Black History: A Pathway for Change

With national debates raging across America on race relations, patriotism and confederate memorials, I often turn back to history to have a better understanding of the present and future. In fact, the understanding of historical events, places and people can provide not only a pathway to understanding present times, but also a means to a pathway towards positive change for the future. From our family collections I uploaded a nearly 50 year old magazine featuring a set of articles entitled, “Our Black Heritage” from the October 12, 1969 edition of the long obsolete Rhode Island Magazine. Continue reading

The Newport Man Behind the African American Labor Movement

“The Colored, as well as the white laborers of the United States, are not satisfied as to the estimate that is placed on their labor, as to their opportunities, as to the remuneration of their labor, the call for this convention, and the very general and highly intelligent response which I gaze on in you, my fellow delegates, attest. No other class of men would be satisfied under the circumstances; why should we? We desire Union with the white laborer for a common interest.”
– Address of George T. Downing to the Colored National Labor Convention, 1869

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, white laborers would come together and form in 1866 the National Labor Union. The effort would unite skilled and unskilled laborers along with farmers to advocate for an eight-hour work day and better treatment of working men. But racial equal opportunity was not universal nor were all workers regarded as equal in America. As was the custom of the day, African heritage working men were excluded from participation in the National Labor Union.
On the sixth of December in 1869, over two hundred African heritage laborers, mechanics, artisans, tradesmen, farmers and trades-women assembled in Washington, DC to organize the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU). Over several days, working men and women of color would elect Baltimore ship-caulker Isaac Myers president and adopt a broad platform covering relations between labor, education and economic prosperity. Most extraordinary for the day, the CNLU was egalitarian, accepting men and women, skilled and unskilled workers as active members. And unlike the National Labor Union, the CHLU welcomed all workers regardless of race. Fortunately, by the mid 1880’s, the Knights of Labor Union organized under the motto, “An injury to one is a concern for all” and became an integrated organization representing the labor rights of all American workers. Continue reading

Freedom Without Meaning

On this day August 1, 1834 the United Kingdom abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, nearly 30 years before the American Emancipation Proclamation. While British plantation owners received substantial financial compensation for the loss of their slave property, former enslaved African heritage people received nothing. Freedom without reparations. Regrettably, newly freed Africans across the Americas replaced the old chains of slavery with the new restraints of discrimination and segregation. This socio-economic burden would follow far too many persons of African descent even to this very day.

Possibly the most important effort towards slavery reparations , unmatched then and hardly recognized today, took place in 1795 when a group of twenty-eight recently emancipated Africans from Jamaica arrived in Philadelphia under a creative and organized plan to provide a form of reparations – for the personal suffering placed upon enslaved Africans by the owner class of Europe and the Americas.
Quaker David Barclay of Great Britain, recognized today as the founder of Barclay’s Bank, acquired through a settlement of a debt a plantation in Jamaica called Unity Valley Pen.

As a stanch Quaker and Abolitionist, Barclay was driven to not only free the slaves he inherited in faraway Jamaica, he underwrote an international reparations plan connecting Great Britain and Jamaica with Philadelphia, which that at the time had the largest free Black community in the Americas. Barclay had long family ties with Philadelphia and its Quaker community becoming an early member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society under friend Benjamin Franklin’s leadership.

At the direction of Barclay his agents in Jamaica transported the emancipates to Philadelphia arriving on July 22, 1795. The newly freed were placed in the care of the Quaker Abolition Society who had adopted a formal reparations plan entitled, “A Plan for Improving the Condition of the Free Blacks.” The group was initially clothed and cared for through Rev. Richard Allen and the Mother Bethel AME Church and Rev. Absalom Jones of the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. St. Thomas is the first African Episcopal Church in America founded in 1792. Mother Bethel is the first African American AME Church in America founded in 1794. Each of them were set up with access to education and in a trade skill, many as indentured servants with members of the Quaker community.

One of the youngest members of the newly arrived Jamaicans was a boy of eight named October, my great, great grandfather. Upon his arrival to Philadelphia he was renamed Robert Barclay and indentured for thirteen years as a “Windsor Chair Maker.” Robert Barclay would become a successful businessman and active member in black masonic and civic organizations including the Underground Rail Road that was active in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Today, I am blessed to have many heirlooms from the Barclay family household of Philadelphia including an original 1872 printing of the “Underground Railroad” by William Still. I also have been able to follow subsequent generations of Barclay family members into the 19th and early 20th century America as they continued their journey of freedom and prosperity. A journey made possible through an organized effort to provide my ancestor the access to education, training and opportunity that was denied so many other African heritage people.

So what is the value of emancipation and freedom without some method of reparations so that the oppressed have equal access to the means to become self-sufficient? As we celebrate the history of emancipation across the Americas we should also be mindful that emancipation without repairing the hundreds of years and many generations of African heritage people who suffered greatly under that peculiar system is at best, an unfinished effort or at worst, freedom without meaning. Maybe famed African American abolitionist, Fredrick Douglas knew this when he stated in 1876:

“You say you have emancipated us…But when you turned us loose, you gave us no acres. You turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind, and worst of all, you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters.”

 

A FIGHT FOR LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE

July 11th has always been significant to me – after all, it is the day I was born. However, it is also the day, 241 years ago, that my ancestor, Moses Michael Hays stood before the majority government and religious establishment in Newport, Rhode Island to declare his rights of religious freedom and, as now imbedded in the 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution, to enjoy the right to be confronted with any witnesses against him.

On that 11th day of July, 1776, only one week after the fledging Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain, the Rhode Island General Assembly, led by Newport merchant Metcalf Bowler, declared some sixty Newport residents might be “inimical” or hostile to the Patriot cause. These men, including a number of Jewish residents, were required to come before the General Assembly and sign a declaration of loyalty to the American Colonies.

Before recounting how Moses Michael Hays responded to this official request, it is important to know the man and the time and place he lived. Hays was born in New York City in 1739 to Judah Hays and Rebecca Michaels Hays. His parents arrived in New York from Amsterdam in 1729 and were naturalized on the 12th of July of that year, taking the Oath of Allegiance on September 9, 1729. The Hays family became early and active members of New York’s Shearith Israel, recognized today as the oldest Jewish Congregation in America. Judah Hays took his son into his merchant and retail business and, upon his death in 1764, left him the largest share of his assets. In 1766, Moses Michael Hays married Rachel Myers, younger sister of eminent New York silversmith Myer Myers. In 1769, the couple relocated to Newport, living on Broad Street close to the recently completed synagogue and the state capitol within the Old Colony House. Hays was not only a well-known merchant trader, he would also organize and bring the warrant for the Scottish Rite Masonic Order to America.

But on the 11th of July in 1776, Moses Michael Hays was not seen as natural born citizen of America or as a successful merchant and civic leader in Newport, but as someone who might harbor unfriendly beliefs in support of the newly organized United State of America. While many of the accused simply came before the General Assembly and signed the oath of loyalty as written, Hays demanded to stand before the government body and present a letter that expressed not only his rights as a fellow American citizen, but as a member of a religious minority.

Hays refused to sign the oath, electing to instead come before the General Assembly to present a letter that not only affirmed his belief in the revolutionary cause, but also a belief in a just cause that respected religious differences and removed any religious means test for loyalty and citizenship. This was a bold, but necessary action taken by Hays since Rhode Island well before the Revolutionary War, was established as a Colony under the principles of religious freedom, but excluded the full rights of citizenship to those that did not profess the Protestant, Christian faith. Hays letter included this statement:

“I have and ever shall hold the strongest principles and attachments to the just rights and privileges of this my native land. … I decline subscribing to the Test [that is, to take the oath] at present for these principles: First, that I … call for my accusers and proof of conviction, Second, that I am an Israelite and am not allowed the liberty of a vote, or a voice in common with the rest of the voters … Thirdly, because the Test is not general … and Fourthly, … the General Assembly of this [colony has] never in this contest taken any notice or countenance respecting the Society of Israelites to which I belong.”

The General Assembly accepted Hays’ letter and he ultimately singed the oath. After the war, Hays would join others in Newport’s Jewish community to lead the effort to permanently remove any religious test for citizenship through a letter to newly elected President George Washington. This August 17, 1790 letter, signed by the warden of the Newport Hebrew Congregation declared,

“Deprived as we herefore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People, a government, which to bigotry give no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to all liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship, deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.”

Every year in August, Newport’s congregation Yeshuat Israel at historic Touro Synagogue celebrates the exchange of letters between the congregation and President Washington as a remembrance to the importance of unconditional and universal religious liberty.

As founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams sought to establish a “Lively Experiment” where a new colony would be governed by the principles of religious liberty, separation of church and state and most importantly, the liberty of conscience, where each citizen would have the freedom to follow one’s religious or moral beliefs. Moses Michael Hays’ life and his actions on that July date over two hundred and forty years ago, would best embody the freedoms so many of us take for granted today.

A Memorial Day Address

149th Annual Memorial Day Ceremony, Warren Rhode Island

THE WORLD OF WILLIAM BARTON & JACK SISSON
Let me begin with; there may be no more noble a cause than the men and women of the Armed Services who routinely place their lives in danger for our safety and benefit. I dedicate my remarks to those men and women, particularly those who died while serving our state and country. Without them, we wouldn’t be free. Continue reading

Old Glory: The Symbol of One America

Federal Flag over Richmond, April 1865
Image courtesy of Library of Congress

After four long years of blood and war, Union Troops on the morning of April 3, 1865 entered the city of Richmond, Virginia, then capital of the Confederate States of America. Richmond had become the single-minded focus of the Union war effort, in a civil war between Americans of Northern and Southern persuasions that would claim an estimated six hundred thousand combatants. As southern soldiers, officials and sympathizers abandoned Richmond to advancing Union forces on that early morning in 1865, retreating Confederate soldiers set fire to grain and tobacco warehouses. The blaze spread quickly and left a significant part of the city in ruins. Through the chaos of evacuations, sporadic skirmishes and raging fire, one of the first of many Union troops to enter Richmond included a company of men with the Thirteenth New Hampshire Regiment. The memoirs of the regiment have been compiled and published in the “Thirteenth Regiment of the New Hampshire Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion” by S. Millet Thompson, an officer with the regiment. Thompson provides a vivid and detailed account of the events of April 3, 1865, at the fall of the Confederate capitol:

“… There was no flag on the roof of the capitol when I entered the grounds, but within a few minutes it suddenly appeared on the flagstaff on the roof, and immediately afterward I had a conversation with the man who raised it. He was a light colored boy named Richard G. Forrester, living on the corner of College and Marshall. When the State of Virginia passed the ordinance of secession, he was a page or errand boy employed in the capitol. The secessionists tore down the flag and threw it among some rubbish in the eaves at the top of the building. At the first convenient opportunity, he rolled the flag in a bundle, carried it to his home and placed it in his bed, where he slept on it nightly since that time. This morning, he said, as soon as he dared after the Confederates had left the city, he drew the old flag from its hiding place, ran to the capitol with it, mounted to the top and ran the flag up the flagstaff. This was the first flag hoisted in Richmond after its evacuation by the Confederates.”

Forrester Affidavit
-13th NH Regiment Book

Four years earlier, Virginia’s ordinance of secession was ratified on May 23, 1861. Shortly after, the newly constituted Confederate Congress would declare Richmond as the new center of the Confederate States of America. The announcement drew wild celebration on the capitol grounds that was thronged with thousands of rebel revelers. As the federal flag was struck down from atop the capitol building and thrown into the rubbish to be later burned, Richard Gill Forrester, amid the chaos of celebration, rolled the flag into a bundle and carried it to his home a short distance away on College Street. Once home, unknown to his own family, he placed the flag under his bedding, where he would sleep on it nightly for the entire four years of the war. The risk he took rescuing and preserving what was seen by nearly all Southerners at the time, as the symbol of Northern aggression and invasion, was significant.

The city scene on that early morning in April 1865 after four long years of war, was one of turmoil. As fires rage across the city, streets were crowded with people, black and white, slave and free, looting stores and warehouses that were wrecked and abandoned with the approach of Union troops. Some accounts reported that barrels of liquor had been emptied into the streets, the more reckless drinking the running spirits directly from the gutters. In all the fire, smoke and confusion, Richard dashed across onto the capitol grounds and made his way up the spiral staircase that led to the roof of the Confederate capitol. There and then, he replaced Old Glory in advance of arriving Union troops.

Who was this young man and what were his family and life experiences within Civil War era Richmond that would drive him towards such an act of Union patriotism or Southern treason depending upon the point of view of the day? Richard was born into one of Richmond’s prominent free families of color in 1845. His paternal grandfather, Gustavus A. Myers, a successful lawyer and President of the Richmond City Council was a part of Richmond’s earliest Jewish families and during the war years he served as special counsel to Great Britain for the Confederate States of America. Richard’s father, Richard Gustavus Forrester was an offspring of Gustavus Myers and Nelly Forrester, a free woman of color who lived her entire life with members of the Myers family. Richard Sr. was a prosperous dairy farmer and contractor and after the war, would become the first man of color to serve on the Richmond City Council and School Board during the turbulent days of southern Reconstruction.

Young Richard grew up in a multi-racial, cultural and religious family structure that had one important commonality, members could trace themselves back to the founding days before the American Revolution. Richard adored and would be greatly influenced by his great aunt, Catherine Hays who would entertain him with stories of being born in 1776, the year of our nation’s birth, and growing up amidst the upheaval of the American Revolution era in Boston and Newport, Rhode Island. Catherine Hays was also described as a highly opinionated woman with strong “Abolitionist” tendencies, that often times placed her in ideological conflict with some members of her Southern family. She often would take young Richard on walks through Capitol Square, the park-like grounds surrounding the Virginia State Capital and point out the federal flag flying high above. She would reminiscence about seeing the earliest version of the American flag as the fledgling United States fought Great Britain for national independence.

As a member of a Sephardic Jewish family who would escape Old World religious persecution to settle in Newport, Catherine Hays knew far too well the challenges of being part of a minority group and the desire for the young country’s acceptance regardless of their religious belief. Great Aunt Catherine’s ideals along with Richard’s strong family upbringing, would spark a belief in him that would inspire him to carry out that great deed years later as the country was at the very brink of civil war.

Richard Gill Forrester c. 1885
Image courtesy of Stokes Family

After the war, Forrester was appointed to a coveted federal position with the United States Post Office Department during Reconstruction era Richmond. He later moved north to New York City with his young family and took a position with the New York and New Haven Railroad, frequently summering in Newport, the historic home of his Jewish ancestors and where his beloved Aunt Catherine is buried. He lived a full and active life and was laid to rest at the historic Island Cemetery in Newport on Nov. 15, 1909, with military honors by the Lawton and Warren Post No. 5 of the Grand Army of the Republic. His front-page obituary in the New York Age, the leading African-American newspaper of the day, was quoted as saying, “There passed away a soldier who came into prominence by gaining the distinction of being the first man who hoisted the Union flag in Richmond after the Civil War.”

The veterans who buried him honored him as a soldier for his heroic deed. More importantly, why would a young man of color be moved to protect the federal flag that flew over the building that served as the capital of the Confederate States of America? During a time in our country when nearly all persons of African heritage, slave and free, North and South were seen as non-citizens, his actions would provide no future guarantee of civil liberties for himself and family. His daring efforts were well before the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution and a Civil Rights Act that wouldn’t be achieved for another one hundred years of reconstruction and reconciliation before becoming law in 1964.

Perhaps young Forrester acted because, although a Virginian, he believed the state was part of an America that, while not perfect, was and will always be a country of opportunity for all of its people — regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or nation of origin. As he had learned from his great aunt, the American Revolution would bring freedom of religion to all American people and the end of the Civil War could bring personal freedom to all American people of all races. And just maybe, after four years of blood and war, young Forrester and the country were looking for a symbol of a unified America: our American flag.

Historical sources and further reading:

1. “Thirteenth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865:A Diary Covering Three Years and a Day,” Thompson, S. Millet, Houghton, Mifflin, 1888

2. “Personal Memoirs: Phillip Henry Sheridan,” The Century Company, 1890

3. “The Stars & Stripes and Other American Flags,” Peleg D. Harrison, Little, Brown & Company, 1908

4. “A Flag & A Family,” Theresa Guzman Stokes, Virginia Cavalcade Magazine, Spring, 1998

5. “Richmond: The Story of a City,” Virginius Dabney, University of Virginia Press, 2002

6. “American City, Southern Place- A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond,” Gregg D. Kimball, University of Georgia Press, 2000

7. “Virginia at War: 1861,” William C. Davis, University Press of Kentucky, 2005

8. “The Wars of Reconstruction,” Douglas R. Egerton, Bloomsbury Press, 2014

9. “Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital,” Nelson Lankford, Penguin Group, 2003

10. “The American Journey: A History of the United States Combined Volume,” Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2006

11. Obituary of Richard Gill Forrester, New York Age Newspaper, November 25, 1909

12. When Freedom Came, Richmond Free Press, April 2015 by Elvatrice Belsches

A History of American Women Worth Sharing

As someone whose family members date back to the early formation of America, and not always looking like, worshipping like, living like and fitting neatly into what history books would commonly refer to as the early American experience, I have to depend upon my own ancestral accounts to help me understand what America was like for people representing minority racial, religious, and ethnic history. In my case, I am thankful to have many primary documents and heirlooms that recount my American story, and unfortunately, from a perspective that far too many history books have omitted.

Women have made significant contributions to the advancement of our early American culture, not as conquers of land and people, founders of governments and champions of industry, but in many cases the primary source of sustenance for family, home and community. These accomplishments are all the more important when recognizing that throughout most of history, women had fewer legal rights and livelihood choices than men.

Continue reading

Nat Turner Rebellion Aftermath: When There is a Will, There is a Way

Virginia State Capitol c. 1830 by William Goodacre/Richard Forrester c. 1865

Virginia State Capitol c. 1830 by William Goodacre/Richard Forrester c. 1865

From 1800 to 1860, Virginia had more slaves than any other state. African enslavement formed the very basis of Virginia’s successful plantation based economy of raising tobacco, and the more infamous cultivation and selling of slaves to states further south for use on rice and cotton plantations.

But during the late summer of 1831, Virginia’s notion of idyllic ante-bellum life came to a bloody halt with the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion. Nat Turner and his collaborators would start a slave uprising in Southampton, Virginia that contributed to more deaths than any other slave Continue reading

A Black History Lesson for the Democratic Party in 2016

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Mr. & Mrs. James Carr – Easton’s Beach c. 1917 Stokes Family Collection

Recently I posted an image on Facebook of my great aunt and uncle at Easton’s Beach in Newport, RI around 1917. I noted my aunt, Lillie Forrester Carr was an early African American graduate of Julliard and went on to become an accomplished music teacher in New York. Her husband, James Dickerson Carr would become the first African American graduate of Rutgers University and later earn a law degree at Columbia University. Continue reading

A Long Journey to Justice

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Arriving in Jamaica, met by Culture Minister Honorable Olivia Grange, June 2016

For me, my African heritage ancestor’s trials of enslavement is not a distant historical occurrence, but something that shaped my family life then and to this very day. I have studied the subject extensively, lectured in many historic cities and countries, and I have been fortunate to preserve many family heirlooms dating back to the early days of slavery. This past June I had the very emotional experience of walking the grounds of the Pen (Livestock Plantation) in Jamaica where my maternal African-Jamaican ancestor was born into slavery during the late 18th century. What made the experience even more significant was to have the descendant of our family’s enslaver join me to retrace the events of 221 years ago that led to one of the most notable mass slave emancipations in history. So here I am walking down a solitary dirt road in Unity Valley within St Ann’s Parish of rural Jamaica, an African heritage man from America walking with a European heritage man from England with the shared family name of Barclay, and historical connections to the founders of Barclays Bank. Continue reading