A Beautiful Black Mind: Alexander Crummell
Alexander Crummell (1819-1898)
Alexander Crummell was born in New York City to parents Boston and Charity Hicks Crummell. His mother was freeborn, and his father, a prosperous oyster man, was a former slave who was brought from Africa to the United States at the age of 13. Crummell’s parents were well acquainted with many of New York’s most influential African American writers and activists. Crummell was exposed early on to the potential for Black men and women to use literature as a tool for social change. The newspaper Freedom’s Journal was founded in their home when young Alexander was just 8 years old. Crummell began his education at New York City’s African Free School. In 1836, he enrolled at the Oneida Institute where he was one of four Black entering students. In subsequent decades, he and his African American classmates, Amos Beman, Henry Highland Garnet, and Thomas Sidney would all go on to distinguish themselves in the burgeoning movement for Black civil rights. He left Oneida after two years, attending courses in theology at Yale University and receiving private tutoring from Episcopal clergymen. He was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1844. Crummell completed his baccalaureate studies at Queens College, Cambridge. In later life Crummell settled in Washington D.C. where he would eventually establish and lead St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. In 1897, he established the American Negro Academy in order to foster the development and productivity of African American writers and scholars, in deliberate opposition to Booker T. Washington and other Black leaders who advocated vocational education as the sole pathway to Negro improvement. As a writer, Crummell was best known for his sermons and political tracts. The following selection is an excerpt from Crummell’s “Thanksgiving Day Sermon: The Social Principle Among a People and Its Bearing on Their Progress and Development.” Delivered in 1875, the sermon was first published in 1882, in pamphlet form:
[I]f there has been anything for which the colored people of this country have been and now are noted, it is for disseverance, the segregation of their forces, the lack of the co-operative spirit. . . . The people, as a body, seem delivered over to the same humble, servile occupations of life in which their fathers trod, because, from a lack of co-operation they are unable to step into the higher callings of business; and hence penury, poverty, inferiority, dependence, and even servility is their one general characteristic throughout the country, along with a dreadful state of mortality.
And the cause of this inferiority of purpose and of action is two-fold, and both the fault, to some extent, of unwise and unphilosophic leaders. For, since, especially emancipation, special heresies have influenced and governed the minds of colored men in this nation: (1) The one is the dogma which I have heard frequently from the lips of leaders, personal and dear, but mistaken, friends, that the colored people of this country should forget, as soon as possible, that they are colored people: a fact, in the first place, which is an impossibility. Forget it, forsooth, when you enter a saloon and are repulsed on account of your color! Forget it when you enter a car, South or West, and are denied a decent seat! Forget it when you enter the Church of God, and are driven to a hole in the gallery! Forget it when every child of yours would be driven ignominiously from four-fifths of the common schools of the country! Forget it, when thousands of mechanics in the large cities would make a strike rather than work at the same bench, in the same yard, with a black carpenter or brick-maker! Forget it, when the boyhood of our race is almost universally deprived of the opportunity of learning trades, through prejudice! Forget it, when, in one single State, twenty thousand men dare not go to the polls on election-day, through the tyranny of caste! […] Forget that you are colored, in these United States! Turn madman, and go into a lunatic asylum, and then, perchance, you may forget it! But, if you have any sense or sensibility, how is it possible for you, or me, or any other colored man, to live oblivious of a fact of so much significance in a land like this! The only place I know of in this land where you can .forget you are colored. is the grave!…
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