Today we visit Reverend Alexander Crummell.

 

Reverend Alexander Crummell 1819-1898

Reverend Alexander Crummell 1819-1898

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Episcopalian priest, missionary, and educator, Alexander Crummell was founder of the American Negro Academy in 1897, America’s first major black scholarly society. As a religious leader and an intellectual, he advocated for educational opportunities and leadership among young black Americans.

Born in New York City in 1819, the grandson of a West African chief and the son of a free mother, Crummell attended the Quaker-operated New York African School as a young man. Among his classmates were other future black leaders: Henry Highland Garnet, Ira Aldridge, and Samuel Ringgold Ward.

Due to his race, Crummell was denied entrance to General Theological Seminary. Despite this setback, he went on to receive his theological education in the Diocese of Massachusetts. In 1842 he was ordained to the diaconate and two years later to the priesthood by the Bishop of Delaware. In 1844 he established a small mission in Philadelphia where he became involved in politics including the campaign for equal suffrage and the abolition of slavery. After being excluded from the Pennsylvania diocesan convention, Crummel left the diocese and moved to England in 1848 where he graduated from Queen’s College, Cambridge in 1853.

As an early advocate of the colonization of Liberia, Crummell went to Africa in 1853 as a missionary and served at four parishes and on the faculty of Liberia College. Crummell believed African Americans needed a moral and spiritual revival and viewed Liberia as the place to accomplish this. Here was an opportunity to create a model Christian republic where blacks could experience a racial uplift with the Episcopal Church providing a moral and rational discipline. Making visits to the United States, he advocated the emigration of blacks to Africa and for African self-help.

After running into opposition and indifference in Liberia, Crummell settled in Washington, D.C. in 1873 and became “missionary at large to the colored people.” He focused on founding and strengthening urban black congregations that would provide worship, education, and social services for their communities. In 1883 when the Southern Bishops proposed that all black congregations become separate missionary districts, Crummell organized the Conference of Church Workers Among the Colored People (succeeded by the Union of Black Episcopalians) in protest.

A prolific writer, Crummell published articles, sermons, and three books: The Future of Africa: Being Addresses, Sermons, etc. Delivered in the Republic of Liberia (1862); The Greatness of Christ and Other Sermons (1882); andAfrica and America: Addresses and Discourses (1891). He continued his campaign against racial oppression and the promotion African American leadership until his death in 1898.

His private papers are located at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

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I saw Alexander Crummell first at a Wilberforce commencement season, amid its bustle and crush. Tall, frail, and black he stood, with simple dignity and an unmistakable air of good breeding. I talked with him apart, where the storming of the lusty young orators could not harm us. I spoke to him politely, then curiously, then eagerly, as I began to feel the fineness of his character,—his calm courtesy, the sweetness of his strength, and his fair blending of the hope and truth of life. Instinctively I bowed before this man, as one bows before the prophets of the world.
—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Like Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell embraced the controversial belief that African Americans could, and should, return to Africa to colonize the nation of Liberia. The son of a slave father and a free mother, Crummell was born in New York City in 1819. Crummell was educated at the New York African Free School, and, as was the case with other graduates of the school, Crummell had difficulty gaining access to higher education. He attended schools in New Hampshire and Oneida, New York. He was ordained a minister at the age of 25. Unfortunately, race excluded him from equal commerce with white clergy in the United States, and he moved to England, where he received a degree at Queens College, in Cambridge.

Crummell spent over twenty years as a missionary to Liberia. In doing so, he occupied a thorny position—he came from a land which discriminated against his race, armed with the very beliefs in African inferiority that had made his own life so difficult. As a Christian minister, he sought to “civilize” Africans by bringing them Christianity to replace their own native customs and religious practices. In 1880, Crummell founded a school and a church in Washington, D.C.

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