Volume 15, Issue 1
Reverend Peter Thomas Stanford Pushes Back: The Politics of Antislavery in the Early Twentieth-Century Press
Barbara McCaskill, Professor, Department of English, University of Georgia
Sidonia Serafini, PhD Student, Department of English, University of Georgia
In the late 1890s, Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute’s principal and a former slave, was one of the most recognized black men on the planet. His agenda for enabling jobs and education for post-Reconstruction black southerners also assuaged many white Americans’ anxieties about black economic competition and political empowerment. Another former slave turned educator shared Washington’s politics and vied with him for fame. The Rev. Peter Thomas Stanford, M.A., M.D., D.D., L.L.D., and PhD, was hailed by the Sept. 12, 1903, Richmond Planet as “the next best known man in the work of educating his people to Booker T. Washington.”
Born in slavery in Virginia and raised briefly among Native Americans, Stanford became a writer and educator, an activist against lynching and racial violence, an institution-builder, and the first African American pastor of a church in Birmingham, England. His writings—autobiographies, a pamphlet, a textbook (three editions), speeches, sermons, and newspaper articles—demonstrate the evolution of African American print productions after the Reconstruction. Our forthcoming book on Stanford (UGA Press, 2020) revives the story of his transatlantic activism and cultural politics in Canada, England, and the United States.
Both Stanford (c. 1858-1909) and Washington (c. 1856-1915) wrote and spoke as one against national suspicions about African American intellect, integrity, and respectability. So when pro-Washington newspapers questioned the legitimacy of Stanford’s numerous academic degrees, he had to push back. In our research of the Readex databases, we have uncovered a fascinating story of how he and his supporters retaliated against the papers’ smear campaign. To vindicate Stanford’s reputation, they linked him to the people, places, and events of the American antislavery movement. Their use of symbols and associates from that previous crusade gave credence to Stanford’s post-Reconstruction activism.
Two newspapers challenged Stanford’s character: the black-owned New York Age, whose celebrated editor Timothy Thomas Fortune advised and counseled Booker T. Washington, and Cleveland, Ohio’s Plain Dealer, which was not averse to racist reportage. In “Negro Institution,” a negative report about Baltimore’s Christ’s Medical and Theological College, also known as the Medico-Chirurgical College of Christ’s Institution, the Age questioned Stanford’s ethics. He had served on the college’s board of advisers to raise funds and recruit students, and he had edited one of the school’s catalogs. However, as the March 18, 1909, Age suggested, his respectable service had camouflaged and abetted the college’s rampant corruption, perhaps willfully. In the absence of a rigorous curriculum and faculty, the Age suggested that the college had sold academic titles to students. After all, a state accreditor had fined the institution for conferring “paper degrees.” At the very least, its students may have been conferred degrees for dubious or mediocre effort.
The Age’s motives are not clear. Fortune may have meant to protect Washington’s status by purging his circle of suspected charlatans and frauds like Stanford. On Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 1903, the Plain Dealer’s article titled “A Startling Contrast” more directly attacked Stanford. The newspaper reported about Stanford’s invitation to serve as pastor of Birmingham, England’s Wilberforce Memorial Church, after his earlier successful tenure at the city’s Hope Baptist Chapel. From a childhood as an enslaved person and an orphan, Stanford had climbed his profession and gained an appointment as the first black preacher of an all-white congregation in one of the busiest global centers of industry and invention. Yet, the Plain Dealer was dismissive of this achievement. It called him “a man of ‘inferior race’” and questioned the authenticity of his many diplomas. As the Plain Dealer jeered, “If they [the Birmingham congregation] have taken him on the strength of his string of affixes they are altogether likely to find that they have drawn a blank.”
When Frederick Douglass had escaped enslavement, he had selected Valentine’s Day to celebrate his birthday. Stanford greatly admired Douglass, and he had proudly reprinted Douglass’s photograph and a letter of praise from Douglass in his massive history textbook, The Tragedy of the Negro (1897, 1898, 1903). Because of its publication on Douglass’s birthday, perhaps the Plain Dealer intended to disparage both of these educated, activist African American men who had formerly been enslaved.
Stanford’s allies fought back against such jabs by aligning him with the antislavery movement. One example occurs in “An Historic Colored Church,” the Nov. 25, 1901, Boston Herald’s report on Stanford’s talk at Joy Street Baptist Church. Joy Street was located in the heart of Boston’s black community (it would later move and become known as St. Paul’s Baptist Church). Such activists as William Lloyd Garrison, the Liberator’s editor; Edward G. Walker, whose father was the antislavery pamphleteer and martyr David Walker; and the black historian William Cooper Nell had rallied there to end slavery. The neighborhood surrounding Joy Street had been home to abolitionists such as Lewis Hayden, whose residence at 66 Phillips Street had been a shelter for fugitives escaping from slavery. When bounty hunters looking for William and Ellen Craft, the fugitive couple escaping from bondage in Georgia, threatened to raid his house, Hayden allegedly responded that he would blow them all to smithereens with gunpowder. Joy Street was thus sacred ground, a symbol of resistance to American slavery and racism. By attaching Stanford to Joy Street, the Boston Herald associated him with the courage and righteousness of an earlier generation of antislavery heroes and heroines.
Perhaps the penultimate example of how antislavery connections served to protect Stanford’s character was the Boston Herald’s Sept. 25, 1905, article, “Defends the Negro.” It notes the day when Charles Edward Stowe, a son of the famous Harriet Beecher Stowe, earned a college degree. None other than Stanford himself conferred this diploma on Stowe, in a ceremony that took place at the very same, allegedly spurious, Christ’s Medical and Theological College which the New York Age and the Cleveland Plain Dealer had disparaged. In presenting the degree to Stowe, Stanford condemned statements about the divine nature of white supremacy voiced by southern state officials. A black man’s conferral of a prestigious degree upon a white man undermined such southerner’s justifications of the former institution of slavery and demonstrated how cross-racial alliances had been crucial to dismantling chattel bondage.
Boston Herald readers would have found it hard to believe that someone whose mother was Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose best-selling book had championed those enslaved, would have sullied her respected name by patronizing a degree mill. By binding Stanford to the son of one of the first ladies of abolition, the Boston Herald helps to vindicate his character as well as defend the good name and reputation of his medical college.
We have been unable to confirm whether Stanford earned all the degrees he says he did. However, we can consider why preserving his “string of affixes” and clamping down on gossip about them meant so much to him and his allies. To post-Reconstruction African Americans, his degrees would have signaled potential and possibility. They would have represented how emancipated and born-free African Americans could and did strive to achieve the impossible through education, application, temerity, and discipline. As well as public glory, Stanford’s personal attainments were at stake. If deprived of the cachet of his degrees, he risked the loss of the hard-won social connections and political capital he had gained through his extensive travels, writings, teaching, and oratory. By inserting his work within the earlier history of antislavery activism, some American newspapers protected him against these hazards.
After such opposition, it is not surprising that Stanford eventually withdrew his support of Washington. Impatient with Washington’s cautious public pace towards black people’s political enfranchisement, Stanford changed heart and shifted allegiances to W. E. B. Du Bois. What his skirmish with newspapers leaves us is a story about the antislavery movement’s effectiveness in validating new black political and cultural activism after its old champions had died or receded from public life. Notably, in our current national moment of increased racial violence and white supremacy, treatments of the antislavery movement such as The Underground Railroad (2016), Twelve Years a Slave (2013), and The Birth of a Nation (2016) have entered American popular culture. Rumor and innuendo have served across time to consolidate the power and celebrity of some at the expense, and to the ruin, of others. Stanford’s story reminds us that pushing back against such falseness moves us closer to the justice, peace, and understanding which he and other early activists imagined and endeavored to make happen.
“Defends the Negro.” Boston Herald, Sept. 25, 1905, p. 7.
“Dr. P. Thomas Stanford in Interests of Higher Education of Negro Race.” Richmond Planet, Sept. 12, 1903, p. 8.
“An Historic Colored Church.” Boston Herald, Nov. 25, 1901, p. 7.
“Negro Institution. Dropped from Carnegie Pension List and Methods Scored.” New York Age, March 18, 1909, p. 1.
Stanford, Peter Thomas. The Tragedy of the Negro: A Condensed History of the Enslavement, Sufferings,
Emancipation, Present Condition, and Progress of the Negro Race in the United States of America.
Boston, MA, Author’s Edition, 1898.
“A Startling Contrast.” [Cleveland] Plain Dealer, Feb. 14, 1903, p. 4.