Thursday, May 30, 2024

Dissertation Topic and Focus


            My approach to my dissertation research topic is specifically informed by the idea of the “long civil rights movement” that is, there is an ongoing and long-running struggle for equality of rights and opportunities for African Americans that pre-dates the twentieth century. While this is generally recognized by scholars this continuity is less well-known in popular understanding in regards to Black history. In addition to recognizing that the fight for Black civil rights extends into the early 1800s, a significant element of this history is the ways that theological justification both for and against racial equality has been used. This debate continues into Reconstruction and into the twentieth while also being joined with other cultural streams and arguments. For example, justification for applying Jim Crow laws to church polity in New Orleans was based on external cultural movements. Some scholars, such as Ed Blum, argue as well that while white northerners were motivated by theological arguments toward equality, more located justification in these same arguments for maintaining the color line. Du Bois, Douglass and others fully recognized at the time the connection between religious arguments and racial equality, referencing it often in their speeches and writings.[1] During this same time, Black ministers were preaching against segregation, urging cultural and political change.

            One such individual was Francis Grimké. Francis Grimké, (1850-1937) ,who was born a slave, coming out of a family of abolitionists was a minister in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, DC. Grimké produced a significant number of sermons, addresses, pamphlets, and other materials during his lifetime, many of which were directed at social conditions, particularly the color line, effecting Black life both in Maryland and nationally.  While Grimké has been quoted and referenced, his life and worth has not received significant scholarly attention since Henry J. Ferry’s 1974 biography Francis James Grimke: Portrait of a Black Puritan. Carter G. Woodson also published a 4-volume collection of Grimké’s writings in 1942 entitled The Works of Francis J. Grimké. Grimké’s life and work is a specific example of seeking to use his position and place to influence not only his own parishioners but general thinking about racial equality. He regularly published his sermons, issued pamphlets, and taking care to share his work broadly, using printed materials to do so.

            Chandler Owen (1889-1967) was a close friend and associate of A. Philip Randolph. In fact, much of what is known about Owen is due to the letters between him and Randolph. They were co-editors of the Messenger (1917-1928) a significant Black periodical that sought to influence Black approaches to popular culture while voicing opinions and debates about Black life in America.  While Owen was not connected with a specific religious denomination, he invested significant time and energy in the Messenger. Owen’s role as a magazine editor in a predominately secular publication demonstrates the ways that which the African American community sought to influence and encourage one another as they encountered racial violence and hostility. While Owen has been noted in biographies about Randolph or in studies of the Messenger, his work and life would benefit from being re-examined.  

            Grimké and Owen’s work and life have not previously been compared or studied together. While it is not currently clear if they met, they ran in similar circles and geographies. In this study I am hoping to uncover some of these connections in tracing the ways that religious/theological arguments were made in support of equality, such as Grimké made, and ways that other, secular arguments were also made, particularly at the turn of the century, such as Owen made in the pages of the Messenger. While neither ever achieved the public significance or fame of a Du Bois, Wells, or Douglass, they are important figures in understanding the variety of ways that African Americans, particularly in the northern states, sought to influence thinking regarding racial equality.

            Both Owen and Grimké made a habit of living their life in public, in making arguments in public for racial equality and abolishing the color line. While historians are notorious for publishing books with titles like “the lost history of…” or “the unknown history…”, neither Grimké or Owen have truly been forgotten. Instead this study proposes using the details of their life and work to consider how they approached the fight for racial equality and the ways that this influenced the ongoing fight for civil rights. I am hoping to find connections between their life and work that demonstrate their approach to this fight. I’m also interested in tracing the ways that Grimké and Owen built on top of existing networks and print culture to find audience and distribute their works. The fact that there remains archival items to study from each of these men does mean that there were enough copies produced to survive. Furthermore, historical events can be easier to relate to when there narratives that help us connect our understanding of a particular time with an individual. Thus, Grimké offers an understanding of living through and engaging Reconstruction as he and Owen both, from the perspective of two different professions, living through and engaging the events around racial violence particularly at the turn of the century.

            In my master’s thesis I argued for a framework, defined as civilizer theology, which broadly reviewed American racial history from the early 1700s to the present day.[2] This current project is an opportunity to focus in on a particular time period that has tended to be somewhat overlooked by historians, and even, the general public, in considering the history of civil rights. I am excited to work closely with the writings of Grimké and Owen, contextualizing their life and work within broader social and historical movements as a contribution towards a fuller understanding of the long civil rights movement in this country.

[1] For a brief discussion of Du Bois’ relationship to religion, this is an excellent summation:

[2] That thesis is available in full text here:

Friday, October 7, 2022

Family History: An Brief Ethnography


Tracking family history can be tricky. Most of it is oral and the familiar parts get told so often that they become more than familiar, they become rote. That sense of over-familiarity can cause those stories to seem less important, less remarkable. At the same time, the character of these stories are connected to their story-tellers. The moments around the dinner table or standing around the kitchen after cleaning up from a birthday party or Christmas dinner when some moment triggers a story. These are rarely recorded but these stories are, for better or worse, fundamental to the way we consider and remember our family histories.

For example, when my kids ask “what am I”, meaning what nationality I tell them we’re Scottish but with an Irish last name. No one is quite sure how that happened. There are vague stories of horse traders or maybe even horse thieves but nothing for certain. The one thing I do know for certain is that I’ve seen my last name is carved into the wall at Ellis Island, the result of my paternal great-grandfather passing through on his way to New Jersey.  My paternal grandmother, Jemima, was born in the US but traveled back and forth to Ireland in the 1940s, not the best time for transatlantic boat voyages. According to family lore, she was on the Lusitania’s penultimate voyage on one of these trips. My grandfather, Frank, would meet my grandmother some time in their late teens as they were both living in Cliffwood Beach, NJ. They would get married, raise three boys, and my grandfather would work for UPS until retirement. Nominally Catholic they would take my father’s conversion to evangelical Christianity quite hard.

On the other hand, my wife’s paternal grandmother, Gladys, was raised on a farm in Alberta, Canada. She rode a horse to school, shipped gophers on hand-made boats down the creek, and smoked a corncob pipe. One of our favorite family photos of Gram is a black and white shot of her leaning against a rail fence, smartly dressed, with a rifle in her right hand and the corn cob pipe in the other. She made it through eighth grade before leaving school to help with the family farm. Gram left Canada at 17 as the tour nanny to the children of a country and western singer named Wilf Carter, who is best known as the “father of Canadian country music.” It was on one of Carter’s tours of the states that Gram met Bob, a 18 year New Jersey boy with a 10th grade education. Bob would work for years in the telecom industry starting as a linemen for New York Telephone, staying with the company as it was acquired by Bell Telephone and later again by AT&T. However Grandad, in family history, was best known for his love of farming. For many years he maintained 30 acres of corn, regularly sowing, planting, and reaping well into his 70s. To the distinct chagrin of my father-in-law who went gray very early on, Grandad retained a full head of black hair for years. This caused people to ask, when they were out together, if the two men were brothers.

I possess significantly more stories about my wife’s paternal grandparents, Gladys and Bob, known as Grammie and Grandad, for several reasons. First, they both invested time in their kids and grandkids. For many years, they hosted birthday parties, Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween. They were generous with their time, food, attention and even money. They were both people of deep Christian faith who passed that on to my father-in-law. I had privilege of knowing Glady and Bob for about eighteen years and spent, frankly, more time with them than my own grandparents because of their investment in their family. My kids got to spend quality time with their great grandparents. We also walked together through Grandad’s brain cancer in 2017. The week before Gram died in 2020 we spent an hour together, talking, telling stories, and telling her we loved her. Her favorite thing was to have grandkids on her lap so of course the last pictures of us together was with our youngest on her lap.

These are not historical moments. However they are deeply impactful to the lives and practices of how we understand and practice family. The example of my paternal grandparents in their investment into the lives of their children, their grand kids and great-grand kids, is an important historical touchstone to the way the family sees itself and holds itself together.

After Gram died in 2020, one of the deepest senses of loss was selling their house because that was the site of family gatherings. However my sister-in-law, Kelly, and her husband Chris, moved into a manse, close by to my in-laws that featured a wide grassy expanse with plenty of room for everyone. While we live in multiple states, we still regularly gather together to write the next chapters of our family’s history.


Friday, September 9, 2022

Calvin Colton

 America, as an experiment in democracy and religious liberty has grappled from its inception as to the degree that liberty, religious liberty, and slavery were connected. This discussion was particularly heightened around the topics of slavery and abolition in the early to mid-1800s. While abolitionists would argue that there was certainly connection between these three in favor of abolition, a contrasting body of argument was also constructed during this time. These were arguments against abolition, that slavery was natural, was protected by liberty, and as such, was expected and normal in the regular everyday state of affairs.[1] Not a few of the arguments came from those who claimed Protestantism as their religious practice.  

One such example can be found in the writing of Calvin Colton. It’s very likely you have never heard of Calvin Colton whom one author summarizes as “…an anglophobic, ex-evangelical Whig; an Episcopalian, millenarian conservative; a gradualist utopian deeply troubled by the market where he made his living…”[2] Colton managed to live in remarkable and historical times in ways that were markedly unremarkable. Colton came of age in a fraught period of time in American history, graduating Yale College in 1812 and from Andover Theological Seminary in 1814. Following his ordination in 1816, Colton would pastor for the next decade in western New York’s Burned-Over District, a region profoundly affected by Second Great Awakening. Following his wife’s Abbey Raymond’s unexpected death in 1826 as well as being troubled by a persistent throat infection, Colton left the pulpit and traveled for several years in frontier regions of the Midwest. He would then live in England  from 1831-1835 where he worked as a freelance writer and a part-time newspaper correspondent. He would return to the US in 1836 writing and teaching until the end of his life in 1850. Colton was also Henry Clay’s biographer and published his papers, though Colton’s biography of Clay was panned as “uncritical and unreliable.”[3]

In his 1839 book, Abolition, a Sedition Colton argues that “slavery…is a corporate part of the American political fabric, established by Constitution law, and interwoven with the frame of the Federal Government.” [4] Colton reprises the old argument that “it is better to be a slave in America than a free man in Africa…that the best conditions of African barbarism could never be envied by the worst of American slavery.” He further argues that slavery offers the opportunity to “…learn, that God, in his high and inscrutable provide, can bring good out of evil… by the lights of American civilization, and the blessing of American Christianity….”[5] These bear out two points. First that Colton is not terribly original in his thinking. The argument for slavery as beneficial dated at least from the 1700s as did the argument that removing slavery would disrupt society. Secondly, while Colton is correct that God can bring good out of evil, one should not blame God for evils perpetuated by mankind. However it is in the “lights of American civilization” that Colton also saw God’s role in American society.  In what would prove to be his last address in 1850 to Congress calling for a transcontinental railroad, Colton argues “God, in his providence, by the operation of the stupendous machinery of man’s collective power…has precipitated these great and startling events…”[6] “These great and startling events” referring to addition of states to the Union as well as the technological improvements that would allow for a transcontinental railroad to be built. Colton marks an argument throughout this

A prolific writer, Colton was neither an original thinker nor much of a stylist, but he was influential in his day.”[7] Colton’s writings stand in as prime examples of someone who embraced technological advancement and progress as signs of God’s favor on America. At the same Colton held, as many others did, that slavery was an essential piece of American life and could not be removed without doing significant damage to the fabric of America. Thus, Colton’s writings can be read as standing in for many other Americans at this time who argued for a “American Christianity” that promised technological advancement, commercial success and inevitable progress but was not meant to be extended to enslaved people.


[1] America’s robust religious print culture not only supported these discussions through a wide variety of printing presses and fairly high literacy rates but also provides a rich archive of primary source materials for historians to engage. On this see Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America edited by Charles L. Cohen and Paul S. Boyer.

[3] Cave, Alfred A. "Colton, Calvin (1789-1857), clergyman and author." American National Biography. 1 Feb. 2000

[4] Colton, Calvin. Abolition a sedition. G.W. Donohue, 1839. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926, 13.

[5] Colton, Calvin. Abolition. 97

[6] Colton, Calvin, United States. Congress, and Smithsonian Institution. A lecture on the railroad to the Pacific : delivered August 12, 1850, at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, at the request of numerous members of both Houses of Congress. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1850. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926, 5.

[7] Cave, Alfred A. "Colton, Calvin (1789-1857), clergyman and author." In his article, Bratt references Cave's entry on Colton as being one of the prime sources of biography on Colton. The most recent book-length treatment of Colton's life was published in 1969. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

#critlib Homework

I've been thinking about this post since Kevin Seeber posted his homework task in preparation for tomorrow's #critlib feelings chat. *Warning: there are feelings below.*

Why are you a critical librarian? 
For me, #critlib serves as means for ongoing exploration, discovery and curiosity. The crit(ical) of critlib while benefiting from theoretical underpinnings or input does not require those underpinnings. The critical view is looking at library services, place (physical/digital) and philosophy and asking who is excluded by these practices, what unnecessary barriers are in place and what can I, in my role, do to change that. For me the theoretical, philosophical stuff is awesome. Not that I am seeking to get lost in esoteric philosophic discussions. The investigation and interrogation of theoretical frameworks is really interesting to me and to have opportunity to discuss and share info about these ideas is awesome, particularly as I don't have the opportunity to do this in my job.

Why do you identify with these ideas?  
Everything connects. The library is a interdisciplinary space, a juxtaposition of opposites and #critlib is the opportunity to engage interdisciplinary thinking to juxtapose seemingly opposite ideas and see what emerges.
#critlib has proven to be an incredible opportunity to connect, both physically and digitally, with librarians who are thinking about and doing library stuff in really fascinating and awesome ways. The drive in #critlib to push towards praxis based on historical, theoretical and philosophical underpinnings, is I think, essential to ground and understand the current environment in which we operate, how to potentially change that environment and resist as necessary. #critlib is an encouragement that being intellectually curious and a librarian are not separate entities but instead a challenge to how that curiosity and passion can feedback into being a more compassion, generous and caring librarian and individual.

Why do you participate in these chats?
I don't always have the chance to participate in the chats but I often lurk and almost every single time there is the opportunity to at least consider a position, idea or source that I haven't previously. That is the joy and power of #critlib.