History, unbound

Eric Gardner had a hard time putting down his book. Not a book he was reading; the book he was writing.

The subject matter behind his latest writing was compelling for the SVSU professor of English. After its publication in 2015, readers agreed. “Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture” in April 2017 received the Book Prize Award from The Research Society of American Periodicals, recognizing the work as the top scholarly book on American periodicals published in 2015-16. Gardner also received the Saginaw chapter of the NAACP’s 2017 Regional Heroes Award in part for his work on the book.

“Black Print Unbound” examined The Christian Recorder, a 19th-century religious weekly produced by black Americans during a time when their peers were fighting for freedom from slavery and later struggling during the nation’s post-Reconstruction years.
For Gardner, exploring the Recorder’s cultural significance was both thrilling and important.

“I think we make better decisions about our present and our future when we know more about our past,” he said. “I realized just how little scholarship had been done on The Recorder — and early black periodicals in general — and how desperately we needed such work.”

To aid in this effort, he set to work researching the staff and subscribers of the Recorder, which was associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“The paper’s content is simply amazing: fascinating letters and essays, stunning poems, exciting fiction, including a serialized novel just rediscovered in 2006,” he said.

“The paper’s operational story — including the stories of its staff, its struggles and its impact — is just as exciting. To be able to pair that with glimpses of the life stories of some of the paper’s readers … well, it was hard to stop writing the book.”

The Book Prize was Gardner’s second. He received the award for an earlier publication focusing on a similar topic.

That book, titled “Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth Century African American Literature,” was published in September 2011.

Gardner’s work can be purchased through online venues such as Amazon. His books also are available at SVSU’s Melvin J. Zahnow Library.


The following passage is reprinted from Chapter 1, with edits by the author, of “Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture,” by Eric Gardner, published by Oxford University Press © Oxford University Press, 2015.


White Houses and Black Print

Bishop Daniel Payne rose from the armchair by the fireplace. Short and thin, he was often mistaken for frail during his long life. Historian Benjamin Quarles’s assessment is closer to the truth: Payne “looked as though he had been fasting in the wilderness, and he carried himself like a man sent from God.” Payne had likely spent much of the last hour praying, arguing, listening, teaching, and preaching. Years after this April 1862 meeting, this lion of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church wrote that he finally felt it was his “duty to withdraw.” As Payne readied himself to go, he took a small magazine and a newspaper from his satchel, and he handed them to the tall, tired man he had come to see. Earnestly, Payne “told him that if he could find a leisure moment to look over” the magazine and the newspaper, “he would see what the A. M. E. Church was doing to improve the character and condition of our people in the republic.” Then Payne took his leave. One wonders if he glanced back over his shoulder, hoping to see Abraham Lincoln paging through the issues of the Repository of Religion and Literature and the Christian Recorder that the AME bishop had just gifted him.

Students of African American history know that the meeting between Lincoln and Payne is the kind of moment that most scholars have dismissed, ignored, or simply not known about — that at best it might be treated as a tiny thread in the massive tapestries surrounding Lincoln and the Civil War. Students of Black print culture know that Payne’s final gesture, his attempt to deploy African American texts that were not bound books, would, until very recently, not even have garnered much notice. The Lincoln White House was dealing with a war of a size, scope, and character never seen in North America — George B. McClellan’s doomed Peninsula Campaign was gearing up — and Lincoln himself, burdened by his office and the death of his eleven-year-old son Willie only two months before, was suffering deep personal pain, too. Add Lincoln’s famous willingness to meet with hundreds of petitioners and his White House’s incredibly sloppy record-keeping, and it is no wonder that Payne’s meeting has received little notice. Decades of obfuscation of Black church action, Black print culture, and Black agency before, during, and after the Civil War undoubtedly sped the removal of the meeting with Payne from American historical consciousness, even as rare scholars attempted to memorialize it.

Comparatively few historians even attend to the question that brought Payne to the White House on April 14, 1862: three days earlier, Congress had passed legislation abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, and Lincoln was deciding whether to sign it into law —  something he ultimately did two days after Payne’s visit. Now only a footnote to the better-known Emancipation Proclamation, the earlier DC emancipation law demonstrated the North’s ambivalence to slavery and to African Americans generally. In addition to encouraging voluntary colonization of enslaved people emancipated through the law, it built on Lincoln’s own March 1862 nods toward compensated emancipation; through the law, slave owners in the District were paid for the “loss” of their “property.” The resulting contribution to American print culture — a seventy-nine-page Letter from the Secretary of the Treasury submitted to Congress and printed in 1864 — offers the names of slave owners who petitioned for payment under the law, as well as the names and valuations of their “Persons Held to Service or Labor.”

This, of course, is not the story of Lincoln, the Civil War, slavery, and emancipation many want to tell. As Marcus Wood argues, generations have (mis)represented emancipation as a “gift” — certainly not something as crass as the exchange of (government) money for an enslaved person’s body and liberty. And we need not belabor the deification of Lincoln in the popular mind. The Lincoln of such fantasies was simply not the Lincoln who, as Michael Burlingame notes in Abraham Lincoln: A Life, told friend and Illinois Senator Orville Hickman Browning that the DC emancipation bill “should have been for gradual emancipation” as “now families would be at once deprived of cooks, stable boys &c and they of their protectors without any provision for them.” Thus, even the best biographers downplay DC emancipation and ignore both Payne’s meeting with Lincoln and his gift of two important Black periodicals.

I open with this discussion of Payne’s April 1862 meeting with Lincoln to emphasize the layers of neglect covering so many remnants of American and especially African American history and culture. I submit that uncovering, examining, and contextualizing such remnants might lead us to significant and challenging new questions. Even focusing on Payne’s gift of Black print to Lincoln raises a host of concerns: Did Lincoln read the periodicals? What did he do with the copies Payne gave him? Did he hand them off to an aide — or to one of the White House’s white or Black servants? What did Lincoln know of Black periodicals generally? Of Black print culture? What kinds of communities—physical, imagined, or otherwise—would he have witnessed or perhaps even joined by reading?

We might even ask — as this book does — what happens when we leave one of the most expected starting places for a narrative of the Civil War era, the Lincoln White House, and leave as well the towering figure of Lincoln to focus instead on the thousands of African Americans during and after the war who subscribed to, read, supported, wrote for, and/or worked with Black periodicals — African American preachers and teachers, soldiers and domestics, laundresses and barbers, activists and poets. What happens when we conceive of those African Americans — some freeborn, some self-emancipated “fugitives,” some “contraband,” and some freed only after the war — as agents fighting for rights rather than receiving “gifts”?

This is not a book about Lincoln, though he treads through its pages with some regularity. Nor is this a book about the “traditional” Civil War or the “gift” of emancipation, though the massive set of events referenced (and hidden) within these terms shaped every facet of the world this book considers. Instead, this book begins to tell the story of one of the periodicals Payne handed to Lincoln: the AME’s weekly newspaper, the Christian Recorder. Focused especially on the years during and just after the Civil War, this is a narrative of a periodical that was conceived by African Americans, edited by African Americans, written primarily by African Americans, and largely distributed by African Americans to an almost completely African American audience — a periodical that, in the midst of a sea of failed print ventures by members of all races in the nineteenth century, survived and influenced a readership across the nation. It is a story critical to any sense of American and African American history, culture, and literature, and it begins with the recognition that Payne’s gesture was a most logical thing for an AME Bishop to do, an act that a host of Black Americans would understand and support, and a complex attempt to tell Lincoln much about the “nation within a nation.”

Leave a Reply