Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood: How to Escape the Graveyard of History

Race Over Party by Millington W. Bergeson-LockwoodToday, we welcome a guest post from Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood, author of Race Over Party:  Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston, just published from UNC Press.

In late nineteenth-century Boston, battles over black party loyalty were fights over the place of African Americans in the post–Civil War nation. In his fresh in-depth study of black partisanship and politics, Bergeson-Lockwood demonstrates that party politics became the terrain upon which black Bostonians tested the promise of equality in America’s democracy. Most African Americans remained loyal Republicans, but Race Over Party highlights the actions and aspirations of a cadre of those who argued that the GOP took black votes for granted and offered little meaningful reward for black support. These activists branded themselves “independents,” forging new alliances and advocating support of whichever candidate would support black freedom regardless of party.

Race Over Party is now available in both print and ebook editions.

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How to Escape the Graveyard of History: Remembering the Dead to Expose America’s Demons

If you walk up the hill northeast to the right of the chapel at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts you reach the oldest part of the graveyard. On a small unlabeled and unpaved path beneath a giant oak tree sits the small weathered headstone of Edwin Garrison Walker; the name barely legible. Eroded and shrunken by age, the memorial does not do justice to the man interred beneath. Not far from Walker’s resting place are monuments to other black freedom fighters Lewis Hayden and John Rock; their graves well marked and maintained. Famous and well known for their anti-slavery activism, they are featured on the cemetery’s historical walking tour. The contrast between the well-maintained memorials of Rock and Hayden and the seemingly forgotten monument to Walker raises the question: What is at stake in privileging the commemoration of one life over another?

Walker's Gravestone

Walker’s Gravestone Today (Photo by Author)

Hayden's Gravestone

Hayden’s Gravestone Today (Photo by Author)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the early years of the 20th century, African American playwright, novelist, and journalist Pauline Hopkins authored a series of biographies in Colored American Magazine profiling “Famous Men of the Negro Race.” Among the essays, Hopkins told of the lives and deeds of such well-known figures as Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. She also included Bostonians like Lewis Hayden and Robert Morris. There were others, however, who are less widely recognized today. Among these famous men was Edwin Garrison Walker. Walker was widely-known in African American political circles and especially in his native Boston area, where he lived most of his life until his death. Despite this notoriety during his life, beyond a few scholars and journalists, few know of Walker today. He died in January 1901 and in 1902 the recently inaugurated Edwin G. Walker Tabernacle of the Brothers and Sisters of Love and Charity purchased and placed a headstone upon his grave at Woodlawn Cemetary.

Edwin G. Walker, Esq.

Edwin G. Walker, Esq. (Photo courtesy of Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

His reputation as a fierce advocate for black equality and his uncompromising commitment to partisan independence earned him wide attention. Walker’s radical reputation was in his blood as the son of famed anti-slavery writer and activist David Walker. Following the Civil War, he served as one of the first black representatives elected to the Massachusetts legislature where he denounced the Fourteenth Amendment as too passive on black rights. In the 1880s, Democratic governor, Benjamin Butler nominated him to a judgeship that was controversially rejected by the Republican dominated state executive council. In the 1890s, Walker campaigned against lynching as first president and lifelong member of the Massachusetts Colored League where anti-black violence and government inaction fueled his belief that partisan democracy failed black men and women. At the end of his life he sat as nominee for the short-lived Negro Party ticket in 1898.

Walker's Original Gravestone

Walker’s Original Gravestone (Boston Guardian, October 25, 1902)

How did a figure like Walker become largely forgotten among the pantheon of black heroes? Walker once declared that “Faithfulness to the race will prove to most of us the graveyard of our hopes and aspirations…With this knowledge I accept the alternative gladly.” Perhaps it was Walker’s steadfast political independence and commitment to racial solidarity over party loyalty that cost him his legacy. He and other independents don’t fit neatly into a transcendent narrative of black struggle and upward progress. Theirs was a war with few victories to celebrate.

Walker and others like him fought an all or nothing battle for uncompromised full equality that did not tolerate half-measures even from supposed allies. Walker challenged men like Hayden, his cemetery neighbor, to not put faith in a positive future based on past victories. Walker died with his mission unfulfilled and his final resting place sits as a marker to his vision of black freedom. Weathered and beaten by the years, it remains firm and resolute.

Walker’s activism exposes one of the central contradictions of the late 19th century Republican Party and of white-northerners supposedly sympathetic to the cause of black freedom and equality. That a people and a party so dedicated to the image and history of equality and plight of African Americans could do so little to meaningfully alleviate their suffering or protect their rights.

Memorializing anti-slavery figures like Lewis Hayden supports a cleaner narrative of the triumph of abolition over slavery; of a just North and a wicked South. It says little of the tragic inaction of northerners and some former abolitionists in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Walker, however, attacked this northern hypocrisy where it lived. By publically condemning the Republican Party as unfaithful to its black supporters he cast off the veil of righteousness and exposed the stain of white supremacy. Thereby making northerners, southerners, and the entire American political system complicit in the continued oppression, brutalization, and slaughter of black men and women at the turn of the 20th century.

Walker dedicated his life to speaking against this hypocrisy with great personal and professional consequence. Walker’s independent stance, according to one eulogy at his funeral, “cost [him] more to stand up for his race than it did any other colored man in this country. What did he care for political parties when the rights of his race were at stake? He made the sacrifice of money and honor for our people.”

One hopes that the more we learn about and honor Walker and others like him, the more we can tell a new story, one that has equal space for those in whose memory we complicate the story of American freedom, especially in the North, by seeing its shortcomings and contradictions. We should memorialize the triumphs of men like Hayden and Rock along with the tragic betrayal of American democracy, which Walker helps expose. By telling the fuller story, Americans can hope to come to honest terms with the insidiousness of white supremacy, acknowledge their universal complicity, and move forward towards honest reconciliation.

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Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood is a historian of race, law, and politics in the nineteenth century.  Follow him on Twitter at @MillingtonBL.
You can read his first UNC Press blog post here.