African American History Forum
Author(s):Kachun, Mitchell Alan
School: Cornell University
African Methodist Episcopal
The faith that the dark past has taught us: African-American commemorations in the north and west and the construction of a usable past, 1808-1915
This dissertation presents an interpretive overview of African-American commemorations outside the South between 1808 and 1915. An extensive examination of African-American Emancipation celebrations describes the foundation and maturation of an antebellum commemorative tradition and considers how contestation within the black community over issues of memory, identity, politics, and culture engendered a transformation of African-American commemorations between United States Emancipation in 1863 and the "New Negro Renaissance." One chapter addresses the role of monuments, historical societies, and other institutions of memory as they became more important during the late-nineteenth century. Another deals specifically with the African Methodist Episcopal Church's commemoration of its founder, Richard Allen, and places that movement within the larger context of black commemorations and historical memory in the late-nineteenth century.
Public commemorations had become integral to northern black community life by the 1850s, evolving into huge events in a racially diverse shared public sphere and establishing a tradition of commemoration that served important functions for the African-American community. Nineteenth-century commemorations were used to assert blacks' claims to American-ness and to embrace their own distinctive heritage. Commemorations also disseminated blacks' historical interpretations through spoken word and public ritual in order to reach a largely nonliterate black populace. After the Reconstruction era public commemorations became more racially segregated events, and black commemorations became sites of contestation between memory and amnesia as African Americans struggled to create meanings and uses for their complex past. By the early-twentieth century public commemorations had lost much of their significance among northern blacks, as formal institutions and mass cultural entertainments increasingly fulfilled the varied functions once served by commemorative activities.
This analysis is based primarily upon the writings and activities of the influential northern black editors, ministers, and community leaders who organized and commented on public commemorations and historical memory. It relies heavily upon coverage in the black press from major northern and western cities.
School: Cornell University