Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Carter G Woodson, Berea College (Kentucky) and the term 'Scotch-Irish' yet again

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When on honeymoon nearly 20 years ago, we stayed at Boone Tavern which is part of Berea College in the town of Berea, Kentucky. This was the first integrated college in the South, established in 1855 by a Presbyterian minister called Rev John Fee and his wife Matilda Hamilton Fee. Here we are at the Tavern door, back in July of this year, struggling to take a 'selfie'. It is a wonderful place, one of the ‘Historic Hotels of America’.

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Berea is named after the town referred to in the Bible in Acts chapter 17, the chapter from which the College took its motto: "And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth".

One famous black graduate of the College, in 1903, was Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950), regarded as the ‘Father of Black History’. His remarkable intelligence resulted in a PhD in history from Harvard University in 1912. In 1916 Woodson founded the quarterly Journal of Negro History, in which he frequently spoke of his lifelong rural neighbours as 'Scotch-Irish', and demonstrated a sound grasp of our history. His essay 'Freedom and Slavery in Appalachia' (link here) is still today regarded as a landmark, in which he says that:

"… the strongest stock among these immigrants, however, were the Scotch-Irish, "a God-fearing, Sabbath-keeping, covenant-adhering, liberty-loving and tyrant-hating race" which had formed its ideals under the influence of philosophy of John Calvin, John Knox, Andrew Melville, and George Buchanan.

By these thinkers they had been taught to emphasise equality, freedom of conscience, and political liberty ... when they demanded liberty for the colonists they spoke also for the slaves ... the ideals of the westerners were principally those of the Scotch-Irish, working for "civil liberty in fee simple, and an open road to civil honors, secured to the poorest and feeblest members of society" ...

they therefore hated the institution [of slavery] ... on the early southern frontier there was more prejudice against the slave holder than against the Negro ..."

In later publications he wrote these words:

“… In the States of Kentucky and Tennessee friends of the race were often left free to instruct them as they wished. Many of the people who settled those States came from the Scotch-Irish stock of the Appalachian Mountains, where early in the nineteenth century the blacks were in some cases treated as equals of the whites …"

“… Statistics of this period show that the proportionately largest number of Negroes who learned in spite of opposition were found among the Scotch-Irish of Kentucky and Tennessee. Possessing few slaves, and having no permanent attachment to the institution, those mountaineers did not yield to the reactionaries who were determined to keep the Negroes in heathendom. Kentucky and Tennessee did not expressly forbid the education of the colored people …"

“…  A considerable portion of the abolition literature which influenced  public opinion appeared in the Genius of Universal Emancipation, published by Benjamin Lundy. Through this organ the sentiments of a large number of antislavery people living in the Appalachian highland found expression. They were descendants of the Germans and Scotch-Irish immigrants who came to this country to realize their ideals of religion and government, differing widely from those of the aristocratic planters who maintained a slavocracy near the coast …"

“…  In the very heart of the South, however, the Presbyterians did not fail to aid the instruction of Negroes wherever public opinion permitted it, although they had to confine themselves largely to verbal instruction. In the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, where the Scotch-Irish element dominated, there was no diminution of ardor in the religious instruction of the Negroes…"

 

Bear in mind that these are the words of America's foremost Black historian, a PhD born in New Canton, Virginia, on the fringes of the Appalachian mountains, and educated in West Virginia and Kentucky, a son of former slaves and who lived among the Scotch-Irish people. These are not the imaginings of some ancient expatriate Ulster Presbyterian relic, reminiscing about 'the bygone days of yore' from his retirement manse, waiting for the next annual Congress of the Society to come round. That’s a bit cheeky of me, but you get my point.

Some editions of the Journal are online. Here's the very first edition. If you text-search it, you'll see the term Scotch-Irish appears 14 times. It wouldn't be that frequent in a full year of today's Belfast Telegraph.

“A God-fearing, Sabbath-keeping, covenant-adhering, liberty-loving and tyrant-hating race”. That, in the words of none other than Carter G Woodson, is the Scotch-Irish. 

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