poetry quarterly

10th anniversary

LITERARY ORGANIZATIONS ISSUE

The Bethel Literary and Historical Society

by Kim Roberts

 

The Bethel Literary and Historical Society was an African American learned society that met from 1881-1913 at the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church at 1518 M Street NW in Washington, DC. The Bethel Literary was a large, formal group that regularly attracted hundreds, who would listen to a presentation by an invited speaker, then participate in an open public discussion. Typically convening at eight o'clock on Tuesday evenings, meetings often began and ended with the reading of poetry or a dramatic selection and musical entertainment.


Program for an address by the Rev. Francis J. Grimke on "Religion and Race Elevation,"
from the Moreland-Spingarn Collections, Howard University Libraries.

The Metropolitan A.M.E. Church still stands at that address just west of Thomas Circle; the current church was built in 1886, although a church existed on that location beginning in 1870. The land for the church is the oldest continuously Black-owned property in DC. The church is currently undergoing a major renovation which includes restoring its beautiful stained glass windows and replacing the interior roof of the sanctuary with an historically accurate recreation. Renovations are expected to be completed by the end of 2010.

The literary society met next door in Bethel Hall, owned by the church, but the Hall has since been razed and replaced with a high-rise office tower. The Society was organized by Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne of Union Bethel Church (one of two congregations that merged to form Metropolitan A.M.E.), and inspired by a similar group in Philadelphia.


The exterior of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in 2010.  Photo by Dan Vera.

According to Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies by Elizabeth McHenry (Duke University Press, 2002): After the end of Reconstruction, as racism and racial violence escalated across the country, this Society exhibited a belief that "association with literature was one way of definitely asserting a positive, learned identity far removed from the intellectual poverty associated with slavery," that would expose participants "to the set of useful knowledge through which black Americans would enlighten themselves, thus becoming, as a race, better prepared for the demands of citizenship and the particular challenges of the twentieth century. By demonstrating their capacity for improvement and elevation, they hoped that the white racist image of black Americans would be transformed and their political rights and respectability among the world's most 'civilized' peoples would be established."

When first formed, there were 75 members, who planned to meet twice a month. But, as member John W. Cromwell wrote, "the interest was such that they almost immediately became weekly sessions." Meetings were free and open to the public. Documents of the Bethel Literary Society are now in the Moorland-Spingarn Collections in the Founder's Library at Howard University. They show that "Regularly, attendance at the Bethel Literary exceeded the capacity of the hall in which the organization met."

McHenry notes that the organization "captured the imagination of highly literate middle- and upper-class black Americans who struggled to find new strategies to promote racial advancement and develop self-confidence at a time when overt political involvement offered little hope." She also notes that Black women were active participants "not only as members but as central players in the governing" body of the group. When "Eminent Negro Men" was the topic of one presentation, women members asked that the next week be devoted to "Eminent Women of the Negro Race," and Amanda ("Mattie") Bowen was asked to be the presenter. Women speakers made a number of presentations to the group, and for one year (1892), a woman, Mary Church Terrell, served as President.

Meetings were regularly attended by Washington correspondents of African-American newspapers from across the country, and so reports of the Society were widely disseminated. Invited speakers came from across the US.

Annual special programs marked Abraham Lincoln's birthday, Frederick Douglass's birthday, and Founder's Day (on which the Society's own history was celebrated). One Douglass birthday featured Charles R. Douglass, presenting on his father; the paper was titled "Reminiscences of the Life of Frederick Douglass."

I found the titles of the papers provocative, and wish I could find transcripts. The topics ranged widely. I can offer only titles here, which come from the Society records. This listing is partial; it covers only a fraction of topics presented over 33 years of weekly sessions.

Presentations included historical topics, such as:

• "Who were the Ancient Egyptians and what did they accomplish?" by Rev. A. W. Upshaw;
• "Heroes of the Anti-Slavery Struggles," by Mary Ann Shadd Cary;
• "Reconstruction," by Judge W. J. Whipper of South Carolina;
• "Reconstruction," by P.B.S. Pinchback, former Governor of Louisiana;
• "The Philosophy and History of Reform," by Frederick Douglass;
• "Crispus Attucks," by Col. Joseph T. Wilson;
• "The Spritual History of Abraham Lincoln," by E. A. Clarke; and
• "Southern Outrages," by Ida B. Wells (Barnett).

Social issues were also addressed, in such presentations as:

• "What are the elements of True Womanhood," by Annie E. Geary;
• "Individual Development," by Dr. O.M. Atwood;
• "What are we worth?" by Anna J. Cooper;
• "Is Marriage a Failure?" by Belva Lockwood (one of the few white speakers);
• "An Appeal from Philip Drunk to Philip Sober," by Dr. John Wesley Edward Bowen;
• "Women's Suffrage," by Ruth G. D. Havens; and
• "Play for Children," by Anna E. Murray.

Evenings devoted to discussions of race were very popular, with such topics as:

• "Segregation among Negroes," by Rev. William Waring;
• "The Future of the Negro," by Professor Francis J. Cardozo;
• "The perils, possibilities, and hopes of the Colored people of the South," by Rev. Walter H. Brooks;
• "The Race Problem in the United States," by Charles J. Gardiner;
• "The Negro Race in America," by Judge Robert H. Terrell;
• "An Analysis of Color Prejudice," by A. F. Hilyer;
• "Race Flattery and Race Importunity," by I. Garland Penn;
• "The Relative Capacity of the White and the Colored Child," by Dr. W. S. Montgomery; and
• "Modern Industrialism and the Negro in the United States," by Archibald H. Grimke, Esq.

International subjects included:

• "The Racial Connection of the Zulus," by Rev. R.M. Cheeks;
• "The Commercial Importance of the High Seas," by Jesse Lawson;
• "A Glimpse of Europe," by Mary Church Terrell;
• "The Emancipated Races of Latin America," by Congressman John Mercer Langston; and
• "Life on the Congo," by Bessie Gardner.

Economics and the Sciences were occasionally addressed in such papers as:

• "The Freedman's Bank," by Prof. Wiley Lane; and
• "Rain Clouds and Aerial Condensation," by Prof. Cleveland Abbey.

The Arts were addressed in such presentations as:

• "Eminent Musicians of the Negro Race," by Ruth Murray (Collett); and
• "Dress as a Fine Art," by Belle Nickens.

Presentations on education were among the most popular, including:

• "Separate Schools," by Calvin D. Johnson;
• "Books and Reading," by George W. Williams;
• "Higher Education," by Howard University Dean Kelly Miller; and
• "Industrial Training for the Race," by Booker T. Washington.

Conversations on religion were also regular features, such as:

• "Mohammedanism vs. Christianity," by Prof. Greener; and
• "Beauties of the Bible," by Mr. J. H. Piles.

Among the most prominent speakers, there were addresses by statesman and orator Frederick Douglass, pioneering educator and newspaper publisher Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Judge Robert H. Terrell, civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell, attorney and women's rights activist Belva Lockwood, former Virginia Congressman John Mercer Langston; educator Kelly Miller, anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells Barnett, lawyer and co-founder of the NAACP Archibald H. Grimké, and author Charles W. Chestnutt. Many speakers were asked to present on multiple occasions.

I was most interested to read about the specifically literary topics, which included:

• "Savonarola and John Milton," by Mr. Williams of the US Department of the Interior;
• "The Dialect Story and its Evil Influences," by Charles A. Johnson;
• "The Art of Reading," by Chief Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (another white presenter);
• "A Whittier Evening," by J.E. Rankin;
• "Tennyson," by Prof. Henry Bailey;
• "Literature in its Relation to Life," by Charles W. Chestnutt;
• "Alexander Dumas," by Coralie Franklin Cook;
• "Alexander S. Pushkin," by Mr. L.M. Hershaw;
• "John Bunyan," by Rev. J. Albert Johnson; and
• "What Walt Whitman Means to the Negro," by Kelly Miller.

Many presentations were accompanied by poetry. On a second evening devoted to the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, on the anniversary of his birth, Charlotta F. Grimké presented "Recollections of the Poet," with readings by Grace Shimm and an original poem by Ruth G. D. Havens. When Walter B. Hayson presented on "Phyllis [sic] Wheatley, her Life and Times," he was joined by Henri I. Broome's dramatic readings. Recitations of poetry were a regular feature; one night the regular lecture also came with Mr. Robert J. Harland reciting Rudyard Kipling's "The Blind Beggar," with piano accompaniment by Mrs. E.D. Williston.

Original poetry was a little more rare. Over the years, the group heard original poems by the Rev. W. H. Brooks (whose poem, "Foul Massacres," was described by one newspaper as "stirring"), Mr. E. W. Lipscomb (whose poem "An Autumn Symphony" was reprinted in a Founder's Day program later that year), Mr. J.E. Bruce, Ruth G. D. Havens, and even Paul Laurence Dunbar.

The Society, recognizing its influence, regularly issued resolutions. One marked the contributions of John Mercer Langston on the event of his death. Another advocated for a trade school for African American youth. On Victor Hugo's death, a resolution expressing condolences to the French nation was presented to the French minister. Another resolution of particular interest thanked Society members who spoke out eloquently against the Washington Post's "attempt to create an ill feeling toward colored people by falsely and wickedly traducing them and belittling their claim to a full respect of their rights."

The discussion period following lectures was lively and sometimes even confrontational. When Bishop T. Tanner visited to present "The Year 2000 and What of It," his arguments were strongly criticized afterwards, most vocally by Kelly Miller, then just a college student. Tanner left in a fury, declaring to the organizers, "I will never read for you again." It was an important early victory for Miller, who would later go on to become an educator, Dean of Howard University, and a well-loved orator himself.

Because recordkeeping was not consistent over the years, we have many gaps. In some years elegant printed programs were made; in other years only handwritten notes survive, and some years have no records at all. What quickly becomes clear, however, perusing the Society's papers at the Moorland-Spingarn Library, is how vibrant and varied the group's offerings were, and how much they fulfilled a need in the African American community for continuing educational opportunities, and ongoing dialogue and debate. These must have been heady evenings, with full houses clamoring to challenge themselves intellectually, to celebrate achievements, and to advocate for civil rights.

 

 


Kim Roberts is the author of two poetry collection, The Kimnama (Vrzhu Press, 2007) and The Wishbone Galaxy (WWPH, 1986), and editor of the anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC (Plan B Press, 2010). She edits Beltway Poetry Quarterly, now celebrating its tenth year of publication.

 

 

Published in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.

Read more by this author:
Kim Roberts
Kim Roberts's Intro to The Memorial Issue, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Fall 2003)
Roberts on Walt Whitman: Memorial Issue
Roberts and Dan Vera on DC Author's Houses: Forebears Issue
Kim Roberts's Intro to The Forebears Issue, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer 2008)