Thursday, September 21, 2017

Speaking for Themselves—First National Negro Convention in 1830

An early Negro National Convention.

As ever, it was harddangerous and hard—to be Black in early 19th Century America for Freemen as well as for slaves.  Take the Northern state of Ohio, for instance.  It had entered the Union in 1803 under an 1802 constitution that abolished slavery.  Although technically a Free State, Ohio was culturally Southern having been settled predominantly by frontiersmen moving west from Virginia and the Carolina through Tennessee and Kentucky before, during, and after the American Revolution and the widespread Indian wars that followed.  This was especially true of Cincinnati, which rapidly became the busiest port on the Ohio River.
Farming in Ohio was not naturally suited to the plantation system which relied on large numbers of slave laborers, so the lack of slave mostly affected those in domestic service or hired out as laborers, craftsmen, and river men.  It was not a huge economic loss to forgo them and in actuality most masters effectively kept their personal servants in bondage for their life time.  But the white citizens were fearful that as a Free State Ohio would become a magnet for Free Blacks and for escaped slaves who would compete for wages and land.  Thus in 1807 the state enacted strict Black laws.
Similar to laws passed in border and other Northern States like Illinois, the 1807 act was meant to discourage migration to the state by requiring Blacks to prove that they were not slaves and to find at least two people who would guarantee a surety of $500—a prohibitive fortune worth years of income to small farmers, craftsmen, or merchants who might employ them—for their good behavior. The laws also banned marriage to Whites and forbad gun-ownership in a region where hunting was an important source of food, regulated occupations, and imposed numerous petty restrictions.  Needless to say the rights and privileges of citizenship were denied to any Blacks who could jump through all of the hoops.  
In the early years of the century, the Black laws did discourage migration.  But it never eliminated it.  As circumstances and economic realities changed enforcement became lax, then spotty, and finally rare.  Part of that was due to a major shift in population.  The threat of Indian warfare finally ended after the War of 1812 and the British evacuation of Ft. Detroit and the end of sponsorship of hostile tribes and helped open up the mostly unsettled northern half of the State.  That accelerated greatly after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made Lake Erie a major route to the West.  Most of the new settlers were decedents of the New England diaspora by way of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Up State New York.  These Yankees were in general anti-slavery and their influx was changing the political balance in the state.
But more importantly, the introduction of practical steam boats on the Ohio River created a boom in the trade on the river.  The larger steam boats required larger crews, especially deck hands and boiler stokers, as well as armies of dock laborers, warehousemen, and teamsters. 

A sketch of early steamboats and warehouses in bustling Cincinnati circa 1830 when Free Blacks were competing for jobs with White laborers.
Cincinnati and other river ports had no choice but to use Free Black labor or be undercut by the slave labor used at Virginia and Kentucky river towns like Wheeling or Louisville.  By the late 1820 the Queen City had a large Free Black population.   White laborers became increasingly resentful of competition from Blacks which undercut wages.  Under pressure, Cincinnati began to try to apply the long dormant Black Laws on local Freemen.  When that was not effective in driving out the population major rioting against Blacks broke out in July and August of 1829.  After bloody rampages and the burning of Black neighborhoods, churches, schools, and businesses 1200 Blacks were driven from the city and many resettled in Canada.  Not only were casual laborers affected, but a small but growing elite of Black businessmen and skilled craftsmen were devastated.  Many appealed to other Black communities, especially well established centers like Philadelphia and Baltimore for financial assistance for re-location schemes to Canada. 
Eventually a Baltimore Free Black leader and activist, Hezekiah Grice issued an appeal to major communities to a national meeting to plan assistance for a major Canadian resettlement.  He argued that the U.S. would never be safe for Blacks and noted that there were already communities of former slaves who were freed during the American Revolution by the British and evacuated to the North along with Tories after the war.  A small number of escaped slaves were trickling into British North America as well, a number that would grow exponentially with the regular establishment of the Underground Railroad.
Grice found an ally, host, and a venue Philadelphia, home to the largest and most sophisticated population of Free Blacks in the U.S. thanks to the Quaker tradition of tolerance and relative proximity to slave states.  

Bishop Richard Allen, pastor of Mother Bethel and founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Bishop Richard Allen was the most important Free black leader of the first half of the 19th Century.  Born in 1760 as a slave to Benjamin Chew in Philadelphia, Allen and his family were sold to a Delaware Plantation owner.  While in bondage there he began to attend Methodist camp revivals and eventually became a lay preacher to his fellow slaves.  As a skilled carpenter Allen was able to purchase the freedom of himself and his family and rode circuit as a saddle bag preacher before relocating to his home town.  There he was invited to preach for the Black community at St. George’s Methodist Church.  Eventually restrictions on his community, especially segregated seating in the balcony and numerous snubs from White congregants caused him and his people to leave the church and establish their own Methodist community.  After meeting in homes and rental properties, Allen purchased, moved, and physically rebuilt an old blacksmith shop  his first church—the first African-American congregation worshiping in its own building in the country.  Eventually he was regularly ordained as a Methodist minister and his Bethel Church—now revered as Mother Bethel--became the nucleolus of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first Black Protestant Denomination.  Allen became its presiding Bishop.
But his influence went far beyond his fervent religious activity.  He realized early on that he was de facto the leader of his community.  His first step was to for the Free African Society in 1787 to support community and aid recently manumitted slaves. It offered financial assistance to families and educational services for children or adults seeking employment.   As part of the effort Allen began the first school for Black children and Adult literacy and Bible classes at his church.  He also published a Freemen’s newspaper, and numerous pamphlets and tracts on religion, temperance, and Black issues.

The Bethel AME Church--Mother Bethel--in its second building in which the National Negro Convention met.

Forty delegates, all Blacks from nine states attended the National Negro Convention at Mother Bethel from September 20-24, 1830.  Not surprisingly, Allen was elected to preside.  Debate focused on Grice’s Canadian resettlement proposal.
A minority were interested in the schemes of the American Colonization Society (ACS) to re-settle Blacks in Africa.  Supported by some well meaning religious folks, mostly Quakers and philanthropists it also drew support from “enlightened” Southern planters in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson who found slavery philosophically irreconcilable with liberty but were terrified by the prospect of freeing “savage and ignorant” slaves who would become violent and prey on White womanhood.  Convinced that Blacks and Whites could never live peacefully forever, shipping them back to their supposed homeland seemed the easiest solution.  Members of the convention recognized that for the virulent racism it represented.  Most of the established Freemen considered themselves culturally American and after generations had no connection at all to Africa.  Moreover the Colonization Society plan disregarded Africa’s ethnic and tribal divisions and the rights of native Africans to their own land.  By the end of the convention the Colonization Society plan would be flatly rejected.
But there was not total unanimity around the Canadian plan, although it was generally popular.  Canada offered a similar culture and climate and a common language—English—they already knew.  And with vast lands available for possible settlement, it seemed amenable and hospitable.  But many delegates were firm for striving for citizenship rights in American, which they considered home.
In the end, the delegates endorsed the Canadian plan and pledged to work towards it, but also decided to advocate more broadly for Freemen in the United States, and offer sympathetic support to those still in slavery.  In the U.S. Free Blacks would demonstrate their worthiness for citizenship by undertaking a program of moral up-lift, temperance, strong families, chastity, education, hard work, and building black businesses and institutions.  Although sympathetic to those still in slavery, they took pains to separate and elevate themselves as Freemen.  Their political program was not radical, their method gradual.  It spoke only in general terms of a possible total end to slavery and held out the hope to sympathetic Whites.
James Forten, leader of the American Moral Reform Society.

Allen was elected President of a new organization, American Society for Free Persons of Color to follow up on Canadian colonization and other parts of the program.  A second, parallel organization was established to promote dignity, morality, and respectability in the Black community.  American Moral Reform Society, led by Philadelphia businessmen James Forten and William Whipper emphasized temperance and virtue.
Bishop Allen did not long survive the Convention.  He died on March 26, 1831 at the age of 71.  But his work was carried on by others.
The scheme for Canadian resettlement eventually fizzled for lack of resources to promote large scale emigration and the establishment of Black communities.  Many Blacks, who did re-locate, found their welcome far less hospitable than expected and concluded that there was not much difference between White men on either side of the border.  Work turned more to American reform and rights and with the rise of a vigorous mostly White led abolitionist movement and the establishment of the Underground Railroad.  By the 1850’s a much more radical generation represented by Fredrick Douglass transformed the movement.
The 1830 Convention was the first of many Black Convention held in the years before the Civil War.  Philadelphia was the most common site, but gatherings were also held in New York City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.  National and state conventions were held almost yearly through 1864 and their proceeding reflected the growing changes and militancy in the Free Black movement.  New organizations were spawned and publications launched.
In 1859 a White newspaper observed, “colored conventions are almost as frequent as church meetings."
And it all began in Philadelphia.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Two Holidays Raise Questions About the Cripto-Jews of New Mexico

What’s a blogger to do?  Saturday was both the real Mexican Independence Day and, as of sun down this evening it is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the first of the High Holy Days.  These are both occasions I normally mark with blog entries.
I already expounded on the Grito de Delores and Father Hidalgo and why Cinco de Mayo is an upstart pretender, a mere local celebration which became a marketing and drinking festival in the U.S.?  Or should I explain today the significance and rituals of Rosh Hashanah and the peculiarities of the Jewish lunar calendar?
Sometimes when events like this collide or bush closely enough on the calendar, I have been known to commit poetry.  See Purim/International Women’s Day 14th day of Adar 5772/March 8, 2012 or September 12, 2007 The Day After 9/11—Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah among others as an example.  But on this occasion nothing felicitous came to mind today.

Then I remembered a tidbit tucked away in an obscure corner of my brain.  Something about the secret Jews of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  As I recalled from reading an article some years ago, that some Spanish speaking residents of the remote mountainous region that stretches from New Mexico into Colorado on the eastern side of the Rio Grande River drainage were found to be privately practicing Jewish rituals and prayer.  Some, allegedly, had lost understanding of what they were doing, others dimly remembered a lost family connection.  Or so I recalled.
So I did what every respectable blogger would do—I Googled.  What I discovered was at once more complicated and vastly more interesting. 
As you might recall Jews in Spain were having a hard time in the 16th Century as the Inquisition continued to do its dirty, brutal work.  In 1492 Jews who would not convert to Catholicism were exiled King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of a newly united nation after the last of the Moors were driven from Grenada.  As Christopher Columbus left port on his famous voyagepaid for, legend has it by Isabella’s jewels some of which were obtained as bribes from Jews begging for mercy and some of which was simply confiscated—he passed shiploads of baleful Jews sailing into their own uncertain future.  I have blogged about all of that, too.

Left behind were those who publicly accepted conversion—and who paid heavy taxes and bribes for the privilege.  Some took their conversion seriously.  Others had their fingers crossed behind their preverbal backs.  By the mid 1500’s as the Conquistadores turned to making their conquests viable colonies, many conversos jumped at the chance to hacer las Américas—find new adventures in America.  And get some distance from the Inquisition.
Some groups of immigrants were said to be made up of as many as half Cristianos Nuevosrecent converts and included members of wealthy and influential families.  Among the colonizers were also equally persecuted Portuguese  Jews.  This much is historically verifiable.
As is the fact that many of these people or their immediate decedents left the Mexico City area, where the Inquisition was establishing itself in the New World for the northern reaches of Nuevo España, the frontier regions of Nuevo León and Coahuila.  But what is not known is if any of these people continued to practice Judaism in secret. 
Some oral traditions, including deathbed declarations that “we are Israelites” and some private customs suggest that at least some cultural connections may have been passed along, even as the families considered themselves faithful Catholics.
The Spanish re-conquered Santa Fe and surrounding Nueva Mexico in 1692 following the Pueblo Revolt.  They needed to re-populate their loosely held northern province to defend it from resurgence of the Pueblo and from the Apache and Navaho as well.  Settlers were recruited largely from the very regions in the north where the conversos had settled.
Some settlers pushed far north of Santa Fe and established villages and farms in the remote Sangre de Cristo.  These people were on the fringes of Empire and civilization.  Although Catholic, few priests established resident parishes.  At best the remote villages might be visited once or twice a year to conduct baptisms, confirmations, and marriages in otherwise empty churches.  After the Mexican Revolution, Spanish civil government, such as it was, virtually disappeared.  When their land fell into American hands after the Mexican War, they were hardly aware of it.
Isolation was increased by years of bloody Apache uprisings, and even the American Civil War, which saw its most westward battles fought by Kit Carson commanding mostly Spanish speaking militia trying to repel Texan invaders.
In the meantime, know conversos and their decedents were among those who settled the Rio Grande Valley in Tejas in José de Escandón 1749 settlements.
Life in the remote villages remained largely undisturbed well into the end of the 20th Century.

Remote villages in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains remained isolated for hundreds of years and may--or may not--be the home of Crypto Jews.
In 1981 a young scholar named Stanley Hordes, who had written his doctoral dissertation on the Crypto-Jews of Mexico—the handful of families who seem to have maintained a secret Jewish identity despite outward profession of Catholicism—became the state historian of New Mexcio.
After relocating to Santa Fe, he began hearing stories of strange rituals secretly conducted and began to investigate the possibility that Crypto-Jews persisted in the state.  Hordes continued to collect and investigate evidence of the perpetuation of Jewish customs even after leaving the state employment.  As word got around of his interest, more people came to him with more anecdotal evidence and recollections. 

For decades former New Mexico State Librarian and ethno-historian Stanley Hordes has been the main popularizer of the idea that Cripto-Jews have persised in remote areas,
In 1987 a NPR radio documentary highlighted his work, setting of a firestorm of wider interest, particularly in the Jewish community.  Funds were offered to continue and expand research. Conferences on Crypto-Judaism were held across the Southwest.  In the early ‘90’s Hordes helped found the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies. 
All of the publicity also brought forth individuals ready to claim the secret Jewish identity.  Others found things in their family traditions that convinced them of Jewish origins.  Several individuals went through the Rite of Return, performed for Jews who come back to Judaism after having been forced to give it up.  Some had Jewish conversion to make their connection stronger.  Others simply studied and incorporated more Jewish tradition and prayers into their faith life while openly embracing what they thought was once a shameful secret.

Self-identified New Mexico Cripto Jews underwent a Rite of Return ceremony.
By the early 90’s, the supposition was that Hordes and other researchers had established a real connection.  The first major dissent came from Judith Neulander and Indiana University graduate student in folklore who had done previous work on Jews in Mexico.  She conducted extensive interviews and conducted investigations into claims.  In 1996 she published her findings in Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review in which she blasted Hordes, the thriving Crypto-Jewish movement, refuted the validity of several of the reported customs, and exposed some promoters as outright frauds.
Her case was outlined in a 200 article in The Atlantic, Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico’s “Hidden Jews” by Barbara Ferry and Debbie Nathan.  Nathan, by the way is a native Jewish Texan from Houston, a widely respected reporter, and, co-incidentally, a classmate of mine at Shimer College.  
Schollar Judith Neulander is the leading skeptic and critic of the theory of surviving pockets of Cryto-Jews.
Neulander showed that some of the rituals and memories recalled by those giving oral testimony were either false or had other explanations.  Reports of playing with dreidels were easily dismissed—the toys associated with Chanukah were Ashkenazi, not Sephardic and did not appear until after the fading of the Inquisition.  Neulander showed that people were most likely recalling a common game with tops played across northern Mexico and associated with dreidels only after the idea of Jewishness had been implanted in the subject’s minds. 
Likewise she said that veneration of a Saint Esther, a figure not included among official Catholic saints, was not a thinly veiled reference the Old Testament heroine Queen Esther, but was a commonly venerated “folk saint” in Iberian peasant traditions.
She argued that other remembered rituals and observations of holy days came not from a Jewish heritage, but from Church of God Seventh Day missionaries who were active in the region in the 1920s and made several conversions.  This sect incorporated Jewish holidays and traditions because of their belief that they are inheritors of the Jewish covenant with God.  They pulled out their missionaries generations ago.  Neulander argues that many of the traditions they introduced continued to be privately celebrated even as the memory of how they were brought to family practice faded.
Perhaps Neulander’s most damaging assault was the exposure of one of the highest profile self-identified Crypto-Jews, folk artist Juan Sandoval who was closely associated with Hordes, as a charlatan and con artist who faked evidence such as gravestones with the Star of David carved out of Styrofoam  and photographed, reinvented his biography and family history, and preyed on the affections of wealthy Jewish women.

An alleged crypto-Jewish grave stone.
Finally, acknowledging that Crypto-Jewish identity had been embraced by many, Neulander argued that it came from a kind of racism.  By claiming to be descendent from Spanish Jews, the believers could assert European ethnicity.  Many vehemently deny any connection to the Mestizos of Mexico and their tainted “mixed-blood.”  This despite the fact that many of them obviously shared that mixed racial heritage.  It also allowed them to distance themselves from the flood of new emigrants from Mexico and Central America which they believe have displaced them and threatened their livelihood with cheap labor.  Crypto-Jews, like other Spanish speakers who trace their residence in New Mexico and Colorado back hundreds of years, are often outspoken and vehement opponents of recent immigrants.
Neulander’s  criticism undermined Hordes claims, as well as those of a growing number of other researchers into the subject.  Hordes points out the even Neulander acknowledged that not all of the reported practices and traditions can be debunked or dismissed and that just because some can be proven fraudulent doesn’t mean that all claimants are.  But there was no question that his theories were under assault, even though other researchers like Janet Liebman Jacobs, Schulamith Halevy, and Seth D. Kunin support his broad assertions with fresh evidence.
Hordes case for the presence of ethnic Jews in the Southwest got a boost in 2001 when researchers found a form of breast cancer genetically linked to Jews was present in patients from the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado.  They found the marker in six cases in the relatively small population, a significant number.  Researchers note that “not all of the patients acknowledge any Jewish connection.”  But over hundreds of years many of Jewish origins would completely merge with the dominant culture, anyway, even if some others continued to honor it in some way.
Geneticists have shown that 30% of people of Iberian origin and descent carry identifiably Jewish—originating among Semitic people in Biblical landsgenetic markers.  So it is hardly surprising that some would show up in any Hispanic population.
But further research had identified other conditions associated with Jews in the same populations, indicating a higher than normal concentration.
A few individuals have by DNA testing now been able to establish links to specific converso families known to be living in Nuevo Leon in the 18th Century.  It is safe, therefore, to assume that members of those particular families did indeed find their way to the north and settle there.  Because of the relative isolation of their communities, they tended to marry within the group to a much higher degree than standard, preserving ethnic traits that may otherwise have been subsumed by more genetic variety. 
So where does that leave us today?   It can be shown that there is, after all, a population that can be genetically linked to Sephardic Jews.  Some members of those families seemed to have passed on vague notions of Jewish origins—the common link of “death bed” of well documented  confessions—and even preserved certain practices and fragments of ritual.  But there is no evidence of the survival of an intact Jewish religious practice.  Those intriguing Crypto-Jews of the Sangre de Cristo are more Crypto than Jewish and are a reminder that we are all related under the skin if we go back far enough.