An intellectual sparring ground

Ted Langston Chase | 2/4/2009, 5:12 a.m.

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By 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court had repealed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and legislation to make lynching people of color a federal crime turned the county’s nonchalance toward the issue into heated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laws could be drafted to replace the protective legislation that had been enacted between 1875 and 1877, only to be repealed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883?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.