Celebrating the Black Revolutionaries of Haiti at a Bowdoin Commencement
by Andy O’Brien
In 1819, just months after John Brown Russwurm entered Hebron Academy, his studies were cut short when a fire burned down the school’s main building. Historian Carl Patrick Burrowes has raised the question of whether it was an arson in reaction to the school’s admission of a Black student. This kind of racial violence was not unheard of in New England. The integrated Noyes Academy in nearby New Hampshire was burned down by a white mob in 1835. But as the 19-year-old Russwurm wrote to a friend at the time, he considered the Hebron Academy fire “as the judgement [sic] of Heaven” for the strict Christian academy’s “treatment of the few independent souls who resided with them during this past year.”
Life wasn’t easy for the young, mixed-race student. After losing his father five years earlier, his loving stepmother took him in as one of her own. But having split his childhood between Jamaica, Quebec and Maine, he didn’t feel like he fit in anywhere. Unable to come up with the money to finish his studies, he set out for Philadelphia, New York and Boston to teach at Black schools for a while. At that time, urban free-Black communities were setting up mutual aid societies and schools to educate Black children shut out of segregated white schools. Through this work, Russwurm met many of the prominent Black leaders and intellectuals of the day.
As Burrowes writes, several of these Black leaders had a shared interest in West Africa and Haiti, because many of them self-identified as belonging to a “diasporic African nationality.” That’s why so many of the institutions founded by Black communities in the Northeast — like the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia (established in 1787), the African Free School of New York (1787) and the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, Maine (1831) — referenced Africa in their names. It was clear that white society would not accept them as equals, so they created their own spaces.
The Rev. Thomas Paul, founder of the first Black Baptist church in the U.S. (now known as the African Meeting House, in Boston), helped Russwurm get a job teaching at the African School of Boston. Rev. Paul was a prominent abolitionist and an early proponent of African American emigration to Haiti, the first Black Republic in the Americas. The heroic victory of Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ revolutionaries over Napoleon’s colonial forces in 1804 captured the imaginations of African Americans in the U.S. and became a symbol of Black liberation. Paul even experimented with organizing emigrants to move to Haiti, with the support of Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer, in 1824, but Blacks who tried to settle there found life much more difficult than they had imagined.
Russwurm’s stepmother, Susan Hawes, even urged him to emigrate to the newly founded, free-Black American colony of Liberia, in West Africa, where she believed he would be more accepted and could more effectively use his talents. But Russwurm “firmly declined,” Burrowes reported.
Russwurm eventually saved up enough money from teaching to go back to school and was accepted to Bowdoin College in 1824. He was one of the first African Americans in the U.S. to go to college, and his admission to Bowdoin was very controversial among the white community. In his book, The Struggles of John Brown Russwurm: The Life and Writings of a Pan-Africanist Pioneer, 1799-1851, Winston James quotes one of Russwurm’s friends who recalled that Russwurm was “mainly in his tastes and acquirements, a literary man.… His reading was very extensive, yet select. His main fort[e] was history and politics, particularly modern Europe, in which he excelled.… His family and Library were to him the world.”
James wrote that Russwurm’s fellow students were probably respectful and collegial toward him, but he likely felt out of place due to his age and race. He initially travelled 19 miles, from North Yarmouth to Brunswick, to attend Bowdoin, but according to one account, he could never gain admission into a stagecoach, so he frequently missed classes while he waited for better weather. He later boarded at a carpenter’s house in Brunswick, at the edge of town, instead of staying in the campus dorms with the other students.
Nevertheless, he did make some friends and was invited to join the “prestigious and liberal-minded” Athenæum Society. The Society’s membership included the future novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. However, fellow Athenaean Horatio Bridge wrote that Russwurm often didn’t respond to his and Hawthorne’s invitations to join them for social occasions because his “sensitiveness on account of his color prevented him from returning calls.” Russwurm’s friend James Hall described him as:
Exceedingly sensitive, amounting even to jealousy, and having once lost confidence in a person, he seldom, if ever, re-acquired it. He was usually very reserved and distant to strangers, never opening himself until he was satisfied he had no evil to apprehend in so doing. He was exceedingly jealous of any allusion to his position in society as a colored man, and it required the greatest delicacy in the choice of words to render even praise acceptable to him, when coming from a white man. Few, probably, have suffered so much from such causes of this nature as Mr. Russwurm.
It’s hard to imagine the sheer volume of racist micro-aggressions he must have had to put up with on a daily basis. Russwurm was very proud, despised being condescended to, and had no patience for patronizing white people.
When it came time for the Class of 1826’s commencement in September, Russwurm was selected as one of the speakers at the ceremony. Never shy of controversy, he chose as his topic, “The Condition and Prospects of Haiti.” Nothing struck as much fear into the heart of American slaveowners as the mass slave insurrection that overthrew the slave-master regime in Haiti and its potential to inspire enslaved people in the South to rise up. The U.S. government refused to recognize the Black republic until 1862, and the U.S. military repeatedly intervened in Haitian affairs, destabilized the country and supported brutal dictators there throughout the 20th century.
But in 1826, Russwurm’s pro-Haiti speech in Maine received glowing reviews. As Portland’s Eastern Argus reported, Russwurm looked nervous at first but soon regained his confidence and spoke “in a manly tone of voice, accompanied with appropriate gestures.”
“Knowledge follows revolutions and travels over the globe,” Russwurm began. “Man alone remains the same being, whether placed under the torrid suns of Africa or in the more congenial temperate zone. A principle of liberty is implanted in his breast, and all efforts to stifle it are as fruitless as would be the attempt to extinguish the fires of Etna.”
Haitians, Russwurm continued, are a “brave and generous people,” and if “cruelties were inflicted” on the whites during the revolution, it was because Haitians were forced to retaliate against the cruel tactics of the French commanders.
“Shall expostulate with men who have been hunted with bloodhounds — who have been threatened with an Auto-da-fe’ — whose relations and friends have been hung on gibbets before their eyes — have been sunk by hundreds in the sea — and tell them they ought to exercise kindness towards such mortal enemies?” Russwurm asked. “Remind me not of moral duties, of meekness and generosity. Show me the man who exercised them under these trials, and you point to one who is more than human.… [T]he cruelties inflicted by the French on the children of Haiti have exceeded the crimes of Cortez and Pizarro.”
Russwurm concluded with the hope that Haitians had “laid the foundation of an empire that will take rank with the nations of the earth,” as “an enterprising and growing population which is determined to live free or die gloriously will advance rapidly in all the arts of civilization.” He looked forward to a time when “Haiti, treading in the footsteps of her republics, shall, like them, exhibit a picture of rapid and unprecedented advance in population, wealth and intelligence.”
The speech was received with “hearty applause,” and the Argus described it as “one of the most interesting performances of the day.” It was picked up by several other newspapers in the Northeast. The Baltimore-based abolitionist newspaper, The Genius of Universal Emancipation,ran Russwurm’s address under the headline “African Eloquence.” One old woman at the event was said to have remarked, “Well I do declare, that Negro has done the best of them all.”
Earlier that year, Russwurm expressed interest in either studying medicine in Boston or emigrating to Haiti, but after turning down an offer from the American Colonization Society to be a superintendent of schools in Liberia, he ended up moving to New York and became involved in the abolitionist movement. It was there that the now 27-year-old Ruswurm and a Black Presbyterian minister named Samuel Cornish founded Freedom’s Journal, a newspaper dedicated to informing and educating the Black community.
In some ways the two men were quite different. Cornish was devoutly religious, while Russwurm, according to Winston James, was likely a deist who believed that religious truth should be subject to the authority of human reason, rather than divine revelation. But they were both staunchly abolitionist and their newspaper was focused on Black self-improvement, educational uplift and the general elevation of African Americans. Freedom’s Journal included international and local news; opinion columns; weddings, births and deaths of members of the Black community; literature and ancient African history.
In its inaugural issue, published on March 16, 1827, Russwurm and Cornish made clear that the paper was by and for the Black community. “We wish to plead our own cause,” they wrote. “Too long have others spoken for us.”
Thus began the brief, but fiery, run of America’s first Black newspaper.