A Moving History from the Era of Jim Crow

By Alfred Brophy

I’ve been talking about African American intellectuals, their literary output, and the era of Jim Crow a bunch of late.

One of my favorite works of history is W. Sherman Savage‘s The Controversy Over the Distribution of Abolitionist Literature, 1830-1860 (1938), by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Why has it won this place in my heart? In part because of the conditions under which Dr. Savage (who was a professor of history at Lincoln University) wrote and published it–in the dark days of Jim Crow. Its newsprint paper testifies to the difficult economic conditions of its publication. Yet, despite the hardships of being an African American scholar of extremely modest background and means, Dr. Savage persevered.

I first fell in love with this volume when, as a third year law student (now many, many years ago) I was working on the response to abolitionist literature that was mailed through the United States mail to southern slaveholders and free blacks alike. The abolitionists’ campaign was a shrewd one–to use that great engine of commerce, the mails, to get their ideas into the hands of people where they might have an impact. The response testifies to the power of ideas to liberate us as a people.

Savage’s volume collected a lot of wisdom and presented it in simple and therefore elegant prose. And as I wondered about why such an important work was printed on such, well, inexpensive paper it dawned on me that this was the case because this was likely all the publisher could afford. Ah, further testimony to how ideas can find expression and an audience, even when they are not clothed in the trappings of wealth and majesty.

It’s further testimony to the perseverance of people who sought to tell the truth in those dark days–and were able to help our country remake itself.

Savage’s book is also a reminder that the mainstream academy does not always address issues of importance to African Americans. As Christopher Metzler’s been talking about here of late, we need to be careful to produce scholarship of importance to the African American community–and to our country as a whole. Similarly, we ought to be very suspicious of our colleagues who tell us that issues of race aren’t important or that we’ve already learned what we’re going to from research on race.

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