LITERARY ORGANIZATIONS ISSUE
The Bethel Literary and Historical
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
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.
• "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
• "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;
• "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
• "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
• "The Negro Race in America," by Judge Robert
• "An Analysis of Color Prejudice," by A.
• "Race Flattery and Race Importunity," by I.
• "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
• "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.
The Arts were addressed in such presentations
• "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
• "Industrial Training for the Race," by Booker
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,
• "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
• "Alexander Dumas," by Coralie Franklin Cook;
• "Alexander S. Pushkin," by Mr. L.M. Hershaw;
• "John Bunyan," by Rev. J. Albert Johnson;
• "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
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.
in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.
more by this author:
Intro to The Memorial Issue, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Fall 2003)
Roberts on Walt
Whitman: Memorial Issue
Dan Vera on DC
Author's Houses: Forebears Issue
Roberts's Intro to The Forebears Issue, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer 2008)