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Black Founding Fathers: An Interview with Richard S. Newman

Richard S. Newman is Professor of History at Rochester Institute of Technology.  His most recent book, Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (NYU Press), is a long overdue biography of Richard Allen, a prodigious figure in the formation of the black Church. He was interviewed by email.

Who was Richard Allen?

 Allen was a former slave who settled in Philly during the nation's founding era and established one of the first independent black churches in the western world: The African Methodist Episcopal church. He also helped define the meaning of black protest and leadership, shaping visions of equality in Jefferson's time that we are still trying to realize in our time. He's a black founder.

Casting Richard Allen as a black founding father spins the modern obsession with the "secular saints" in a different direction, and certainly impacts assumptions about 18th century black America.  How does he meet the founding father criteria, and what makes his story compelling?   

Because Allen established durable institutions (not only the black church but educational societies and reform groups), we can call him a founder. But he was also preoccupied with the same issues that the elite white founders were: liberty and justice. His understanding of liberty across racial lines at a time when slavery was legal in many states was truly radical; we can only understand the evolution of multi-racial democracy -- something we now hold dear -- if we expand the "Founders” to include the likes of Allen.

The idea of prophetic leadership, a notion thoroughly embraced by scholars such as Cornel West, is central to your argument-what is your definition of prophetic leadership, and how has it changed since the late 18th century?

Prophetic leadership is now something we identify almost exclusively with black preachers but it is a mainstay of American history. Prophetic leadership charts a vision for the future based on both secular and sacred traditions. Thus puritan leader John Winthrop in 1630 had a prophetic vision of a perfect America (a godly community) when he offered a sermon (entitled "Modell of Christian charity") to his fellow New World émigrés. Lincoln offered prophetic leadership in the civil war by saying in his second inaugural that the outcome of sectional upheaval must be a purging of racial sins. Allen was a prophetic leader in two senses: he used black theology to decry American racism, pointing out that the Bible established brotherhood, not slavery, as the word of the Lord. He also believed in the Declaration of Independence -- telling Americans that freedom was the lifeblood of the nation and must be part of African Americans' collective future. So in essence he was predicting black emancipation and equality, if not now in the future, if not in America, than elsewhere in the Western World. Every black leader since has used some version of his prophecy to mobilize black protest and call white society to account for racial injustice.

How did a black man, born into bondage in 18th century America, rise to such prominence and achieve what he did?

Allen was a diligent, shrewd, tactical and ultimately brilliant man. Though not formally educated, he learned to read and write and worked like hell to accrue real estate and monetary independence from whites. He had a determination to overcome not only personal but collective degradation -- to uplift black society in the eyes of the world. But he also benefited from community traditions of protest, collective action and education that saw black achievement as collective. The end of the 18th century saw a whole range of uplift endeavors as emancipation (from northern abolition schemes to private liberation in the south) first ascended in American society. so he is really the most visible part of a remarkable generation of black men and women who made uplift a central part of early black society.

I was interested in the possible connection between Richard Allen and George Washington, whose time spent in Philadelphia overlapped.   What do you suspect their relationship was like, if indeed they knew each other?

These two founders figures may have meet in the late 1790s, when the hard working Allen was hired by Washington's advisors to be the presidential chimney sweeper. Philly was the federal capitol during the 1790s. GW contributed to Allen's new church -- because white reformers told him it was worthy -- and he may have read Allen's yellow fever essay (written with Absalom Jones to critique white racism during the 1793 Yellow Fever tragedy), which called on masters to liberate slaves and fulfill both God's word and American egalitarian ideology. Allen visited the president's house on a few occasions to collect money. When GW died, he eulogized Washington in a most crafty way. Celebrating GW's emancipationist will, he also critiqued Americans who opposed abolition and black equality. It’s a short but complex sermon. When every one else was hailing GW as a war hero and president, Allen called him a model abolitionist. It was like Douglass' fifth of July speech -- a call for Americans to live up to their ideals. White newspaper editors in NYC, Philly and Baltimore were so impressed that they published the speech! 

Gordon Wood has suggested that Americans turn to their founding fathers to reaffirm the values and ideals for which their nation stands. Turning back to Allen, what can we learn about how matters of leadership, race, and faith interact?

Allen is important because he reminds us of two things: our complex racial past and the people who charted our multi-racial future. Faith is an important part of that story, because it inspired the first black uplift projects and the earliest abolition movements. There’s another issue that Wood has talked much about: the perils of presentism, or using our own modern beliefs to critique the past. But Allen lived in Jefferson's day, so he is not a presentist when he critiqued slavery and racism. If he is not in our history books, we are false to the past -- and the promise of America. I wonder what Allen would do if he could see Sen. Barack Obama today!