Monday, December 4, 2017
December 4, 2017: Reconstruction Figures: Alexander Crummell and Frederick Douglass
[December 9th marks the 145th anniversary of P.B.S. Pinchback assuming the Louisiana governorship, making him the first African American governor in U.S. history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five figures from the Reconstruction era, leading up to a special post on Pinchback himself!]
On the impromptu debate, between two of the most impressive Americans, that exemplifies one of Reconstruction’s (and America’s) most complex and crucial questions.
One of my most frequently revisited topics, at least as far back as this 2012 blog series and at length in my most recent book, has been the challenges and yet the importance of remembering our darkest American histories. As I wrote in that blog series’ third post, no national histories are darker nor more important for us to better remember than those of slavery; that’s why, whatever its flaws or limitations, I’m generally on board with Quentin Tarantino’s project in his controversial revisionist historical film Django Unchained. Yet in arguing for the importance of such memories, I can and should recognize the fact that it’s significantly easier for me to say that than it is for African Americans, for those whose own darkest histories and heritages are directly tied to these national horrors. For that community, it’s fair to ask whether remembering the histories of slavery is as important as trying to move beyond them and into a more positive future; and indeed, in the decades after emancipation and the Civil War many prominent African American voices argued precisely for, if not forgetting slavery, at least not focusing on keeping its memories alive.
Perhaps the leader of that movement was Alexander Crummell, the priest, philosopher, professor, and political activist whose impressive 19th century life and career spanned abolitionism, black nationalism and the development of the Liberian state, and many other causes. In the years after the Civil War, Crummell came to feel that only by moving beyond the memories of slavery could African Americans achieve success and equality; he developed that theme with particularly clarity in “The Need for New Ideas and New Aims for a New Era,” his 1885 commencement address at Storer College, the newly founded freedmen’s college in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. In the audience was none other than Frederick Douglass, a trustee of the college and one of the few men who could equal Crummell’s longstanding prominence in the African American community, and Douglass apparently objected vocally to Crummell’s arguments. Unfortunately no specific transcript of Douglass’s comments exists, but throughout this era Douglass certainly argued the opposite of Crummell’s critique of “fanatical anxieties upon the subject of slavery”; for Douglass, instead, that dark history “could be traced [in American identity] like that of a wounded man through a crowd by the blood,” and so must be followed and engaged with.
If we approach this debate from a scholarly perspective, as I did when I used the exchange to open a chapter of my first book, it seems clear enough that Douglass was right, that it’s vital to remember even—perhaps especially—our darkest histories. But for those African American college graduates in the audience, just as for all African Americans in and after the Reconstruction era—and, in less immediate but still present ways, for all their descendents—the question was and remains far from simply academic. Obviously there is value, practical as well as philosophical, in remembering the worst parts of our pasts, for individuals, for communities, and for the nation. But as Crummell noted, to dwell upon such memories can make it significantly more difficult to live in the present and move into an even stronger future. So the key, perhaps, is to remember without getting lost, to engage without giving in to the most limiting or damaging effects. Easier said than done, of course—but both Crummell and Douglass, and many other inspiring and influential voices, give us models for such work.
Next figure tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Reconstruction figures or stories you’d highlight?