Biography of Bishop Richard Allen Recasts Activist as a Black Founding Father

RIT professor Richard Newman unearths new documents about the former slave




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As the forerunner of Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Richard Allen has an awe-inspiring resume attached to his name. Allen—a former slave who bought his freedom during the American Revolution—became one of the first major black activists, one of the first black authors to copyright an anti-slavery pamphlet and the first to write a eulogy of President George Washington. He also founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church or the AME.

Now, in a new biography of Richard Allen, historian Richard Newman suggests another appellation for the early African American leader: black founding father.

Newman’s Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church and the Black Founding Fathers (New York University Press, 2008) uses new information from the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin and the nation’s first lending library, to situate Allen among the nation’s founders.

“Richard Allen is what I call a black founding father who tries to reestablish the foundations of the country and say slavery is wrong, and that black-and-white equality is the order of the day,” says Newman, an associate professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology. “A lot of white statesmen disagreed with him. What we see when we study Richard Allen is that the founding fathers had a big problem with slavery, but they really chose consciously to ignore it. And you can say that helped lead to the coming of the Civil War.”

Newman adds: “Philadelphia was the nation’s capital in the last decade of the 18th century, and it was also Allen’s home, so he had ample opportunity to comment on racial injustice in early America.”

At the Library Company, Newman unearthed several important documents relating to Allen’s abolitionist activity.

For example, Newman notes, the enterprising Allen ran a chimney sweeping business that cleaned George Washington’s chimneys during the 1790s. “Allen collected money from the President’s House twice, and he had a chance to see where nine of Washington’s Virginia slaves lived.”

When Washington died in 1799, and left a will liberating his slaves (after the death of his wife), Allen gave a eulogy of him in Bethel church—the first ever presidential eulogy by an African-American.

“White leaders heard about it and helped Allen publish his speech in Baltimore, New York City, and Philadelphia newspapers,” Newman says. “For a while, he was the most famous black man in America.”

Prior to his eulogy of George Washington, Allen was already using the “Internet” of his day—the printed word—to spread his anti-slavery message. He and Absalom Jones made history as the first black authors to coauthor and copyright an anti-slavery pamphlet in 1794. Nearly 40 years later, Allen became the first free black leader to write an autobiography of his struggle for justice.

“During the time of Thomas Jefferson, Richard Allen challenges slave owners to get rid of slavery and speaks powerfully about black equality. He is one of the first major black leaders to do this,” Newman says. “And it’s significant because he’s doing it during a time when we think slavery wasn’t a big issue. That’s the whole debate about the founding fathers: ‘Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder, but he didn’t know any better’—although it was illegal elsewhere in the world.”

In Philadelphia in the 1790s, Allen started what would become the largest black church in America, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, after tiring of his former church’s practice of segregating the congregation. According to Newman, the AME became Allen’s spiritual and protest home where many significant abolitionist meetings occurred.

Pennsylvania gradually abolished slavery during Allen’s lifetime but Northern racism and Southern slavery grew steadily during the early 19th century.

Before Allen died in 1831 at the age of 71, he had even flirted with the idea of leaving United States to attain black freedom.

“His idea that blacks and whites could live together agitated people,” Newman says. “He was accused of being a runaway slave and only spared because someone recognized him. Throughout his life, he always faced racism. Allen is the first public leader to express his double identity as American and African.”

Allen returned to the idea that both the Declaration of Independence and the Bible mandated racial equality. He inspired many famous abolitionists who followed him, including Frederick Douglass, who hailed him as the author of “a new Declaration of Independence” guaranteeing equality to all citizens regardless of race, Newman says.

To talk to Richard Newman about Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church and the Black Founding Fathers, contact Susan Gawlowicz at smguns@rit.edu or (585) 475-5061. For more details about Freedom’s Prophet, visit http://www.nyupress.org/books/Freedoms_Prophet-products_id-7813.html.

Editor’s Note: Richard Newman is a co-organizer of the upcoming “Atlantic Emancipations” conference April 10-12 in Philadelphia that will mark the bicentennial of the ending of the slave trade in the United States. The event is presented by the Library Company of Philadelphia, Rochester Institute of Technology, Temple University and University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies. For more information, visit http://www.librarycompany.org/emancipations/