Shop. This legend was quite unnecessary, because
there was only one race about, to patronise the place. But it was a
delicate sop to the people's vanity, and it served its purpose.
Asbury came to be known as a clever fellow, and his business grew.
The shop really became a sort of club, and, on Saturday nights
especially, was the gathering-place of the men of the whole Negro
quarter. He kept the illustrated and race journals there, and those who
cared neither to talk nor listen to someone else might see pictured the
doings of high society in very short skirts or read in the Negro papers
how Miss Boston had entertained Miss Blueford to tea on such and such
an afternoon. Also, he kept the policy returns, which was wise, if not
It was his wisdom rather more than his morality that made the party
managers after a while cast their glances toward him as a man who might
be useful to their interests. It would be well to have a mana shrewd,
powerful mandown in that part of the town who could carry his
people's vote in his vest pocket, and who at any time its delivery
might be needed, could hand it over without hesitation. Asbury seemed
that man, and they settled upon him. They gave him money, and they gave
him power and patronage. He took it all silently and he carried out his
bargain faithfully. His hands and his lips alike closed tightly when
there was anything within them. It was not long before he found himself
the big Negro of the district and, of necessity, of the town. The time
came when, at a critical moment, the managers saw that they had not
reckoned without their host in choosing this barber of the black
district as the leader of his people.
Now, so much success must have satisfied any other man. But in many
ways Mr. Asbury was unique. For a long time he himself had done very
little shavingexcept of notes, to keep his hand in. His time had been
otherwise employed. In the evening hours he had been wooing the
coquettish Dame Law, and, wonderful to say, she had yielded easily to
It was against the advice of his friends that he asked for admission
to the bar. They felt that he could do more good in the place where he
You see, Robinson, said old Judge Davis, it's just like this: If
you're not admitted, it'll hurt you with the people; if you are
admitted, you'll move uptown to an office and get out of touch with
Asbury smiled an inscrutable smile. Then he whispered something into
the judge's ear that made the old man wrinkle from his neck up with
Asbury, he said, you areyou arewell, you ought to be white,
that's all. When we find a black man like you we send him to State's
prison. If you were white, you'd go to the Senate.
The Negro laughed confidently.
He was admitted to the bar soon after, whether by merit or by
connivance is not to be told.
Now he will move uptown, said the black community. Well, that's
the way with a coloured man when he gets a start.
But they did not know Asbury Robinson yet. He was a man of
surprises, and they were destined to disappointment. He did not move
uptown. He built an office in a small open space next his shop, and
there hung out his shingle.
I will never desert the people who have done so much to elevate
me, said Mr. Asbury.
I will live among them and I will die among them.
This was a strong card for the barber-lawyer. The people seized upon
the statement as expressing a nobility of an altogether unique brand.
They held a mass meeting and indorsed him. They made resolutions
that extolled him, and the Negro band came around and serenaded him,
playing various things in varied time.
All this was very sweet to Mr. Asbury, and the party managers
chuckled with satisfaction and said, That Asbury, that Asbury!
Now there is a fable extant of a man who tried to please everybody,
and his failure is a matter of record. Robinson Asbury was not more
successful. But be it said that his ill success was due to no fault or
shortcoming of his.
For a long time his growing power had been looked upon with
disfavour by the coloured law firm of Bingo &Latchett. Both Mr. Bingo
and Mr. Latchett themselves aspired to be Negro leaders in Cadgers, and
they were delivering Emancipation Day orations and riding at the head
of processions when Mr. Asbury was blacking boots. Is it any wonder,
then, that they viewed with alarm his sudden rise? They kept their
counsel, however, and treated with him, for it was best. They allowed
him his scope without open revolt until the day upon which he hung out
his shingle. This was the last straw. They could stand no more. Asbury
had stolen their other chances from them, and now he was poaching upon
the last of their preserves. So Mr. Bingo and Mr. Latchett put their
heads together to plan the downfall of their common enemy.
The plot was deep and embraced the formation of an opposing faction
made up of the best Negroes of the town. It would have looked too much
like what it was for the gentlemen to show themselves in the matter,
and so they took into their confidence Mr. Isaac Morton, the principal
of the coloured school, and it was under his ostensible leadership that
the new faction finally came into being.
Mr. Morton was really an innocent young man, and he had ideals which
should never have been exposed to the air. When the wily confederates
came to him with their plan he believed that his worth had been
recognised, and at last he was to be what Nature destined him fora
The better class of Negroesby that is meant those who were
particularly envious of Asbury's successflocked to the new man's
standard. But whether the race be white or black, political virtue is
always in a minority, so Asbury could afford to smile at the force
arrayed against him.
The new faction met together and resolved. They resolved, among
other things, that Mr. Asbury was an enemy to his race and a menace to
civilisation. They decided that he should be abolished; but, as they
couldn't get out an injunction against him, and as he had the whole
undignified but still voting black belt behind him, he went serenely on
They're after you hot and heavy, Asbury, said one of his friends
Oh, yes, was the reply, they're after me, but after a while I'll
get so far away that they'll be running in front.
It's all the best people, they say.
Yes. Well, it's good to be one of the best people, but your vote
only counts one just the same.
The time came, however, when Mr. Asbury's theory was put to the
test. The Cadgerites celebrated the first of January as Emancipation
Day. On this day there was a large procession, with speechmaking in the
afternoon and fireworks at night. It was the custom to concede the
leadership of the coloured people of the town to the man who managed to
lead the procession. For two years past this honour had fallen, of
course, to Robinson Asbury, and there had been no disposition on the
part of anybody to try conclusions with him.
Mr. Morton's faction changed all this. When Asbury went to work to
solicit contributions for the celebration, he suddenly became aware
that he had a fight upon his hands. All the better-class Negroes were
staying out of it. The next thing he knew was that plans were on foot
for a rival demonstration.
Oh, he said to himself, that's it, is it? Well, if they want a
fight they can have it.
He had a talk with the party managers, and he had another with Judge
All I want is a little lift, judge, he said, and I'll make 'em
think the sky has turned loose and is vomiting niggers.
The judge believed that he could do it. So did the party managers.
Asbury got his lift. Emancipation Day came.
There were two parades. At least, there was one parade and the
shadow of another. Asbury's, however, was not the shadow. There was a
great deal of substance about itsubstance made up of many people,
many banners, and numerous bands. He did not have the best people.
Indeed, among his cohorts there were a good many of the pronounced
rag-tag and bobtail. But he had noise and numbers. In such cases,
nothing more is needed. The success of Asbury's side of the affair did
everything to confirm his friends in their good opinion of him.
When he found himself defeated, Mr. Silas Bingo saw that it would be
policy to placate his rival's just anger against him. He called upon
him at his office the day after the celebration.
Well, Asbury, he said, you beat us, didn't you?
It wasn't a question of beating, said the other calmly. It was
only an inquiry as to who were the peoplethe few or the many.
Well, it was well done, and you've shown that you are a manager. I
confess that I haven't always thought that you were doing the wisest
thing in living down here and catering to this class of people when you
might, with your ability, to be much more to the better class.
What do they base their claims of being better on?
Oh, there ain't any use discussing that. We can't get along without
you, we see that. So I, for one, have decided to work with you for
Harmony. Yes, that's what we want.
If I can do anything to help you at any time, why you have only to
I am glad to find such a friend in you. Be sure, if I ever need
you, Bingo, I'll call on you.
And I'll be ready to serve you.
Asbury smiled when his visitor was gone. He smiled, and knitted his
brow. I wonder what Bingo's got up his sleeve, he said. He'll bear
It may have been pride at his triumph, it may have been gratitude at
his helpers, but Asbury went into the ensuing campaign with reckless
enthusiasm. He did the most daring things for the party's sake. Bingo,
true to his promise, was ever at his side ready to serve him. Finally,
association and immunity made danger less fearsome; the rival no longer
appeared a menace.
With the generosity born of obstacles overcome, Asbury determined to
forgive Bingo and give him a chance. He let him in on a deal, and from
that time they worked amicably together until the election came and
It was a close election and many things had had to be done, but
there were men there ready and waiting to do them. They were
successful, and then the first cry of the defeated party was, as usual,
Fraud! Fraud! The cry was taken up by the jealous, the disgruntled,
and the virtuous.
Someone remembered how two years ago the registration books had been
stolen. It was known upon good authority that money had been freely
used. Men held up their hands in horror at the suggestion that the
Negro vote had been juggled with, as if that were a new thing. From
their pulpits ministers denounced the machine and bade their hearers
rise and throw off the yoke of a corrupt municipal government. One of
those sudden fevers of reform had taken possession of the town and
threatened to destroy the successful party.
They began to look around them. They must purify themselves. They
must give the people some tangible evidence of their own yearnings
after purity. They looked around them for a sacrifice to lay upon the
altar of municipal reform. Their eyes fell upon Mr. Bingo. No, he was
not big enough. His blood was too scant to wash away the political
stains. Then they looked into each other's eyes and turned their gaze
away to let it fall upon Mr. Asbury. They really hated to do it. But
there must be a scapegoat. The god from the Machine commanded them to
Robinson Asbury was charged with many crimeswith all that he had
committed and some that he had not. When Mr. Bingo saw what was afoot
he threw himself heart and soul into the work of his old rival's
enemies. He was of incalculable use to them.
Judge Davis refused to have anything to do with the matter. But in
spite of his disapproval it went on. Asbury was indicted and tried. The
evidence was all against him, and no one gave more damaging testimony
than his friend, Mr. Bingo. The judge's charge was favourable to the
defendant, but the current of popular opinion could not be entirely
stemmed. The jury brought in a verdict of guilty.
Before I am sentenced, judge, I have a statement to make to the
court. It will take less than ten minutes.
Go on, Robinson, said the judge kindly.
Asbury started, in a monotonous tone, a recital that brought the
prosecuting attorney to his feet in a minute. The judge waved him down,
and sat transfixed by a sort of fascinated horror as the convicted man
went on. The before-mentioned attorney drew a knife and started for the
prisoner's dock. With difficulty he was restrained. A dozen faces in
the court-room were red and pale by turns.
He ought to be killed, whispered Mr. Bingo audibly.
Robinson Asbury looked at him and smiled, and then he told a few
things of him. He gave the ins and outs of some of the misdemeanours of
which he stood accused. He showed who were the men behind the throne.
And still, pale and transfixed, Judge Davis waited for his own
Never were ten minutes so well taken up. It was a tale of rottenness
and corruption in high places told simply and with the stamp of truth
He did not mention the judge's name. But he had torn the mask from
the face of every other man who had been concerned in his downfall.
They had shorn him of his strength, but they had forgotten that he was
yet able to bring the roof and pillars tumbling about their heads.
The judge's voice shook as he pronounced sentence upon his old
allya year in State's prison.
Some people said it was too light, but the judge knew what it was to
wait for the sentence of doom, and he was grateful and sympathetic.
When the sheriff led Asbury away the judge hastened to have a short
talk with him.
I'm sorry, Robinson, he said, and I want to tell you that you
were no more guilty than the rest of us. But why did you spare me?
Because I knew you were my friend, answered the convict.
I tried to be, but you were the first man that I've ever known
since I've been in politics who ever gave me any decent return for
I reckon you're about right, judge.
In politics, party reform usually lies in making a scapegoat of
someone who is only as criminal as the rest, but a little weaker.
Asbury's friends and enemies had succeeded in making him bear the
burden of all the party's crimes, but their reform was hardly a
success, and their protestations of a change of heart were received
with doubt. Already there were those who began to pity the victim and
to say that he had been hardly dealt with.
Mr. Bingo was not of these; but he found, strange to say, that his
opposition to the idea went but a little way, and that even with Asbury
out of his path he was a smaller man than he was before. Fate was
strong against him. His poor, prosperous humanity could not enter the
lists against a martyr. Robinson Asbury was now a martyr.
A year is not a long time. It was short enough to prevent people
from forgetting Robinson, and yet long enough for their pity to grow
strong as they remembered. Indeed, he was not gone a year. Good
behaviour cut two months off the time of his sentence, and by the time
people had come around to the notion that he was really the greatest
and smartest man in Cadgers he was at home again.
He came back with no flourish of trumpets, but quietly, humbly. He
went back again into the heart of the black district. His business had
deteriorated during his absence, but he put new blood and new life into
it. He did not go to work in the shop himself, but, taking down the
shingle that had swung idly before his office door during his
imprisonment, he opened the little room as a news-and cigar-stand.
Here anxious, pitying custom came to him and he prospered again. He
was very quiet. Uptown hardly knew that he was again in Cadgers, and it
knew nothing whatever of his doings.
I wonder why Asbury is so quiet, they said to one another. It
isn't like him to be quiet. And they felt vaguely uneasy about him.
So many people had begun to say, Well, he was a mighty good fellow
Mr. Bingo expressed the opinion that Asbury was quiet because he was
crushed, but others expressed doubt as to this. There are calms and
calms, some after and some before the storm. Which was this?
They waited a while, and, as no storm came, concluded that this must
be the after-quiet. Bingo, reassured, volunteered to go and seek
confirmation of this conclusion.
He went, and Asbury received him with an indifferent, not to say,
Well, we're glad to see you back, Asbury, said Bingo
patronisingly. He had variously demonstrated his inability to lead
during his rival's absence and was proud of it. What are you going to
I'm going to work.
That's right. I reckon you'll stay out of politics.
What could I do even if I went in?
Nothing now, of course; but I didn't know
He did not see the gleam in Asbury's half shut eyes. He only marked
his humility, and he went back swelling with the news.
Completely crushedall the run taken out of him, was his report.
The black district believed this, too, and a sullen, smouldering
anger took possession of them. Here was a good man ruined. Some of the
people whom he had helped in his former dayssome of the rude, coarse
people of the low quarter who were still sufficiently unenlightened to
be gratefultalked among themselves and offered to get up a
demonstration for him. But he denied them. No, he wanted nothing of the
kind. It would only bring him into unfavourable notice. All he wanted
was that they would always be his friends and would stick by him.
They would to the death.
There were again two factions in Cadgers. The school-master could
not forget how once on a time he had been made a tool of by Mr. Bingo.
So he revolted against his rule and set himself up as the leader of an
opposing clique. The fight had been long and strong, but had ended with
odds slightly in Bingo's favour.
But Mr. Morton did not despair. As the first of January and
Emancipation Day approached, he arrayed his hosts, and the fight for
supremacy became fiercer than ever. The school-teacher is giving you a
pretty hard brought the school-children in for chorus singing, secured
an able orator, and the best essayist in town. With all this, he was
Mr. Bingo knew that he had the fight of his life on his hands, and
he entered with fear as well as zest. He, too, found an orator, but he
was not sure that he was as good as Morton's. There was no doubt but
that his essayist was not. He secured a band, but still he felt
unsatisfied. He had hardly done enough, and for the school-master to
beat him now meant his political destruction.
It was in this state of mind that he was surprised to receive a
visit from Mr. Asbury.
I reckon you're surprised to see me here, said Asbury, smiling.
I am pleased, I know. Bingo was astute.
Well, I just dropped in on business.
To be sure, to be sure, Asbury. What can I do for you?
It's more what I can do for you that I came to talk about, was the
I don't believe I understand you.
Well, it's plain enough. They say that the school-teacher is giving
you a pretty hard fight.
Oh, not so hard.
No man can be too sure of winning, though. Mr. Morton once did me a
mean turn when he started the faction against me.
Bingo's heart gave a great leap, and then stopped for the fraction
of a second.
You were in it, of course, pursued Asbury, but I can look over
your part in it in order to get even with the man who started it.
It was true, then, thought Bingo gladly. He did not know. He wanted
revenge for his wrongs and upon the wrong man. How well the schemer had
covered his tracks! Asbury should have his revenge and Morton would be
Of course, Asbury, you know what I did I did innocently.
Oh, yes, in politics we are all lambs and the wolves are only to be
found in the other party. We'll pass that, though. What I want to say
is that I can help you to make your celebration an overwhelming
success. I still have some influence down in my district.
Certainly, and very justly, too. Why, I should be delighted with
your aid. I could give you a prominent place in the procession.
I don't want it; I don't want to appear in this at all. All I want
is revenge. You can have all the credit, but let me down my enemy.
Bingo was perfectly willing, and, with their heads close together,
they had a long and close consultation. When Asbury was gone, Mr. Bingo
lay back in his chair and laughed. I'm a slick duck, he said.
From that hour Mr. Bingo's cause began to take on the appearance of
something very like a boom. More bands were hired. The interior of the
State was called upon and a more eloquent orator secured. The crowd
hastened to array itself on the growing side.
With surprised eyes, the school-master beheld the wonder of it, but
he kept to his own purpose with dogged insistence, even when he saw
that he could not turn aside the overwhelming defeat that threatened
him. But in spite of his obstinacy, his hours were dark and bitter.
Asbury worked like a mole, all underground, but he was indefatigable.
Two days before the celebration time everything was perfected for the
biggest demonstration that Cadgers had ever known. All the next day and
night he was busy among his allies.
On the morning of the great day, Mr. Bingo, wonderfully caparisoned,
rode down to the hall where the parade was to form. He was early. No
one had yet come. In an hour a score of men all told had collected.
Another hour passed, and no more had come. Then there smote upon his
ear the sound of music. They were coming at last. Bringing his sword to
his shoulder, he rode forward to the middle of the street. Ah, there
they were. Butbutcould he believe his eyes? They were going in
another direction, and at their head rodeMorton! He gnashed his teeth
in fury. He had been led into a trap and betrayed. The procession
passing had been hisall his. He heard them cheering, and then, oh!
climax of infidelity, he saw his own orator go past in a carriage,
bowing and smiling to the crowd.
There was no doubting who had done this thing. The hand of Asbury
was apparent in it. He must have known the truth all along, thought
Bingo. His allies left him one by one for the other hall, and he rode
home in a humiliation deeper than he had ever known before.
Asbury did not appear at the celebration. He was at his little
news-stand all day.
In a day or two the defeated aspirant had further cause to curse his
false friend. He found that not only had the people defected from him,
but that the thing had been so adroitly managed that he appeared to be
in fault, and three-fourths of those who knew him were angry at some
supposed grievance. His cup of bitterness was full when his partner, a
quietly ambitious man, suggested that they dissolve their relations.
His ruin was complete.
The lawyer was not alone in seeing Asbury's hand in his downfall.
The party managers saw it too, and they met together to discuss the
dangerous factor which, while it appeared to slumber, was so terribly
awake. They decided that he must be appeased, and they visited him.
He was still busy at his news-stand. They talked to him adroitly,
while he sorted papers and kept an impassive face. When they were all
done, he looked up for a moment and replied, You know, gentlemen, as
an ex-convict I am not in politics.
Some of them had the grace to flush.
But you can use your influence, they said.
I am not in politics, was his only reply.
And the spring elections were coming on. Well, they worked hard, and
he showed no sign. He treated with neither one party nor the other.
Perhaps, thought the managers, he is out of politics, and they grew
It was nearing eleven o'clock on the morning of election when a
cloud no bigger than a man's hand appeared upon the horizon. It came
from the direction of the black district. It grew, and the managers of
the party in power looked at it, fascinated by an ominous dread.
Finally it began to rain Negro voters, and as one man they voted
against their former candidates. Their organisation was perfect. They
simply came, voted, and left, but they overwhelmed everything. Not one
of the party that had damned Robinson Asbury was left in power save old
Judge Davis. His majority was overwhelming.
The generalship that had engineered the thing was perfect. There
were loud threats against the newsdealer. But no one bothered him
except a reporter. The reporter called to see just how it was done. He
found Asbury very busy sorting papers. To the newspaper man's questions
he had only this reply, I am not in politics, sir.
But Cadgers had learned its lesson.