The commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, on Feb. 22, brought to mind his death, in 1799, and two significant events that happened later. Washington’s last will and testament revealed that the slaves he owned would be freed upon the death of his wife – and a black activist minister named Richard Allen used that rare declaration in an unprecedented call for racial justice.
“Unbiased by the popular opinion of the state in which is the memorable Mount Vernon,” Allen wrote, “he (Washington) dared to do his duty, and wipe off the only stain with which man could ever reproach him.”
Deftly crafted and widely published as a eulogy, Allen’s words were as much a stab in the heart of the nation’s hypocrisy as it was a tribute to Washington: If white people truly respected the first president, they would follow his example – abolish slavery and end the oppression of black people. Preferably, before the slaveholder had died.
Literate, articulate and resourceful, Allen had written and distributed what would become one of the nation’s earliest civil-rights-advocacy documents. He would also help found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which became one of the largest, most powerful black-owned institutions in the world.
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These were astounding accomplishments for a black man who was born a slave in Delaware on Feb. 14, 1760.
As the nation recalls George Washington’s fight for freedom – as a war hero, founding father and president – it would certainly be worthwhile to remember as well the simultaneous fight for black freedom and the lessons of its most influential leader.
“Allen tried to make sure that African Americans always focused on self-determination, uplifting each other and maintaining the struggle for equality,” said Richard Newman, a history professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of “Freedom’s Prophet,” a biography of Allen.
“He really believed that African Americans needed to stay organized to challenge racial injustice. He believed that black leaders, in particular, had a duty to speak truth to power.”
In his early 20s, Allen worked at odd jobs and saved $2,000 to purchase his freedom. He then set out to free other black people – body, mind and soul. The path to liberation that he laid out has stood the test of time.
“When you look at Allen, you see a man who – through education, business ownership and spirituality – was very effective at countering racist ideology and stereotypes of black people,” said William Lamar, pastor of the Metropolitan AME Church in the District, founded in 1838. “If black people were going to stay in America and not go back to Africa, as some were contemplating, Allen believed that we would have to create institutions that we control. It was obvious to him that whatever institutions were created by others would be controlled by them with their best interest in mind.”
As a freedman, Allen moved to Philadelphia – the first city to begin the gradual emancipation of enslaved people. There, he started a chimney-sweep service. Among his customers was George Washington.
“He’s seeing a city that is going through the emancipation process and he’s getting a preview of what American reconstruction might look like,” Newman said. “Blacks and whites possibly working together, attending schools together.”
But there was growing discontent. Philadelphia was becoming home to the largest group of freed blacks in the country. Many whites didn’t want blacks sharing public spaces, nor did they want to attend integrated schools.
Allen and others attending a white church were ushered out for trying to pray with whites. So, they decided to start the AME church. Allen also established the Free African Society, a political and charitable organization that aided anyone in the black community who needed support and advocated for racial justice.
The society made loans, gave money to help pay for medical services, found legal help for free blacks who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery and provided clothes, housing and education.
“He’s telling black people not to get discouraged, just keep striving and things will get better,” Newman said.
By the 1800s, however, Allen was not so sure.
Cotton was becoming king of American agriculture. More and more whites were starting to believe that slavery was justified by God. As the federal government prepared to move from Philadelphia to Washington, Allen worried that Maryland’s slave laws would prevail and that more black children would be destined for a life of bondage. Veterans of the Revolutionary War were dying out – along with memory of what it meant to live in the land of the free.
Allen was 39 when he wrote the eulogy to Washington.
“The eulogy is really a challenge to the nation to do what Washington did and confront the abomination of slavery, not run from it,” Newman said. “Don’t pretend that slavery doesn’t exist or that it isn’t having a detrimental effect on the nation.”
Allen told the nation’s leaders: Embrace emancipation and strive for racial justice – or reap the wrath of God.
Within a few years, a civil war had torn the nation apart. And still, the fight for racial justice continues.
Courtland Milloy is a Washington Post columnist.