Thursday, September 10, 2009

Feast of Alexander Crummell, Priest, Missionary, and Educator

Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for your servant Alexander Crummell, whom you called to preach the Gospel to those who were far off and to those who were near. Raise up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of your kingdom, that your Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Today is the feast of Alexander Crummell. He was an African-American and fought racism all of his life. He was born on March 3, 1819, in New York City. His father, Boston Crummell, was a former slave, while his mother, Charity Hicks, was a freeborn black woman. Both of his parents were very active in the Abolition Movement, and the first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was published in their home. Their values guided him throughout his life. His father told him stories of his life back in Africa before he was captured, and these stories created a sense of unity with the people in Africa, as well as with those of African heritage in the Americas and throughout the world. He was also educated in Abolitionism by working with the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York during his youth. He was an intelligent person and one who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. His tenacity and perseverance were important parts of his personality and were instrumental in his success.

Education was an important aspect of his success and drive, and his education started at home with private tutors and at the African Free School No. 2 in New York City. His secondary education was at Canal Street High School. Upon graduation from Canal Street, Alexander and his friend Henry Highland Garnet, another soon-to-be-famous Abolitionist, moved to New Hampshire to attend the Noyes Academy. The school was eventually destroyed by a lynch mob. According to W.E.B. Du Bois in his essay “Of Alexander Crummell” in his book The Souls of Black Folk, the “godly farmers hitched ninety yoke of oxen to the abolition schoolhouse and dragged it into the middle of the swamp.” Crummell returned to New York and enrolled at the Oneida Institute. It was at the Oneida Institute that he experienced his call to the priesthood, and he applied to the General Theological Seminary in New York. However, he was denied admission because of his race; his grades were good, he had references, but General Theological Seminary was not yet ready to be integrated. W.E.B. Du Bois’ account of Crummell’s rejection is as follows: They were not wicked men,—the problem of life is not the problem of the wicked,—they were calm, good men, Bishops of the Apostolic Church of God, and strove toward righteousness. They said slowly, “It is all very natural—it is even commendable; but the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church cannot admit a Negro.” And when that thin, half-grotesque figure still haunted their doors, they put their hands kindly, half sorrowfully, on his shoulders, and said, “Now,—of course, we—we know how you feel about it; but you see it is impossible,—that is—well—it is premature. Sometime, we trust—sincerely trust—all such distinctions will fade away; but now the world is as it is.” Then, as now, there were some in the leadership of the Church who believed that any change in favor of the outcast was “premature” and that the outcast should simply be patient until “things change naturally.” Of course, change of that nature doesn’t occur naturally; one must push and fight for such change, and Alexander Crummell was exactly the kind of person who would push for change.

He moved to Boston and studied for ordination. He did his field work as a missionary in Rhode Island and was ordained a priest by the Bishop of Delaware in 1842. He eventually ended up in the city of Philadelphia with a letter of recommendation from his bishop to Bishop Onderdonk of Philadelphia.   According to W.E.B. Du Bois, Bishop Onderdonk told Father Crummell that he would be received into the diocese on one condition: that he not attend Diocesan Convention, and that no black church ask for representation in the Diocesan Convention. There was no way a person like Alexander Crummell could accept such conditions and he gave up on the Episcopal Church and, in 1847, moved his family to England. He travelled throughout the country, giving sermons and lectures about slavery in the United States. He was interested in studying at the great Universities of England, either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. The opportunity presented itself and he grabbed it. He enrolled at Queen’s College, Cambridge, and was awarded a degree in 1853. He left England for Liberia, where he served as a missionary-educator. He was a professor at Liberia College. He believed that slavery and oppression had corrupted the “warm, emotional and impulsive energy” of the African race, and he believed that Liberia could serve as a model Christian nation. He was an advocate of Pan-Africanism; he believed that in order to achieve their potential, Africans from the U.S. and the West Indies needed to unite with their brothers and sisters in Africa. He travelled through the U.S. and West Indies, recruiting highly-skilled and educated people of African heritage to resettle in Africa, in Liberia. His Pan-Africanist views offended the white missionaries in Liberia, and those Liberians of mixed-race, and they made life difficult for Crummell. He found the racism of the missionaries and biracial Liberians to be intolerable and finally returned to the United States in 1873.

He moved to Washington, D.C. where he was appointed “missionary at large of the coloured people.” In Washington he was able to finally realize his vision of a black church which is a place of worship and social service. In 1880 he established St. Luke’s Church, the church which helped him realize his vision. He continued to fight racism in the church and society, and when the Southern Bishops of the Episcopal Church proposed that a separate missionary district be created for black churches, he organized a national convocation to fight the proposal, which became a model for such convocations throughout the Episcopal Church.

Crummell continued to work on behalf of Black nationalism, and to encourage self-help and economic development among people of African heritage. The last years of his life were spent setting up the American Negro Academy, an organisation of black intellectuals dedicated to the promotion of higher education, arts, and science as part of the struggle for racial equality. People of African ancestry from around the world came together as the American Negro Academy, and it was the first society of blacks to specifically promote the ideas which W.E.B. Du Bois articulated as the “Talented Tenth” (W.E.B. Du Bois was a founding member with the Rev. Crummell). Members of the American Negro Academy had backgrounds in Law, Religion, Medicine, Literature, and Community Activism. The goal of the organisation was to “lead and protect our people” and to be “a weapon to secure equality and destroy racism.”

While he was unable to realize all of his vision, his personal achievements are impressive, but even more impressive is the influence he exerted on the Pan-African movement and on Black nationalism. He influenced Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Paul Dunbar. His work for equality in the Episcopal Church eventually led to the creation of the Union of Black Episcopalians. His faith in God inspired his tenacity and his determination to continue against all odds, against institutional racism and even racism in Liberia. He worked to set up the institutions and encouragement which would guide the struggle for civil rights and racial equality in the United States of America and later the world. It is a struggle which continues and which his example inspires. I can't help but imagine the pride he would feel if he were here to see Barak Obama's candidacy, and the shock he would experience to realize that he is a candidate of the party which, during Crummell's lifetime, was the political party of Jim Crow and segregation, while the party influenced by Abolitionists has become the party of exclusion!

Alexander Crummell died the next year, in 1898. I will finish with the closing paragraphs of W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay: He sat one morning gazing toward the sea. He smiled and said, “The gate is rust on the hinges.” That night at star-rise a wind came moaning out of the west to blow the gate ajar, and then the soul I loved fled like a flame across the Seas, and in its seat sat Death.

I wonder where he is today? I wonder if in that dim world beyond, as he came gliding in, there rose on some wan throne a King, ---a dark and pierced Jew, who knows the writhings of the earthly damned, saying, as he laid those heart-wrung talents down, “Well done!” while round about the morning stars sat singing.

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