African-American history

On The Pinkster King and the King of the Kongo: An Interview with Jeroen Dewulf

Interview conducted by editor Derek O’Leary

Jeroen Dewulf is the Queen Beatrix Professor in Dutch Studies and an Associate Professor of German Studies at UC Berkeley, where he also directs the Institute of European Studies. His new book, The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves (University Press of Mississippi, 2017), departs from a study of nineteenth-century Pinkster, which has generally been considered a syncretic Dutch-Afro performance clustered in the formerly Dutch colonial territories of New York. Through a careful excavation of these rituals, he resituates an apparently local story in a much broader and deeper Atlantic context. His study casts light on the origins of Pinkster in a very different syncretism–of Iberian and African cultures on African soil–and the crucial role of mutual-aid associations in its transmission and promotion. For students of the intellectual and cultural history of the Atlantic, it provides a compelling model for circum-Atlantic history (to borrow from David Armitage’s typology), while encouraging us to reconsider our understanding of syncretism.

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Derek: If we look at the longer trajectory of popular and scholarly impressions of New Netherlands and Dutch heritage in the US, there seems to be something especially malleable about how people have understood the Dutch. This ranges among the extremes of Washington Irving’s burlesque notions of the Dutch in the early nineteenth century, to Holland Mania later that century, to obliviousness at various times of the Dutch presence in North America. Your book takes as point of departure certain nineteenth-century misperceptions of Pinkster as an originally Dutch and African syncretic phenomenon that the Dutch gradually lost interest in. Such misperception seems due, in part, to the fact that the Dutch and their descendants rarely told their own history of the life in North America. Could you talk about why this is the case?

Jeroen: It is important to highlight the topic of language as such. Even within the Dutch community in America, preserving Dutch attachment to the language is an interesting topic, and you see as a general rule that as soon as people of Dutch descent achieved positions of power, their attachment to the language tended to disappear. And those who held on to Dutch were often farmers or rural inhabitants, which has consequences on the way the story is told.

On top of language, we have the matter of religion, another important element here. The Dutch had their own religion in a way: the Dutch Reformed Church. And having your own religion isolated the Dutch community from others. And then you also clearly see a division within the Dutch community, between those who abandon this history as soon as New Netherland becomes New York, and those who hold onto it. And those who hold onto it are not necessarily those who write. So, you have relatively few documents in which you hear a Dutch voice commenting on Dutch traditions in America.

As a result of this, the way we have told the history of New Netherlands is one heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon perspective, which would look at this Dutch heritage and make it correspond to a perception that they already had of it. It is also very important to keep in mind that there was no such thing as Dutch newspapers, so the voice of the media was an English voice.

Derek: Your study explores a sort of “double erasure” in this context, of both Dutch voices and members of the Afro-Dutch community.

Jeroen: Who is aware that in the mid-eighteenth century that about 10-15% of blacks in New York still spoke Dutch? The Dutch and African linguistic heritage of the region are similarly forgotten. Little attention has been given to the fact that African-American history is a multilingual history, and not just in the sense of bringing different languages from Africa.

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Middle panel of 1733 painting by John Heaton of Van Bergen farm near Albany, NY: One of the few images depicting African American slaves on a Dutch-owned farm at a time when about 10-15% of the slaves living in the states of New York and New Jersey spoke Dutch.

Derek: Ironically, then, the erasure of Dutch voices from the nineteenth-century record seems to contribute to the erasure of the African and Portuguese origins of Pinkster. Your book takes a phenomenon—Pinkster– that has also, like this Dutch-American history, been interpreted in a very malleable way, and pulls it from a local context into a much more complex Atlantic context. In the process, the long-imagined Dutch influence on this Afro-American phenomenon recedes, and it becomes much less a story of the Dutch legacy in America. Much of the past few decades of historiography on the Dutch colonies in the Western Hemisphere have sought to reinsert them into both US and Atlantic history, so in an interesting way your book departs from this—indeed, it distances Dutch influence from a circum-Atlantic phenomenon of Pinkster, and directs us to see its roots elsewhere.

Jeroen: The book didn’t take me in the direction I was planning to go, and in a certain sense the book wrote itself. Originally, I thought this would be about performance culture, but it ended up being much more about mutual aid and solidarity and community-building. I also expected it to be a much more Dutch book, which it did not turn out to be. That was a surprise to me in the sense that what became clear is that we are speaking about a time period when Dutch Atlantic history was starting, and as a newcomer you naturally don’t build things out of nowhere: You build on what is already there. Especially when it comes to the process of slavery, we see how strong the continuation of Iberian model was among those who took over from the Spanish and Portuguese in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. I felt that this element has been underestimated by people who write about Atlantic History.

pinkster in 1800We still have this assumption that scholars choose “their” nation, and then tend to give too much importance to the colonizer of a specific area: If you focus on New Netherland you focus on the Dutch, if you write about New England you focus on the English, etc. But especially when you focus on a field such as slavery, its Atlantic complexity forces you to use a perspective that tries to capture this vast area, and you realize that holding on to this one-nation perspective is just not providing you with the answers to the challenging questions that manuscripts raise. Pinkster is a good example of this. It has traditionally been reduced to a “syncretic Dutch-African” tradition, which is true in the sense that there certainly are Dutch and African elements to be found in the tradition, but to say that something is syncretic doesn’t mean much. In fact, Pinkster is so much more complex than just a “mixture of Dutch and African” elements.

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Jan Mosatert, Portrait of an African man, circa 1525-1530: An early connection between the traditional Pinkster (Pentecost) celebration in Dutch culture and Africa is this painting, depicting a unidentified black man from the sixteenth-century who wears in his hat a badge that indicates a visit to the Black Madonna of Halle, who is honored every Pentecost with a procession

Concerning Pinkster, I think we see this performance in New York, see Africans participating, and immediately jump to the explanation that it is a Dutch-African syncretic process. When it comes to African-American traditions, it is much too easy to remain superficial and assert the usual things (e.g. they are honoring their ancestors) while avoiding more challenging questions, such as how ancestor worship would vary by region, for instance. Also, when we think about syncretism, we make a mistake in limiting syncretism to the Americas and the Caribbean, and do not apply the notion to Africa.

Syncretism in a way can correct the traditional approach, whereby you would assume clear boundaries between cultures, as syncretism forces you to look at two cultures producing something new. But even that is too simple, because those two cultures are themselves full of syncretisms.

Derek: In the comparative study of empire in the Atlantic, though, I think that we are still inclined to see a certain Dutch exceptionalism–that it was basically different than the other European colonial projects there. Indeed, as you note, there may have been a particularly Dutch colonial capacity to adopt the techniques and technologies—and, as we see here, integrate the customs—of other colonial projects in the Atlantic. But your study is also intriguing because it suggests we can look around the Atlantic, within other colonial projects, and find more complicated stories of syncretism as well. Was there something about the Dutch Atlantic project that made it more open to such transmission of culture and ideas?

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King Charles Racing on Ice.
 “Artist’s conception of Charles, the Pinkster king, winning a nightly horse racing competition for his master Volkert Petrus Douw against General Philip Schuyler. In Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 62 (March 1881)” (Dewulf, 64).

Jeroen: There were definitely certain elements that the Dutch brought to the Atlantic that singled them out, including religion. When you see how the Dutch initiate slavery in their colonies, initially the way slavery is handled is similar to how it was handled by the Portuguese and Spanish, but soon you see that because of their different notions of religion, they start to change these practices. The example I give is baptism and the consequences of welcoming someone to your church, as the Dutch notion of Christianity and freedom was different than the Iberian notion, which led the Dutch to change their slave policy. In fact, the Dutch Reformed Church initially baptized slave children, similar to how the Iberian Catholic Church did, but stopped doing so after slave owners began to fear that once these children were admitted to the Church, they would no longer be able to sell      them as slaves.  Had this earlier process continued, I’m convinced that Pinkster would have disappeared, because the mutual-aid traditions out of which the African Pinkster celebrations developed would have been incompatible with Calvinist morality and mutual aid would have been provided within the context of the Church anyway. But it survived because at one point the church came under pressure from slave owners who opposed baptism, which gave those communities no other choice but to organize mutual aid on their own, for which they naturally used a brotherhood structure they were familiar with. Which also then explains the demise of the tradition, when the first black Christian churches come into existence in the nineteenth century and a Protestant morality becomes dominant within the African-American community. So, there was some form of Dutch exceptionalism in the Americas, but it developed only gradually, they had to learn to be an Atlantic power.

When people use the term “exceptionalism” and link it to the Dutch, there is a tendency to link it to pragmatism and tolerance. But what I’ve tried to highlight is that we would make a mistake if we assumed that the existence of Pinkster was solely there because the Dutch were so tolerant to allow it to happen. There clearly was within a slave community a strategy used to make the Dutch realize that it was in their own interest, so it appears as pragmatism, but it is not something that would have happened without pressure from the slave community.

 

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Fête de Ste. Rosalie, Patrone des négres by Johann Moritz Rugendas: Pinkster is far from being the only example where members of the slave community elected and celebrated their ‘king’ with a procession; this illustration from Rugendas shows a slave king procession in 19th-century Brazil

 

King processions by brotherhoods still today exist in rural parts of Latin-America. This example comes from Pernambuco, Brazil.

You do find such examples of pragmatism, but I would be careful of explaining this as a natural Dutch instinct, as has been done in books about Dutch exceptionalism. But, as a general observation, you can state that compared to the Portuguese and Spanish, the Dutch were more focused on profit and reluctant to share their culture, language, religion and identity with Others. In this respect it was not a problem for the Dutch to have a large community around them who did not share their language and church, which was unthinkable for the Portuguese and Spanish. Indonesia is the clearest case of this, where the Dutch used a local language—Malay—as the lingua franca of their colony.

Derek: A common feature of many works of Atlantic History is that the Atlantic world—however we define it—forms a distinctive space in which innumerable hybrid identities are possible, rather than strictly national ones. Syncretism is crucial to this, and your book is a careful excavation of the syncretic process behind Pinkster. Though in our teaching and writing it can be easy to deploy this term rather casually. Has this study led to any general guidance or framework you would propose to other scholars seeking to understand syncretism in the Atlantic beyond the generalizations we tend to use about it?

Jeroen: Saying that something is syncretic is in a way saying nothing. Because, then what is it? You see this reflected in the way how we study black identity in the diaspora. In the old days, the nineteenth century, African elements were simply neglected. In the forties, you see a shift in which scholars become more interested in signs of African cultural “survivals,” which ultimately leads to a boom in the search for “Africanisms”—traces of African identity in the Americas. The important question I raise in this book is:  How African are such Africanisms? There has been a clear tendency to equalize Africanisms with indigenous African elements. What the book made me realize is that indigenous African element certainly were there, but I highlight the fact that it would be wrong not to realize that long before the first slaves arrived in North America, a syncretic process had already started on African soil. So, when you look at performance traditions, you see that in certain parts of Africa – such as the Kingdom of Kongo –  certain performances had already been influenced by European music, dance, musical instruments, clothing, etc. before coming to the Americas and the Caribbean.

To come back to Pinkster: Dutch elements were certainly in Pinkster performances, but ultimately they were less important than earlier Afro-Iberian ones. Obviously, we are forced to an extent to speculate on matters of African heritage. Mine is not the final word on Pinkster, but a new perspective that helps us rethink the history of this phenomenon. It is also another approach to the study of syncretic processes that is truly Atlantic in the sense that you avoid the mistake of looking at the powers – including African powers – of the Atlantic as pure entities with clear boundaries between them.

My suggestion when using the term syncretism, is not to see it as an answer to your question, but as a stepping stone to begin answering the question of what this syncretism consists of and how it came into being. After all, every cultural manifestation in syncretic in nature, so it would be wrong to limit the notion to the Americas and the Caribbean. I’m not the first one to do this; there are many other studies that raise such questions, but somehow in the field of performance studies there seems to be a reluctance to accept that some of the performance traditions enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were not indigenous in nature but rather characterized by inter-African and Afro-European syncretism. In the field of linguistics, for instance, there are plenty of studies that show us the important influence of Portuguese on the languages that enslaved Africans brought with them to the Americas. So, if language was influenced, why not dance, parades or certain musical instruments?  My only explanation for this is that many of those working in the field of performance studies are deeply influenced by the idea of black resistance against oppression that grew out of  the Civil Rights movement ideology, and are perhaps therefore reluctant to recognize that already in African, Africans voluntarily adopted certain elements of European culture and religion in their own cultural and religious traditions.

Derek: Importantly, you depict that the Afro-Catholic syncretism behind Pinkster took place at a moment when Africans and Europeans were on more equal terms in Africa, as compared to in the Americas.

Jeroen: Which makes me wonder if it makes sense to use the same term both in the context of colonial oppression and in an era when Africans were still firmly in control of the African continent. We call that syncretism in general. I do feel there is a difference. One thing is integrating elements of a foreign culture into your own when you are in a situation of power; one very different thing is you adopting foreign elements when you are a slave. Nevertheless we use the term syncretism for both.

Derek: You’ve mentioned brotherhoods and other voluntary organizations as a motive force in propelling this performance around the Atlantic and across centuries.

Jeroen: What this book taught me is that when you want to learn about matters of identity and culture, you need to ask how the community organized mutual aid. We as twenty-first-century people have perhaps forgotten this because we have all these services provided. This is a key question: how did a community organize mutual aid? This crucial question leads us to the fields of performance, but also language and religion. I often see in studies of religion a limitation to questions of spiritualism, and much less a focus on questions of material support and solidarity within the religious community. In fact, one of my most surprising conclusions in this book is that, originally, there was little difference between the way slaves in North America organized themselves from the way slaves in Latin-America did. Crucial differences only then start to develop when slaves in North America embrace Protestantism and begin to organize mutual aid as part of a community with (Afro-)Protestant norms and values.

Derek: How has this project influenced your research interests?

Jeroen: This led me to look at black performance traditions elsewhere in America, and naturally I became interested in the case of New Orleans. And to my surprise, I learned that all major contemporary performance traditions related to the black community in New Orleans can be traced back to mutual aid societies. I wrote an article about this for the Louisiana Historical Association (“From Moors to Indians: The Mardi Gras Indians and the Three Transformations of St. James”), which they selected as the best article of the year 2016. In the article I ask how we can link the dances in Congo Square in New Orleans to carnival traditions such as the Mardi Gras Indians, and I show that the missing link is the existence of black mutual aid societies in New Orleans. Societies that, unlike in the case of Pinkster where they disappeared in the context of the “Second Great Awakening”, are still there in New Orleans. I decided to expand it, which is now leading to a new book to be entitled From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square, and to be published in the coming months by the University of Louisiana Press.

 

The Other Samuel Johnson: African-American Labor in the Vicinity of the Early U.S. Book Trade

by guest contributor John Garcia

Much of the pleasure of studying the economics of book publishing comes from the various minor personages who appear and disappear before the historians gaze. Sometimes patterns emerge from these fragmented discoveries, perhaps not enough for an article, but worth sharing as a provocation for others tilling similar ground. The anecdotes and interpretations supplied below represent a book historians contribution to recovery work in early African-American print culture. The study of early black print has benefited from new archival discoveries and interpretations, led in part by Cohen and Steins 2012 edited collection Early African American Print Culture. Rather than seek forgotten black authors or readers, or under-appreciated connections between print and racialization, I ask a set of questions that focus on the labors behind book culture in the early American republic: What happens in the vicinity of book production and consumption? Is there a black presence in the mundane life of making books (as opposed to writing, printing, or reading them)? How did African-Americans contribute to the various activities that support a printing operation or bookstore?

Focusing on activities occurring in the vicinityof book production directs attention to the still-unknown history of African-American labor, both free and enslaved, in relation to the early national book trade. Could indentured labor in a print shop allow enslaved persons a pathway to freedom? Was working for the book trade particularly amenable to emancipated African-Americans, even if they were illiterate?

Not long ago, while studying letters exchanged between Mathew Carey and his traveling agent Mason Locke Weemsthe most successful American publisher prior to 1830 and the early republics most successful book marketer, respectivelyI was given pause by the following query written by Weems in 1797:

If you see my Sam (freed Negro) be so good as to tell him I want to employ him.

This note was the first tantalizing clue I had ever seen about the presence of African-American workers in the print shops and publishing houses of Careys Philadelphia.

Samuel Johnson was a slave Weems had inherited as part of his fathers Maryland estate. Sams unusually literary name immediately brings to mind the famous English writer and biographer, and Weems may have personally chosen this name, given his own reputation as biographer and hagiographer of George Washington and others. Weems deserves credit for having freed Johnsonhe elsewhere boasts to Carey of being an early Liberator of my Slaves”—and he seems to have taken special care to ingratiate the ex-slave into the community of Philadelphia printers and publishers. Four years after receiving that first note from Weems, Carey paid Johnson twenty dollars on Weemss account. Throughout the rest of the decade, Samuel Johnson appears in the financial records of Philadelphia publishers as a paid laborer, usually in the form of receipts bearing his mark. Johnson was illiterate.

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Receipt of payment from Mathew Carey to Samuel Johson, Nov. 26, 1801. (Account #6710, Matthew Carey Papers, American Antiquarian Society)

 

Although sometimes portrayed as an ideologist of slavery and nationalismhere Im thinking particularly of François Furstenbergs compelling reading of Weems in In the Name of the Father (2006)surviving evidence of the relationship between Weems and Johnson suggests that the former went out of his way to treat his ex-slave as an independent agent in the world of print.

Further evidence comes from a letter Weems wrote to the Philadelphia publisher C.P. Wayne:Dr Sir. Of the little monies of mine now in your hand, please pay my Freed Man, Samuel Johnson Esq., sixty dollars & forever oblige two of your very obt servts. Poor Sam & his Quondam Sovereign, M.L. Weems.

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Receipt of C.P. Wayne, Oct. 17, 1804 bearing Samuel Johnson’s mark (American Antiquarian Society)

On the verso of this letter, Wayne had Johnson sign his mark to acknowledge receipt of the sixty dollars. This large sum of money was for services Johnson performed in relation to Waynes publication of John Marshalls five-volume Life of George Washington (1804-07), one of the most ambitious publication events of the decade. More evidence of Johnsons labor can be found in the records of the female printer Lydia Bailey. In 1808, Bailey paid Sam $1.50 for additional paveing in the yard in north alley(Lydia R. Bailey Receipt Book, 1808-1824. American Antiquarian Society). This small sum, and the kind of labor expended to earn it, demonstrates that Weems was not exaggerating in calling his friend Poor Sam.Johnson undoubtedly took on the most menial, unskilled jobs from his Philadelphia employers.

Taken together, these documents give oblique information about the book trades reliance upon African-American labor. As early as 1797, Johnson seems to have frequently hung around the vicinity of Careys business. Johnsons continued usefulness to Philadelphias printers is proven by the range of years (1801-1808) represented by the receipts. Illiterate men could perform valuable work in early U.S. print shops, binderies, bookstores, and paper mills, down to the mundane (but still necessary) work of building maintenance. These peripheral activities remind us that book historians should always consider the non-textual labors behind print culture that dont end up on the page. Personal connections mattered as well, since its clear that Weemss extensive contacts enabled Johnson to find employment and to be eventually paid. The men and women of the Philadelphia book trade comprised a close-knit community, as Rosalind Remer discusses in her 1996 book Printers and Men of Capital, and all three of Johnsons employers had longstanding ties with Weems and with one other. This networkof booksellers and printers kept Johnson involved, even though he couldnt read the very books that his work helped to produce.

Samuel Johnson was likely an anomaly as a free African-American worker in the trade. My second example offers a glimpse into slave labor in a New York printing establishment. The records of the printer Samuel Campbell reveal 1790s New York as a city of print still rooted in the craft relations of the hand-press period. Campbell employed numerous apprentices, a practice documented by extant indentureship papers such as one contracted with a white boy named Alexander McLeod, aged fifteen, to learn the art of bookbinding. Also among Campbells papers is another indentureship for Charles a negro man,aged thirty-eight, to serve after the manner of a servant.Both contracts, for McLeod in 1791 and for Charles in 1793, reveal the different modalities of unfree labor used in early U.S. printing establishments.

How did Charles come to work for Campbell? A separate sheet of paper mounted to his indenture bears the signature of a previous owner, Casper Springsteen, who transferred the right to bargain, sell, and dispose ofthe slave to a relative David Springsteen, of Long Island, New York. On November 9, 1793, David Springsteen signed the papers that made Charles a servant of Samuel Campbell. The verso of the contract has a further note from David Springsteen directing Campbell to no longer consider Charles as the property of the Springsteen family after the expiration of seven years: Provided the said Charles within named shall & do well and truly fulfill the written Indenture I do hereby remiss release and for ever quit claim unto the said negro slave & forgo any right of property over him.Could this mean that Charles became a free man after termination of the indentureship? Unfortunately, the trail of evidence ends here, and I have not seen further mention of Charles in Samuel Campbells papers.

Campbell saw fit to use the same printed form for a black slave that he used for his white apprentices, even as the manuscript annotations and alterations made to Charless papers display his liminal status. As the property of another, slaves couldnt legally bind themselves to an indenture, and yet his previous owner, David Springsteen, seems to have purposely inserted language endowing Charles with a provisional right to fulfill the written Indentureand work his way to freedom after a stated number of years. The difference between the contracts signed by Alexander McLeod and Charles, therefore, resides in different degrees of being bound to a master, with racial difference (in the case of Charles) calling for contractual finesse that was both emancipatory, in one sense, while also barring enslaved laborers from specialized training.

Alexander McLeod also reminds us that free and enslaved labor existed in a continuum that included indentured white workers as well. McLeod was specifically assigned the craft of bookbinding, and successful completion of his apprenticeship would have prepared him for work in New Yorks thriving book industry. Charles, on the other hand, had no specialized assignment in the world of print. That said, given Campbells extensive business (which included a New Jersey paper mill), its likely that Charles may have performed the kinds of odd jobs undertaken by PoorSamuel Johnson.

Does paving the sidewalk outside a printers shop merit inclusion in early African-American print culture? Emphatically yes, so long as we understand print cultureas a cluster of practices and mediations that are not divorced from human labor. As Robert Darnton once argued in his essay “The Forgotten Middlemen of Literature,” the historical analysis of literate culture must be expanded to include all the agentseven illiterate onesresponsible for the book as a cultural artifact. The two African-Americans described in this essay teach us that the making of books could potentially set one man free or help another ex-slave maintain a livelihood, however meager. Both men worked in the vicinity of the early U.S. book trade, even though they were likely unable to read the printed matter that was the end goal of the businesses for which they worked.

John Garcia teaches humanities courses at Boston University. His research in early American book history has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Critical Bibliography.

“A Reform Which Has Stifled All Other Reforms:” Islam in the Nineteenth Century American Black Press

by guest contributor Daniel Joslyn

In recent years, a number of political movements have sought to forge a connection between black Americans and Middle-Eastern Arabs, particularly in relation to the oppression of the Palestinian people in Israel and Palestine and the oppression of African-Americans in the United States. A small body of scholarly literature has recently developed which links African-Americans and Arabs in the nineteenth century. Few scholars, however, have noted the strong currents of anti-Islamic thinking in nineteenth-century African-American public discourse. African historian Teshale Tibebu has even gone so far as to attribute “Islamophobia” to nineteenth-century African-American Protestants. When seeking to find common ground among historically oppressed groups today, many scholars and activists see such groups as being naturally aligned by virtue of their status as “others” to the West. The treatment of Islam in nineteenth-century African-American writing should lead us to question that assumption. It highlights the constructed nature of these alliances. More importantly, it reminds us that oppressed communities have often identified with identities other than their oppression.

Negative views of Islam can first be seen in some of the first major African-American radical newspapers. A September 8, 1838 article in the Colored American (a major African-American newspaper founded by abolitionists Philip Bell, Samuel Cornish and Charles Ray), entitled “Why always harping at the Church?,” offers a glimpse at attitudes towards Muslims and Islam during this period. In the article, the editors rhetorically ask why abolitionists attacked pro-slavery churches. They did so, they explained, because no true Christian would ever hold slaves: “Slavery is A GREAT SIN, A NATIONAL DISGRACE to any people or government who upholds it. This is acknowledged by all. If it is a sin and a shame for a Turk to hold his fellow in bondage, it is a hundred fold more sinful for a Christian minister.” According to these authors, the system of slavery in the United States was not morally worse than that in the Ottoman Empire because of any difference in how the enslaved were treated (though such a difference did exist). It was worse because of the moral condition of the country: less was to be expected of an empire so far from God as the Ottomans’. But for the United States, which had found and espoused the “true” religion of Christianity, to hold people in bondage was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.

After the Civil War, distaste for Muslims and Islam became a more common trope in the African-American press, reflecting emerging ideas about race and empire among both black and white thinkers. One paper that espoused such notions of Islam was the Christian Recorder, which from 1848 served as the organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the second-largest black denomination at that time. By the Civil War, the paper was, in the words of historian Mitch Kachun, “a vital cornerstone of the denomination, the black press, and widespread African American communities.” After the war, members of the African-American community relied on the newspaper for news, correspondence, and debates, as well as in helping people find their newly-freed family members.

Writers in the Christian Recorder generally disparaged Islam and “Mohametans.” An 1878 article titled “Can Turkey Be Reformed?,” for example, argued that the Turkish people could never successfully achieve westernizing reforms. Published in the October 19 edition of the paper, this article was excerpted from an article in the Penn Monthly, a respectable periodical which devoted itself to “Literature, Art, Science and Politics.” The author compares the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms to a (pacifist) Quaker attempting to reform an army. The author declares that “to reform an institution or a system of government means to bring it into a closer conformity with its own normative idea”—to distill a system to its essence. However, the Ottoman reforms—in which the government sought to allow Christians equal rights with Muslims and to establish non-sectarian schools—represented “the introduction of principles utterly alien to its very normative idea.” Islam, the author argued, was inherently un-Christian and uncivilized.

Even articles in the Recorder that were ostensibly complimentary toward Muslims reflected the notion that Islam was an inferior religion. In an article titled “Remarkable Negro Muslims,” published on December 16, 1875, the unnamed author briefly describes various well-known black Muslims, and discusses the achievements of Sheikh Omaru Al Hajj, an educated Muslim leader from modern-day Mali. Describing his conquests and conversions of surrounding tribes, the author goes on to note that “To the Mohammedans of Negro land… the struggle for the ascendancy of Islam is… a struggle between light and darkness, between knowledge and ignorance, between good and evil.” This praise of Islam is, however, tempered with criticism. While their intentions are good, the article goes on to qualify, these African Muslims do not realize that “their faith makes them utterly indifferent to the sufferings of any who stand in the way of the dissemination of the truth, and patient of any evils they may have to endure in order to insure the triumph of their cause.” The article thus depicts these Muslims as being made into zealots by their faith, as lesser people in need of Christianity.

Captain Edward Wilmot Blyden was a rare proponent of a more positive view of Islam in the nineteenth century black American press.

Characteristically brazen, Edward Wilmot Blyden, a scholar, emigrationist, and early pan-Africanist, is the only defender of Islam I have been able to find in the major nineteenth-century black presses of America. Even he, however, saw African Islam as merely paving the way for the inevitable conversion of Africa to Christianity. Before becoming a renowned scholar, professor of Arabic and one of the major designers of the University of Liberia’s curriculum, Blyden first came to Liberia as part of the over four hundred African-American missionaries to Africa in the nineteenth century. Like other black intellectuals at the time, Blyden, as Tibebu points out, felt a “black man’s burden” to “civilize” Africa. In 1878, Blyden lamented that “men whose character, position and literary ability make them the guide of thousands” kept attacking Muslims and Islam. He argued that Protestant writers’ contention that Islam was “a reform which has stifled all other reforms” was mere prejudice. Rather, he maintained, the prejudice of white missionaries towards African peoples was the reason Christianity had not yet taken over all of Africa. The “Arab Missionary,” Blyden wrote, “often of the very complexion of his hearer,” did not have the same troubles getting used to Africans. Arabs, according to Blyden, held no prejudice against color. The notion of Arabs as “color-blind” was another nineteenth-century trope in both white and black literature, which does not quite hold up to the historian’s gaze. According to Blyden, American missionaries and African-Americans did not understand that “whatever it may be in other lands, in Africa the work of Islam is preliminary and preparatory.” Out of Arab Islam would soon flower American Protestantism. More so than any other people on the continent, “African Mohammedans” were most “willing to have Christian schools in their towns, to have the Christian Scriptures circulated among them, and to share with Christians the work of reclaiming the pagan.”

This relatively muted support of Islam as a natural precursor to Christianity led many to attack Blyden in the press. For years after publishing this article, Blyden remained a controversial figure—mentioned in the paper over two hundred times—often with the intention of questioning his Christian convictions. In a characteristic January 12, 1888 piece, a Sierra Leonese missionary even wondered, “Has Dr. Blyden Gone Over to Mo[ha]met?” In response, Blyden and his few supporters kept repeating their mantra: they did not hate Christianity, nor had they given up on it. Islam would soon give way to American Protestant advances, for theirs was the purest form of Christianity, which held—in the words of a supporter of Blyden’s writing in the Recorder on December 7, 1887—“that God is no respector [sic] of persons, and that which teaches, ‘That whatsoever ye would, that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.’” Blyden’s God did not care about a person’s race, or the circumstances into which they were born, but about their actions and their beliefs. Even with these many assurances, however, the Christian Recorder and the larger African-American community found Blyden, and his lukewarm support of Islam, hard to swallow.

Historians often overlook the impact that religions have on how people view the world. Historians of African-Americans are no different, as Laurie Maffly-Capp discusses in her most recent book, Setting Down the Sacred Past. Some African-Americans sought to take part in American Protestant empire-building in the late nineteenth century, and many supported the basis of that empire: the superiority of American Protestantism to all other religions. Although they were a part of an oppressed community in the United States, many African-Americans may have identified less with the labels placed upon them by the society in which they lived—“colored,” “black,” “Negro”—than with the labels they chose for themselves, such as “Methodist,” “Christian,” “civilized.” Indeed, many nineteenth-century AME preachers saw their immense suffering, and that of their ancestors, as suggesting that African-Americans were the truest Christians, placed on earth to spread the Gospel and rid the world of heathenism. Such ideologies explain why African-American Christians so often supported both missionary and British colonial ventures into Africa. It was these self- directed identifications, rather than imposed labels such as “oppressed,” that often carried the most weight for and were most decisive for the decision-making of nineteenth-century black Americans. Looking at historical actors’ genuinely held beliefs about ethics, goodness, and the divine can help us as historians better understand and explain why they advocate or have advocated enacting violence on others.

Daniel Joslyn is a PhD student studying History at New York University. He is currently interested in histories of joy and emancipation in the United States, and the Ottoman Empire (though he’s figuring that one out slowly). He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Frederick Douglass’s Poetry, Prophesy and Reform: 1880-1895.” He holds that good history is good philosophy and good philosophy teaches us how to live.

Saving Nigeria

by guest contributor James Farquharson

The year 2017 will mark fifty years since the start of the Nigerian Civil War. One of postcolonial Africa’s most devastating conflicts, the war left between one and three million people dead. This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of a forgotten peace mission organized by four prominent African-American civil rights leaders in an attempt to halt the Nigerian conflict.  In the midst of one of the most significant phases in the civil rights revolution in the United States, the four co-chairmen of the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa (ANLCA)—Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkens of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Whitney Young of the Urban League—attempted to craft a diplomatic settlement between the Nigerian federal government and the self-declared Republic of Biafra. It is an effort that has been mostly ignored in the scholarship or written off as the final act of a moribund organization, but it deserves a much closer examination.

Between March 1967 and April 1968, the ANLCA dedicated its financial, political and individual resources to stop the fighting. Theodore E. Brown, the executive director of the Conference, criss-crossed Africa from Accra to Lagos to Addis Ababa, building diplomatic support for the mission. In the United States, the four co-chairmen met with Nigerian and Biafran officials as well as senior figures in the U.S. State Department to coordinate their efforts. The ANLCA was backed by a call committee of over seventy-five organizations, including African-American business, educational, fraternal and sorority, labor, professional, religious, and social organizations and with significant support in the black press, particularly the New York Amsterdam News.

While the mission itself was unprecedented in the annals of African-American engagement with Africa, it also represented a shift in the ANLCA understanding of black internationalism. The civil war in Nigeria broke out at a time when three converging elements were pushing the ANLCA in a more “activist” direction: the political situation in the Third World, particularly in Southern Africa; the advent of “Black Power” in the United States; the growing appeal of radical regimes and groups in the Third World to some African American activists; and the need for mainline civil rights leaders to remain relevant domestically.

In a speech in December 1962 at the founding of the ANLCA, Dr. King evoked the black intellectual W.E B DuBois in the need for the African American community to overcome “racial provincialism” that did not look beyond “125th Street in New York or Beale Street in Memphis.” King noted that “the emergent African nations and the American Negro are intertwined. As long as segregation and discrimination exist in our nation the longer the chances of survival are for colonization and vice-versa.”  The ANLCA’s black internationalism focused on developing greater understanding of Africa among African Americans and broader American society and influence U.S. foreign policy towards the continent by arguing that the U.S. throw its full weight behind decolonization. Through its unparalleled access to diplomats in the State Department as well as officials in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, the Conference hoped to push its agenda forward.

However, by 1965 the Conference’s leadership became increasingly disillusioned with U.S. policy towards Africa. The Johnson’s Administration’s anemic handling of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965 and stalling of the decolonization process throughout Southern Africa pushed in the ANLCA to adopt a more activist approach to the continent. In a memorandum to the call committee of the Conference in June 1966, Executive Director Theodore Brown stated that:

Our efforts must be accelerated if we are to have a meanful [sic] impact on the problem of racism in Africa generally, apartheid in South Africa, the Rhodesia crisis, Angola and Mozambique and the ‘after thought’ approach of our own government in the formulation of United States-African policy.

The Nigerian peace mission, which occurred in the aftermath of this activist turn, reflected the sense that the gains of African self-determination and Pan-Africanism needed to be protected at all costs. The disintegration of Nigeria, a country that since its independence in 1960 had been lauded by the black press and by black community leaders in the United States as a model for African development sparked serious concern. The mission, according to the New York Amsterdam News, offered “a unique but extremely vital opportunity for Negro American leaders (ANLCA)” to assert themselves in contemporary African diplomacy. While provoked by the fear that the collapse of Nigeria into civil war would lead to untold human misery and a backward step for postcolonial Africa, the mission also reflected the domestic context of the battle for black liberation in the United States. By 1967, the civil rights leaders that made up the ANLCA, who had been the predominant voices in the movement since the mid-1950s, were being challenged by the Black Power activists.

Black Power emerged out of growing frustration with the lack of further progress on racial equality, particularly in terms of tackling persistent poverty and economic inequality in African-American communities. Black Power activists critiqued the viability of capitalism to provide economic justice for African-Americans. They were equally dubious about the effectiveness of Gandhian non-violent direct action employed by leaders such as Dr King in the face of continued violent resistance by U.S. segregationists. In search of inspiration, key Black Power activists looked abroad for inspiration. As historian Fanon Che Wilkins noted, Black Power was “internationalist from its inception.” Leaders of the Black Power movement such as Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton saw in the guerrilla organizations and radical nationalist and Marxist regimes of the Third World from Havana to Hanoi as models to be emulated in the United States. This re-engagement with anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism as part of the African-American freedom struggle marked a return to programmatic positions adopted by black activists such as W.E.B DuBois, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, and the Council of African Affairs prior to the onset of the Cold War.

As historian Brenda Plummer has noted: “[T]he ANLCA interests after 1966 reflected pressures by domestic nationalist organizations and civil rights activists committed to that immediatism [sic] of ‘Freedom Now’.” This meant that the ANLCA needed to maintain its credibility in the face of Black Power critiques by continuing to firmly advocate for Pan-Africanism, self-determination and decolonization. While the Conference offer to help mediate the conflict was provoked by shocking accounts of violence and political disintegration reported widely in the mainstream and African-American press, the mission was viewed as a way for integrationist civil rights leaders to reassert themselves both at home and abroad. By taking on the role as peacemakers in Nigeria, the ANLCA sought to burnish its credibility as an organization that stood for black internationalism and Pan-Africanism. In seeking to bring both the Nigerian government and the Biafran leadership together to peacefully resolve the conflict, the ANLCA hoped to show that political change could be achieved through compromise and diplomacy, a notion increasingly challenged at home.

By March 1968, after a year of planning and consultations, the ANLCA leadership were able to gain a major breakthrough. Both sides in the war agreed to have the four co-chairmen travel to Nigeria to act as intermediaries in resolving the conflict. Dr King, according to the New York Amsterdam News, was willing to postpone his Poor People’s march on Washington to enable him to make the trip. However, an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel not only ended King’s life but the mission to Nigeria. It is impossible to know whether the ANLCA peace effort would have succeeded. Growing domestic turmoil in the United States certainly acted to distract civil rights leaders from their internationalist platforms. Moreover, even after almost a year of bloodshed, neither Nigerian nor Biafran leaders seemed particularly likely to reach a compromise.

Nevertheless, the ANCLA mission itself represented an under-appreciated aspect of black internationalism during the 1960s. Rather than being an organization destined to wither away, the ANLCA adapted to the shifting domestic and international context of the mid-1960s, a period when the ideas associated with black internationalism were in flux. In wading into the maelstrom of the Nigerian Civil War, the ANLCA were attempting to show that the future of black internationalism was not destined to be armed struggle and revolution. Rather, diplomacy and mediations offer another pathway to achieving peace and justice for the black diaspora.

James Farquharson is a PhD candidate on an Australian Postgraduate Award at the Australian Catholic University. He holds a Master’s degree in American diplomatic history from the University of Sydney. He has a chapter forthcoming on the response of African-Americans to the Nigerian Civil War in Postcolonial Conflict and the Question of Genocide: The Nigeria-Biafra War, 1967-1970 (Routledge). He will be presenting on this topic at the Organization of American Historians meeting in New Orleans in April. 

“They’re Going to Be Bused, Whether You Like it or Not”: Urban Whites and the Surprising Origins of Metropolitan School Desegregation

by guest contributor Michael Savage

In the United States, segregated metropolitan areas are a national phenomenon, with heavily minority inner-cities typically ringed by much wealthier and predominantly white autonomous suburbs. According to 24/7 Wall St., America’s three most segregated cities are in the North. Cleveland possesses the dubious honor of being America’s most segregated metropolis, followed by Detroit and Milwaukee. Boston takes seventh place, just edging out Birmingham, Alabama, a city whose terroristic violence against African Americans once earned it the nickname “Bombingham.”

This segregation did not occur as the result of impersonal market forces. Significant discrimination – both public and private – produced today’s segregated metropolises. Federal policies instituted during the New Deal had the effect of guaranteeing mortgages for whites only, while the refusal of many whites to sell to African Americans and the considerable community violence that often greeted black “pioneers” who moved to all-white neighborhoods helped solidify metropolitan racial divisions. Historians have told these stories and told them well. This history, however, is incomplete.

For a deeper understanding of metropolitan segregation, historians need to examine the alternate visions of metropolitan desegregation articulated by a most surprising source – segregationist urban whites. In battles over urban school segregation in the American North, it was urban whites of clear segregationist leanings who most forcefully pushed for desegregated metropolitan areas, demanding that desegregation reach beyond the political boundaries of the central city. While this may seem counterintuitive, it was simple pragmatism. Segregationist urban whites proposed metropolitan desegregation to weaken suburban support for integration but also because successful metropolitan desegregation meant a dispersal of the black student population throughout the region, ensuring the maintenance of white majority schools. These metropolitan proposals had the potential of combatting metropolitan inequality. Their failure, in the years following the push for civil rights in the American South, helps explain the near total separation of city and suburb and why Northern metropolises top the list of the most segregated regions.

freedomstayout

A fact sheet on the Freedom Stayout prepared by the suburban Brookline Committee for Civil Rights. Courtesy Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

Boston, most known for its vehement opposition to desegregation busing, witnessed the longest and most widespread consideration of metropolitan school desegregation. When faced with 1965 Racial Imbalance Act that declared any school with over 50 percent “nonwhite” students “racially imbalanced,” the Boston School Committee responded with a strategy designed to weaken suburban legislative support for integration by proposing that the suburbs participate in mandatory desegregation. This strategy is evident in School Committeeman Joseph Lee’s satirically titled “A Plan to End the Monopoly of Un-light-colored Pupils in Many Boston Schools.” Lee’s first suggestion was to “notify at least 11,958 Chinese and Negro Pupils not to come back to Boston schools this autumn.” These students, a majority of Boston’s minority student population, were to attend suburban schools in order to integrate the suburbs. The suburbs, home to three times Boston’s population, averaged less than one percent black students in their public school populations, which Lee called “racial imbalance, if ever there was.” Though clearly designed to undermine the law and certainly not indicative of any moral commitment to civil rights, Lee’s satirical plan nevertheless raised valid questions about segregation in the metropolitan context.

Lee’s plan bore similarities to the voluntary Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), which voluntarily bused black students from Boston schools to several suburban communities with available school seats. Jointly created by liberal suburbanites and Boston civil rights advocates in 1966, METCO offered city students access to superior suburban schools, provided a measure of socioeconomic integration, and made a contribution to lessening school segregation in the region. However, like the Racial Imbalance Act, METCO functioned at the farthest limits of suburban liberalism. It did not require that suburbanites send their children to black city schools, did not couple black school attendance with increased black residence in the suburbs, and its suburban founders, fearful of a loss of suburban support, downplayed their aims of full metropolitan desegregation.

The Boston School Committee faced several legal challenges to its segregation, none more important than the Morgan v. Hennigan case initiated by the Boston Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in March 1972. In its filing, the NAACP urged the “inclusion of suburban school systems as appropriate in the plan for desegregation, in order to achieve, now and hereafter, the greatest possible degree of actual desegregation.” In May the Boston School Committee voted four-to-one to ask the court to include 75 suburban communities as its co-defendants, seeking a metropolitan desegregation plan in the almost certain outcome of being found guilty.

As similar events in Detroit demonstrated, the Boston’s School Committee’s courtroom calls for metropolitan desegregation had the very real possibility of implementation. When the Detroit Board of Education approved a modest integration plan in April 1970, anti-integrationist whites formed the Citizens’ Committee for Better Education (CCBE) and successfully recalled integrationist Board members. The rescission of the integration plan prompted a legal challenge from the NAACP. Faced with the likelihood that the Detroit schools would be found unconstitutionally segregated, the CCBE urged the adoption of a plan of metropolitan desegregation just one year after recalling integrationist Board members. It was the first party in the case call for a metropolitan solution, and was quickly joined by the NAACP. CCBE members supported plans of metropolitan desegregation for the same reason they opposed intra-city desegregation – both emanated from a desire to keep their white children in white majority schools. CCBE Attorney Alexander J. Ritchie persuaded CCBE members to change course, telling them that “Your kids are going to go to school, and they’re going to be bused, whether you like it or not… Now do you want your kids to go to school where they’re the minority in a basically black school system, or do you want them to go to school where you’re still the majority?” Divergent motivations produced similar results. So similar were metropolitan plans produced by the CCBE and the NAACP that Judge Stephen J. Roth called them “roughly approximate.”

While Judge Roth accepted the CCBE’s metropolitan arguments and ordered the implementation of a desegregation plan affecting 54 independent school districts, the Supreme Court did not. In a strictly partisan five-to-four decision, in July 1974 Justice Potter Stewart joined Republican President Richard Nixon’s four appointees in reaffirming the separation of city and suburb, ensuring the maintenance of separate and unequal education in American metropolitan areas. As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in his impassioned dissent, the Court’s decision would allow “our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities – one white, the other black.” Though this divide already existed, the Milliken decision exacerbated metropolitan segregation and helped codify metropolitan inequality.

As historian Matthew Lassiter’s analysis of desegregation in Richmond, Charlotte, and Atlanta demonstrates, school desegregation plans that incorporated the suburbs provided more lasting integration than plans limited to the central city alone. Affecting the entire region, metropolitan plans did not allow well-heeled whites to simply flee the desegregation mandate by leaving the city. In light of both cities’ re-segregated schools that are attended almost uniformly by the intersecting categories of poor and minority and their persistent residential segregation, it is worth revisiting these proposals. Undeniably conceived in white racism and prone to viewing black students as a problem population that needed to be dispersed, in such metropolitan plans also existed possibilities of meaningful racial and socio-economic integration.

Boston School Integration 1974

White Boston parents demonstrating outside Judge Arthur Garrity’s suburban Wellesley home. Though their protests primarily targeted arriving black students and buses, anti-busers frequently trekked to the suburbs to protest busing and decry elite busing supporters whose suburban residences placed them outside the desegregation mandate. Image courtesy WBUR FM.

The metropolitan proposals made in Boston and Detroit have been most influential in their failure. With mandatory metropolitan desegregation an impossibility, middle-class whites accelerated their flight from the central cities and the public schools. Suburbanites worked to ensure suburban autonomy from the central city. In Boston, a program proposed by 56 school districts before the busing decision that was designed to entirely eradicate segregation in the metropolitan area was hardest hit by the renewed push for suburban autonomy. In the program’s first and only year, 1976-77, a mere 210 students from three suburbs and Boston participated in its school pairing program. Suburbanites opposed participation in the program, fearing that it would lead to a metropolitan school district and mandatory busing. While the METCO program continued, it never experienced another period of growth and previously stalwart communities threatened to withdraw when the state planned to modestly trim the funds it provided to participating communities.

While historians have noted an increase in white flight following intra-city desegregation, they have failed to connect this to declining support for metropolitan cooperation and governance in the 1970s. Conversely, the burgeoning literature on “metropolitics” neglects the long history of proposals for metropolitan school desegregation. This is a mistake. A focus on proposals for metropolitan desegregation made by ostensibly segregationist urban whites allows for a broadened understanding of the history of metropolitan reform, urban history, and civil rights. This focus helps explain the growth and persistence of extreme disparities between the central city and its suburbs in America’s metropolises, particularly those in the North, and can help account for the lack of metropolitan solutions to a wide array of metropolitan problems.

Michael Savage is a graduate student in American History at the University of Toronto whose dissertation focuses on metropolitan approaches to school and housing desegregation.

Sadie P. Delaney: Our Lady of Bibliotherapy

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

The debate over whether reading is good or bad for your health is as old as the habit itself. In The Anatomy of Melancholy reading and scholarship sometimes cause, sometimes cure, Robert Burton’s depression; the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired a Wertherfieber, causing young men in Germany to dress and act like Werther, possibly to commit suicide like Werther, and with other novels it contributed to a public health debate in Germany over the consequences of reading. Robert Darnton’s “First Steps Toward a History of Reading” cites J.G. Heinzmann, who in 1795 wrote that reading caused “susceptibility to cold, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, haemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy.” On the other hand, in 1812 Benjamin Rush advocated strongly in favor of reading in Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Disease of the Mind. Departing from the exclusive prescription of the Bible, he wrote that “when there is no relish for the simple and interesting stories contained in the Bible, the reading of novels should be recommended to our patients.” The power of reading binds together the fate of the body and mind, and transforms them both—if you ever took duality for granted.

And for those who believe in the transformative power of reading, now and throughout history, Sadie Peterson Delaney (1889-1958) is a modern hero. Reading’s health benefits were not a theoretical pursuit for her, but a matter of will. As the chief librarian of the Veterans Administration Hospital and a “Pioneer Bibliotherapist,” she ensured it had a positive influence on her patients.

Delaney in 1950, receiving an honorary doctorate from Atlanta University. Wikimedia Commons.

Delaney in 1950, receiving an honorary doctorate from Atlanta University. Wikimedia Commons.

Bibliotherapy, the idea of reading certain books for their healing purposes, is not new: Diodorus Siculous tells us that the Egyptian King Ramses II inscribed “House of Healing for the Soul” over the entrance his library, and lived to be ninety. Religions of the book—Islam, Judaism, Christianity—incorporate a notion of bibliotherapy into the reading of sacred texts. Institutions like the York Retreat in England, a Quaker-run asylum, prescribed sacred texts, but Benjamin Rush’s more wide-ranging reading recommendations were influential over the course of the nineteenth century in American asylums, including the Hartford Retreat, the Bloomingdale Asylum, the McLean Hospital, and the Friends Asylum. But the word “bibliotherapy” was only coined in an Atlantic Monthly article from 1916.

Since then, above all thanks to the work of women like Sadie P. Delaney, there has been a rise in the body of bibliotheraputic writing and research that would make an immense resource and library for the historian of reading practices if gathered together in one place. The practice connects the efforts of library and medical professionals alike. Both feature reading lists and their application to case studies: bibliotherapy is applied to children in order to change their attitudes towards race, class, and disability; it’s applied to those whose parents are divorced or who have experienced abuse; it’s applied to adults who suffer from alcoholism or post traumatic stress disorder. A dissertation has been conducted on the effects of reading Zhuang Zi’s fables on stressed Taiwanese college students (“the results show the beneficial effects”); another dissertation applies a “bibliotherapy approach to preventing dating abuse in adolescent girls” through readings of Twilight, True Love, and You (2011)—an intervention that “did not demonstrate clear effects…. but there was some indication of change in attitudes regarding romantic myths and identification of controlling behaviours in relationships.”

Eleanor Frances Brown shows in Bibliotherapy and its widening applications (1975) how much of the widening application of bibliotherapy has been made possible by Delaney herself. In 1920, Delaney was assigned to the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. She would have worked with African-Americans as well as immigrant communities of Italian, Chinese, and Jewish heritage. During that time—according to a profile on her life by Betty K. Gubert in the American Libraries journal—Delaney especially worked with building the library’s collections of books in Braille and Moon Point (another language for the visually impaired), learning both languages herself to better aid visitors to the library, and working with “juvenile delinquents.” The NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture houses the Sadie P. Delaney Papers, featuring correspondence from the time between Delaney and W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Booker T. Washington, and other black luminaries of the time.

Selected works by Sadie P. Delaney.

Selected works by Sadie P. Delaney.

In 1924 she was appointed chief librarian at the Veterans’ Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. The library opened with two hundred books in 1925 and increased to four thousand volumes by the end of the year. Likewise, book circulation began at 275 and increased to 1,500, based on Delaney’s practice of getting to know patients on an individual basis and recommending books to them, creating circulation lists and pamphlets, holding a weekly radio talk, and establishing book clubs and other activities to connect readers with one another. She started debate clubs and stamp clubs, taught bookbinding and natural history, and installed “talking books” and projectors to display books onto the wall or ceiling for patients who couldn’t physically hold them. She continued her work with the blind, teaching no less than six hundred patients to read Braille and creating a special department for the blind at the hospital library in 1934.

Within a decade of her librarianship, there were around six thousand books in the Veterans’ Library collection, including a pioneering collection of books by and for African-Americans. Delaney saw her library as a tool for correcting the injustices of a segregated, unequal society. By including works about black soldiers, she could use books to help the veterans who were her patients “in [their] upward struggle to lay aside prejudice, all sense of defeat, and to take in that which is helpful and inspiring by the means of books.” Delaney wrote about the experience in a 1932 article for the Wilson Library Review, “The Negro Veteran and His Books,” which was also a rallying cry for the publication of more books by black people. Today, institutions like the Sadie Peterson Delaney African Roots Library carry on her important work in addressing racial injustice through access to education and to books.

Her innovations were recognized where it mattered, making their diffusion widespread: library schools in Illinois, North Carolina, and Georgia built links with the Veterans’ Hospital so that their students could train with Delaney. Veterans’ libraries across America studied and implemented her approaches. She collaborated with the Antabuse Clinic in Tuskegee to use bibliotherapy to treat alcoholism. The United States Information Service (USIS) profiled her and her methods, and distributed that information to no less than a hundred different USIS branches across 75 countries.

An illustration from the American Libraries profile of Sadie P. Delaney, 1993.

An illustration from the American Libraries profile of Sadie P. Delaney, 1993.

But at the same time, the greatest testimony to Sadie P. Delaney’s hard work and lasting contributions is the most frustrating and insulting of all: her ideas have diffused so widely that she is not credited enough by name. The New Yorker featured an article on bibliotherapy with no mention of Delaney at all. The free online course from the University of Warwick, “Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing,” bears no mention of her efforts (yet). While she is a staple in articles by library and medical professionals, her recognition within popular culture and history is not nearly as extensive as she deserves—vast as her influence would be if traced within a twentieth and twenty-first century of reading. Histories of reading are much more likely to pay homage to the Frankfurt School than to cite the many decades of one woman’s applied generosity—her gift of time and accessibility in order to find the perfect book from which a person can grind a lens for looking at their own life. This is important in a time where algorithmic culture is beginning to bear more seriously on how people read, and it also is a way of linking reading history with politics, activism, and education. There is both a history of reading to be written of Sadie Peterson Delaney’s far-reaching contributions, and a model for reading history to be drawn from her deeply personal, richly emotional, systematically individualized approach to reading. It is a model that puts the huge scope of influence and lifelong struggles of the librarian in the central position that they deserve.