By Kelly Miller
Voice of the Negro.
29(Sept. 1905): 612-18.
The individual is the proof of the race, the first fruit and unfoldment of its potency and promise. The glory of any people is perpetuated and carried forward by the illustrious names which spring from among them. As the highest peaks catch the sunlight first and reflect it longest, so a people's commanding characters stand out prominent and pronounced, typifying the estimate in which they are held by the world. Every race or nation, and indeed every well defined group of men, delight to point to their illustrious individuals as illustrative and exemplary of its possibilities. We always feel prouder of our own than of others who have attained like renown. A despised people may well glorify its conspicuous individuals, for it is through them alone that they may hope to gain the world's recognition and esteem. A great name is the chief memorial of any place or people. The psalmist assures us that "The Lord shall count, when he writeth up the people, that this man was born there."
Thomas Jefferson recognized the value of this principle when, in writing to Benjamin Banneker, the Negro astronomer, he says: "I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to M. de Condorcet, secretary of the Academy of Science at Paris and member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document to which you color had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained against them."
Mr. W. Dean Howells, introducing Mr. Dunbar's first notable book of poems, wrote: "I said that a race which had come to this effect in any member of it, had attained civilization in him, and I permitted myself the imaginative prophecy that the hostilities and prejudices which had so long constrained his race were destined to vanish in the arts; that these were to be the final proof that God had made of one blood all nations of men."
If the Negro race produces only hewers of wood and drawers of water, however capable they may be in that function, it can never rise above the servile estimate which the world is wont to fasten upon it. But if only here and there some individual breaks the invidious bar of his birth and rises to the higher realm of thought things, he cannot but lift his race as he climbs.
The distinguished names which spring from among a people are the most effective standards of stimulus to the budding powers and aspirations of their youth. We are inspired to high endeavor most readily by the achievements of those of our own class and condition. Excepting the few superlative names of human history which appeal to all mankind, the inspiring examples of the world have been national, social and local. Such names are generally magnified beyond their relative merit on the scale of human greatness in order to intensify their effect upon a prescribed constituency. The Negro child would be in a pitiable plight indeed if all the models of excellence set up for his imitation were of an alien type. How soul-benumbing must be the education of the youth who finds no models, no patterns, no examples in his own image and likeness! This would inevitably lead to self depreciation, if not of self despite. It becomes a plain duty of race statesmanship to hold up to the aspiring and ambitious youth the highest and best exponents of their own class. While senseless panegyric and extravagant laudation disgust the sane and grieve the cautious, yet judicious glorification of their own is the common practice of every people who have made or are making for the highest place in the world's affairs. These things should be set before every child as a part of his scholastic training.
"Let school taught pride dissemble all it can,Under the severe limitations of the present occasion, which the editor of the VOICE fully understands, I prefer to confine my treatment to the American Negro. We know so little about the historical development of Negro peoples that any claim based upon bygone Negro nationalities would be mere vague and exclamatory generalities of the ethnological basis of the Egyptian, Ethiopia or Carthagenian civilizations. We know too little-at least I do-to claim credit for the Negro with assurance of authenticity. It can be safely said, however, that individual Negroes have reached a high place in every scheme of culture with which the race has been brought in contact, whether ancient or modern, Asiatic or European.
For four centuries the African race has been brought in contact with the European in all parts of the globe. This contact has not been of an ennobling character, but of the servile sort, affording little opportunity for the development of those qualities which the favored races hold in esteem. And yet there has arisen from this dark and forbidden background not a few striking individual emanations. This race, through a strain of its blood, has given to Russia her national poet, and to France her most distinguished romancer. Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Negro patriot, is the most commanding historical figure of the entire West Indian Archipelago. In South America persons of Negro blood have gained the highest political and civil renown.
The Anglo-Saxon deals with backward peoples on a different basis from the Latin races. While he has a keener sense of justice and is imbued with a spirit of philanthropic kindness, yet he builds up a barrier between himself and them which it is almost impossible to overcome. To him personal solicitude and good-will and racial intolerance are not incompatible qualities. On the other hand, the Latin races, while possessing a much lower order of general efficiency, accept on equal terms all who conform to the prevailing standards. Under the Latin dispensation color offers not the slightest bar to the individual who exhibits high qualities of mind and soul. We need not be surprised, therefore, to find that the colored men who have reached the highest degree of fame should have sprung from the Latin civilization. The persons of African blood who are most nearly comparable with names of the first order of renown among Europeans are Toussaint L'Ouverture, of Haiti, Alexander Pushkin, of Russia, and Alexander Dumas, of France. In France, Italy and Spain, color is only a curious incident. The Afro-American therefore belongs in a category by himself. His circumstances and conditions are so different from those of his European brother that though of the same color they are not of the same class.
It is needless to dwell upon the dehumanizing effect and crushing power of slavery upon the American Negro. Its very salvation depended upon placing gyves upon the powers of the mind. Every ambitious individual who showed the faintest indication of emergent power was forthwith crushed back to the dead level of industrial stupidity. The chief sin chargeable to the slave regime is that it obscured the mind from knowledge and the soul from God. But the smothered soul of the Negro broke through even this obscuring veil and justified its kinship with the great human spirit. Phillis[sic] Wheatley and Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass attested the intellectual and spiritual kinship of the Negro with his more favored fellow men. They furnished the fullest proof that "skins may differ, but affection dwells in white and black the same."
The first achievement to be placed to the credit of the Negro is that under the heavy handicap of his environment, he is so rapidly recruiting his own professional class. In most instances these men are required to come up to the standard adopted by the Aryan race, which sets apart "the best it breeds" for professional service. The census of 1900 gives forty-seven thousand three hundred and twenty-four colored persons engaged in the higher professions. They are designated as actors, architects, artists, clergymen, dentists, electricians, engineers, journalists, lawyers, literary and scientific persons, musicians, government officials, physicians and surgeons, teachers and professors. The character of service demanded is the same as that required of white men who occupy similar stations, and in many of these callings they can sustain themselves only by the sharpest competition with the highest skill of the craft. The bare fact that a race, beginning at the zero point forty years ago, has been able to produce a professional class some fifty thousand strong who are able to administer according to approved European standards to the requirements of body and to the highest needs of the soul, is an indication of progress and of promise more striking than any other people have ever manifested in the history of human culture.
No list of American geniuses has yet been made out that does not contain goodly sprinkling of African names. The Negro figures in Stedman's Anthology, in Warner's World's Best Literature, in every work on American biology, and in that roster of living celebrities called "Who's Who in America."
It is with some hesitancy that a few names of the more distinguished Afro-Americans are here presented. In such a restricted list it is inevitable that many should be omitted who are equally worthy as some who are mentioned. The names here presented have not been selected because of general distinction, but rather for technical, artistic and intellectual achievements in the scholastic sense.
Only those have been included of whose achievements the world takes account. Of course nothing new is to be expected in a biographical sketch. My only object is to present a few of the names whom I consider among "the best we breed." There is no name in the list which may not be found in standard Cyclopedias of American Biography. Nothing is great or small except by comparison. The names here presented area at least respectable when measured by European standards. It is true that no one of them reaches the first, or even the second degree of luster in the galaxy of the world's greatness. The competing number has been so insignificant, and the social atmosphere has been so repressive to their budding aspirations that it would be little short of a miracle of genius if any member of this race had reached the highest degree of glory.
While these contributors must be measured in terms of European standards in order that there may be a sane and rational basis of comparison, yet there is another measure which takes account of the struggles and strivings out of which they grew. In the light of European comparison it appears that they represent more than the marvelous vision of a one-eyed man among the blind, but rather the surprising visual power of a one-eyed man among two-eyed men. The significance of these superior manifestations, however, must not be measured solely by their intrinsic value. They serve both as an argument and an inspiration. They show the American people that the Negro, at his best, is imbued with their own ideas and strives after their highest ideals. To the Negro they serve as models of excellence to stimulate and encourage his hesitant and disheartened aspirations.
One will be struck by the versatility and range of the names in the list. They cover well nigh every field of human excellence. It will be noticed that the imitative and esthetic arts predominate over the more solid and severe intellectual acquisitions. Is this not the repetition of the history of culture? The poet and the artist precede the scientist and the engineer.
Phyllis Wheatley was born in Africa and was brought to America in 1761. She was bought from the slave market by John Wheatley, of Boston, and soon developed remarkable acquisitive faculties. In sixteen months from her arrival she could read English fluently. She learned to write and also study Latin. She visited England in 1774 and was cordially received. After returning to Boston she corresponded with Countess Huntington, the Earl of Dartsmouth, Rev. George Whitfield and others, and wrote many poems to her friends. She addressed some line to Gen. George Washington, which were afterwards published in the Pennsylvania Magazine for April, 1776. General Washington wrote a courteous response and invited her to visit the Revolutionary headquarters, which she did, and was received with marked attention by Washington and his officers. Her principal publications are An Elegiac Poem on the Death of George Whitfield; Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in London in 1773, and re-published in two volumes, Philadelphia, 1801. The letters of Phyllis Wheatley were printed in Boston in 1864, collected from the proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Benjamin Banneker was born November, 9, 1731, near Ellicott's Mill, Md. Both his father and grandfather were native Africans. He attended a private school which admitted several colored children along with the whites. Although his early educational facilities were scanty, young Banneker soon gained a local reputation as a miracle of wisdom. In 1770 he constructed a clock to strike the hours, the first to be made in America. This he did with crude tools and a watch for his model, as he had never seen a clock. Through kindness of Mr. Ellicott, who was a gentleman of cultivation and taste, he gained access to his valuable collection of books, and was thus inducted into the study of astronomy. In this study he gained great proficiency and constructed an almanac adapted to the local requirements of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. This was the first almanac constructed in America, and was published by Goddard & Angell, Baltimore. Banneker's Almanac was published annually from 1792 to 1806, the year of his death. It contained the motions of the sun and the moon; the motions, places and aspects of the planets; the rising and setting of the sun, and the rising, setting, southing, place, and age of the moon, etc., and is said to have been the main dependence of the farmers in the region covered. He lived mainly from the royalty received from this publication. Banneker sent a copy of this almanac to Thomas Jefferson, which elicited a flattering acknowledgement on the part of the philosopher and statesmen. Banneker assisted the commissioners in laying out the lines of the District of Columbia.
Lemuel Haynes was born in Hartford, Conn., in 1753. He received the honorary degree of A.M. from Middlebury College in 1804. After completing a theological course he preached in various places and settled in West Rutland, Vt., in 1788,where he remained for thirty years and became one of the most popular preachers in the State. He was characterized by a subtle intellect, keen wit, and eager thirst for knowledge. His noted sermon from Genesis 3 and 4, was published and passed through nine or ten editions. His controversy with Hosea Ballou became of worldwide interest.
Ira Aldridge was born at Belaire, Md., about 1810. He was early brought in contact with Mr. Kean, the great tragedian, and in 1826 accompanied him to Europe. Mr. Kean encouraged his dramatic aspiration, and on one occasion, at least, permitted him to appear as Othello, while he himself took the part of Iago. As an interpreter of Shakespeare he was very generally regarded as one of the best and most faithful. He appeared at the Covent Garden as Othello in 1833, and in Surrey Theater in 1848. On the Continent he ranked as one of the greatest tragedians of his time. Honors were showered upon him wherever he appeared. He was presented by the King of Prussia with the first-class medal of arts and sciences, accompanied by an autograph letter from the Emperor of Austria; the Grand Cross of Leopold; a similar decoration from the Emperor of Russia, and a magnificent maltese cross, with the medal of merit, from the city of Berne. Similar honors were conferred by other crowned heads of Europe. He was made a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts and Sciences and holder of the large gold medal; member of the Imperial and Arch Ducal Institution of Our Lady of the Manger in Austria; of the Russian Hof-Versamlung of Riga; honorary member of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences in St. Petersburg, and many others. Aldridge appeared with flattering success in Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Breslau, Vienna, Pesth, The Hague, Dantzic, Konigsberg, Dresden, Berne, Frankfort-on-the-Main, Cracow, Gotha, and numerous other cities in the leading parts of the standard plays of times. He was an associate of the most prominent men on Paris, among whom was Alexander Dumas. When these two met they always kissed each other, and Dumas always greeted Aldridge with the words "mon confrere." Aldridge died at Lodz, in Poland, 1867.
Col. George W. Williams was born in Pennsylvania in 1849. He was educated in public and private schools and completed his theological training at West Newton Theological Seminary. His History of the Negro Race in America is the sole existing authority on the subject of which it treats, and forms, without doubt, as valuable a literary monument as any yet left by a colored man.
Paul Lawrence Dunbar is still a young man under thirty years of age. He has already made an impression on American literature that can never be effaced. He had published "Oaks and Ivy," "Majors and Minors," "Lyrics of Lowly Life," and "Lyrics of the Hearthstone," together with half a dozen volumes of fiction and short stories. Several of his works have been reprinted in England. Speaking of his early poems, William Dean Howells says: "Some of these (poems in literary English) I thought very good. What I mean is, several people might have written them, but I do not know anyone else at present who could quite have written his dialect pieces. There are divinations and reports of what passes in the hearts and minds of a lowly people whose poetry had hitherto been inarticulately expressed, but now finds, for the first time in our tongue, literary interpretation of a very artistic completeness."
Henry O. Tanner, son of Bishop B.T. Tanner, of the African Methodist Church, was born in Pittsburg, Pa., in 1859. His early educational opportunities were good, having studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and subsequently at Paris. His pictures have been hung on the line in many a salon exhibition, and now the government of France has crowned the long list of medals and prizes which Mr. Tanner has received by buying one of his most important works, "The Raising of Lazarus," for the Luxemburg Gallery. The picture has already been hung in the Luxembug[sic] Gallery, and in the course of time will naturally be transferred to the Louvre. Other notable pictures by the same artist are Nicodemus, owned by the Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia; The Annunciation, which now hangs in the Memorial Hall, Philadelphia; the Betrayal, in the Carnegie Gallery, at Pittsburg.
Dr. Daniel H. Williams, of Chicago, is widely known throughout the medical profession. He has performed several noted operations that taxed the skill of surgical science. In 1897, Dr. Williams performed an operation on account of a stab wound of the heart and pericardium, a report of which was published in the Medical Record, March 27, 1897, and attracted the attention of the entire medical and surgical fraternity, and was published in the medical journals of nearly every country and language. It has also been referred to in most recent works on surgery, especially in International Text-Book on Surgery and Da Costa's Modern Surgery.
An article on "Ovarian Cysts in Colored Women," by Dr. Williams, published in the Philadelphia Medical Journal, December 29, 1900, had for its purpose the refutation of the idea that had been almost universal among surgeons, that colored women did not have ovarian tumors. The record of the cases collected by Dr. Williams furnishes sufficient data to sustain his contention. It is also shown in this article that the same may be said of fibrous tumors. This article has been considered of such value to the profession that it has been copied extensively in medical literature, and notably in some of the best German and French medical journals.
Dr. Williams has performed various important operations that have been published in medical journals and widely commented upon in the medical world. He was surgeon-in-chief of the Freedmen's Hospital, at Washington, D.C., from 1893 to 1897.
Charles W. Chestnut was born in Fayetteville, N.C., about fifty years ago. He moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was employed as court stenographer. Mr. Chestnut has written several works of fiction which according to competent critics, place him among the foremost story-tellers of the time. "The Wife of My Youth," "The House Behind the Cedars," and "The Marrow of Tradition," are published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston, Mass.
Prof. W. S. Scarborough was born in Georgia in 1852, was graduated from Oberlin College in 1875, and is professor of Greek at Wilberforce University. He is a member of the American Philological Society and of the Modern Language Association. He has published First Lessons in Greek (New York, 1881), and the Theory and Functions of the Thematic Vowel in the Greek Verb.
Prof. W. E. B. DuBois was born in Massachusetts less than forty years ago. He was graduated from Fisk University and subsequently from Harvard, after which he studied two years in Germany and earned his Ph. D. degree from Harvard. He has been a teacher in Wilberforce University, associate in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and professor of History and Political Economy at Atlanta University. His chief works are "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade," published in the Harvard Historical Series; "The Philadelphia Negro," published under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania; "The Souls of Black Folk," and numerous special studies and investigations that have appeared in the proceedings of the Atlanta conferences and the bulletins of the Bureau of Labor as well as sundry magazine articles. Mr. DuBois has done more to give scientific accuracy and method to the study of the race question than any other American who has essayed to deal with it.
It is generally believed that while the Negro possesses the imitative he lacks the initiative faculty; that while he can acquire what has already been accumulated, he cannot inquire into the unrevealed mystery of things. As an illustration of how easy it is for the achievements of the Negro to escape his fellow-colaborers, the following incident may be regarded as typical: The Patent Office sent out circulars inquiring as to the number and extent of colored patentees. One of the leading paten attorneys responded that he had never heard of the Negro inventing anything except lies; yet the Patent Office record reveals two hundred and fifty colored patentees and more than four hundred patents. Many of these show the highest ingenuity and are widely used in the mechanical arts.
Granville T. Woods was born in Ohio, is 44 years old. He has more than twenty patents to his credit. Mr. Woods is the inventor of the electric telephone transmitter, which he assigned to the American Bell Telephone Company for a valuable consideration, said to amount to $10,000. This transmitter is used in connection with all the Bell Telephones.
Elijah T. McCoy, of Detroit, Mich., has taken out 30 patients, mainly devoted to the improvement of lubricating devices for stationary and locomotive machinery. His inventions are in general use on locomotive engines of leading railways in the Northwest, on the lake steamers, and on railways in Canada.
There are numerous colored men who have achieved distinction in fields calling for practical energy, moral courage, sound intelligence, and intellectual resource. Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington are, in general average of distinction, the most renowned of their race, although their fields of exertion are not mainly intellectual, in the academic sense of the term-and yet Mr. Douglass was on of the most eminent American orators, and his autobiography forms an integral part of the literature of the anti-slavery struggle; and Mr. Washington's "Up from Slavery" is one of the most popular books printed in the first year of the twentieth century. As Mr. Douglas's life is woven in the warp and woof of the great epoch ending in the civil war, so Mr. Washington's life and work have become a vital part of the current educational literature, and his place in the history of education is assured.
This meagre fruitage does not furnish cause for self-complacent glorification, but is only the first fruit of the tree whose initial bearing gives promise of bigger and better things. The rising generation gathering hope and inspiration from past achievements can buoyantly proclaim: "That which they have done is but earnest of the things that we shall do."
Kelly Miller, "Achievements of the Negro Race," Voice of the Negro, 29(Sept. 1905): 612-18.