the greatest negro?

I immediately thought of Obama while reading this article and am quite, quite certain that most agree that he is indeed a “Negro.”  That there was debate around Douglass’ negrocity ( I like to make up words sometimes) is of interest to me because I’m fascinated by the fact that mulatto was a valid and recognized identity in America before 1920.  Then it wasn’t anymore.  The ranking of Negroes from greatest to least strikes me as ludicrous.  That being said, the question, “Will Obama go down in history as the greatest Negro who ever lived?” popped into my head.  And then I thought that seeing as he isn’t one “in the full sense of the term,”  MLK probably outranks him.  How quickly I went from judging the system of rankings to ordering some myself!

Knoxville’s farewell to a civil-rights icon

By Robert Booker


A large crowd packed into Logan Temple A.M.E. Zion Church to honor the memory of the country’s best known civil-rights advocate. Among them were Knoxville’s black elite.

It was Feb. 25, 1895, and they had come to say farewell to Frederick Douglass, who had been born into slavery and died six days earlier.

Two days before the memorial, The Knoxville Tribune had its say about Douglass and wondered if he was a true Negro: “If we consider Douglass as a Negro, he was the brightest of his race in America. But he was not a Negro in the full sense of the term. Although born a slave, his father was a white man and his mother was a mulatto. Born a bastard and a slave, he rose to distinction and influences, and there were those among a class of white people who delighted to honor him.

“There are those who class him as the greatest Negro. This estimate of him is extravagant and unwarranted. In the first place he was not a Negro, and in the next place he is outranked by other Negroes. The greatest Negro who ever lived was Toussaint L’Ouverture the Haitian general, whose death was and will always be a dishonor to France. No Negro in this country ever approached L’Ouverture in intellect.”

L’Ouverture (1744-1803) was the Haitian independence leader who took part in the slave revolt in that country in 1790. He joined the Spaniards when they attacked the French in 1793, but fought for the French when they agreed to abolish slavery. By 1801 he had virtual control over Hispaniola, but was arrested and died in a French prison.

The blacks who spoke at the Douglass memorial took issue with the Tribunes’s assessment of him.

Attorney Samuel R. Maples said he wanted “to correct a statement in one of the local papers that Douglass boasted of his white blood and denied being a Negro. This was not true. Douglass never denied being a Negro. He was very proud of his race.”

Attorney William F. Yardley, who had introduced Douglass when he spoke here at Staub’s Opera House Nov. 21, 1881, said Douglass “Was the victim of the great American curse – slavery. He slept with dogs and ate the crumbs from his master’s table, but his great mind and energy lifted him to the loftiest heights of fame. He was not a creature of circumstance but of force. He was tireless and had been the greatest blessing to his race.”

Charles W. Cansler spoke of Douglass as “An anti-slavery agitator who represented a great moral principle and not a minister of malice. He was seventy-eight years old when he died and spent his life earnestly in the extension of freedom and in establishing justice among men. He was the Moses of his race, and it is hard to tell what his heath means to us.”

Rev. J.R. Riley, pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church, spoke of Douglass as a leader: “He was carved by the hand of deity to be a great leader, though cradled in the most iniquitous institution – American slavery – and schooled in dire adversity, his power of mind and greatness of spirit had surmounted all, and he stood out boldly as the greatest man of his race and the peer of all great men.”

It seems that Riley, who was pastor of Shiloh from 1891 to 1913, knew Douglass personally and they had many experiences together. He said his friend had “great personal magnetism. His quick wit and ability to read men made him irresistible in his influence among men.”

the cover of the sheet music for Frederick Douglass's funeral march

This image shows the front cover of “Frederick Douglass Funeral March.”  At each corner of his portrait are pen and ink drawings in circular frames that depict the slave trade, bondage, auction block, and freedom.

2 thoughts on “the greatest negro?

  1. Of historical interest — You can see a clip of Toussaint’s last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film “The Last Days of Toussaint L’Ouverture” at This film is the basis for a new feature (not with Danny Glover) that is in development.

  2. I don’t think a person can be qualified to be the greatest that ever lived when they postdate the term. So no, Obama is not the greatest Negro that ever lived. It’s like saying Hawaii is the smallest Yankee state of the Union.

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