- More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829–1889 by Stephen Kantrowitz
The Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment all seem to invite a relatively straightforward narrative for African American history, clear dividing points that mark the end of one story and the beginning of another, the conclusion of slavery’s disturbing chapter in U.S. history and the beginning of the story of freedom. Of course, the war, the proclamation, and the amendment were neither clean endings nor solid beginnings, but the messier story of African American history is harder to shape into a compelling narrative. In More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829–1889, though, Stephen Kantrowitz proves himself up to the challenge, and he provides a magnificent example of how to avoid the seductions of easy beginnings and endings by simply recognizing that slavery was not the sole or even the defining issue for African American activists before the Civil War.
This study of the “leading members of Greater Boston’s black community” is a story with many beginnings, and many intertwining narrative lines (8). To his great credit, Kantrowitz doesn’t simply assume the existence of a “black community” but instead looks at the mechanics of its formation and maintenance. He considers the organization of the black community—through schools and churches, lodges and libraries—to be central to the story he needs to tell. “In the face of widespread poverty and hardship,” he writes, “early-nineteenth-century black Bostonians formed Baptist and Methodist congregations, created mutual aid societies, established schools to serve their children and literary societies to cultivate their minds, and gave new life to the oldest institution of them all, the city’s black Masonic lodge. These organizations became the training grounds for a generation of black leaders. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, activists became ready to undertake broader and more ambitious feats of organization” (20). Collectively, these associations lead one into a history that cannot be reduced to a single political cause or social movement. The African American leaders central to this history were devoted to something “more than freedom,” something as complex and significant as recognition and citizenship. [End Page 573]
Kantrowitz tells the story of self-described “colored citizens,” African Americans excluded from the usual forums of citizenship but determined to establish their claims through their own organizational efforts. Kantrowitz takes his central term from David Walker’s influential 1829 manifesto, Walker’s Appeal, which was directed to “the coloured citizens of the world, but in particular, and very expressly, to those of the United States of America.” Although he does not address the global citizenship suggested by Walker’s title, Kantrowitz explains the formation of a class of “colored citizens” in the United States, which includes some of the leading black men and women of the nineteenth century (though women play a relatively minor role in Kantrowitz’s account). Included are William Wells Brown, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, George T. Downing, Leonard Grimes, Lewis Hayden, Robert Morris, William C. Nell, George L. Ruffin, and David Walker, among others. Although his focus is on Greater Boston, Kantrowitz presents the city largely as one among many centers of African American life, “one island in an archipelago scattered across North America,” and thus addresses the “development of the networks and alliances”—with other communities and organizations, and with white allies—that involved Boston leaders in the necessarily national struggle for recognition and rights (8).
In his focus on citizenship, Kantrowitz addresses a defining strand of African American intellectual and cultural history—the politics of respectability, the asserted hope behind Du Bois’s later emphasis on a “talented tenth.” For the African American leadership class he studies, Kantrowitz explains, “‘citizenship’ meant being legally and politically vested, but it also meant something more: bonds of trust and even love across the color line. It meant knowing and being known; it meant a warm welcome to...