- America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark by Nikki M. Taylor
Peter Humphries Clark (1829–1925) is a forgotten, or at least little-known, figure in African American politics and intellectual history. There have been a number of short examinations of Clark’s life, including those by David Gerber, Winston James, Philip S. Foner, and Herbert Gutman, but there has never been a full-length biography of “America’s first black socialist.” Making the most of limited and scattered sources, Nikki M. Taylor has corrected this error by piecing together a wonderful political biography of Clark. In the process, she has produced an important book that reveals much about politics on the local and national level in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and African Americans’ response to the changing social and political landscape of the period.
Taylor begins by describing Clark’s life in Ohio and the influences the black and white communities of Cincinnati had on his educational, religious, and political development. Taylor then methodically documents the many “voices” Clark articulated throughout his lifetime. As an active member of the antebellum black convention movement, Clark became a “voice of emigration” in the 1850s; in the 1880s, Clark was a “voice of dissent” and “voice of betrayal” advocating the Democratic Party; and beginning sometime in the 1840s, he was the “radical voice” embracing socialism. Taylor also pays close attention to Clark’s relationship with other prominent African Americans, such as John Mercer Langston, Frederick Douglass, and T. Thomas Fortune.
Central to Clark’s activism was his unyielding advocacy for the education of the African American community. Taylor weaves discussion of Clark’s educational activism throughout the biography, beginning with his fight for African American access to public schools, his suit to get Cincinnati to release African American tax revenue, the creation (in 1866) of the all-black John I. Gaines High School, and his career at Charles Sumner High in Saint Louis, Missouri. Of particular interest is Clark’s debate with Douglass and James McCune Smith over the merits of industrial education versus higher education, in which Clark favored classical education and [End Page 472] Douglass and Smith advocated the necessity of training men and women in the trades—a debate that would be famously revived fifty years later by, among others, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.
With America’s First Black Socialist, Taylor makes several important contributions to African American history, not least of which is the recovery of Peter H. Clark’s life for a new generation of scholars. Through Clark she also reveals the vibrancy and complexity of African American social and political thought in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With clarity she demonstrates how Clark’s intellectual thought was influenced by a vast variety of traditions, from both within and outside the black community. These included the strong German workingmen tradition, which would introduce him to socialism and labor activism. A freethinking tradition, through the ideas of Thomas Paine and others, influenced his ideas of social equality and universal manhood and ultimately led him to Unitarianism. Two other influences were the African American church tradition and the abolitionist tradition, both of which educated his thinking on protest. In addition, Taylor sheds light on Clark’s numerous contributions to African American life and history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Clark was indeed “America’s first black socialist,” but he was also a Republican, a Democrat, and an educator. Like so many of his contemporaries, Clark used whatever means he could to define a life for himself and the African American race in the changing social and political landscape of abolition, emancipation, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow.
shawn leigh alexander, associate professor of African and African American studies at the University of Kansas, is the author of An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle before the NAACP (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).