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An intellectual sparring ground

Ted Langston Chase

Jourdain went on to describe the situation in New Bedford, where some residents understood fully the value of “material advancement.”

“… For while we number only about 1,700, we pay taxes on real estate the assessed valuation of which is about $330,000.00; and our percentage of men in business for themselves averages well with other races,” Jourdain wrote.

But as Jourdain rightly pointed out, industrial training and high moral values were only part of the solution.

“Love of personal history, a jealous defense of their rights and liberties have been the dominant traits of every people who ever achieved anything admirable, and we believe those traits to be prime essentials of the Negro American today,” Jourdain wrote.

Uplifting the race

Historians and scholars have agreed that this period was especially difficult. The end of Reconstruction was marked by the demise of so-called “Radical Republican” control of the Congress around 1877. A cautious reconciliation between North and South seemed apparent, as did the drastic turn away from the campaign for equal rights for blacks.

By 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court had repealed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and legislation to make lynching people of color a federal crime turned the county’s nonchalance toward the issue into heated debate that was eventually silenced in the halls of U.S. Congress.

In 1901, Congressman George White of North Carolina was the last of the blacks that had been elected to Congress during or just after Reconstruction. The bill he introduced to make lynching blacks a federal crime during his last term had been unanimously defeated.

Given the political calculus at the time, the radicals had more questions than answers.

What laws could be drafted to replace the protective legislation that had been enacted between 1875 and 1877, only to be repealed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883? Who would be their allies? How would they replace the legal mechanisms that granted black Americans their basic rights during the Reconstruction era?

And questions aimed at Booker T. Washington were particularly sharp.

In a Dec. 17, 1903, letter to Washington, Jourdain and two others wrote: “We want to put the question fairly: do you believe it necessary for the support and maintenance of Tuskegee that you should bow subservient to unreasoning and senseless southern prejudice and opposition to the civil and political rights of black Americans? Do you believe it serves to elevate the Negro when you not only fail to speak out in condemnation of such unjust and humiliating proscriptions as ‘grandfather’ clause suffrage provisions, and ‘jim crow’ car laws, but actually seek to find something good to say about them?”

In response to Washington’s public policies and national legal setbacks, individuals and groups across the nation called for “mass meetings” with personal and public pledges to “uplift the race.”

On an increasing basis, everyday working-class blacks attended mass meetings in black churches, black women feverishly mobilized their own for the right to vote and newspaper journalists singled out those who appeared to be assuming leadership in black America. Oftentimes these meetings and attendees were identified by their location. Thus the participants eventually became known as “Boston Radicals,” “Niagarites,” the “Niagara Movement” and the “New Bedford Annex.”

New Bedford: The host city

In spite of its size, when it came to meeting places for the black elite, New Bedford was in the company of cities like Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta and New York City. All of these cities played host to some of the country’s more esteemed black intellects and leaders. Newspaper publishers, lawyers, public figures, physicians, academicians, suffragettes, businessmen, the self-made and top-flight intellectuals all passed through or were welcomed in these cities, just as they were in New Bedford and in households such as E.B. Jourdain’s.

The roster of Niagarites that either frequented Arnold Street, or knew of it, expanded to include Mr. and Mrs. Clement G. Morgan of Boston; Archibald Grimke of Boston; Dr. Rebecca Cole, a physician and graduate of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania; and Mrs. Ida Gibbs Hunt, a graduate of Oberlin College.

The male-dominated Niagara Movement charged men a $5 fee for full membership and a $1 associate membership fee for women. Nonetheless, the membership anxiously listened to the platforms and campaigns of men such as W.E.B. Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter and Booker T. Washington.

Washington included New Bedford on his national lecture tour. He traveled with a secretary and aides who meticulously recorded the impact of manual skills, apprenticeship and personal initiative training in black communities up and down the East Coast. Perhaps to a fault, Washington was overly optimistic about the future of black enterprise and its place in America’s free marketplace.

Some argued that he was too oblivious to, or purposely ignored, obstacles such as a lack of access to capital and basic resistance to the presence of black entrepreneurs. His willingness to negotiate, even compromise, to overcome these obstacles brought strong criticism on him and his doctrines.

Nonetheless, as early as 1895, Washington had speaking engagements in New Bedford churches such as United Pilgrim Methodist Church and the New Bedford Unitarian Church. The college he founded, the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., received philosophical and financial support from wealthy philanthropist Warren Delano III, a nephew of Franklin D. Roosevelt and resident of Fairhaven, Mass., just across the Acushnet River from New Bedford. In spite of criticism and debate over his philosophy, Washington continued his campaign and expanded his political clout and close ties to American presidents.

In addition to Washington, Du Bois, a born and bred Massachusetts resident, was also making a name for himself as a candid, often opinionated intellectual with academic credentials that included Fisk and Harvard universities, as well as extended study at the University of Berlin and the University of Paris.

Like Jourdain, Du Bois was one of the “original twenty-nine” organizers who met in Niagara Falls, Canada, in 1905. He frequented Jourdain’s Arnold Street residence and was known to draft speeches, position papers and essays during visits. From 1905 to 1909, Du Bois and others agonized, debated and positioned themselves in this tumultuous political climate. These Niagarities vowed to resolve everything from monies to support their efforts to the various policy issues and political philosophies of one another.

The Niagara Movement was a forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was founded in 1909. However, the NAACP was different from the Niagara Movement in that many of the NAACP’s charter members were wealthy, white philanthropists who sympathized with the plight of African Americans.

While some members of the Niagara Movement were unhappy with their presence and influence, others, like Du Bois, wanted to continue with the overriding mission for addressing inequality and eliminating barriers.

Du Bois rose quickly in the hierarchy of the NAACP, taking the position of editor of the organization’s newest publication, The Crisis magazine. He was later dubbed the father of the “Harlem Renaissance,” a period when black intellectuals, artists and writers dominated Harlem, N.Y.’s art, culture and entertainment. His “Talented Tenth” theory endorsed a reliance on the talents and education of what he had identified as the educated elite of black America; to this day, the theory causes vigorous debate among the black intelligentsia and academics.

Personal opinions and philosophies, no doubt, triggered criticism and heated discussion in these circles. Often in defense of themselves, these men wrote autobiographical pieces that revealed the experiences that made them who they were and explained why they adopted certain policies and opinions. Many of the “Boston Radicals” that frequented New Bedford and households such as Jourdain’s had diverse and sometimes complicated backgrounds.

Du Bois, for example, had a very personal connection to New Bedford. His grandfather, Alexander Du Bois, had been a resident of New Bedford since 1873. In a letter in 1883, Du Bois wrote his mother, who lived in Barrington, Mass., describing his first visit to New Bedford:

“I like it very much here and I am having a nice time. Last night Grandma and I took a walk up the street and visited with some of her friends … We are going on a picnic to Onset Point and on to Martha’s Vineyard to hear Miss Davis an elocutionist. I have not been to meet Mr. Freedmon’s but we will go next week ….”

From his 1921 book “Darkwater” through 1940’s “Dusk of Dawn,” Du Bois continued to write about his grandfather and New Bedford: “… cloaked under a stern, austere demeanor a passionate revolt against the world. He, too, was small, but squarish. I remember him as I saw him first, in his home in New Bedford — white hair close cropped; a seamed, hard face, but high in tone, with a gray eye that could twinkle or glare.”