Academic journal article African American Review

Forgotten Manuscripts: William Jay Greenly's Antebellum Temperance Drama

Academic journal article African American Review

Forgotten Manuscripts: William Jay Greenly's Antebellum Temperance Drama

Article excerpt

The October 1858 Repository of Religion and Literature proudly announced that Another book is out, and that by a colored man--by an old friend, a useful and energetic man" (115). That book, excerpted below and authored by William Jay Greenly of New Albany, Indiana, bore the long tide The Three Drunkards, / (Timothy Trusty, Zachariah Dow, and Thomas Nimble) / Two Saved--One Lost. / Husband, Don't Stay Long / Ira Perkins / and the Pen and the Press. Internal evidence suggests that the book was actually published much earlier in 1858, and so the volume, which collects four plays of varying length, is important in part simply because 1858 was also the year in which William Wells Brown published The Escape, which is currently acknowledged as the first published play by an African American. (1)

Beyond the possibility that it predates Brown's work--and thus that it is a black literary "first"--Greenly's book is important for a range of other reasons: like many recently "rediscovered" and recovered texts by nineteenth-century African Americans, it continues to thicken our sense of just how diverse black literary production was; it adds significantly to nascent discussions of black temperance literature; it is set, was written, and was published far from the "expected" locations of antebellum black literature; it addresses the agrarian ideals and calls for westward expansion that both undergird--and represent a deeply-understudied phenomenon--some pre-Civil War conceptions of African American identities.

However, Greenly's book is, to my knowledge, listed in only a few secondary sources--most notably, Donald E. Thompson's Indiana Authors and Their Books (1981) and the bibliographic appendix to John W. Frick's Theatre, Culture and Temperance Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (2003). None of these sources identify his race. (2) While original copies of Greenly s book are now exceedingly rare, it was photographically reproduced in the 1970 Readex microform collection English and American Drama of the Nineteenth Century, though again without mention of Greenly's race or background. (3) The Three Drunkards remains unmentioned in histories of African American letters. These absences, while troubling, are not surprising when one realizes that Greenly's own preface and plays say nothing that even suggests his racial background.

To introduce readers to Greenly's work (especially the key portions of the tide play which follow), to begin to consider the significance of his book, and to aid in the process of continuing to rethink our sense of early black letters, this essay shares basic biographical and contextual information on Greenly and his plays.

According to Greenly's preface to The Three Drunkards, he was born in York County, Pennsylvania, on May 16, 1805. He worked as a smith for David McConehy (or McConahey) of Mifflin County, and moved to Pittsburgh in September of 1827, where he worked for a pair of shovel factories and, later, a new steam engine business. (4) Undoubtedly, his status as a skilled tradesman led to some prominence in the black community. That prominence was paired with activism: between 1832 and 1840, Greenly helped found and served on the Boards of Managers of the Pittsburgh African Education Society, the Temperance Society of the Colored People of Pittsburgh and Vicinity, and the Moral Reform Society of Pittsburgh. Such was the ground of Pittsburgh's black activist elite: John Boyer Vashon and Lewis Woodson joined Greenly in executive roles in all three organizations, and Woodson's protege Martin R. Delany worked with Greenly in the Temperance Society. (5)

Greenly was also a participant--along with Vashon and Woodson--in a two-part June 1840 Pittsburgh meeting held to support the call for a National Colored Convention in 1841. Greenly's appointment at this last meeting, though, foreshadowed much of the rest of his life, as, along with Vashon, as reported in "Great Convention Meeting" in the July 18, 1840 Colored American, he was named to a Committee of Correspondence "for the purpose of effecting an interest in this measure among our people in the West. …

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