Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

The Banneker Literary Institute of Philadelphia: African American Intellectual Activism before the War of the Slaveholders' Rebellion

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

The Banneker Literary Institute of Philadelphia: African American Intellectual Activism before the War of the Slaveholders' Rebellion

Article excerpt

There can be no more effective manner of elevating our people than by a spread of literature, and no more speedy way of demonstrating to those in authority in our government that we are susceptible of the highest degree of mental culture and worthy of the rights which have been so long withheld from us.

--Banneker Institute, Call for a Convention of Literary Societies [ca. 1859] (2)

To those who have been with us in all our trials and difficulties I would say, persevere...; a bright day shall yet dawn upon us and they who are faithful to the end shall at last reap a golden harvest[;] the Banneker Institute will be looked up to as the source from which emanates light and knowledge, and the names of those who have labored to place her in that high position will be handed down with grateful recollections to an enlightened posterity.

--Jacob C. White, Jr., Secretary's Report, April 2, 1857 (3)

The African American quest for freedom, justice, and equality has long been waged on a variety of fronts. The slave revolts, marches, demonstrations, and rebellions have had their counterparts in the poems, broadsides, treatises and polemical books of a struggling race. The gradual abolition of slavery in northeastern states after the Revolutionary War was closely followed by the emergence of free institutions such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Prince Hall Masons in 1787. The small and embattled literate society that developed plunged with remarkable energy into the arena of intellectual combat as a tool for collective advancement.

From Boston to Washington, DC, and environs there quickly developed a network of library companies, literary and debating societies, informal groupings of bibliophiles and historical associations, all harnessing literary and intellectual endeavor to the struggle for racial uplift. The first editorial in African America's first newspaper, New York's Freedom's Journal, provided a manifesto for the movement when it declared in its premier issue of March 16, 1827, "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.'

Two years later David Walker of Boston issued his celebrated Appeal, a polemic of great erudition. "It is expected,' he wrote, that all colored men, women and children of every nation, language and tongue under heaven, will try to procure a copy of this Appeal and read it, or get someone to read it to them, for it is designed more particularly for them.' The "day of our redemption from abject wretchedness draweth near," Walker warned, "but there must be a willingness on our part, for God to do these things for us, for we may be assured that He will not take us by the hairs of our head against our will and desire, and draw us from our very mean, low and abject condition." (4)

The Banneker Literary Institute of Philadelphia was one of many societies that used intellectual pursuits to test Walker's contention that God would help those who helped themselves. By the time of its formation in 1854, intellectually oriented associations were commonplace in African Philadelphia. (5)

In 1860 the city ranked first among northern African American communities both in gross numbers (22,185) and as a percentage (3.9%) of overall population. (6) Philadelphia had helped pioneer free institutions among African Americans, with the Free African Society of 1787. Beginning in 1817 and for many years thereafter, Philadelphia had taken the lead in the National Negro Convention movement, the nearest thing to a quasi-government of African America. (7)

The country's oldest African American religious denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, had its roots in Philadelphia. In the Institute for Colored Youth, the city boasted one of African America's most prestigious schools. (8) One of Black America's earliest newspapers, the Demosthenian Shield (1841), was published in Philadelphia, as was one of its two earliest periodicals, the National Reformer (1838). …

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