The United States was entering a brave new world of imperialism in January 1899, as it was dispensing with the tottering Spanish empire and taking on its mantle, including rule of “colored” peoples from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. Meanwhile, in midtown Manhattan, a surging, swaying noisy crowd fought to enter Mount Olivet Colored Baptist Church on West 52nd Street, to listen not to a learned exposition of the nation's newest responsibilities but to hear the “'unlanguaged prattling'” of a child, one Lawrence Dennis. For two whole hours before the doors opened, which was late in the afternoon, the increasingly unruly crowd besieged this house of worship, as if it were a medieval fortified castle. A police officer on hand sought vainly to restore order, but the impatient crowd pounded on the doors with sticks and fists begging, beseeching, imploring—demanding admittance immediately, if not sooner. A stout Negro man peeped out a side door and cracked it open, then sought to explain that the church was already filled to the rafters and could hold no more. But this crowd refused to be denied. They pressed open the door and in a blink of an eye the body of the church was packed even fuller with a mass of humanity so compact that a child—even the child they had come to hear—could not have found standing or even sitting room anywhere in this edifice.
Yet more and more continued to try to fight their way inside and soon a spirited fracas had erupted in response. Women screamed. Men vociferated loudly. Then, at the conclusion of what appeared to be the final hymn, a tiny child in a white frock and black stockings, with a curl tied with a pink ribbon hanging on each side of his near white face appeared upon the platform—and the crowd erupted in even wilder tones. The pastor in introducing this child preacher, declared, “'he is uneducated and cannot read,'” but this did not deter the crowd—and may have endeared them—since many of them, as a result of enslavement, then a brutally im-