Rich Newman, author of Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers, discusses what this election might have meant to our nations black founding fathers.
Tuesday, November 4th, 2008 — Election Day
7:54 am –
About an hour and a half ago, my wife and I pulled ourselves out of bed to beat the lines at our local polling place in Rochester. We found a steady trickle of people there but no long wait. Is this good or bad?
Well, we got our Election Day stickers proclaiming, “I voted today!” As I think of it now, this little memento may be quite valuable someday – if, that is, Barack Obama is elected the 44th president of the United States. I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up when I gently pushed the lever for “Obama/Biden.” A wave of images suddenly rushed through my brain – the 15th amendment granting African-American men the right to vote, the hope and violence of Freedom Summer in 1964, Obama’s slogan of “Yes, We Can!” An historian of black freedom struggles and American race relations, I suppose I’m predisposed to such moments of over-thinking. But the emotion was real, palpable. I stood there for a moment, making sure that I had the image of a mainstream, biracial presidential candidate with a real chance of becoming the elected leader of the United States locked firmly in my memory. When the voting booth curtains opened, I looked around at the small room of volunteers and voters and thought, “this isn’t all that revolutionary?” We grabbed some coffee, picked up the newspaper, and came home to settle in for a nervous day of projections and Election Day mania.
We voted roughly a mile away from where Frederick Douglass, the great 19th-century black abolitionist and longtime Rochester resident, is buried. Obama has talked about his great admiration for Douglass and so it is interesting to think about what Douglass would say of Obama’s historic moment. But if I could talk to anybody from the past about this election, it would be a black man who lived during the nation’s founding era: Bishop Richard Allen. A legendary abolitionist and institution builder (he essentially created the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the largest black denomination in the United States during the 19th century), Allen lived at the same time as Jefferson, Madison, Washington and all those other heroic men we once hailed as “founding fathers” but now refer to as “the founders.” A former slave in a time when bondage remained a firm but divisive part of American politics and social life, Richard Allen desperately wanted to be thought of as an equal citizen — a peer of these august men. He wrote pamphlets of protest criticizing slavery and slaveholders, gave speeches claiming a common American identity for people of color, called himself a citizen. and yet, no major founder would have viewed Allen as an equal. NO WAY! In fact, many white founders believed
firmly that black and white people would never be able to live peaceably together beyond slavery. Jefferson and Madison were longtime adherents of colonization, which sought to remove free people of color from the United States to secure a white man’s republic.
Allen had his doubts about achieving racial justice within the United States but he also believed in two bedrock principles: first, that the Christian religion sanctified broad human equality; and second, that the Declaration of Independence must remain the nation’s everlasting creed, applying to people of color as well as well-heeled white founders. Joining with “black founders” in his hometown of Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore, Boston, and other locales, Allen struggled during the nation’s earliest years to meld black equality and American patriotism. As he wrote to the nation’s white leaders in 1794, “it is in our posterity enjoying the same privileges with your own, that you ought to look for better things.” As I tell my students, there is simply no way that America becomes a proud multi-racial society without the unheralded activism of Allen and black founders. When others doubted racial equality, they did not. It was, they argued, God’s way and the American way. Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer and countless other civil rights reformers risked their lives saying the same thing.
As a nation, we have lived through civil wars, world wars, economic depressions, print revolutions, and digital revolutions. But we have never elected a black president. Richard Allen died in 1831 wondering if he would ever live to see a day when slavery – slavery! — ceased to be a part of American culture. Could he even have imagined a time when an African American became president?
And so, on this day more than any other, I would just love to talk to Bishop Allen about that single question.