The Clarke Humiliation
by Ken Faig, Jr.
Truman Spencer’s work, The History of Amateur Journalism, (The Fossil, 1957) is a wonderful book which has helped foster my own love for our amateur past. The index so lovingly compiled by Nita Gerner Smith and Nelson G. Morton and published by The Fossils two years later transforms Spencer’s history into a ready reference tool.
This article was inspired by the photographic section of Spencer’s history. There is the group photograph of the 1892 National Amateur Press Association convention held in Detroit, Michigan, those of my readers who are fortunate enough to own Spencer’s history will see the portraits of two young black men, B. Benjamin Pelham of Detroit and Herbert A. Clarke of Cincinnati, Ohio. However, Spencer’s history does not tell us too much concerning these pioneer black members of NAPA. In its Michigan essay on page 180, we learn that Pelham edited Venture from Detroit and later edited a professional paper devoted to the interests of his race. Spencer also records (page 45) Pelham’s formulation of a resolution calling for the promotion of decent literature for youth which was adopted by the Detroit convention in 1882. But of Clarke, Spencer records only his status with Pelham as a pioneering black amateur (page 180) and his role as editor of Le Bijou (page 195).
A recent visit to the collection of amateur journals at the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worcester, Massachusetts enabled me to learn a little more about Herbert A. Clarke (as is common his name is spelled both with and without the final e). There in the AAS files were fourteen issues of Clarke’s journal Le Bijou: vol. 1 no. 2, August 1878; vol. 1 no. 2, September 1878; vol. 1 no. 3, October 1878; vol. 2 no. 1, January 1879; vol. 2 no. 2, March 1879; vol. 2 no. 3, May 1879; vol. 3 no. 1, July 1879; vol. 3 no. 2, September 1879; vol. 3 no. 3, October 1879; vol. 4 no. 1, November 1879; vol. 4 nos. 2-3, December 1879 – January 1880; vol. 5 nos. 1–2, February – March 1880; vol. 5 no. 3, April 1880; vol. 6 no. 1, May 1880.
Whether the AAS file is complete, I do not know. But Clarke’s publication pattern after his first volume seems to have been bimonthly issues gathered into semiannual volumes of three issues each. If this is correct, the AAS file seems to be complete as far as it goes. All of the issues of Le Bijou at AAS show Cincinnati, Ohio as their place of publication, although for part of this time Herbert A. Clarke was teaching school in Rodney, Mississippi.
My brief review of the AAS file of Le Bijou revealed only a few biographical facts about its editor Herbert A. Clarke. He was the son of Peter H. Clarke, a distinguished black citizen of Cincinnati, and received a good education. That he was an educated young man we can decipher from the name he chose for his amateur journal, Le Bijou, according to the Concise Oxford English French Dictionary means jewel or trinket or, more figuratively, anything elegant or ornate. It may also be used affectionately to mean darling or sweetheart. Clarke spent his apprentice years in amateur journalism contributing to the puzzle departments of journals like Boys of New York, Boys’ Own and Wide Awake; and when he began his own paper Le Bijou he ran a puzzle column entitled “Krucial Kruxes.” Issues of Le Bijou also contain editorials signed by “Consuelo”; I do not know who this might be although the May 1879 issue advertises the “Bijou Polka” composed by Ernestine L. Clark and published by George Newhall & Co. of Cincinnati for thirty-five cents.
For most of its existence, Le Bijou published bimonthly numbers of twelve pages and the subscription rate for non-exchanges was twenty cents per year. The printing was done for Clarke by fellow Cincinnati amateur Edwin Booth Swift (1859-1936), who is credited by Le Bijou as “Professor of Typography.” The January 1879 number acknowledged Swift as “Printer” and displayed his rates available to fellow amateurs: 500 copies of a four-page journal for $3.00 or 300 copies of the same for $1.75.
For readers today, the September 1879 issue of Le Bijou is doubtless the most memorable. Editor Clarke had just attended the turbulent Washington, D.C., NAPA convention in July, where he had been elected to the office of Third Vice President on the nomination of a Southern amateur, without any dissenting vote. John Edson Briggs of Washington, D.C., editor of Imp, and James Austin Fynes of Boston, editor of Idle Hours, battled for the presidency that year, and Briggs emerged victorious after a tough political contest described in detail by Mr. Spencer (pages 40-42). Supporters had been North Carolina amateur Edwin A. Oldham, who was himself an unsuccessful candidate for the First Vice Presidency in Washington, D.C. Most of the controversy revolved around the system of state balloting implemented for that year’s election; and when even a trip to Mount Vernon failed to cool the ardor of the disputing delegates, the convention adjourned in disorder. Oldham’s own account of the events which transpired at the 1879 Washington convention may be found in the fine account of North Carolina amateurdom which he contributed to Spencer’s history at pages 189-194.
In September 1879, editor Clarke reviewed in Le Bijou all the commentary pro and con which had arisen as a result of the election of a black man to the Third Vice Presidency of NAPA. Some of the Southern amateurs threatened secession if Clarke’s election was not reversed. Oldham wrote in the columns of Odd Trump:
“We of the South know more concerning the creatures who were in slavery than do our brothers of the North and it is our advice and request that something be done against their admittance into our National association at least. If admitted after all it will ultimately result in severing Northern and Southern Amateurdom.”
(Interestingly, Oldham wrote of another early black amateur. Charles R. Uncles, of Baltimore. Maryland, who contributed to puzzle departments under the nom de plume of “Randolph.” Apparently, Uncles never graduated to having his own paper. Many puzzlers eventually moved into the associations focusing on their own primary interests. Of prominent early amateurs, James F. Morton, Jr. remained active as a puzzler until the end of his life.)
Wrote J. Robert Griffin of Goldsboro, North Carolina, in Our Free Blade:
“Away with Civil Rights in Amateurdom! Let the negroes have separate organization but we are opposed, bitterly opposed, to the idea of electing a negro to an office when there are a score of white boys who could fill the office more acceptably.”
The North Carolina Amateur suspected political trickery by Northern “firebrands” in promoting Clarke’s election and thundered:
“We entertain the best feelings of Clarke or any other negro who is trying to raise himself above the level of his inferior race, but when it comes to social equality and even to placing one of African descent in a position of authority over the Anglo-Saxon race we are at once disgusted. The negro is the inferior race and cannot expect to rank with the white man. He may at the North, but never will he at the South. We have no objections to negroes publishing amateur papers, but would be glad to see more of them of the same spirit of Clarke; but they must not expect membership in the same associations with the whites. They have separate churches and schools. and why should they not have separate Amateur Press Associations? We are willing to give them due honor, but would die rather than they should rule over us in our Association. We say as Southern Journalists that we are anxious to see the negro improve because if he improves, it will necessarily improve the South, where he abounds in such numbers. From today onward we declare ourselves seceded from the National Amateur Press Association and do earnestly hope that all who coincide with us will lend their assistance to establish a white boys’ Amateur Press Association and let the negroes and their equals have the one which they have already taken possession of.”
More enlightened voices within amateur journalism rose to the defense of Clarke and his election Charles W. Biehn of Ripley, Ohio, editor of the Composing Stick, himself a Jeffersonian Democrat, denied any political motivation in Clarke’s election but argued that it had been based on the candidate’s superior qualifications. “We [editorial we] are personally acquainted with Mr. Clarke,” the editor wrote, “and have always found him the very soul of honor and a gentleman in the truest sense of the word.” The editor of Young Aspirant wrote: “We might contrast Le Bijou, which is published by Herbert A. Clarke, a full-blooded negro, with the Odd Trump or any other Southern publication we have seen, to the advantage of the former.” Ralph Van Vechten of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, editor of the Rounce, commented: “Whatever can be said against Mr. Clarke, one thing is certain, he is as far above Oldham in every particular, as Oldham is above the brute creation.” Wrote Arthur J. Huss, of Tifflin, Ohio, the editor of Stylus:
“Aside from the bigotry and rebel-like narrow mindedness he thus exhibits, Ed. Oldham can hardly with consistency advocate the expulsion of Clarke from the National. Clarke is a colored boy, but for all that, he knows more and is a better writer than three-fourths of the editors in the ranks today, and has forgotten more than Oldham ever knew.”
The editor of Exponent attacked socio-sexual basis of Southern racism directly:
“For the benefit of the St. Louis bigot we will say that we have taken Mr. Clarke to places where we call and have introduced him to respectable young ladies of our acquaintance.”
Having printed the comments of his critics under the heading “Hark From the Tombs,” Clarke then printed the comments of his supporters under the heading “Voices of Freedom.” Perhaps the most moving were the comments of the newly-elected National Amateur Press Association President John Edson Briggs in Imp:
“It is time for the Southern as well as Northern and Western people to begin to realize that this country is the land of the free: that slavery is abolished in spirit as well as reality; the negro is on the same footing with any of the thousands of the five great races that go to make up this glorious republic. Therefore when a proposition so inhuman as Edward A. Oldham makes to the NAPA is accepted by our amateurs, they are committing a criminal act. But we know the amateurs of this country would never disgrace the noble cause of junior journalism by even intimating such a thing as excluding our colored co-laborers of the quill from the fold. Justice is too prominent a characteristic of the mimic press to be ever sacrificed to satisfy the fastidious muttering of a Southern, Northern or Western despot. Brains and honor are the two coveted treasures in this miniature world of ours, and be they to be found in a body as black as night’s plutonian darkness, they will be none the less dear. Go hide your head in shame, Oldham. And to think that you, you who harbor such antagonistic, and God-forsaken feelings against the colored race, have the impudence to run for the second highest office in an association which proclaims the proud title of NATIONAL.”
But perhaps the finest defense was Clarke’s own:
“In the Republic of Letters there has never been any distinction save that of merit. From the blind beggar. Homer, down the ages through Aesop and Terence, the slaves, to Dumas, the mulatto, the only credential asked or given, was that of merit. A footing once obtained within its sacred bounds and all were alike: the slave and the prince, the beggar and the millionaire stood together on one platform and were joined in a noble equality.”
Arguing that his election to the Third Vice Presidency had been based upon his contributions to amateur journalism, Clarke continued in defense of his race:
“As for us, we are Americans. Our ancestors, free colored men, fought with Washington at Brandywine and Germantown, others sailed with Perry at Put-in Bay and marched with Harrison in Canada. Whatever glories were gained for the American name in those days and in those struggles, we share, whatever rights were earned, we inherit… Had we stood as a slave and with bowed head stood the oppression of the imperious and despotic slave-holders until Lincoln’s proclamation had set us free, none the less would we demand the right to stand in the ‘dom upon an equality with any.”
The 1880 NAPA convention came to Clarke’s home town of Cincinnati, but Spencer (pages 42-43) does not record any incident of his involvement in that convention. Clarke had been mentioned for the presidency, but in the end Will L. Wright of Cairo, Illinois, who had defeated Oldham for the First Vice Presidency in Washington, D.C. in 1879, was elected to the Presidency, only to resign the office immediately in favor of his principal opponent Thomas G. Harrison, of Indianapolis, Indiana.
From the group photograph of the 1882 NAPA convention in Detroit, we know that Clarke was in attendance, along with B. Benjamin Pelham. But of his further involvement in amateur journalism, or the course of his life as a mature man, I have not been able to discover.
Le Bijou was head and shoulders above most of the amateur papers of its day. Amateur journalists should be proud that the hobby elected its editor to national office in 1879 and withstood the fierce criticism of Southern amateurs opposed to the election of a black man. Let Herbert A. Clarke and Le Bijou continue to provide an example for us in judging the participants in our hobby solely by the merit of their contributions.
The following addenda by the editor of Campane is from The History of the National Amateur Press Association by John Travis Nixon of Crowley, Louisiana (date given on the title page is 1890 but a listing of laureate winners extended to 1899, so it is presumed the title page was printed before the compilation), and is presented to detail the mores of the times following the end of the Civil War just 16 years previously.
This account is from Chapter 6 titled “The A.A.A. Association,” was contributed by “Rickety” [it was common in those times to use a nom de plume] to Boys’ Folio in 1884:
“When the National A.P.A. held its convention in Washington on July 16, 17 and 18, 1879, discussion over the admission of negro members had already commenced. Edward A. Oldham, of North Carolina was the first amateur editor who publicly braved the contempt that an adverse editorial upon negro admission was sure to bring from numerous amateur journals, North, South and West. In his journal, the Odd Times, he called attention of all Southerners to the presence of Herbert A. Clarke in the National. Of course Clarke’s membership was well known, but Southerners had never come in contact with him, nor sat in convention where he was present. Oldham indicated the fact that Clarke would attend the Washington convention and declared that the time had arrived when Southerners must take a decisive step. Many entirely overlooked the Southern principle involved, and became curious to know, in a wondering way, what kind of a Negro Clarke was and how he acted. A few may have indeed, regarded Clarke’s membership with dislike, but a great many expressed no feeling on the subject.
“It was, therefore, left for Oldham to rouse the section with which he was identified, and to place the matter before Southerners in such manner that would compel them to declare their positions. But even this, although done before the Washington convention, did not result in any combined effort. A war of words alone followed. A storm of abuse rained fast and thickly throughout the country. The convention met and Clarke appeared. The record of that convention is anything but pleasing. Taking a rough estimate there was not more than 17% of the membership present, and certainly not more than 6% of amateurdom represented. Yet it was, as has been admitted everywhere, the noisiest, most disorderly, most corrupted and most disgraceful convention ever held.
“But with this we are not here to deal. It is sufficient to say that neither Briggs nor Perry, both of whom were elected to high offices, represented the South. The South had nominated George M. Carr, editor of the famous North Carolina Amateur, and lately opposed to negro admission, for the third vice presidency. His nomination was highly prized and many Southerners were his pledged supporters. But the discord at that convention, during the election of the first officers had disgusted, if not demoralized, the Southern delegation as well as the delegations present. When the nominations for third vice president were in order, the majority of the members who had agreed to support Carr were, in their high political demoralization, scattered everywhere except where they should have been. As a natural result, Clarke, backed by a solid caucus, was nominated and elected so rapidly that the few dissenting voices had no opportunity to protest. He was, according to reports of the convention, elected ‘unanimously.’
“The election of Clarke over a Southerner of such popularity as Carr led Southerners to look the question fairly in the face. Their ancestral pride was deeply wounded. Southerners now, concluded that some active steps were necessary. The North Carolina A.P.A., of which Carr was a most prominent member, gave the first official cry July 21, 1879, to the movement that subsequently was begun. It denounced Carr’s membership, and proposed ‘a Southern association of white amateurs.’ On August 20 the celebrated Columbian Amateur Journalists’ Association of Washington, D.C. approved the action of the N.C.A.P.A. Neither association, however, adopted one word that upheld the disorganization of the National.
“The action of the Columbian, which transpired amid considerable excitement, as the division was almost equal, was annulled at a subsequent meeting through treachery; but following meetings soon placed the matter where it originally stood, and the Columbian today stands upon a platform of negro exclusion. In consequence of the treachery just mentioned. several plans were considered to prevent failure in the future. The fact that treachery might occur elsewhere as well as in Washington was not overlooked. But the utmost secrecy was observed regarding all plans considered. So fierce was the antagonism between anti-negroites and negroites become, that lack of secrecy would have prevented success.
“On the 6th of September 1879, C. Ridgely Walter, of Washington, took passage on the steamer Leary bound for Norfolk. Before boarding he dropped a card to C.W. Darr informing him that he expected to organize an anti-negroite association upon reaching his destination. The trip down or across the Chesapeake Bay is anything but safe on the shell steamers. No constitution had been framed. The voyage was passed with the high waves rolling and splashing, writing a constitution, while the pencil used persisted in beating a tattoo in time with the motion of the steamer. The objects, as set forth, are:
“To prevent the imission[?] of negro members into a white amateur journalists’ association of the United States; to form a sworn union of Southern amateurs, in order that the proposed Southern Amateur Press Association’s success may be certain in having a sufficient number of pledged and sworn supporters in advance, to memberize all white amateurs who concur in its objects and constitution; and to accomplish such objects as may further those already stated.
“The obligation reads as follows:
“I, __________, solemnly promise and swear that I shall obey the regulations of and endeavor to protect the Anti-Negro Admission Association, so help me God!
“The term of office is permanent. It is prescribed that all business shall be transacted by mail, but the president is empowered to call a meeting at any central point upon the request of a majority of the members. Resolutions, etc., it is prescribed, shall be sent to the president who, through the secretary, shall call for a vote and afterward announce the result through the same medium. In consequence of the binding character of the obligation, the object of two members is prescribed as sufficient to prevent amendments, expulsions and deposals. In spite of what has been said to the contrary, nothing in the constitution betrays any attempt to collide with the National; in fact. the constitution contains no word concerning that organization.
“Sunday, September 7th, the following day, a number of Southern amateurs met in the dining rooms of the Jordan house, Norfolk. Va., just as the Washington delegation had finished its dinner. Using a chicken leg, a remnant of the meal, in place of a gavel, the Washington delegation called the meeting to order, stated its objects, and asked for a temporary chairman. John E. Overton of Virginia was selected. The meeting then proceeded, and adopted the constitution already described. Officers were elected as follows: President, John E. Overton; first vice, C.W. Butt; second vice, George M. Carr; third vice, C. W. Darr; secretary, C.R. Waller; spy, Thos. J. Hope.
“After numerous informal speeches and various suggestions upon the policy of the association, ‘Clarke’s connection hewith the N.A.PA.’ was denounced. The phrase ‘unanimous consent’ was interpreted to imply that such consent was given until the association by unanimous vote withdrew it. It was some time before the existence of the association became generally known. At first few amateurs could understand “A.A.A.A.,” into which the name soon became corrupted. In no time, the officers spared no pains to increase the membership. New members silently and secretly signed the obligation….”
However, state groups, battled over meeting sites and the Washington group, as well as the Southern bloc, insisted on “white” in its application forms. An official journal, The Anti-Negroite was planned, but never appeared. AAA officers neglected their duties. “It is a question [in 1880] that the association is still alive.” During this period the NAPA was unlike present day. State associations were plentiful and had the most power. We are thankful there have been no racial incidents in amateur journalism in the 20th century and that it is free and is open to everyone. – HS
Campane has been published since 1941 in the interest of the National Amateur Press Association (est. 1876), the hobby of organized amateur journalism and pastime printing by Harold Segal who resides at Philadelphia, PA 19115-4503.
Critiques, articles and anecdotes about writing or printing or research into the history of the hobby are solicited. Manuscripts should be typed double-spaced and should be at least 1000 words.