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XII. Of Alexander Crummell

Then from the Dawn it seemed there came, but faint
As from beyond the limit of the world,
Like the last echo born of a great cry,
Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice
Around a king returning from his wars.


[On the meaning of the bar of music]

This is the story of a human heart, -- the tale of a blackboy who many long years ago began to struggle with life that he might know theworld and know himself. Three temptations he met on those dark dunes that laygray and dismal before the wonder-eyes of the child: the temptation of Hate,that stood out against the red dawn; the temptation of Despair, that darkenednoonday; and the temptation of Doubt, that ever steals along with twilight.Above all, you must hear of the vales he crossed, -- the Valley of Humiliationand the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

    I saw Alexander Crummell first at a Wilberforcecommencement season, amid its bustle and crush. Tall, frail, and

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black he stood, with simple dignity and an unmistakable air of good breeding. Italked with him apart, where the storming of the lusty young orators could notharm us. I spoke to him politely, then curiously, then eagerly, as I began tofeel the fineness of his character, -- his calm courtesy, the sweetness of hisstrength, and his fair blending of the hope and truth of life. Instinctively Ibowed before this man, as one bows before the prophets of the world. Some seerhe seemed, that came not from the crimson Past or the gray To-come, but fromthe pulsing Now, -- that mocking world which seemed to me at once so light anddark, so splendid and sordid. Fourscore years had he wandered in this sameworld of mine, within the Veil.

    He was born with the Missouri Compromise and lay a-dyingamid the echoes of Manila and El Caney: stirring times for living, times darkto look back upon, darker to look forward to. The black-faced lad that pausedover his mud and marbles seventy years ago saw puzzling vistas as he lookeddown the world. The slave-ship still groaned across the Atlantic, faint criesburdened the Southern breeze, and the great black father whispered mad tales ofcruelty into those young ears. From the low doorway the mother silently watchedher boy at play, and at nightfall sought him eagerly lest the shadows bear himaway to the land of slaves.

    So his young mind worked and winced and shaped curiouslya vision of Life; and in the midst of that vision ever stood one dark figurealone, -- ever with the hard, thick countenance of that bitter father, and aform that fell in vast and shapeless folds. Thus the temptation of Hate grewand shadowed the growing child, -- gliding stealthily into his laughter, fadinginto his play, and seizing his dreams by day and night with rough, rudeturbulence. So the black boy asked of sky and sun and flower the never-answeredWhy? and loved, as he grew, neither the world nor the world's rough ways.

    Strange temptation for a child, you may think; and yet inthis wide land to-day a thousand thousand dark children brood before this sametemptation, and feel its cold and shuddering arms. For them, perhaps, some onewill some day lift the Veil, -- will come tenderly and cheerily into those sadlittle lives and brush the brooding hate away, just as Beriah

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Green strode in upon the life of Alexander Crummell. And before the bluff,kind-hearted man the shadow seemed less dark. Beriah Green had a school inOneida County, New York, with a score of mischievous boys. "I'm going tobring a black boy here to educate," said Beriah Green, as only a crank andan abolitionist would have dared to say. "Oho!" laughed the boys."Ye-es," said his wife; and Alexander came. Once before, the blackboy had sought a school, had travelled, cold and hungry, four hundred miles upinto free New Hampshire, to Canaan. But the godly farmers hitched ninety yokeof oxen to the abolition schoolhouse and dragged it into the middle of theswamp. The black boy trudged away.

    The nineteenth was the first century of human sympathy,-- the age when half wonderingly we began to descry in others that transfiguredspark of divinity which we call Myself; when clodhoppers and peasants, andtramps and thieves, and millionaires and -- sometimes -- Negroes, becamethrobbing souls whose warm pulsing life touched us so nearly that we halfgasped with surprise, crying, "Thou too! Hast Thou seen Sorrow and thedull waters of Hopelessness? Hast Thou known Life?" And then allhelplessly we peered into those Other-worlds, and wailed, "O World ofWorlds, how shall man make you one?"

    So in that little Oneida school there came to thoseschool- boys a revelation of thought and longing beneath one black skin, ofwhich they had not dreamed before. And to the lonely boy came a new dawn ofsympathy and inspiration. The shadowy, formless thing -- the temptation ofHate, that hovered between him and the world -- grew fainter and less sinister.It did not wholly fade away, but diffused itself and lingered thick at theedges. Through it the child now first saw the blue and gold of life, -- thesun-swept road that ran 'twixt heaven and earth until in one far-off wanwavering line they met and kissed. A vision of life came to the growing boy, --mystic, wonderful. He raised his head, stretched himself, breathed deep of thefresh new air. Yonder, behind the forests, he heard strange sounds; thenglinting through the trees he saw, far, far away, the bronzed hosts of a nationcalling, -- calling faintly, calling loudly. He heard the hateful clank oftheir chains; he felt them cringe and grovel, and

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there rose within him a protest and a prophecy. And he girded himself to walkdown the world.

    A voice and vision called him to be a priest, -- a seerto lead the uncalled out of the house of bondage. He saw the headless host turntoward him like the whirling of mad waters, -- he stretched forth his handseagerly, and then, even as he stretched them, suddenly there swept across thevision the temptation of Despair.

    They were not wicked men, -- the problem of life is notthe problem of the wicked, -- they were calm, good men, Bishops of theApostolic Church of God, and strove toward righteousness. They said slowly,"It is all very natural -- it is even commendable; but the GeneralTheological Seminary of the Episcopal Church cannot admit a Negro." Andwhen that thin, half-grotesque figure still haunted their doors, they put theirhands kindly, half sorrowfully, on his shoulders, and said, "Now, -- ofcourse, we -- we know how you feel about it; but you see it isimpossible, -- that is -- well -- it is premature. Sometime, we trust --sincerely trust -- all such distinc- tions will fade away; but now the world isas it is."

    This was the temptation of Despair; and the young manfought it doggedly. Like some grave shadow he flitted by those halls, pleading,arguing, half angrily demanding admittance, until there came the finalNo: until men hustled the disturber away, marked him as foolish,unreasonable, and injudicious, a vain rebel against God's law. And then fromthat Vision Splendid all the glory faded slowly away, and left an earth grayand stern rolling on beneath a dark despair. Even the kind hands that stretchedthemselves toward him from out the depths of that dull morning seemed but partsof the purple shadows. He saw them coldly, and asked, "Why should I striveby special grace when the way of the world is closed to me?" All gentlyyet, the hands urged him on, -- the hands of young John Jay, that daringfather's daring son; the hands of the good folk of Boston, that free city. Andyet, with a way to the priesthood of the Church open at last before him, thecloud lingered there; and even when in old St. Paul's the venerable Bishopraised his white arms above the Negro deacon -- even then the burden had notlifted from that heart, for there had passed a glory from the earth.


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And yet the fire through which Alexander Crummell went did not burn in vain.Slowly and more soberly he took up again his plan of life. More critically hestudied the situation.

   Deep down below the slavery and servitude of the Negropeople he saw their fatal weaknesses, which long years of mistreatment hademphasized. The dearth of strong moral character, of unbending righteousness,he felt, was their great shortcoming, and here he would begin. He would gatherthe best of his people into some little Episcopal chapel and there lead, teach,and inspire them, till the leaven spread, till the children grew, till theworld hearkened, till -- till -- and then across his dream gleamed some faintafter-glow of that first fair vision of youth -- only an after-glow, for therehad passed a glory from the earth.

    One day -- it was in 1842, and the springtide wasstruggling merrily with the May winds of New England -- he stood at last in hisown chapel in Providence, a priest of the Church. The days sped by, and thedark young clergyman labored; he wrote his sermons carefully; he intoned hisprayers with a soft, earnest voice; he haunted the streets and accosted thewayfarers; he visited the sick, and knelt beside the dying. He worked andtoiled, week by week, day by day, month by month. And yet month by month thecongregation dwindled, week by week the hollow walls echoed more sharply, dayby day the calls came fewer and fewer, and day by day the third temptation satclearer and still more clearly within the Veil; a temptation, as it were, blandand smiling, with just a shade of mockery in its smooth tones. First it camecasually, in the cadence of a voice: "Oh, colored folks? Yes." Orperhaps more definitely: "What do you expect?" In voice andgesture lay the doubt -- the temptation of Doubt. How he hated it, and stormedat it furiously! "Of course they are capable," he cried; "ofcourse they can learn and strive and achieve -- " and "Ofcourse," added the temptation softly, "they do nothing of thesort." Of all the three temptations, this one struck the deepest. Hate? Hehad outgrown so childish a thing. Despair? He had steeled his right arm againstit, and fought it with the vigor of determination. But to doubt the worth ofhis life-work, -- to doubt the destiny and capability of the race his soulloved because it was his; to find listless

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squalor instead of eager endeavor; to hear his own lips whispering, "Theydo not care; they cannot know; they are dumb driven cattle, -- why cast yourpearls before swine?" -- this, this seemed more than man could bear; andhe closed the door, and sank upon the steps of the chancel, and cast his robeupon the floor and writhed.

    The evening sunbeams had set the dust to dancing in thegloomy chapel when he arose. He folded his vestments, put away the hymn-books,and closed the great Bible. He stepped out into the twilight, looked back uponthe narrow little pulpit with a weary smile, and locked the door. Then hewalked briskly to the Bishop, and told the Bishop what the Bishop already knew."I have failed," he said simply. And gaining courage by theconfession, he added: "What I need is a larger constituency. There arecomparatively few Negroes here, and perhaps they are not of the best. I must gowhere the field is wider, and try again." So the Bishop sent him toPhiladelphia, with a letter to Bishop Onderdonk.

    Bishop Onderdonk lived at the head of six white steps, --corpulent, red-faced, and the author of several thrilling tracts on ApostolicSuccession. It was after dinner, and the Bishop had settled himself for apleasant season of contemplation, when the bell must needs ring, and there mustburst in upon the Bishop a letter and a thin, ungainly Negro. Bishop Onderdonkread the letter hastily and frowned. Fortunately, his mind was already clear onthis point; and he cleared his brow and looked at Crummell. Then he said,slowly and impressively: "I will receive you into this diocese on onecondition: no Negro priest can sit in my church convention, and no Negro churchmust ask for representation there."

    I sometimes fancy I can see that tableau: the frail blackfigure, nervously twitching his hat before the massive abdomen of BishopOnderdonk; his threadbare coat thrown against the dark woodwork of thebookcases, where Fox's "Lives of the Martyrs" nestled happily beside"The Whole Duty of Man." I seem to see the wide eyes of the Negrowander past the Bishop's broadcloth to where the swinging glass doors of thecabinet glow in the sunlight. A little blue fly is trying to cross the yawningkeyhole. He marches briskly up to it, peers into the chasm in a surprised sortof way, and rubs his feelers

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reflectively; then he essays its depths, and, finding it bottomless, draws backagain. The dark-faced priest finds himself wondering if the fly too has facedits Valley of Humiliation, and if it will plunge into it, -- when lo! itspreads its tiny wings and buzzes merrily across, leaving the watcher wing-less and alone.

    Then the full weight of his burden fell upon him. Therich walls wheeled away, and before him lay the cold rough moor winding onthrough life, cut in twain by one thick granite ridge, -- here, the Valley ofHumiliation; yonder, the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And I know not which bedarker, -- no, not I. But this I know: in yonder Vale of the Humble standto-day a million swarthy men, who willingly would

" . . . bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes," --

   all this and more would they bear did they but know thatthis were sacrifice and not a meaner thing. So surged the thought within thatlone black breast. The Bishop cleared his throat suggestively; then,recollecting that there was really nothing to say, considerately said nothing,only sat tapping his foot impatiently. But Alexander Crummell said, slowly andheavily: "I will never enter your diocese on such terms." And sayingthis, he turned and passed into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. You mighthave noted only the physical dying, the shattered frame and hacking cough; butin that soul lay deeper death than that. He found a chapel in New York, -- thechurch of his father; he labored for it in poverty and starvation, scorned byhis fellow priests. Half in despair, he wandered across the sea, a beggar withoutstretched hands. Englishmen clasped them, -- Wilberforce and Stanley,Thirwell and Ingles, and even Froude and Macaulay; Sir Benjamin Brodie bade himrest awhile at Queen's College in Cambridge, and there he lingered, strugglingfor health of body and mind, until he took his degree in '53. Restless still,and unsatisfied, he turned toward Africa, and for long years, amid

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the spawn of the slave-smugglers, sought a new heaven and a new earth.

    So the man groped for light; all this was not Life, -- itwas the world-wandering of a soul in search of itself, the striving of one whovainly sought his place in the world, ever haunted by the shadow of a deaththat is more than death, -- the passing of a soul that has missed its duty.Twenty years he wandered, -- twenty years and more; and yet the hard raspingquestion kept gnawing within him, "What, in God's name, am I on earthfor?" In the narrow New York parish his soul seemed cramped and smothered.In the fine old air of the English University he heard the millions wailingover the sea. In the wild fever-cursed swamps of West Africa he stood helplessand alone.

    You will not wonder at his weird pilgrimage, -- you whoin the swift whirl of living, amid its cold paradox and marvellous vision, havefronted life and asked its riddle face to face.

   And if you find that riddle hard to read, remember thatyonder black boy finds it just a little harder; if it is difficult for you tofind and face your duty, it is a shade more difficult for him; if your heartsickens in the blood and dust of battle, remember that to him the dust isthicker and the battle fiercer. No wonder the wanderers fall! No wonder wepoint to thief and murderer, and haunting prostitute, and the never-endingthrong of unhearsed dead! The Valley of the Shadow of Death gives few of itspilgrims back to the world.

    But Alexander Crummell it gave back. Out of thetemptation of Hate, and burned by the fire of Despair, triumphant over Doubt,and steeled by Sacrifice against Humiliation, he turned at last home across thewaters, humble and strong, gentle and determined. He bent to all the gibes andprejudices, to all hatred and discrimination, with that rare courtesy which isthe armor of pure souls. He fought among his own, the low, the grasping, andthe wicked, with that unbending righteousness which is the sword of the just.He never faltered, he seldom complained; he simply worked, inspiring the young,rebuking the old, helping the weak, guiding the strong.

    So he grew, and brought within his wide influence allthat was best of those who walk within the Veil. They who live without knew notnor dreamed of that full power within, that

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mighty inspiration which the dull gauze of caste decreed that most men shouldnot know. And now that he is gone, I sweep the Veil away and cry, Lo! the soulto whose dear memory I bring this little tribute. I can see his face still,dark and heavy-lined beneath his snowy hair; lighting and shading, now withinspiration for the future, now in innocent pain at some human wickedness, nowwith sorrow at some hard memory from the past. The more I met AlexanderCrummell, the more I felt how much that world was losing which knew so littleof him. In another age he might have sat among the elders of the land inpurple-bordered toga; in another country mothers might have sung him to thecradles.

    He did his work, -- he did it nobly and well; and yet Isorrow that here he worked alone, with so little human sym- pathy. His nameto-day, in this broad land, means little, and comes to fifty million ears ladenwith no incense of memory or emulation. And herein lies the tragedy of the age:not that men are poor, -- all men know something of poverty; not that men arewicked, -- who is good? not that men are ignorant, -- what is Truth? Nay, butthat men know so little of men.

   He sat one morning gazing toward the sea. He smiled andsaid, "The gate is rusty on the hinges." That night at star- rise awind came moaning out of the west to blow the gate ajar, and then the soul Iloved fled like a flame across the Seas, and in its seat sat Death.

    I wonder where he is to-day? I wonder if in that dimworld beyond, as he came gliding in, there rose on some wan throne a King, -- adark and pierced Jew, who knows the writhings of the earthly damned, saying, ashe laid those heart-wrung talents down, "Well done!" while roundabout the morning stars sat singing.