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Celebrating the Black Founders

Celebrating the Black Founders

Historian Richard Newman is dedicated to exploring and promoting the legacy of the African American activists and community leaders who played a central role in the founding of our nation.

While most Americans have a general knowledge of the modern civil rights movement, African-American activism dates back to the Revolutionary War. History professor Richard Newman is dedicated to promoting the legacy of these Black Founders and their continued impact on American democracy.

An Unknown Founding Father

Richard Allen of Pennsylvania was a central figure in debates over American freedom during the late 1700s and early 1800s, meditating on such matters as federal power, civil liberties, and voting rights. From Washington's administration to the time of Jacksonian Democracy, he was also a prominent orator and religious leader, with admiring readers stretching from Boston to South Carolina. He also happened to be black.

Allen-a former slave who purchased his own freedom at nearly the same time as the United States was born-was a man of many firsts. He became one of the first black authors to hold a copyright for an anti-slavery pamphlet he published in 1794 and the first African-American to print a eulogy of President George Washington, in 1799. He also founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), which was one of the first independent black religious institutions in the world. None other than Frederick Douglass hailed Allen's leadership, calling him one of the central influences on the black freedom struggle.

Yet Allen's accomplishments and influence on democratic society have been little publicized in modern history books and discussions of the Founding Fathers. Promoting Allen's legacy and that of his fellow Black Founders has been a central research theme for RIT's Richard Newman for nearly 15 years.

"Allen helped inaugurate our modern conception of democracy," notes Newman, professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts. "At a time when many people supported slavery, and few of the nation's political leaders advocated equality across racial lines, Allen argued that the American dream enshrined liberty and justice for all, regardless of race or ethnicity."

And Allen was not alone. Prince Hall formed the first black Masonic Lodge during the Revolutionary War and petitioned for equal schooling in Massachusetts, while Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm founded the first black newspaper in the U.S., Freedom's Journal, in New York City in 1827. In Connecticut, Lemuel Haynes fought in the Revolution and argued for both abolitionism and equality.

"By detailing the lives of Allen and other Black Founders, I hope to show that the struggle for racial justice is as old as the nation itself," Newman adds. "As great as they were, even Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and others owed a debt to the Black Founders for innovating the first civil rights movements in American culture."

An Unknown Founding Father

An Unknown Founding Father

Richard Allen was a black activist and a contemporary of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He was one of the central figures in the fight for abolition, and equal rights for African-Americans, during the Constitutional Convention and the early years of the United States.

An Underreported History

An Underreported History

Newman argues that black contributions to early American history are not widely known in large part because of the specific circumstances these men and women faced at the time.

Prior to the American Revolution, there were few printed outlets for black writing and protest, due to the lack of black-owned newspapers and the prejudices of white publishers, Newman continues. In addition, many colonies outlawed the education of slaves, so there are relatively few diaries or literary archives. And black activists were constantly mindful of possible backlash from white authorities, who worried about slave uprisings, so many activities were conducted in secret.

But during the Revolutionary era, African-Americans used debates over American rights and freedom to focus on racial injustice. they began publishing newspaper essays against slavery, reprinting sermons supporting black equality, and petitioning courts for their own freedom. "By 1829, African-American writers produced roughly 1,500 pieces of literature of one kind or another," Newman notes. "It's really astonishing."

To uncover the true depth of early black protest, Newman has had to be a private investigator as well as an historian. This included traveling to historic sites, museums and libraries across the country and searching the archives of the AME Church, the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Historical Societies and the writings of Frederick Douglass.

In addition, Newman spent years working at the Library Company of Philadelphia, one of the nation's oldest libraries, where he focused on Richard Allen's world. He learned that Allen lived only blocks away from the Pennsylvania State House, where Jefferson, Madison, and Washington-each of whom owned slaves-had imagined a nation dedicated to the principle of equality. Allen believed his job was to rectify that contradiction.

Newman unearthed numerous documents detailing the broad push for abolition and black rights during the new nation's first few decades, many of which had been marginalized even among scholars.

An Underreported History

This included early pamphlets and petitions written by Allen and other black activists chronicling their efforts to end segregation, ban the overseas slave trade (which occurred in 1808), and destroy slavery itself (which grew from 700,000 enslaved people in 1790 to over 2 million by the 1830s). Newman also examined early court cases brought by both abolitionists and black reformers in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts that attempted to set legal precedents for the anti-slavery movement.

As Allen wrote in a stirring 1794 memorial to white Congressmen assembling in Philadelphia, which served as the nation's temporary capital until 1800, "if you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves, burthen not your children or your country with them."

"It is really fascinating to think about how these men and women thought they could change people's minds," Newman says. "Many people did not even see Allen as a citizen! When he and other African-Americans petitioned the federal government to end slavery and the slave trade in 1799, the petition was given back to them. 'We the people' does not mean them, one slaveholder shouted. But Allen kept fighting."

Newman adds, "In researching Black Founders it became apparent that an accurate record of the early civil rights struggle would depend on reprinting their original words and ideas. By seeing what black activists actually wrote in the era of Thomas Jefferson, Americans as a whole could better understand the long struggle for equality. This is not a recent development."

An Underreported History

Mother Bethel AME Church:

Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Epicopal Church, which is now one of the largest black churches in the U.S. Richard Newman conducted numerous investigations of the Allen archives at the Mother Bethel Church in Philadelphia. The church also serves as a key monument to Allen and the Black Founders.

Creating the Record

To accomplish this goal, Newman has written and spoken widely on the topic of the Black Founders. He worked with fellow historians Patrick Rael, chair of the department of history at Bowdoin College, and Phil Lapsansky, an archivist with the Library Company of Philadelphia, to edit the book Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature, 1790-1860. It is one of the first comprehensive surveys of early African-American writing, chronicling the sophisticated use of the pamphlet form by black authors, who saw it as an innovative technology of freedom.

"Spanning from the American Revolution through the Civil War, this volume brings together for the first time representative writings of the nation's most powerful and (too often) most underappreciated critics of slavery and white supremacy," says James Brewer Stewart, the James Wallace Professor of History at Macalester College.

Newman followed that work with the Transformation of American Abolitionism, a book on the way that African-American protesters changed the anti-slavery movement. Most recently, he authored Freedom's Prophet: Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers, the first comprehensive biography of Allen, chronicling his life and influence on latter-day reformers including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.

This compelling study joins the first ranks of recent work that has profoundly expanded our understanding of the formation of African-American community and identity in pre-Civil War America," notes distinguished historian James Oliver Horton, author of Slavery and the Making of America.

Freedom's Prophet won Forward Magazine's 2009 Book of the Year Award for Biography and was nominated for several other awards. Newman has discussed the book on public radio and on C-SPAN's Book-TV and Freedom's Prophet was reviewed by numerous national publications, including the New York Review of Books and the New Republic.

"A diligent and creative scholar, Newman weaves a forceful biography from slivers of scattered evidence found in old newspapers, probate inventories, court decisions, and church records,"Alan Taylor wrote in the New Republic.

The publicity and acclaim for the book has led to a new examination of Allen and his importance as a historical figure both by scholars and the general public.

"It truly has been gratifying to have been able to play a part in increasing Richard Allen's renown and prominence as a seminal figure in American history," Newman says.

A Lasting Legacy

Newman has also worked to enhance academic consideration of early black history and increase the teaching and understanding of the subject in high school and college classrooms.

He serves as co-editor of the book series Race in the Atlantic World 1700-1900 through University of Georgia Press, which seeks to promote writing and scholarship in black history across several continents, and as a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, conducting talks on the Black Founders at college campuses across the country.

Newman also co-organized the international symposium "Atlantic Emancipations" at the University of Pennsylvania's McNeil Center in 2008, which brought together nearly 40 leading scholars in African-American history for the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the end of the international slave trade.

Newman has also conducted a series of summer workshops sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities that seeks to provide high school history teachers with a better understanding of early black history and assist them in incorporating the Black Founders into their curricula.

The easiest way to guarantee that future generations of Americans remember the Black Founders is to tell their story right along with the betterknown Founding Fathers, in high school and college classrooms, history museums, and Independence Day celebrations," Newman says. "It is my hope the research and outreach efforts I have undertaken will ultimately ensure that the work of Richard Allen and his compatriots will be as well known as the contributions of Jefferson, Washington, and Adams."

A Lasting Legacy

Mother Bethel AME Church:

Until recently, Richard Allen and his contemporaries were not generally acknowledged as Founding Fathers. Richard Newman has sought to promote the equally important role the Black Founders played in the founding of the United States.