An overlooked story of two important African Americans who impacted the slavery debate at a critical moment in American history.
Many historians focus on Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Mary Church Terrell as the leading African American civil rights advocates of the 19th century. Yet Duane (English/Univ. of Connecticut; Suffering Childhood in Early America: Violence, Race, and the Making of the Child Victim, 2017, etc.) reminds us of two critical black leaders who influenced the national civil rights debate and symbolized the era’s frustrating potential: James McCune Smith (1813-1865) and Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882). Smith and Garnet met as boys at a New York school and grew to be both friends and rivals, achieving unprecedented honors in a society that viewed black Americans as inherently inferior. Smith graduated first in his class at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and he was the first African American to hold a medical degree and the first to run a pharmacy. His approach to the abolitionist movement was to collaboratively support and work within institutions expanding freedom, often relying on his medical expertise to refute assertions of black inferiority. By contrast, the fiery Garnet used a combative approach as a minister to advocate a kind of black nationalism that, at times, embraced separating black and white Americans as the only way to achieve true freedom. Garnet acquired a reputation as perhaps the most eloquent black orator of the time, outpacing even Douglass in the eyes of many. Duane departs from the traditional biographical format—surveying from childhood to adulthood—and instead weaves biographical events together through a focus on documents at the school Garnet and Smith attended as children. The result creates a provocative tie between their childhood challenges and the work they pursued as adults.
A compelling tale of two boys and their struggle to forge a path for freedom out of a slave nation.