Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

The Historical Context and Political Significance of Harlem's Street Scholar Community

Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

The Historical Context and Political Significance of Harlem's Street Scholar Community

Article excerpt

I have insisted ever since my entry into the area of racial discussion that we Negroes must take to reading and study and the development of intelligence as we have never done before we can use Europe's education [but never] ... become apes of their culture ... To the masses of our people we say Read! Get the reading habit; spend your time not so much in training the feet to dance, as in training the head to think draw the line between books of opinion and books of information. Saturate your minds with latter and you will be forming your own opinions, which will be worth ten times more to you than the best college is that on your bookshelf, the best education is that on the inside of your own head. And if we of the Negro race can master modern knowledge the kind that counts--we will be able to win for ourselves the price-less gifts of freedom and power, and we will able to hold them against the world.

Hubert Henry Harrison,

When Africa Awakes:

The Inside Story of the Stirrings and Strivings of the

New Negro in the Western World (1920)


In the past forty years, the field of African American history has experienced "a veritable explosion." The field has expanded to accommodate an array of topics exploring black life and culture while simultaneously attracting talented historians to refine the craft. Though difficult and sometimes painful for members of the academy, African American history has negotiated the rites of passage and established a foothold in American scholarship. In the process of achieving maturity, this area of intellectual inquiry has "provoked some of the most stimulating and controversial encounters in the historical profession." (1)

This article explores the formative years of African American historical scholarship from its inception through the works and lives of self-trained black historians and stepladder radicals. I have collectively designated these pioneers as Street Scholars. Self-trained or lay historians were men and women who lacked formal academic training, university affiliation, and the financial resources taken for granted by contemporary scholars. Regardless of the obstacles, these black thinkers labored in the "trenches" for many years to affirm, research, and establish the discipline of black history. They formed an uneasy relationship with a small cadre of university-trained colleagues, such as Carter G. Woodson and W.E.B. Du Bois, but usually felt more at home in a community setting. Some were elegant speakers, renowned book collectors, authors, newspaper editors, feminist advocates, and active members of literary and historical societies. Their accomplishments were often achieved while they struggled to secure regular employment or worked in jobs unrelated to their history activities.

Stepladder radicals were skilled street orators. This practice was primarily a male dominion occasionally inhabited by women. From the years just prior to the First World War through the early 1960s, it was common to see a street corner spokesman standing on a stepladder, homemade platform, or a soapbox container surrounded by a curious and often attentive audience. Some of the most prominent black working-class leaders, such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, attracted their initial following while speaking on the streets. This was a common practice in black urban communities throughout America. The street corner meeting was especially common and an influential tradition in Harlem while gaining the reputation as "both the university and church of the streets." Stepladder radicals believed that history was the foundation that underpinned black demands for equal consideration with others in the enjoyment of economic, social, and political justice. (2)

The accomplishments of self-trained black historians and the tradition of stepladder radicals are central components to understanding the founding and flourishing of African American history as a legitimate discipline. …

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