The Rains by Sulayman Clark About Dr. Clark Media Resources Store Contact Information
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Author’s Message for Educators & Parents

Bringing History to Life

“The use of history is to give value to the present and its moral duty.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Rains is a historical novel that is, in every way, inspired by real life persons and actual events. In this regard, I thought it might be useful to explain to my readers (and parents and educators in particular) how and why I came to write it. My reasons for writing it are just as important as the novel itself, in that that it fills a critical void in the literature. Specifically, this novel offers important and often neglected interpretations of “free persons of color” in America that are absent in our curriculums and classroom discussions. Bringing these interpretations to life is my essential literary objective and my foremost pedagogical intent. While it is a work of fiction, it is nonetheless grounded in extensive historical research. Thus I owe a significant debt of gratitude to various faculty members, archivists and administrators at Cheyney University, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Harvard University who gave me generous support and the means to conduct the archival research that under girds this closely interwoven and fact-based story.

My reasons for writing this novel may be of interest to my general readership and to teachers of history in particular. I hope the latter will elect to use this novel as supplemental reading for high school and collegiate courses. I want to assure such teachers that I wholeheartedly believe in the effectiveness of historical fiction and its power to stimulate learning, visualization and a sustained interest in a given historical period. More specifically, I believe in the pedagogical value of historical novels that artfully and emotionally connect the reader with important historical figures. In that regard, I have tried to be mindful of the adage that “historical fiction should be good fiction as well as good history.”

However, I want students who read this particular novel to be able to distinguish historical fact from the instances of literary license that I have taken in order to tell a compelling and coherent story. Thus, this postscript includes a biographical overview, which I hope will encourage further study and help readers to differentiate actual historical personages from the novel’s fictional characters. In addition, I include herein, a brief chronology of events that provides a framework for the novel’s historical sweep. I have structured the novel to follow the flow of these important historical events. This chronology is offered as a guide for readers to contextualize the story and better understand the salient occurrences that shaped the lives and fueled the strivings of the novel’s real life characters.

I should also lay bare my personal reasons for writing this novel. I believe that many of history’s “lessons” can be found in the efforts of our forbearers who envisioned new worlds and who today, beckon us to a flowering of our fullest humanity. They have much to teach us about how our world came into being and how we might make it better. Herein lays the critical (and often overlooked) linkage between history and hope.

Through the years, I have come to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson who argued that, “the use of history is to give value to the present and its moral duty.” If that be true, I hope this novel will leave students (and adults alike) with a heightened sense of moral duty and a deep reverence for life that characterized the real live historical persons about whom I have written. Now more than ever, I believe these remarkable men and women are worthy of thoughtful remembrance and are useful subjects for ethical reflection.

If nothing else, the aforementioned research has convinced me that the moral foundations of our nation were established by people of all ages, races and religions who responsibly exercised the blessings of liberty and were willing to extend those same liberties to others. It was they who courageously kept the quest for a greater America alive. Today, that quest must be carried on by our young people and those who possess an understanding of the past that enables them to see beyond narrow self-interest and stretch their historical imagination in both a backward and forward direction.

Armed in this manner, they will be better prepared and inclined to address the challenges and responsibilities of their times. I believe this type of historical consciousness can help them become more responsible citizens and responsive seekers of a better America and hopefully, a better world. Through this novel, I wanted my readers to hear the “ voices for American liberty” from previous generations and amplify their own voices in like cause.

* * * * *

My journey in writing this book began in 1981 when I was invited back to my alma mater, Cheyney State College (now, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) to help index, catalogue and preserve some recently discovered rare archival materials that have since come to be known as “the Dorsey Collection”. William H. Dorsey (1837-1923) lived in Philadelphia and was a part of a small but active group of African American bibliophiles and collectors of African Americana who had an avid interest in history and historical preservation. The Dorsey Collection consisted of several biographical profiles of “notable Negroes” who had distinguished themselves in one way or another.

The collection also included manuscripts, correspondences, photographs, artifacts and first edition books that were published in the middle to latter part of the nineteenth century. The centerpiece of the collection (for me) was over 350 “home-made” scrapbooks containing newspaper clippings of invaluable worth. In brief, it was Dorsey’s practice to cut out newspaper articles and paste them in hand-made scrapbooks that he had constructed. (2) Most of these scrapbooks pertained to noteworthy people and events that occurred between the period of 1850-1902. Some of the scrapbooks also covered a broad range of topics and reflected Dorsey’s diverse interests in the fine arts and in Native Americans.

The historical value of these scrapbooks derives from the fact that they provide us with a window into this fascinating period and allow us to see how important (and sometimes mundane) events were interpreted by the print media using eyewitness accounts. Their value as primary source materials cannot be overstated, particularly given the fact that most of these newspapers are now defunct. In assessing the worth of this collection, Charles L. Blockson, a devout collector and a prolific scholar on the African American presence in Pennsylvania wrote, “I remember how impressed I was with the scope and breadth of Dorsey’s work when Sulayman Clark, Director of the Dorsey Collection Preservation Committee, asked me to appraise the collection in 1979.” (3)

Unfortunately, the incredible Dorsey Collection was in very bad shape at the time. When I first became involved with the collection, most of these scrapbooks were brittle and moldy and would literally crumble in my hands. My primary task was to have them microfilmed and then placed in acid-free containers in an area that provided proper temperature and humidity controls. The task of organizing and interpreting them would come later. Suffice it to say, the collection had been grossly neglected and mistreated for decades. It was reported to me that most of Dorsey’s scrapbooks were discovered in the bottom of a janitorial closet in an administration building on the campus of Cheyney University. Worse yet, they were minutes away from being thrown into a trash dumpster when a maintenance worker had the good sense to bring them to the attention of Herbert Womack, the then vice president for development at Cheyney University.

The story gets better from there. Recognizing and appreciating the value of these rare archives, Dr. Womack directed one of his grant writers, Maurice Saidy, to try to secure some external funding to preserve and restore (as much as possible) the entire Dorsey collection. Mr. Saidy subsequently wrote and secured a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and thus was born the “Ethnic Studies Project” at Cheyney. I have often wondered how and why those scrapbooks found their way to Cheyney and into that closet. Clearly, their presence in that ignominious resting place seemed to betray Dorsey’s expectations and discounted his painstaking efforts to preserve a rich historical legacy.

Speculations abound, but the facts as I understand them, are these. Dorsey died in 1923. At that time, Leslie Pinckney Hill was the President of Cheyney and served in that role from 1913 to 1951. I have discovered some correspondence between the two men and have thus substantiated their acquaintance with one another. So it is reasonable to assume that Dorsey, or perhaps one of his descendants or representatives, handed over the collection to Dr. Hill and Cheyney for safekeeping. (4) Dr. Hill was himself a writer who had a keen interest in history. He retired from the university in 1951 and died in 1960. That is where the trail ended (for me).

Apparently, the collection languished in obscurity at Cheyney for decades before it was “rediscovered” in 1979. In 1991, Haverford College professor Roger Lane published an award-winning book about Dorsey entitled, William Dorsey’s Philadelphia and Ours. In it, he graciously identifies me as one of the people who helped “unravel the history” of the collection. (5) However, I must confess that many questions regarding the transference and custodial care of the Dorsey collection have still not been answered; at least not to my satisfaction.

While conducting an initial inventory of this priceless collection, I discovered a book that I had previously seen in reprint but had never read. Today, I count it as a singular blessing that it caught my attention. It was a first edition of The Underground Railroad by William Still, which was published in 1872. In it, Still provides detailed first-hand accounts of various attempts by black and white citizens to assist fugitive slaves in escaping the horrors of southern bondage. (6) Most of these rescue attempts succeeded against great odds. Others ended in heart-breaking disappointment and tragedy. William Still punctuates his book with letters between himself and a broad network of “conductors” and helpers who kept the Underground Railroad running amidst great danger and prosecution. Their risks significantly increased after 1850 when the United States Congress, with the support of President Milliard Fillmore, passed the nefarious Fugitive Slave Act, which imposed harsh penalties on those who dared to aid and abet runaway slaves.

Since Still’s death in 1902, historians and writers have referred to him as “the Founder” or “the President” of the Underground Railroad. Regardless of the accuracy and appropriateness of such appellations, there is no denying the pivotal role William Still played in the abolitionist movement. He interacted with countless social reform advocates and distinguished himself as a competent and committed leader. He gives every impression of being efficient and quite humble (a rare combination these days). By all accounts, his contemporaries viewed him as a serious-minded man of unassailable good character. People who knew Still, knew that he did not traffic in hyperbole or unsubstantiated claims. Thus, generations of historians have come to appreciate him as a reliable eyewitness and an important participant-observer of his time.

Like William Dorsey, Still was a meticulous chronicler of history. Both men were part of an active enclave of African American historians and both were residents of a close-knit community in South Philadelphia known as the Seventh Ward (or the Cedar Ward as it was sometimes called). Thus, it is not surprising that many historical figures found in the biographical profiles of the Dorsey collection also appear in Still’s book where they are recognized and saluted for their Herculean efforts to purge the land of slavery. To summarize, it was my eye-opening exposure to both of these men’s works that inspired me to write this historical novel. I distinctly recall being emotionally and intellectually overwhelmed by my “discovery” of Still’s book and other equally invaluable primary source materials.

cattoBy 1982, the “Ethnic Studies Project” was in full gear and I plunged deeper into this treasure trove of information. That was the year that I fortuitously stumbled upon one of the Dorsey scrapbooks entitled “The Trial of Frank Kelly”, the man accused of murdering Octavius V. Catto. It sharply piqued my curiosity and I immediately began to wonder why William Dorsey (and the Philadelphia newspapers) had taken such a keen interest in this trial. Quite naturally, I wanted to know who Frank Kelly was. Who was Octavius Catto? And, what prompted Kelly to murder him? As you can imagine, these simple questions alone required quite a bit of research. So I went back into the Dorsey collection in search of answers. Anyone who has conducted archival research can attest to the fact that it is as daunting as it is enjoyable. Curiosities are heightened as one fact leads to another and the researcher, not unlike an investigative reporter, attempts to comprehend relationships, piece together evidence, reconstruct certain events and understand the human motivations that may have caused them. The answers did not come quickly but suffice in say, it was a revelatory and very satisfying journey.

Octavius V. Catto was a popular teacher and social activist who was born to a prominent clergyman, Rev. William T. Catto and his wife Sarah. (7) The Cattos lived in Philadelphia and were active in religious circles, social organizations and local political affairs. That involvement brought Rev. Catto (in particular) into close contact with William Still and other leading abolitionists and political activists of the period. Given that involvement, one might reasonably assume that Octavius Catto’s educational aspirations and political activism were nurtured at home.

Within months, I believed that I had sufficiently answered the key questions surrounding the Kelly trial and the tragic death of Octavius V. Catto. However, other curiosities had surfaced in this process. I came to “discover” a whole community of African American educators, clergymen and social activists who lived during the period of Octavius Catto’s brief life (32 years). They too were featured in the Dorsey archival materials and were accomplished men and women and staunch abolitionists. Many of them were “free persons of color” (as they sometimes referred to themselves) and were quite active in the operations of the far-flung Underground Railroad.

* * * * *

I want to digress for a moment and offer an important observation. As a child (and an adult), I never had a taste for reading about or discussing the stunning cruelty and unspeakable horrors of the Atlantic slave trade that brought millions of Africans to America against their will. Nor have I ever had an appetite for learning about the immense brutalities and barbaric oppressions that were visited upon my ancestors when they arrived on these shores over three hundred years ago. For me and countless others, slavery in America is a very uncomfortable subject. Yet it is one that must be honestly and thoughtfully interpreted to children and even older students. Unfortunately, this is all too often, not the case.

As a result, many contemporary African American students form the simplistic generalization that they are merely the descendants of an entire race of enslaved and defeated people. This type of sweeping generalization often leads them to avoid the subject of slavery altogether (perhaps not unlike how one might try to suppress a bad memory); and the consequences are disastrous. Blatantly false and careless historical interpretations and their inferences can contribute to a negative individual self-image, racial self-loathing and a dysfunctional collective consciousness that leads our young people to distance themselves emotionally from a vital part of their historical and cultural heritage. Scores of books (fictional and non-fictional) have addressed this subject in depth and have underscored the existential anger, defeatism, cynicism and bitterness that are engendered when children view themselves as being culturally inferior and historically victimized.

In my judgment, this problem of historical interpretation persists today and has many psychological ramifications and lingering effects. Moreover, those effects are perpetuated and exacerbated by widespread negative stereotypes of African Americans that so often appear in popular literature, textbooks and in numerous television shows and movies. In the aggregate, these stereotypes continue to reinforce characterizations of black slaves as nothing more than passive and pitiable victims. After all, there is a world of difference between viewing one’s ancestors as being slaves instead of being enslaved and fighting valiantly to break the iron grip of their social oppression. The former interpretation is defeatist in nature while the latter is life-affirming and largely consistent with the historical record.

In addition, many writers rarely if ever approach their historical subject matter or fictional character development from the unique perspective of free men and women of color. This is an inexcusable omission and one we as educators should no longer tolerate. Enslaved African Americans put up staunch resistance to the practice of slavery. And free persons of color worked on a number of fronts to agitate for the universal abolishment of slavery. They were the backbone of the Underground Railroad and gave mightily to the cause with their time, money, resources and their very lives.

* * * * *

I continue to have many reservations about how we approach the study of history and how we introduce and interpret it to our young people. My concerns also center on the widespread practice of dispassionately teaching history solely as an academic discipline that has little or no personal and cultural relevance to the lives of students. I believe that we are continuing to overlook history’s unique potential to fortify the existential grounding of young people. Moreover, we are squandering its ability to contribute to the formation of positive self-identity and social awareness. In essence, if we would teach history with both passion and precision, we can assist students in understanding who they are as individuals and where they are in the stream of time.

In the twenty-five years following the discovery of the Dorsey collection, countless books and articles were written which finally gave the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century the attention it so richly deserves. After all, not since the Revolutionary War had our nation experienced such an important and sustained movement for social justice and civil rights. Yet, I still have my doubts about whether these materials are being appreciably read and recommended by teachers and curriculum specialists in our public and private schools. And, again, one must search far and wide for films and fictional literature written from the distinctive vantage point of free men and women of color operating as bold, purposeful and influential citizen-activists.

* * * * *

Returning to the subject at hand, my first impulse (after completing the Dorsey project) was to write a biography of Octavius V. Catto in order to bring him to the attention of a broader audience. Rarely had I encountered such an historical figure who was so roundly admired and universally respected. He was by all accounts, “the stuff of legend”. And no writer would have difficulty in casting him in a heroic mold. Catto was a man of broad talents and unbridled courage. His efforts to desegregate public transportation predate Rosa Parks’ brave stand by almost a century. His political leadership and subsequent martyrdom (at an early age) are reminiscent of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. And, as if that were not enough, his athletic prowess and role in creating a professional Negro baseball league in the 1860s foreshadows the pioneering achievements of Jackie Robinson who helped to integrate Major League baseball in 1947.

Octavius V. Catto

Fortunately, the legend of Octavius Catto has grown significantly in Philadelphia and beyond. In recent years, he has been the subject of scholarly research, newspaper articles and theatrical productions. There is even an initiative afoot to erect a memorial in his honor at Philadelphia’s City Hall. And, that is as it should be.

My personal interest in Catto has not waned in the least since I first encountered him through my involvement with the Dorsey preservation project. However, my interests have widened and the pedagogical purposes of my writing and research have become more focused. Succinctly put, I no longer view him as merely one of Philadelphia’s most favorite sons. For me, he embodied the aspirations of a long line of dynamic activists and free persons of color.

Catto’s short life span (1839-1871) overlaps with the turbulent antebellum period, the Civil War and the volatile and uncertain reconstruction era. As a child, he grew up in a city that was a hotbed for the abolitionist movement. In addition, he lived at a time when Philadelphia and other major cities experienced recurring waves of anti-black violence and were enacting and enforcing pro-slavery laws. Beyond that, “the City of Brotherly Love” was stubbornly holding to policies and practices designed to reinforce the second-class citizenship of free persons of color, black migrants and other “undesirable” ethnic and religious groups.

As I considered these facts and the breadth and richness of the Dorsey collection, I became less interested in a Catto as individual hero and more interested in Catto as the sociological offspring of a vibrant but beleaguered community. I wanted to understand the social milieu that shaped his outlook. For instance, I tried to imagine what free persons of color must have felt as they saw their civil rights being trampled upon at the local, state and federal level. And, most importantly, I wanted to examine how they collectively responded to a host of social forces that aligned themselves to forcefully circumvent African American economic and political progress and threaten their very survival.

In a word, I wanted to learn about and write about how free persons of color (i.e., responsible and industrious citizens who “played by the rules”) collectively fought back and agitated for critically needed social change. As I mentioned, recent scholarship has begun to chip away at the myth of black passivity and political apathy in the face of slavery and social oppression. And, I commend those capable scholars who continue to work in this vein. Certainly, an examination of the black abolitionists who worked in and around Philadelphia is a good beginning. But, more needs to be done if we are to effectively and responsibly interpret our history to future generations.

It may sound like a cliché, but history can and should be made interesting and (dare I say) enjoyable. Teaching and studying history is an essential part of our obligation to be lifelong learners as well as informed and responsible citizens. Therefore, I simply did not want students to miss out on this rich history. I do not want them to grudgingly learn about the life and times of William Still, William Dorsey and their courageous generation. The subject matter is too important, too intellectually fruitful. So for my small part, I set out to write this novel which is largely based on the Dorsey archival resources.

In so doing, I wanted to have the creative freedom and dramatic license that writers of fiction use to great effect. Teachers of history, social studies and literature know full well that historical fiction has a distinct power to “breathe life” into sometimes dull subject matter by using the persuasiveness of creative storytelling. I did not want to blur the line separating historical fact from fiction. I did however, want to tell a memorable story would that would stimulate the moral sensitivities and intellectual curiosities of my readers.

In trying my hand at this particular genre, I considered myself to be following the literary and social intentions of many writers from the “Catto era” itself. As a pioneer in the African American scholastic tradition, William Wells Brown wrote a popular work of fiction entitled, Clotel; or The Presidents Daughter. Published in 1853, his novel tells the tragic story of a mulatto daughter of Thomas Jefferson who escapes from bondage but ultimately opts to drown herself in the Potomac River instead of becoming enslaved again. In a similar manner, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin tried to accomplish the same objective. Published in 1852, Stowe wrote this fictional story as a direct assault on the horrors of slavery. It was her deeply felt response to Congress’s shameful enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Brown and Stowe’s fictional accounts have many autobiographical elements based on the writers’ personal (eyewitness) experiences and understanding of events contemporary to their period. Yet they deliberately deviated from historical facts in order to effectively tell compelling stories that created enduring fictional characters. In turn, these characters captured the imagination (and sympathies) of their readers and kindled tremendous moral indignation regarding what Stowe described as “the frightful reality of scenes daily and hourly acted on our shores, beneath the shadow of American law, and the shadow of the cross of Christ”.

Like these representative writers, I resolved to write this novel for broad public consumption; not for a small community of scholars and politicians engaged in the practice of talking to and writing for one another. In the end, I hope this novel will be embraced by general audiences and effectively used as supplemental reading that reinforces and complements high school and some collegiate text books. Of course, I have no assurances that these goals will be met. But, this much I do know. Writing it has been a labor of love and the historical research that under girds it has afforded me the opportunity to help challenge the aforementioned myth of black passivity and a few other myths that have been troublesome to me over the years.

In The Rains, I also challenge a second myth pertaining to what I consider to be the racial polarization of history and the gross vilification of whites (as an entire race) in popular opinion and in many unbalanced historical interpretations. It is certainly true that many whites were perfectly content to accept the perpetual enslavement of blacks. For over two centuries, American whites profited directly and indirectly from the slave trade and used convoluted ideological and even “religious” arguments to justify their “rightful” claims to hold men, women and children as human chattel. But, many whites soundly rejected the practice of slavery on religious and humanitarian grounds. Not all whites were vicious slaveholders or apathetic citizens with their heads buried in the proverbial sand.

Many openly sided with free men and women of color and initiated a sustained effort to influence public policy and turn public opinion against the barbarism of slavery. Not unlike those whites who were a part of the modern Civil rights movement, they too bled and died so that others of a darker hue might enjoy the basic liberties that most whites accepted as their natural and “self-evident” birthright. As recent scholarship clearly shows, the abolitionist movement in America was driven by a usually solid (but sometimes splintered) coalition of committed blacks and whites. (8) In The Rains, I have tried to characterize many of these remarkable white social activists in ways that are true to the historical record and personally meaningful to the reader. I have tried to capture the spirit of their broad humanity and place them in social contexts that bring out their fundamental decency as defenders of civil liberties and friends of humanity.

A third myth is one that gives me the greatest consternation. Thus, I have attempted to confront it head-on as a dominant theme of the novel. I refer here to the passion African Americans had for education and schooling at a time when a widespread belief in black intellectual inferiority pervaded American society. As the historical record amply demonstrates, many black communities established and financed their own schools, created literary societies, historical societies and lending libraries that date back to the late eighteenth century. (9)

African Americans placed a premium on learning even during a period when several states enacted the “Black Codes” which stipulated that the teaching of Blacks to read and write was a crime punishable by steep fines and/or imprisonment. During this period, the literacy rates for Blacks in Philadelphia and the nation at large grew at a phenomenal rate as more Blacks entered the middle class and newly freed slaves (unfettered by prohibitive custom and law) were allowed to grasp the awesome power and authority of the written word.

Abundant historical evidence demonstrates that black families fervently embraced education as a vehicle for personal enlightenment and racial uplift. And, here again, many high-minded white Americans gave them significant assistance by establishing countless schools, colleges and universities (for their benefit) throughout the south and north. For example, the latter part of this novel focuses on noted educators affiliated with the Institute for Colored Youth (I.C.Y.) in Philadelphia. This school was chartered in 1837 and was opened by the Quakers in 1852. I.C.Y. is of course, the forerunner of Cheyney University, which is widely regarded as the nation’s oldest black college or university. Twenty-five miles from Cheyney, a group of white Presbyterian ministers in Oxford, Pennsylvania opened Ashmun Institute in 1854 and later renamed it Lincoln University in honor of the sixteenth president of the United States. (10) Thus two of our nation’s oldest black universities were created by whites who believed in the innate educability of blacks. Moreover, these remarkable educators rose above hardened racial prejudice to create and sustain these institutions amidst widespread opposition and ridicule.

In summary, I began writing this novel to stimulate further inquiry and challenge all three interrelated myths. As a result, I produced a fictionalized story that is grounded in fact and inspired by real life events. Those events are summarized in a “Chronology of Key Events in Philadelphia and the Nation” which follows. I have also included a composite biographical overview that will help readers to differentiate actual historical persons from the novel’s fictional characters. The list of “Key Historical Figures Cited in The Rains” (which also follows) provides the life spans of these real life figures. Each of them are worthy of note and each of them has been or could well be, the subject of a book-length biography. I have not endeavored to give their lives the extensive historical and literary treatment that they deserve. Instead, I have tried to capture their “ideological essence” while often neglecting descriptive nuances and ignoring the confluence of family, race, class and religion that shape an individual’s life and social outlook. Despite these omissions, my foremost intention was to pay homage to the novel’s main characters by attempting to focus on the principles that they apparently lived and died for. Thus literary character development was compromised by this decided focus and by my own shortcomings as a first-time novelist.

That aside, most of the characters in the novel are real and I have tried to portray them with the same faults, foibles and imperfections that bedevil us all. They are placed in difficult personal circumstances and they move in a society that is in turmoil. Life is unfair, laws are unjust and their daily existence is riddled with great danger and uncertainty. But, through it all, they strive to understand and meet the social obligations of their times and heed the dictates of simple justice. Their natural instincts toward life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness merge in interesting ways with their personal desires to lead meaningful lives.

They were men and women of great courage, compassion and charity. Some gave time, some gave money and some gave their lives in the quest for a greater America. They are due our homage, but not as romanticized heroes and heroines to be placed on psychological or marble pedestals. If there was true greatness in them, it was because there was goodness in them. That is why they are useful subjects for historical analysis and ethical reflection. That is why they are worthy of remembrance.

After six years of intermittent writing, I finally completed The Rains with an intensified belief that historical perspective and social consciousness are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing. Together they are powerful weapons against the diseases of ignorance, hatred, bigotry and apathy. History, when carefully studied and astutely taught, provides a fascinating vantage point from which we can observe the slow, grinding evolution of American democracy and understand the social forces that have impeded its progress, distorted its meaning and restricted its great humanitarian promise. And, if we look hard enough, we can extract some very useful lessons and observe many enlightening parallels to our contemporary conditions.

If this novel hits its pedagogical mark, it will fortify the educational pursuits of students and catalyze their interest in a more serious study of this historical period. And, if it is not too extravagant a wish, maybe some of them will be inclined to join a new and dynamic successor generation of young scholars and teachers who are entering the field, expanding the frontiers of knowledge and bringing creative teaching methods and fresh historical interpretations into the classroom. Such interpretations are critically important if we are to teach accurately about the African American odyssey in this country. It is a bitter and brutal history that must be honestly told in ways that do not engender negative self-imaging and the cynicism, nihilism and racial polarization that are found in the classroom and permeate our broader society.

Observe the forward march of human history and you will find full-scale victimization. However, you will also find many victories. Examine African American history and you will witness great tragedy. But look beyond the African American vale of tears, and you will most assuredly discover and appreciate the compassion, intelligence, courage and triumph of a resilient and determined people. The American slave trade is an ugly and pernicious thing to behold in the bright light of historical examination. But, look beyond the shadows and you will find many whites who openly challenged, railed and rallied against that atrocious practice at every turn. And you will surely discover the depth of their humanity and appreciate their full-throated and unflinching commitment to American ideals.

I hope The Rains: Voices for American Liberty will heighten the educational and social aspirations of young people of all races and religions. Hopefully it will prod them to critically examine their own lives and better appreciate the freedoms they currently enjoy. Who can say? Maybe it will even expand their sense of moral duty and strengthen their resolve to extend those same freedoms to others. I believe this is more than wishful thinking. We sometimes underestimate and forget the value of role models (living and deceased) and the powerful testament of lives well lived.


Footnotes

1. Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, Chicago: Illinois, Johnson Publishing Company, 1961.

2. Only two of these newspapers survived this period. They were the Philadelphia Inquirer, founded in 1869
and the Philadelphia Tribune (an African American-owned newspaper), founded in 1883.

3. Charles L. Blockson, Damn Rare: The Memoirs of an African American Bibliophile, Tracy, CA: Quantum Leap Publishers, 1998, p. 227-241.

4. Sulayman Clark, The Educational Philosophy of Leslie Pinckney Hill: A Profile in Black Educational Leadership, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University doctoral dissertation, 1984.

5. Roger Lane, William Dorsey’s Philadelphia and
Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in
America, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.

6. True to his meticulous nature, Still gave his book the lengthy and descriptive subtitle, “A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters and., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom as Related by Themselves and Others or Witnessed by the Author; Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stakeholders and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisors of the Road”.

7. Octavius Catto was in fact born on February 22, 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina, not Philadelphia as the novel indicates. His family left South Carolina when the Presbyterian Church appointed his father to lead the First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Octavius Catto was five years old at the time. This is one of those anachronisms and minor deviations from the historical record that I have permitted myself in constructing this fictional story. See Harry C. Silcox’s excellent article, Nineteenth Century Philadelphia Black Militant: Octavius V. Catto (1831-1871), in Pennsylvania History, 44 (January 1977), pp 53-76.

8. See C. Peter Ripley’s five volume compilation, The Black Abolitionists Papers, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992. This is a collection of over 14,000 letters, pamphlets, speeches and editorials representing how black abolitionists constituted the core of the abolitionist movement. See also Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1969 and Fergus Bordewich’s, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, New York: Harper Collins,2005.

9. See Philip S. Foner, History of Black Americans, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983, p. 163-289 and Dorothy Porter Wesley, “The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828-1846, The Journal of Negro History (October, 1936) p. 555-576, and Janet Duistman Cornelius, When I Can Read My Title Clear: Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South, Columbus, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. Other more localized treatments of the subject can be found in, Gary B. Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988 and Judith Winch, Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1848, University Press, 1988 and Judith Winch, Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1848, Philadelphia, PA, Temple University Press, 1988 and W.E.B. Dubois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, Philadelphia, PA: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899. See also his landmark book, Black Reconstruction in America, New York, NY: Russell and Russell, 1935.

10. See Linda Perkins, Fannie Jackson Coppin and the Institute for Colored Youth, New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 1989 and Horace Mann Bond’s, Education for Freedom: A History of Lincoln University, Oxford, PA: Lincoln University, 1976.

 

 

 


 

 
 
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