James Monroe Whitfield

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James Monroe Whitfield (c. April 10, 1822 – April 23, 1871) was an African American poet, abolitionist, and political activist. He was a notable writer and activist in abolitionism and African emigration during the antebellum era.

Early life[edit]

Whitfield was born April 10 or 12, 1822, in Exeter, New Hampshire to Nancy (Paul) of Exeter and Joseph Whitfield, an escaped Virginian slave.[1] Through his mother, James was the nephew of Rev. Thomas Paul of the African Meeting House in Boston, and Jude Hall, veteran of the Revolutionary War.[2] The small family home was on Whitfield's Lane, renamed Elliot Street in 1845. James Whitfield attended Exeter schools until the age of nine, when his father died suddenly.[3] His mother Nancy had died when James was seven, so James and his siblings were moved out of town, possibly by his sister.[4] The next records find him in 1839 living in Buffalo, New York, as a barber.[5]

His grand-niece was Boston writer and playwright Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins. In her fiction novel of 1900, Contending Forces, she describes a scene at James' home in Exeter with his mother. A 2008 book by Lois Brown goes into detail.[6]

Poetry and writing[edit]

Besides running the barber shop, Whitfield would write in his free time, publishing his own papers by the age of 16.[7] Whitfield found success publishing poems related to abolitionism, many being printed in The Liberator and The North Star.[7] Whitfield's poems often expressed the oppression affecting African Americans, and moral corruption in politics and religion.[7] One of Whitfield's most famous poems was America, published in 1853. The poem embodies many of Whitfield's ideas about the hypocrisy of American freedom and democracy, and the difficult lives for both freed and enslaved Africans in the US.[8]

Abolition and emigration movements[edit]

In 1850, Frederick Douglass visited Whitfield's barber shop. From their discussion, Douglass became deeply impressed by Whitfield's poetic abilities and passion for abolition, commenting that his job as a barber was "painfully disheartening."[9] Beyond abolitionism, Whitfield became a prominent member of the Colonization Movement, a popular movement focused on African Americans returning to Africa and indigenous parts of the Americas.[9] Later, in 1858, Whitfield became involved in a proposal by Missouri Senator Frank P. Blair to establish a colony for Black colonization in Central America.[5] In 1859, Whitfield was sent out to look for land for the project; he would not return to the US until August 1862.[9]

Later life[edit]

When Whitfield returned, he largely retired from the emigration movement and moved his family to San Francisco, where he opened a barber shop.[10] On April 23, 1871, he died of heart disease in San Francisco. Whitfield, who was a past Grand Master for California in Prince Hall Freemasonry,[11] was interred at the Masonic Cemetery.[5]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The Works of James M. Whitfield".
  2. ^ Thorenz, Matt, "African Americans at New Windsor: Private Jude Hall, 2nd New Hampshire Regiment", Teaching the Hudson Valley, February 24, 2013.
  3. ^ Dixon, David T., "Freedom Earned, Equality Denied: Evolving Race Relations in Exeter and Vicinity, 1776–1876", Bridge over Troubled Waters.
  4. ^ Rimkunas, Barbara. "James Monroe Whitfield: Abolitionist Poet". Exeter Newsletter. Seacoast Online Media. Retrieved March 29, 2019.
  5. ^ a b c "Whitfield, James Monroe (1822–1871) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". BlackPast.org. Retrieved November 28, 2018.
  6. ^ Brown, Lois, "Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution", Questia.
  7. ^ a b c Foundation, Poetry (December 6, 2018). "James Monroe Whitfield". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  8. ^ aapone (2008-08-06). "America by James Monroe Whitfield - Poems | Academy of American Poets". America. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  9. ^ a b c Sherman, Joan R. (April 1972). "James Monroe Whitfield, Poet and Emigrationist: A Voice of Protest and Despair". The Journal of Negro History. 57 (2): 169–176. doi:10.2307/2717220. ISSN 0022-2992.
  10. ^ "Elevator 21 February 1868 — California Digital Newspaper Collection". cdnc.ucr.edu. Retrieved November 28, 2018.
  11. ^ Wilson, Ivy (2011). The Works of James M. Whitfield. UNC Press. p. 205.

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