COMMENTARY: Washington and Allen were brothers for freedom

One was born into a dynastic family and inherited slaves at a young age, while the other was born enslaved but who purchased his freedom at age 20. Yet, the lives of George Washington and Richard Allen converged for the good of each other and America.

The story of their nexus is an appropriate way to celebrate Washington’s birthday and Black History Month at once.

Born on Feb. 22, 1732 in Virginia, George Washington was a generation older than Richard Allen, who was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 14, 1760. While Washington was fighting the French in the Seven-Year War and later the American Revolution, Allen was living enslaved, having his family broken up, and moving from one owner to another. When he landed with Delaware plantation owner Stokeley Sturgis, Allen eventually bought his freedom in 1780 amid Sturgis’s conversion about slavery’s ills. Seven years later,

Allen became a licensed preacher and began a career of consequence, while Washington led the Constitutional Convention and two years later was inaugurated as the nation’s first president.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

While Washington’s family and the man himself were slaveholders, there is evidence that Washington grew steadily more wary of slavery’s impact on politics and society.

For example, Washington drew up plans for converting the Mount Vernon estate into plots of land for free blacks; he openly praised the role of black soldiers in the fight against Britain; and his Last Will and Testament pledged to free the remaining persons enslaved at Mount Vernon following his wife’s death. Of course, we know that Martha Washington did not wait to free all slaves at Mount Vernon and begin an education fund to assist the children of free blacks.

Much of Richard Allen’s life as a minister, writer, and advocate was in the cause of abolishing slavery. Allen founded the Free African Society in 1787, a group which assisted fugitive slaves. After co-founding the Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia in 1794, he was ordained as the first Methodist minister in 1799. When Allen and other black ministers protested the church’s policy on segregation, they founded the first independent black denomination in the United States in 1816, and Allen was elected as its first bishop.

Both before and after this period, Richard Allen and his wife operated a stop on the Underground Railroad. Just a year before his death in 1831, Allen led a meeting of black representatives from seven states which became known as the Negro Convention and served as president of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour.

Given the determination and reputation of each man, it might seem less than a coincidence that the lives of George Washington and Richard Allen intersected often, and that the views of each man influenced the other.

First, there is evidence that Richard Allen assisted Washington’s troops at Valley Forge during the American Revolution, even if by duty rather than choice. In the 1790s, Allen ran a chimney sweeping business in Philadelphia that serviced President Washington’s residence there.

Clearly, George Washington appreciated the efforts of Allen and others to stem the Yellow Fever epidemic in the black community in 1793. Lastly, Washington supported the efforts of black ministers who sought resources in the Philadelphia region during his presidency.

On Dec. 29, 1799, Richard Allen became the first African American to publicly eulogize an American president following George Washington’s passing on Dec. 14. The address referred to Washington as a father and friend. It commended him for his pity, compassion, and sincerity toward black Americans. Too, it noted the wisdom of his directive to eventually end slavery at Mount Vernon, which Allen called “the only stain with which man could ever reproach him.”

He promised posterity that “[T]he name of Washington will live when the sculptured marble and statue of bronze shall be crumbled into dust.” The same may be said of Richard Allen, who just had a postage stamp released in his honor to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Mother Bethel AME Church.

For George Washington and Richard Allen, service to one’s country and what it engendered is an important lesson. For just as generations have honored Washington’s life, so black leaders like Frederick Douglass used Allen’s inspirational legacy to help end slavery once and for all in America.

While Washington is usually labeled among the top three U.S. presidents, Allen has been referred to as one of the top 100 blacks in U.S. history. The common link between them is their mutual desire to see freedom for their compatriots.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. As chairman of the Dover Human Relations Commission from 2005-2010, he led the movement for approval of a slavery apology resolution by the Delaware General Assembly, which culminated in the resolution’s signing by Gov. Jack Markell on Feb. 10. Dr. Hoff has taught and published extensively on the American presidency.

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