Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

The 'Colored American' and 'Alexander's': Boston's Pro-Civil Rights Bookerites

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

The 'Colored American' and 'Alexander's': Boston's Pro-Civil Rights Bookerites

Article excerpt

August Meier, Louis Harlan and other scholars have demonstrated that African-American militants and accommodationists shared some common ideological ground despite their rhetorical differences between 1895 and 1915. While the central antagonists, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, have rightly received the bulk of scholarly attention by students of the "Age of Washington," those who held the less dramatic middle ground such as Kelly Miller and Archibald H. Grimke have received less attention. Boston's small African-American community produced two nominally pro-Booker Washington journals in the first decade of the century that also occupied this middle ground: the Colored American Magazine and Alexander's Magazine. Because Boston's race reformers were still profoundly influenced by their abolitionist past, the editors of these journals maintained a certain independence from Booker Washington. These journals at once defended the Tuskegee educator, full citizenship rights for black people, and separate black educational, cultural and commercial institutions. The Colored American published in Boston roughly during the first Theodore Roosevelt administration, and Alexander's during the second. Their similar journeys during the Age of Washington and the subsequent evolution of African-American politics suggests that both journals blazed a trail that other moderates such as James Weldon Johnson and William Pickens would follow into the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They were part of a vital center in the militant vs. accommodationist dichotomy that synthesized what was positive in both camps, without subscribing to accommodationist politics or Washington's campaign of dirty tricks against his opponents.(1)

Booker Washington himself had important roots in Boston. His intellectual heritage was of New England: Puritanism, Yankee capitalists and even abolitionists all molded Washington's thought, along with the influence of Gilded Age commercialism. The first white person to shape his life (omitting his unknown father) was Viola Knapp Ruffner, the Vermont-born woman who taught him the essentials of the Puritan ethic. At the Hampton Institute, principal Samuel Chapman Armstrong (who was born in Hawaii to Massachusetts missionaries) taught the student Booker Washington similar lessons. Washington made what would be one of his longest friendships with fellow student and future physician Samuel E. Courtney, later of Boston. As a builder of Tuskegee Institute, he looked first to Boston and New England for financial support, which came in large part from such abolitionist and Radical Reconstruction families as those of George Steams and Henry Lee Higginson. His wife Olivia A. Davidson attended the Massachusetts State Normal School at Framingham through the efforts of Boston's Mary Hemenway, and he established a summer residence at South Weymouth, on the city's South Shore.(2)

After being catapulted to fame by the 1895 Atlanta Compromise address, the educator was welcomed often to Boston and Cambridge by various white elites. Harvard's Charles W. Eliot bestowed an honorary degree upon him in 1896, the first ever granted an African-American by any New England school. The following year he was the featured speaker at the dedication of the Robert Gould Shaw Monument, overshadowing Governor Roger Wolcott and Mayor Josiah Quincy III. His ghostwriters, Max B. Thrasher, and later Robert Park, were Bostonians. He probably chose Boston as the site of the founding of the National Negro Business League in 1900 because he knew it better than other northern cities. He included an elegy to Boston in Up From Slavery, which appeared in 1901. His militant opponent William Monroe Trotter may have grown up a Bostonian, but by the time of their famous 1903 confrontation, Booker T. Washington was a stranger neither to Beacon Street nor to Harvard Yard. If he was a product of the South, he was also a product of the New England philanthropic intervention into the South, just as the leaders of Boston's black community were. …

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