Citizenship, Belonging, and the Experiences of Amero-Africans in West Africa: An Analysis of William Innes’ Early History of Liberia

Rev. Dr. William Innes of Edinburgh

In 1831 and again in 1833, Waugh and Innes of Edinburgh published a history of Liberia by ‘Minister of the Gospel’ William Innes.[1]

In his Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa, Innes describes the founding, structure, and struggles of this West African colony, founded in the early 1820’s as a haven for free and previously enslaved people of African descent and for ‘recaptives’[2] rescued from the newly illegal transatlantic slave trade.[3] Innes was an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, an ‘independent’-minded Presbyterian and then Baptist minister, one-time chaplain of Stirling Castle, missionary, bookseller, and author of over two dozen books and other publications, mostly on religious topics. The titles of his publications, such as Reasons for Separating from the Church of Scotland (Dundee, 1804), Christianity, the Only Effectual Support Under the Afflictions of Life (Edinburgh, 1810), Domestic Religion, or an Exposition of the Precepts of Christianity Regarding the Duties of Domestic Life (Edinburgh, 1822), and Instructions for Young Enquirers (Edinburgh, translated into Gaelic 1827) indicate why this otherwise mostly theological writer decided to write a history of a colony.[4] As we shall see, this reform-minded man viewed Liberia as a worthy project within the larger goal of uplifting lives as well as souls.

Although Innes’ account includes some discussion of the hardships faced by the colonists trying to build a community in and wrest a living from this unfamiliar and somewhat hostile territory, he presents a generally positive view of the experience and prospects of the Liberian colonization project. Indeed, Innes seems anxious to convince his readers that the colony could not only exist and thrive, but that it should. As we shall see, Liberia is, to Innes, a project of community-building in line with ordered nature and with American beliefs in democracy, self-sufficiency, and the sense of social harmony necessary for a united and healthy political community. In interrogating this text, then, we are led to ask: how are ideas about citizenship and belonging implied and described in Innes’ history of Liberia, how do they relate to the lived experiences of Amero-Africans in the United States and Liberia, and how are these ideas challenged?

Innes commences his history with a discussion of the historical conditions in which this colonization movement arose. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in November of 1816 as a benevolent institution dedicated to the long-conceived but as yet unsystematic scheme of colonizing black inhabitants of the United States to Africa, the continent of their ancestral origin.[5] As Innes and many others saw it, including many abolitionists and proslavery advocates alike,[6] black people could never live peacefully side by side with white Americans. Innes writes that all black persons are ‘branded by their colour as an inferior caste.’[7] He argues that so long as they live as an ‘inferior’ class within the general community of free persons, both black and white will suffer the ill effects of living in a mixed-race society, made up as it is of people with necessarily disparate natures and irreconcilable interests.[8] So long as people of African descent live within the mainstream white American community, the majority of the former will remain ‘idle, ignorant, vicious’ as a result of their disfavor, and cites as an example of this that ‘in many cases the free negroes are a great annoyance to the community, often living by pilfering the property of their neighbors.’[9] Therefore, Innes explains, the only way that people of African descent can create communities to which they naturally belong is to form them separately from white communities, and the best place to do so is by establishing their own communities in the continent of their ancestor’s origin. In doing so, they can enjoy the rights and privileges of citizens with others who share their place in the racial hierarchy. [10] In his majority opinion for the United States Supreme Court 1856 decision in the Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford case, which exacerbated the divisive political issues of slavery and race that helped spark the United States’ Civil War,[11] Chief Justice Roger Taney agrees with Innes’ theory of natural racial separation. He likewise believes that human beings are manifestly and naturally separated into inferior and superior races that cannot form a united political community.[12] Ideas such as Innes’ and Taney’s permeated political debate and policy in the United States for decades to come, widely disenfranchising black Americans and relegating them to second-class citizenship throughout the nation.

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

Yet the colonization scheme as described above is a manifestation of paradoxical ideas about belonging and citizenship rather than a straightforward, across the board rejection of the rights or abilities of black persons to enjoy political power, despite Taney’s assertions to the contrary. According to Innes, Taney, many in the ACS, the U.S. government, and so many Americans, people of African origin who were brought to American shores to labor, to raise crops and buildings and in every other way contribute to the economy and to the material well-being of United States citizens nevertheless do not belong within the political community nor could ever be citizens themselves. Yet advocates of colonization such as Innes believed that people of African descent were or could become citizens in Africa even if they were not born there. This was and continued to be believed by many of African descent as well. W.E.B. DuBois, African-American historian, racial theorist, and proponent of the pan-Africanist ‘vision’[13] of Africa as the natural homeland for all people of African descent, describes Africa as ‘fatherland,’ and ‘motherland.’ DuBois concedes that he has only a ‘tenuous’ connection to Africa ‘in culture and race’, like most people colonized to Africa in Innes’ time. African scholar M.B. Akpan points out that Amero-Africans (acculturated Americans of African descent who settled in Africa) who went to Liberia were vastly different from native Africans in about as many ways as they could be, in dress, language, religion, taste in food, clothing, housing, art, and so on.[14] Yet some, like DuBois, perceived themselves as bound to Africa by an essential ‘kinship.’[15] For Innes and others, this kinship is entirely racially based; for DuBois and many pan-Africanists, ‘the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and the insult; and this heritage binds [us] together…’[16]

Innes and proponents of Amero-African colonization, Taney and other racial hierarchists, and pan-Africanists like Dubois share a belief that there is something about a common African descent and shared experiences, however combined with ethnic descent and acculturation from elsewhere, which creates a natural community. Such natural communities, in turn, create opportunities for citizenship that cannot be enjoyed at all, or at least not fully, in any other context. These ideas are in tension throughout Innes’ account of how West African colonies came to be and the way they persisted despite significant challenges and hardships. These challenges arose within the colonies themselves and from conflicts between colonists and the ecology, and between colonists and their native African neighbors. Innes’ account of the difficulties faced by the Liberian colonists differs significantly in many respects from later scholarship and from other contemporary accounts. In Innes’ account, these difficulties are relatively minor compared to the benefits the colonists enjoyed as citizens of a new community to which they rightly belonged.[17] The contrast between Innes’ account and other contemporary accounts backed up by later scholarship[18] imply that Innes’ driving concern to use Liberia as a positive example of how racially-based communities are formed biased his very favorable presentation of the colony.

Regarding their prospects for acceptance and inclusion within the mainstream American social and political community, Innes describes his perception of the state in which non-enslaved people of African descent find themselves:

…[T]roughout the non-slaveholding states, the negroes form a distinct race, branded by their color as an inferior caste; regarded with a species of loathing when thought of as companions, and for ever shut out from the privileges of the white men by whom they are surrounded. Be it prejudice, or founded on reason, the feeling of dislike mutually exists… .No matter what may be their industry and sobriety; no matter what their attainments in science, or their character for morality, they can never hope to pass the broad line of demarcation, or assume a station of equality with the other members of the community.[19]

Frederick Douglass ca. 1847-52, Samuel Miller, American 1822-1882, Art Institute of Chicago, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Racial hierarchists like Taney share the ‘species of loathing’ which Innes describes. Today, Innes’ and Taney’s descriptions of race relations are difficult to read, especially Taney’s. For one, they conflict with contemporary thoughts and sensibilities about race which are, in the main, orders of magnitude more optimistic about the likelihood that people of various races and ethnicities can meaningfully share and participate in communities as social and political equals. For another, they don’t ring true, especially in Taney’s harsh Dred Scott account of the social and political issues of race in America. After all, there were many mixed-race communities in which black Americans lived relatively safely and peacefully alongside their white neighbors even given the national tensions over issues of race. Leading black abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass settled in one such community, New Bedford, Massachusetts, following his escape from slavery in Maryland in 1838.[20] Taney’s opinion reads very much like a partisan political document and presents a wholly dismal picture of both the capabilities and prospects of people of African descent.[21] Innes’ commentary, on the other hand, presents a more mixed though still racially hierarchical view. On the one hand, he implies in the selection above and makes clearer elsewhere that he believes people of African descent are fully capable of ‘industry and sobriety,’ of morality, of worthy and admirable attainments, of being ‘provident’ and ‘respectable,’ of conducting ‘affairs of empire,’ and so on.[22] Yet Innes does not believe they are capable of this, on the whole, so long as they live in communities among their white racial ‘superiors.’[23] Removal from white society and colonization with others of their own racial heritage, then, is the answer.

Yet all the qualities that Innes enumerates as making people belong within communities and which he characterizes as those of good citizens, he already ascribes to Americans of African descent. We can see this most clearly in the passages in Innes’ history where he describes the contrast between Amero-African colonizers and the beneficial and ‘civilizing’ influence that they exert on their native Africans neighbors. In matters of language, religion, dress, morality, ability, education, and so on, they are in turn, deems Innes, superior to their native African neighbors and the latter, recognizing this, wish to emulate them.[24] We can also recognize Innes’ conflicting views in the terms he chooses to refer to the Amero-African colonists and the native African peoples in their territorial conflicts. When describing the participants and victims of battles, Innes refers to Amero-Africans and their native African allies in such terms as ‘woman’, ‘men,’ ‘persons,’ ‘mother’, ‘the people’, and so on. By contrast, Innes refers to native Africans primarily by terms such as ‘barbarian,’ ‘savage’, ‘enemy’, and ‘wretches’, characterized by ‘moral deformity.’[25] This implies that for Innes, civilization can depend on culture, virtues, religious beliefs, and modes of comportment rather than race. The very qualities that make people belong to a community and become good citizens can and are often held by Amero-Africans whatever side of the Atlantic. As we can see in the selection above, Innes concedes this even as he explains why black people cannot belong within American white communities. He allows that black individuals can and do ‘rise above their degraded brethren’ and exhibit such good-citizenship qualities as ‘character for morality’ and ‘industry and sobriety,’ capable of ‘mak[ing] attainments in science’ and so forth.[26] Innes, then, presents two very distinct conceptions of belonging, citizenship, and race which are, if not in direct conflict, at least in tension with one another.

Clipping from The African Repository and Colonial Journal, V. XIII 1837, describing the efforts of William Johnson to settle his former slaves in Liberia, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps Innes resolves these conflicting ideas about race and belonging to his own satisfaction through his appeal to divine approval. Innes, as a ‘Minister of the Gospel,’[27] looks for and finds signs of God’s will that the Liberian colony survive. He argues that God must approve of removing black people to Liberia because the preservation of Liberian colonies is unlikely otherwise given the obstacles they faced, which in turn shows divine approbation of this racial separation.[28] The idea of divine arrangement of peoples into natural types and nations which pervades Innes’ history resembles such racially hierarchical theories as Taney’s. However, Innes’ view of racial ordering displays more divine benevolence for the black race even as it is extremely patriarchal. Innes perceives a divine will that all people of African descent be redeemed through their separate political and religious institutions. This will best be brought about first by separating the races into naturally sympathetic racially divided communities, and then locating those communities in places where they can spread the gospel of Christ to others of the same race who have not yet received it through the establishment of colonies. The colonizers were then placed in a position to help bring about the divine will in the world such as providing a Christian example to their African neighbors[29] and helping to end the ‘evil’ and ‘dreadful malady’ of the slave trade.[30]

Yet Innes’ overall sunny take on the lived experience of the Liberian colonists contrasts with contemporary and later accounts of the Liberian experiment. Douglass, for example, is skeptical of the glowing accounts of the colony’s success as well as of its prospects of helping to end the slave trade; he questions the motives and therefore the accuracy of those offering glowing accounts of the colonization effort’s success.[31] Innes’ account is one which invites such skepticism. He considers the ‘signal preservation’ of the colony a sign of God’s approval but does not consider the severe hardships that he chooses to cite such as supply shortages, attacks from neighboring tribes, difficulties raising crops, the fact that they had to wrest the colony’s land concession from Dei ‘King Peter’ at gunpoint, and the high rates of disease and death as signs of God’s disapproval.[32] Innes seems to minimize the hardships in Liberia as he follows every mention of them with an immediate qualification or comparison, such as citing the early American colonies’ struggles or remarking that the Liberian colonies could have suffered worse.[33] He goes so far as to dismiss symptoms of illness as mere climatic adjustment reactions of healthy bodies, though he does admit that many died.[34] According to historian Claude Andrew Clegg, however, the colonists often suffered extremely high rates of hunger, disease, privation, and mortality.[35] Clegg also cites many examples of the colonists’ difficulties, including the telling example of Emily Hooper, a young colonist who, after an extraordinarily difficult and expensive effort on her father’s part to obtain her freedom and fund her journey to Liberia, decided to return to slavery rather than further suffer the hardships of the colony. This episode was a great embarrassment to the ACS.[36]

In addition to the evidence of hardship and mortality in many reports, accounts like Innes’ are roundly challenged by argument and even ridicule. One particularly scornful and influential critic of the colonization scheme was Douglass. Indeed, except for the fact that he actually refers to [news]paper accounts in his ‘Persecution on Account of Faith, Persecution on Account of Color’ address delivered in Rochester, New York in 1851, it would be reasonable to assume that Douglass was referring to Innes’ history when he observed: ‘Papers that never speak of colored men in this country but to abuse and slander them, speak in the most flattering terms of …Liberia.’[37] To Douglass, arguments such as those offered by Innes and American statesman Henry Clay, who recommend the removal of black people from American society due to idleness, lawlessness, and other perceived flaws invite a counter-question: ‘Suppose we should admit… that we are degraded and dissolute, as a class; are there no other degraded and dissolute people?… Who talks of their expatriation?’ to which he answers: ‘No one.’[38] Douglass also mocks the idea that colonization movement will weaken slavery as an institution. It’s the presence of free black people in slave states that help weaken slavery by demonstrating to the enslaved that there is another way they can live in America. Removing free black people to Africa, argues Douglass, removes this constant and substantial threat to slaveholders’ desire to rule unchallenged over a docile, resigned slave population.[39]

Liberian Senate drawn by Robert K. Griffin, Monrovia, 1856, public domain via the Library of Congress

Throughout his early history of Liberia, Innes wavers but does not stray far from his theme of Liberia as a natural home for Americans of African descent. His explanations for how and why Amero-Africans, acculturated to the United States in language, morals, religion, dress, and overall ways of life nevertheless belong in a land which most have never seen are not, as we have seen, entirely consistent. Why Amero-Africans can only successfully gain a sense of belonging and engage as citizens in a place where they are outsiders in every way except skin color is also not satisfactorily explained; indeed, Innis presents Liberia as if it were the only alternative to black Americans continuing to live in a state of political and social exclusion and oppression in mainstream white American society. Innes offers the ‘signal preservation’ of the Liberian colony as proof of its value to God and humankind as well as of its eventual success, but glosses over any consideration that the terrible hardships and dangers that the colonists had to face were evidence to the contrary. Others such as Douglass, however, perceive the flaws in the explanations and evidence that Innes offers, and presents both counterevidence and counterarguments that helped undermine support for the colonization project over the decades of its existence.[40]

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Bibliography

Akpan, M. B. “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des études Africaines 7, no. 2 (1973): 217-36.

Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. 2004.

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition. Accessed 20 March 2018 at http://frederickdouglass.infoset.io/

Douglass, Frederick, and John W. Blassingame. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series 1, Speeches, Debates and Interviews; John W. Blassingame, Editor. Vol.1, 1841-46. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Du Bois, W. E. B., and Herbert Aptheker. Dusk of Dawn. 1975.

Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, Vol. IV: Synods of Argyll, and of Perth and Stirling. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1923.

Geiss, Imanuel. The Pan-African Movement. London: Methuen, 1974.

Innes, William. Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa. Waugh & Innes; M. Ogle, etc., 1833. Accessed 20 March 2018 at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044051050987

Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

United States Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, John H Van Evrie, and Samuel A Cartwright. The Dred Scott decision: opinion of Chief Justice Taney. New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1860. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, Accessed 21 March 21, 2018 at https://www.loc.gov/item/17001543/

West, Richard. Back to Africa: A History of Sierra Leone and Liberia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

[1] Innes, William. Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa. Waugh & Innes; M. Ogle, etc., 1833, frontispiece

[2] Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. 2004 p. 37

[3] Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865. London: Oxford University Press, 1961 p. 51

[4] ‘William Innes’ in Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, Vol. IV: Synods of Argyll, and of Perth and Stirling. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1923 pp. 325-326

[5] West, Richard. Back to Africa: A History of Sierra Leone and Liberia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971 p. 93

[6] Clegg p. 3-4, Staudenraus pp. 2-7

[7] Ibid. p 102

[8] Innes pp. iv-v, 101-103

[9] Ibid. p. iv

[10] Ibid. pp. 102, 106-107

[11] Clegg pp. 174, 195-196

[12] United States Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, John H. Van Evrie, and Samuel A. Cartwright. The Dred Scott decision: opinion of Chief Justice Taney. New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1860 pp. 18-19

[13] Geiss, Imanuel. The Pan-African Movement. London: Methuen, 1974 p. 5

[14] Akpan, M. B. “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des études Africaines 7, no. 2 (1973) p. 219

[15] Du Bois, W. E. B., and Herbert Aptheker. Dusk of Dawn. 1975 pp. 116

[16] Ibid. p. 117

[17] Innes pp. 87-89

[18] Clegg pp. 226-229

[19] Ibid. p. 102

[20] Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1996 pp. 353ff

[21] Taney pp. 17-18

[22] Innes pp. 77, 86-87, 91

[23] Ibid. pp. 101-102, 176

[24] Innes p. 83, 86-89

[25] Ibid. pp. 57-65

[26] Ibid. p 102

[27] Ibid., frontispiece

[28] Ibid. pp. vi-vii, 37-38, 62, 64, 72, 91

[29] Ibid., pp. 112-115

[30] Ibid., pp. 9-10, 108-112

[31] ‘Persecution on Account of Faith, Persecution on Account of Color: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 26 January 1851,’ North Star, 30 January 1851, in Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition, pp. 300-302

[32] Innes, pp. v-vi, 16-21, 38-39, 93-95, 101, 108-111; Clegg, p. 37; West pp. 114-115

[33] Innes., pp. 91-92

[34] Ibid., p. 93

[35] Clegg, see descriptions and figures in chapter 7 of The Price of Liberty, ‘To Live and Die in Liberia,’ pp. 201-248

[36] Ibid., pp. 187-188

[37] Douglass, ‘Persecution,’ p. 302

[38] ‘Henry Clay and Colonization Cant, Sophistry, and Falsehood: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 2 February 1851, North Star, 6 February 1851, in Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition, p. 323

[39] Ibid., p. 322

[40] Staudenraus, pp. 249-250

“Held in Trust by History:” The Intellectual Activism of Lerone Bennett Jr., by Christopher Tinson

Lerone Bennett, Jr, by John H. White for Series DOCUMERICA, Oct 1973, public domain (cropped)

On the morning of December 11, 2016, a notice in the Chicago area news read as follows: “Author Lerone Bennett Found Safe After Being Reported Missing.” The 88-year old scholar and journalist had decided to go for an early morning walk, without telling anyone. According to the notice, Bennett had been located hours after he had gone missing. While the news report provided few details about the incident, it indicated that Bennett was “the author of multiple books” who had “previously worked as an editor at JET and Ebony Magazine.” The brevity of this note calls attention to two important facts: that Bennett is not dead as many have assumed, and that he is still largely known for his work at Ebony and for the publication of two critically acclaimed texts even though he produced over ten. While this notice locates Bennett, it fails to account for the extraordinary impact of this important figure.

Lerone Bennett, Jr.—social historian, Black Studies architect, and intellectual activist—spent over four decades at Ebony magazine. Ebony, arguably the premier African American lifestyle magazine of the 20th century, was founded by John H. Johnson in 1945. In addition to Ebony, Bennett also maintained a full organizational life, holding memberships and associations in such organizations as the short-lived Black Academy of Arts and Letters, the Race Relations Information Center, the Institute of the Black World, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center. In 1965, John Henrik Clarke was the first to announce Bennett as a social historian and historian Pero Dagbovie revisited Bennett’s influence on Africana Studies in an article in the Journal of Black Studies. Renewing the interest in Bennett’s life opens us to several objectives: to gain a sense of African American historical expertise and craftsmanship, to achieve an expansive definition of intellectual history and the social function of the historian, to contextualize Bennett’s productivity, motivations, and range as a thinker, to achieve a view into his philosophy of life, and lastly to arrive at the creatively disruptive and reparative dimensions of history, all of which are discernible in Bennett’s robust body of work.

Born and bred in the south, Bennett moved to Chicago after a stint at the Atlanta Daily World and was named Associate Editor at Ebony in 1954. Bennett’s time at Ebony was unique. Starting out slowly, he later emerged as one of Johnson’s trusted advisors—he eventually co-wrote Johnson’s autobiography. He used the prestige of one of America’s most successful black entrepreneurs to teach and disseminate black history. The common association of Bennett with the popularizing of history reduces his impact. His record shows that far from watering down the African American experience in the United States, he sought to forge a reparative, justice-centric, visionary account of past human endeavor and the stakes of social disequilibrium. For Bennett, history looks backwards and forwards simultaneously. A brief survey of Ebony issues over this period reveals several principal social concerns, including: African American struggles over rights, passionate interest in the decolonization of the African continent, the uncovering or rediscovering key contributors to Africana intellectual life, and measuring the growing discontent with the prospects of American democracy. On one hand, Ebony emphasized high-life aspiration and on the other it cultivated a devoted and deeply engaged readership. Throughout the 1960s Bennett published a broad range of essays commenting on African American politics, culture, and Afro-diasporic history. Virtually no subject escaped Bennett’s pen. Among the writings in this period are essays on African independence, civil rights militancy, popular culture, and other histories that comprised the series “Pioneers of Protest.”

However, Bennett’s career took off upon the publication of Before the Mayflower in 1962, which began as a series of Ebony essays in 1961. The book was an immediate sensation. Mainstream press outlets such as the Chicago Tribune favorably reviewed the book. The Tribune also carried book reviews written by Bennett while he served as associate editor at Ebony. Historian and activist John Henrik Clarke’s review essay for the black left periodical Freedomways in 1965 locates Bennett in relation to the Civil Rights upsurge carried out by “A new generation of restless black Americans.” For Clarke, Bennett was part of a new generation who, like himself, could be called participant historians. In other words these were historians who not only documented history, but were themselves poised and principled activists in their own regard. Clarke offered readers a glimpse into Bennett’s background before diving into a review of key sections of Before the Mayflower and several of his seminal Ebony articles. Accompanying the piece was two of Bennett’s poems, showcasing a multitalented intellect.

The great irony of Bennett’s career, perhaps, is found in his relationship with Ebony, a magazine known for its dependency on advertising that peddled skin lighteners, platform shoes, cigarettes, scotch, the latest styles, and wigs. Bennett was bent on using the popular magazine of the black high life as a reputable platform to document and forecast black struggle, and he succeeded. Still, this did not mean he went unquestioned about what some perceived to be a contradiction.

Without question, Ebony was a critical platform for Bennett. In the front matter of every book he published for JPC, he earnestly thanked Johnson for allowing him the massive platform, time, and resources to research and write. He could reach larger audiences than professors at exclusive colleges or universities, but he could also keep relationships with those institutions that had no effect on his work. Ebony thus emerges as a premier, if unlikely, site of black cultural knowledge production. In this sense Ebony was a different kind of public institution. Bennett certainly benefitted from this unique arrangement and never took it for granted. Not only could he be in the thick of key debates as sage and journalist and historian, but also Ebony’s book publishing gave him a direct line to the national book networks. Among their many publishing pursuits, Bennett and Johnson had plans for an Ebony Encyclopedia.

Bennett’s approach to publishing was methodical and systematic. Lectures and speeches became articles, articles became books, or anthologies. Ebony therefore was unparalleled in its disruption of American consumer trends and U.S. based intellectual work. Bennett had the best of both worlds in terms of institutional credibility among all sectors of the black community. Bennett’s work ethic and standards of excellence had earned him the trust of John H. Johnson. The two carved out what was an enviable relationship. Bennett had access to the publishing mogul, and Johnson needed Bennett’s intellectual heft to bolster the magazine’s reputation and commitment to sincere and earnest coverage of black life beyond the simple demands of capitalist advertising and an aspiring black middle class’s pursuit of the high life. But Johnson was no fool. And although he refused to wear his politics on his sleeve, Bennett viewed Johnson as a sincere and chief advocate of black life. Effectively, Bennett was the bridge across a full spectrum that stretched from a petty capitalist, black bourgeoisie, churchgoing, assimilationist community, to grassroots militants and middle- and working class intellectuals with nationalist proclivities, alongside full expressions of black elite aspiration. No matter the segments of the black community and their ideological shadings or capitalist accouterments, in Bennett’s view, their fates were linked, and, moreover, they all had to answer the call of history and the demands of time.

At the turn of the 21st Century, Bennett remained active. On April 26, 2000, Bennett testified in front of the “Joint Hearing of the Finance and Human Relations Committees of the Chicago City Council on Reparations for African-American Slaves and Their Descendants.” The sage historian took full advantage of the opportunity to underscore the unpaid debt long past due. Interestingly, atop the typed speech, in Bennett’s cursive handwriting are the words, “Held in Trust by History.” It was as if Bennett was reminding himself of the duty to once again shine due light on the evidence and make the case plain.

Like W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, he showed a commitment to “living history” and modeled a kind of public intellectualism that was both strident and sensitive. His time at Ebony suggests that a popular media platform could just as easily become a classroom. For Bennett, history was not just a discipline–it was obligation, memory, and art. He was moved by the opportunity, calling, and challenge of doing good work on behalf of a people’s struggle. Lerone Bennett, Jr. no longer needs an “All Points Bulletin/Missing Persons Report.” He has been here the whole time.

This piece was originally published at The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) Blog

~ Christopher Tinson is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Hampshire College. His interdisciplinary research and teaching focuses on the intersections between Africana radical traditions, Ethnic Studies, critical media studies, incarceration, and community-based education. His book on Liberator magazine and black activism of the 1960s, entitled Radical Intellect, is forthcoming. (Bio credit: AAIHS)

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