[I (re)post this every February for obvious reasons. This February 14th is the 200th anniversary of the birth of a truly great American, Frederick Douglass. I hope you’ll read the entire blog, but if not I encourage you to at least scroll down and read about this remarkable man. You will be blessed and inspired.]
February, as most Americans know, has been designated Black History Month since the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. It grew out of what was then called Negro History Week, which was established in 1926 and timed to coincide with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) and Frederick Douglass’ (February 14). Most Americans (I hope) recognize Douglass’ name, and those of other outstanding African Americans such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and so on. This is written to honor some other African Americans with whom you may not be as familiar.*
The first black slaves arrived in America in 1619. From those horrible, unspeakable beginnings, consider the lives and contributions of the following … many if not most of whom you may not know. I hope you’ll agree with me they belong on the list of great Americans of African descent. They are arranged in loosely chronological order:
Wentworth Cheswell, 1746-1817: Cheswell is considered by George Mason University to be the first African American in the history of the United States to be elected to public office, a black (mixed race) judge, elected in 1775. A leader in his hometown of Newmarket, NH, Cheswell was selected to make a clandestine ride to help the people of Exeter, NH, and then north with further instructions just as Paul Revere later rode west in the legendary “Midnight Ride.” Alas, Longfellow didn’t write a poem with Wentworth Cheswell’s name in it … so Paul Revere gets all the (well-deserved) glory.
James Armistead, c. 1748-1830: Armistead was an African American double-spy who helped General Marquis de Lafayette win the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Armistead stole information from British General Lord Charles Cornwallis, helping Layette defeat him at Yorktown, effectively ending the War for Independence.
Lemuel Haynes, 1753-1833: Born a slave in Connecticut, Haynes became a soldier, fighting with the Minutemen [at Yorktown, fought under George Washington]. An ardent abolitionist, he wrote extensively against slavery. While other abolitionists such as James Madison, James Monroe, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster believed the slaves should be repatriated to Africa, Haynes, a well studied theologian (a Calvinist – of course), believed God would providentially see to it slavery died and the races would harmoniously integrate. He went on to become a pastor of Hemlock Church in Torrington, CT … the first black pastor of a white congregation in America.
Richard Allen, 1760-1831: Raised a slave on a plantation in Delaware, he heard the Gospel from a Methodist circuit rider and received Christ as Lord. He led many fellow slaves to Christ – along with his “owner,” who then realized slavery was wrong and freed his slaves. Allen, who taught himself to read and write, joined the Methodist Church. He became a preacher himself, in Philadelphia, preaching to thousands of (white) people each week. Allen served with the Continental Army in the American Revolution. He later met Dr. Benjamin Rush, the “Surgeon General” of the Army, and the two of them helped begin the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) denomination.
In the 1790s Yellow Fever repeatedly hit Philadelphia. With a population of 40,000, Philadelphia, third-largest city in America, was devastated, losing as many as 120 people a day. One-tenth of the people in the city died; 70 doctors left the city. Dr. Rush and his assistants, some of whom died, stayed to help fight the epidemic … with the help of Richard Allen (and Absalom Jones [1746-1818], who would become the first black priest in the Episcopal Church).
Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree), c. 1797-1883: Isabella “Bell” Baumfree was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist.
Bell was one of perhaps 12 children born into slavery in Ulster County, NY, to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. They had been bought from slave traders by Colonel Charles Hardenbergh and kept at his estate 95 miles north of New York City. As it was for most slaves, Bell’s life was harsh and demanding,. When she was a young woman, she met and fell in love with a slave named Robert from a neighboring farm. Robert’s owner forbade their relationship; he did not want his slaves to have children with other people’s slaves, because he would not own the children. One day, the owner and his son found Robert with Bell. They beat him so severely he died as a result of the injuries, and the experience haunted Bell the rest of her life. She eventually married an older slave named Thomas and bore him five children.
In 1826, Bell escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia, leaving her other children behind because they were not legally free. She made her way to the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, who took her and her baby in. Isaac bought her services until the New York State Emancipation Act was approved a year later.
During her stay with the Van Wagenens, Bell became a devout Christian. On June 1, 1843, Bell changed her name to “Sojourner Truth” and told her friends: “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” She left to make her way traveling, preaching the Gospel and speaking out about the abolition of slavery. In 1844, she joined the Northampton (MA) Association of Education and Industry. While there, Truth met Frederick Douglass.
Over the years, Truth spoke before dozens, perhaps hundreds, of audiences. During the Civil War she helped recruit black soldiers for the Union Army; her grandson, James Caldwell, enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. In October, 1864 she met President Abraham Lincoln. After the war, she tried (unsuccessfully) for seven years to secure land grants from the federal government for former slaves. While in Washington, D.C., she met with President Ulysses S. Grant in the White House.
Impelled and empowered by the Gospel of God’s grace, Sojourner Truth spoke out boldly about abolition, women’s rights, prison reform, and against capital punishment. In 2014, Truth was included in Smithsonian magazine’s list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.”
Henry Highland Garnet, 1815-1882: Abolitionist, educator, president of Avery College, pastor and orator. To commemorate the passage of the 13th Amendment, Congress decreed that a sermon should be preached. Pastor Garnet, the first African American to speak in the halls of Congress, preached the sermon, “A Memorial Discourse” on February 12, 1865.* He began that sermon with a recollection of his own personal experience:
“What is slavery? Too well do I know what it is … I was born among the cherished institutions of slavery. My earliest recollections of parents, friends, and the home of my childhood are clouded with its wrongs. The first sight that met my eyes was my Christian mother enslaved …. The other day, when the light of liberty streamed through this marble building, and the hearts of the noble band of patriotic statesmen leaped for joy, and this our national capital shook from foundation to dome with the shouts of a ransomed people, then methinks the spirits of Washington, Jefferson, the Jays, the Adamses, and Franklin, and Lafayette, and Giddings, and Lovejoy, and those of all the mighty, and glorious dead, remembered by history, because they were faithful to truth, justice, and liberty, were hovering over the august assembly. Though unseen by mortal eyes, doubtless they joined the angelic choir, and said, ‘Amen!’”
Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895: Born a slave in Maryland, he began learning the alphabet through the kindness of a white woman, Sophia Auld, sister-in-law of Frederick’s owner. After her husband put an end to that, Frederick continued secretly teaching himself to read. He would go on to teach other slaves to read the New Testament during their Sunday School class, drawing upward of 40 some weeks … until one of the other owners got wind of it and broke it up violently. They knew that reading the Bible would mean the end of slavery.
This is how he describes his coming to saving faith in Christ:
I was not more than thirteen years old, when in my loneliness and destitution I longed for some one to whom I could go, as to a father and protector. The preaching of a white Methodist minister, named Hanson, was the means of causing me to feel that in God I had such a friend. He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God: that they were by nature rebels against His government; and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God through Christ. I cannot say that I had a very distinct notion of what was required of me, but one thing I did know well: I was wretched and had no means of making myself otherwise. I consulted a good old colored man named Charles Lawson, and in tones of holy affection he told me to pray, and to “cast all my care upon God.” This I sought to do; and though for weeks I was a poor, broken-hearted mourner, traveling through doubts and fears, I finally found my burden lightened, and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever. I saw the world in a new light, and my great concern was to have everybody converted. My desire to learn increased, and especially, did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible.
Douglass escaped to New York in 1838. He became a licensed preacher in 1839, delivered his first anti-slavery speech in Elmira in 1840, and later became a preacher in the A.M.E. Zion Church. He studied the writings of William Lloyd Garrison, a leading abolitionist, who would help launch Douglass’s career as an orator. His skills would take him to Ireland, England and all over the U.S. He studied the Constitution and the writings of those who wrote it, concluding the Constitution was not pro-slavery. This in turn would lead to his becoming an eloquent, passionate, outspoken abolitionist and advocate for civil rights for blacks (and later, for women as well). He would go on to be an advisor and close confidant to Presidents Lincoln, Johnson and Grant.
On October 14, 1852, Douglass said:
I have one great political idea …. That idea is an old one. It is widely and generally assented to; nevertheless, it is very generally trampled upon and disregarded. The best expression of it, I have found in the Bible. It is in substance: “Righteousness exalteth a nation; sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). This constitutes my politics – the negative and positive of my politics, and the whole of my politics …. I feel it my duty to do all in my power to infuse this idea into the public mind, that it may speedily be recognized and practiced upon by our people.
Richmond, VA, April 3, 1865: After the fall of Richmond, the former Capitol of the Confederacy, President Lincoln came to survey the scene. The black troops of the 29th Connecticut Regiment witnessed his entry. A member of that Regiment recorded:
“As the President passed along the street the colored people waved their handkerchiefs, hats, and bonnets and expressed their gratitude by shouting repeatedly, ‘Thank God for his goodness. We have seen His salvation.’ The white soldiers caught the sound and swelled in numbers cheering as they marched along. All could see the President, he was so tall. One woman shouted, ‘Thank you, dear Jesus, for this sight of the great conqueror.’ No wonder tears came to the President’s eyes when he looked on the poor colored people who were once slaves, and heard the blessing uttered from thankful hearts and thanksgiving to God and Jesus. Thousands of colored men in Richmond would have laid down their lives for President Lincoln.”
Here are a few others whose life stories are also remarkable, and inspiring. These men, largely self-educated, became teachers, university presidents, preachers:
Hiram Rhodes Revels, 1827-1901: The first black U.S. Senator (from Mississippi), Revels was a preacher, a missionary, and a chaplain during the Civil War and raised three black regiments for the Union. He later became the president of Alcorn College.
Robert Brown Elliott, 1842-1884: Elected to the House of Representatives (South Carolina), Elliott delivered a stirring eulogy of Charles Sumner in March, 1874, including these words:
I am a slave to principles. I call no political party master. I have ever most sincerely embraced the democratic and representative ideal – not, indeed, as represented or professed by any political party, but by its true significance as transfigured in the Declaration of Independence and in the injunctions of Christianity.
James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938: Educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, civil rights activist and author of (among many others) God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, one of the most beautifully written works of its kind I’ve ever seen.
I conclude with the names of a few great black pastors and preachers in my lifetime:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968: I don’t need to add anything about Dr. King, probably the best-known African American leader of all, except a reminder that he was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, pastor, before he became famous as a civil rights leader. His sermons and speeches, and his magnificent “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” are masterpieces of rhetoric and artistry set on fire by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Dr. E.V. Hill, 1933-2003: Born in a log cabin, E.V. Hill grew up in poverty in Texas at a time when blacks were lucky to graduate from high school. Even so, he went to Prairie View A&M University near Houston on a four-year scholarship. Dr. Hill was for 42 years the pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. He was simply one of the greatest preachers I have ever had the privilege to hear.
Dr. Raleigh Washington: Dr. Washington is the President and CEO of Promise Keepers. He attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, earning the Bronze Star for meritorious service in Vietnam. As anyone who has heard him speak at Promise Keepers can tell you, he is another outstanding African American preacher.
I hope this gives you a greater appreciation for the role of these great black Americans, especially those who made their contributions in the name of Jesus.
*Compiled from multiple sources.
There’s a king and a captain high,
And he’s coming by and by,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
You can hear his legions charging in the regions of the sky,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
There’s a man they thrust aside,
Who was tortured till he died
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
He was hated and rejected,
He was scorned and crucified,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
When he comes! When he comes!
He’ll be crowned by saints and angels when he comes.
They’ll be shouting out Hosanna! to the man that men denied,
And I’ll kneel among my cotton when he comes.
– French E. Oliver