Wilson J. Moses. Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent

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Wilson J. Moses. Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent

Alexander Crummell spanned most of the 1800s and reached from America to Africa and back. Born in 1819, he saw firsthand or in reflection much momentous change in the black world from general emancipation in the Americas to European empire in Africa. He engaged much of the thinking of his era on culture, religion, and race. Ideas moved him, but he was also a doer. He went to Africa in 1853 as a missionary of a sacred and a secular vision captured in his view of civilization. When he returned permanently to America in 1872, he continued to polish and propagate his vision. After his death in 1898, the scope of his views was extended through the American Negro Academy (ANA).

From first to last, Crummell stood with an elite. His parents, the free-born Charity Hicks and Boston Crummell, sat among the movers and makers of black Manhattan in the 1820s. They hosted in their living room meetings that resulted in Freedom's Journal, the first newspaper blacks edited and published in the United States. His schoolmates at New York's African Free School and Canal Street High School alone filled an honor role. They included Ira Aidridge, the actor; George T. Downing, the restaurateur; Henry Highland Garnet, the abolitionist; Patrick Reason, the engraver; James McCune Smith, the physician; and Samuel Ringgold Ward, the orator. The ANA that Crummell co-founded in 1896 included such brilliant men as John W. Cromwell, the lawyer and historian; Paul Laurence Dunbar, the poet; W.E.B.. DuBois, the historian and sociologist; and Kelly Miller, the mathematician.

Crummell more than merely brushed sleeves with the best and brightest. He was one of them. He repeatedly proved his mettle on the way from his native New York City's Five Points' slums to missionary fields in the West African Republic of Liberia and to the shadows of the White House in Washington, D.C.. He studied at the ill-fated Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire, at Beriah Green's Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York, and at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He took a bachelor's degree in 1853 from Queens' College at Cambridge University in England. He became one of the very few black priests ordained in the Protestant Episcopal Church in America during the 1800s. He published a variety of works, including The Future of Africa (1862), Africa and America (1891), and The Solution of Problems: The Duty and Destiny of Man (1895). In historian August Meier's words, Crummell was "generally regarded as the leading nineteenth-century Negro intellectual" (62).

Merely putting Crummell in the often dismissed category of "Negro intellectual," however, has relegated him to being "all but forgotten," Wilson Jeremiah Moses explains (288). Crummell deserves homage for his life and labor. His literary corpus alone warrants his having a place in American letters, Moses persuasively argues. Except in race, Crummell fit easily into the tradition of American literary history that Perry Miller and F.O. Matthiessen canonized -- Miller in Society and Literature in America (1949) or The Golden Age of American Literature (1959), and Matthiessen in American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941). When the tradition grudgingly open to include black authors, Crummell remained in neglect. …