A Study of Black Intellectual and Literary Societies in Antebellum Boston

Kori Lamontagne (BHS class of '04)

At the turn of the nineteenth century, it was clear that a new age of industrialization was dawning.† In Massachusetts and New England especially, the economy was rapidly changing due to the Industrial Revolution.† There was urbanization with people leaving their homes in the country and on farms to seek employment in factories and other businesses.† Many of these new urban residents were immigrants.† Immigration in the Northeast and elsewhere was rapidly increasing as people came to seek new wealth in the United States.† Even transportation was changing and becoming more rapid and efficient; railroads were replacing the canals and would become one of the main types of transportation.† Even agriculture was changing with new machinery that allowed farmers to grow more with less help.† It was a change that many people were not prepared for. [1]

This Industrial Revolution however was not a national movement in the time between 1820 and 1850.† The South still relied mainly on an agrarian economy that included large plantations.† It was not until after the Civil War that the South was really industrialized during Reconstruction and after. [2]

Literary and intellectual societies were a reaction to urbanization.† In the world of unskilled labor and factories workers became little more than another piece of the machinery.† In became important for individuals to take care of themselves in this new, cold world. From this a new need for reform and self-improvement began to evolve. [3] † Additionally people began taking a renewed interest in such intellectual pursuits such as literature and theater.† This is not limited to one particular city or state, but a national trend, concentrating in but not limited to Boston, New York and Philadelphia.† In antebellum America many of these associations discriminated against people of color.† Often being rejected or denied membership from all-white organizations, black Americans were forced to set up parallel organizations in which they could participate. [4]

While most emphasis on black culture before emancipation focuses on oral traditions, little attention has been given to black intellectual societies during this time period.† Many blacks published works, sat in on lyceums, and participated in or attended the theater. [5] † This paper will try to highlight this participation in Boston, Massachusetts while comparing these occurrences with those in New York and Philadelphia and the rest of the United States.† Many of these associations ran advertisements in a local abolitionist paper, The Liberator, printed and edited by William Lloyd Garrison.† Besides printing articles against slavery, The Liberator was also a source for local community news which held announcements for meetings of several literary and intellectual groups.

In order for this research paper to be complete, it was necessary to be able to distinguish whether a society or organization was all-white, all-black or interracial.† Groups that advertised meetings in The Liberator involved blacks in their membership, some being all black and others being interracial (mainly including Garrison).† More often the names of members and officers of each society have to be run through online databases created by the Boston Athenaeum and Mr. Eastmanís Project Apprentice to History group, as well as through the 1850 census, and Boston City directories prior to 1850 in order to determine the race of each person .† Even then it can be hard to determine who participated in certain societies.† While each formal organization had officers and official members, many others would go to meetings, sit in on lectures, and their presence would never be officially noted.† This is especially the case with blacks in Boston who may have not had the money to join a society and pay dues.† To get a more complete record of black participation in these organizations, one could reference probate records of known blacks living in the area during the time period, to see if those who had endeared themselves to certain organizations had left the societies anything in their wills.† While not being able to create a list of specific names, other than prominent figures, it was still determined the racial profile and discriminatory practices of several societies.

Some societies based on moral and religious reform and education may also surface as one researches intellectual societies.† They were focused on aiding their fellow man instead of becoming more intellectually vibrant.† While their endeavors are equally as rewarding and important in society, the names of such organizations can confuse a hasty researcher.† For example, the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society would appear to be part of the intellectual movement, but in fact its constitution emphasized only "the welfare of our friends" as well as opposing slavery revealing nothing about their intellectual endeavors. [6] † Also the Auxiliary Education Society of the Young Men of Boston was not focused on the education of the mind, but devoted to the religious and moral education.† While these societies are also important in history, they will not be the focus of this paper.

Many of these new societies that included black membership that were springing up in Boston were considered literary groups.† Examples of these are the Young Menís Literary Society, Thompson Literary and Debating Society, and the Female Literary Association.† The Young Menís Literary Society was "a Society composed of the most promising colored young men in the city of Boston, whose noble object is to improve their minds, strengthen their intellectual facilities, and cultivate a refined literary taste."† The Female Association had the same resolve, but was initially based in Philadelphia, and then branched out into other metropolitan areas such as Boston and New York.† Both of these societies focused on expanding memberís literary knowledge and quenching their thirst for literature.† Literary and Debating Societies were found all over New York, in Bedford, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Michigan.

Since free, freed or runaway blacks were the only ones to partake in such societies and associations, a main issue of such groups was freedom and equality through intellectual pursuits.† The goal was often to raise their "despised race" onto the same plane as their Caucasian counterparts.† The Female Literary Associationís preamble states that their purpose is

To use our utmost endeavors to enlighten the understanding, to cultivate the talents entrusted to our keeping, that by so doing, we may in a great measure, break down the strong barrier of prejudice, and raise ourselves to an equality with those who differ from us in complexionÖ

Groups such as these were meant not just to educate, but to disavow the notions people had about black peoplesí intellect and capabilities in a time where freedom was not yet for all.

On top of refining young black menís literary tastes, the Young Menís Literary Association also gave lectures and showed exhibitions as well as colloquies, in which prominent black members of society such as Isaac H. Snowden, William C. Nell, Joseph H. Putman, William B. Logan, William H. Brown, and John Lenox, Jr. took part.

Demographic information is also available for these leaders.† William C. Nell moved between 103 Chambers Street, 8 Smith Court (where he was a boarder), 20 Grove Street and Porter Street between the years 1844 and 1863.† In 1855 he was aged 36 years and held two occupations outside of his work in voluntary associations.† He was named both a clerk in 1844 and 1854 and as a business agent in 1854.† Less is known of John Lennox who in 1858 resided in Ward 6 (which includes Nellís residences on Smith Court and Grove Street).† In 1850 Isaac Snowden was also living in Ward 6 on Southac Street and his occupation is listed as a printer.† Nell and Snowden seem to have skilled positions, and one will notice that all three resided in Ward 6 district of Boston where there was a large black population. (See "Literary and Intellectual Association Members")

Besides auxiliary literary societies attempts at further education by special schools and evening schools were also available.† One example is an evening school advertised in The Liberator that was held in the Belknap Street Church.† It was opened to educate young "ladies of color" in reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic.† It cost one dollar per term and stationary was provided.† Another school was advertised that was set up by Prudence Crandall in Connecticut.† Miss Crandallís school, as it was called, was also set up to further educate young girls of color.

A great emphasis was placed on the education of the youth, the generation that would grow up in the rapidly industrializing world.† Besides the Young Menís Literary and the Female Literary Association, and the schools mentioned above there were also the Boston Minorís Exhibition Society and the Garrison Juvenile Society.† The Boston Minorís Exhibition Society's exhibitions were also held on Belknap Street like many other gatherings of the time period, and the group was overseen by William C. Nell and John S. Shepard.

The Boston Lyceum was an organization that gave a series of lectures.† While now prominent black names appear on their list of officers or in their listed membership , it is known that blacks were allowed to attend their lectures [7] , but perhaps because of dues many never became permanent members.† Another reason could be because black organizations were providing lectures as well, and in this atmosphere they could control the activity as well as participate more openly and freely. [8]

The Adelphic Union Library Association had lecturers each meeting.† Besides exhibitions and elocutions, the Association meetings also were known to mix in "a choice selection of vocal and instrumental music."† Article Five of its constitution states the objectives of the society "shall be promoted by appropriate exercises consisting of lectures, the use of philosophical, chemical and astronomical apparatus, together with the use of the library and such other apparatus as shall be deemed expedient." [9] † Lectures were provided "In order to secure Ďthe greatest good for the greatest number.í" [10] † Lecture topics included a lecture on the Nipnet Indians by Mr. John Fatal, and a lecture on the theater given by John W. Brown, Esq.

As the title suggest the Aldephic Union Library Association was formed as a library.† In an article found in The Emancipator and Free American there is a request for books on topics such as ancient and modern history, mechanical arts, and elementary books on science.† On top of books there was also a request for instruments useful in the pursuit of knowledge in areas such as astronomy, chemistry and electronics.† For those who wanted to contribute but had no books or aforementioned instruments monetary donations were accepted as well. [11] The Emancipator, like The Liberator, kept black society informed on local gatherings with an office located on 32 Washington Street and 25 Cornhill Street.† The Aldephic Union Library Association gathered in many local Boston venues such as the Smith School and Lyceum hall. [12]

Demographics of leading members of the Adelphic Union Library Association can be found in a document on this website.† The President of the Library was Joel W. Lewis who resided in various residences in Ward 6 between 1834 and 1847 where he then moves to Chelsea.† Like Nell and Snowden, Lewis seems to be in some strata between middle and lower class and is listed as a blacksmith in both 133 and 1863.† As documented, many members of the leadership work in skilled areas, but many are also waiters or clothes cleaners.† While most seem to appear to have worked somewhat steadily throughout the time period studied, not all have middle class occupations.†

The Boston Philomathean Society was also devoted to purchasing a library by raising funds through donations.† They also appealed to the public for donations of books, maps and documents of any kind.† Founders of this society, which was most likely based upon the New York society of the same name, thought that a library was absolutely indispensable.† There is also documentation about such a society in Philadelphia as well. [13] † Two members of the Philomathean Society are known through a eulogy given at the Baptist Meeting House (now known as the African Meeting House) in Boston.† It was given by Charles Fraser on the character of Lucius Bellinger, Esq.† Both had been members of the Philomathean Society, which published the eulogy as a broadside.

Besides literature, blacks were branching out into theater as well.† William Cooper Nell developed a Histrionic Club where he wrote and directed plays for members. [14] † Also known through The Liberator was "The Black Siddons," also known as Mrs. Webb.† She performed works by Shakespeare, Sheridan and Mrs. Southworth at the Melonaon.† Her charm and charisma were dually noted by the Boston Atlas.† To entice people to come view her she would recite dialogues at the Tremont Temple to induce people to come.

Along with theater there were many groups that dabbled in the vocal arts.† Juvenile choirs as well as the Amateur Society put on various concerts that were advertised in The Liberator.† In the article on the "Concert of the Sacred Music" numerous names are mentioned as participants.† The group had "a great combination of musical talent and skill".

The Choir of St. Paulís Church also advertised that they would be having a "Sacred Concert" in the Belknap Street Baptist Church, which as you can see was a very common place to hold such gatherings.† One concert was given by the juvenile choir of a primary school, while another juvenile choir was run by a Miss Rachael Washington.† Miss Washingtonís choir performed "Children of Jerusalem" while the primary school choir performed several pieces including those entitled "Our Father in Heaven," "Song in the Woods," and "The Lark."

There is much to learn about such theatrical and literary societies and more to uncover about their important but overlooked role they played in the Boston black community and similar communities in the North during that time period.† It is clear that the black intellectual movement goes beyond hymns and other oral traditions, and many blacks were trying to not only improve their station in life, but also improve themselves intellectually.† In many cases the two seem to go hand in hand.† Blacks in antebellum America created their own parallel society that allowed them to control their own actions and express their own ideas and emotions.†



[1] Elizabeth McHenry, Forgotten Readers, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dorothy B. Porter, "The Organized Education Activities of Negro Literary Societies," http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/negrolit.html (10 Sept. 2003).

[5] Elizabeth McHenry, Forgotten Readers, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002).

[6] "Constitution of the Afric-American Female Intelligence society," http://www.irw.rutgers.edu/research/ugresearch/
organize/afriaamerican.html
, (9 Dec. 2003).

[7] Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).

[11] The Emancipator and Free American, Vol. I, No. 45, Whole No. 111, p. 179.† Boston, January 13, 1842.

[12] The Emancipator and Free American. September 29, 1842.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Donald M. Jacobs ed., Courage and Conscience, (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press) 216.

 

 

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