Even during the years right before the Civil War, most white people in the north refused to believe that black people could be their intellectual equals. They might be adamant in their opposition to slavery, but this rarely meant that they were willing to cede to black people full political equality, or entertain the notion that men like Alexander Crummell or James Theodore Holly were as capable of profound thought or religious enlightenment as they were. In his fantastic new book 1861: The Civil War Awakening, Adam Goodheart tells the story of Abby Kelley, the brilliant Quaker abolitionist who converted whole communities to her cause, but who also “nearly lost her audience when she declared that black men and women were no different from whites under the skin” at an anti-slavery meeting. Given these prejudices even among their allies, men like Crummell and Holly felt that they had something to prove. They and other black intellectuals felt that their accomplishments, and the accomplishments of African peoples throughout history, were constantly ignored or understated by white authors. They wanted to influence the way that history was taught and thought about by correcting the prejudices that constantly regulated the history of their ancestors to the negligible sidelines. When they thought about the history of Africa they emphasized the brilliance of Africans such as Saint Augustine and Tertullian. When they thought about the history of the African diaspora, their thoughts turned to Haiti.
They emphasized that Haiti was the second independent nation in the New World, having declared independence from France on January 1st, 1804. They raised up the name of Toussaint Louverture as a patriotic hero on the same scale as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They pointed to the aid that Haiti had leant to Simon Bolivar in his struggle to free Spanish colonies from imperial rule. For them Haiti, an independent country ruled by the descendants of Africans, represent proof that blacks were capable of self-rule, which in turn proved that they were as able, politically and intellectually, as any white. James Theodore Holly would refer to his contemporaries in Haiti as “the sable heroes and statesman of that independent island of the Caribbean.” The black abolitionist William Watkins Jr. called Haiti “an irrefutable argument that the descendants of Africa were never designed by their Creator to sustain an inferiority, or even a mediocrity in the chain of beings.” (You can read about this in Benjamin Quarles book Black Mosaic: Essays in Afro-American History and Historiography, p. 121-122).
James Theodore Holly was remarkable in that he decided to live out his admiration of Haiti and his determination to prove the whole equality of black people. He was born in Washington D.C. on October 3rd, 1829, the son of Roman Catholic parents. His parents were free, his grandfather having come to D.C. from Maryland in 1799 to work on the capitol’s construction. The family moved to New York when James was fifteen years old, and there James was befriended by Father Felix Varela, a Spanish priest who gave him his first Bible. Roman Catholics had long proven themselves to be allies of African-Americans who were trying to reclaim their history from the negligence of white authors. Several of the books that were written about African history and heroes were penned by Catholic priests. But, according to Holly’s own testimony, it was the gift of that Bible which was to lead him away from Roman Catholicism. Being able to read scripture without mediation convinced him that Roman Catholics practiced “unscriptural ways.” He withdrew from the church when he was twenty-two, only to become an Episcopalian two years later. He later stated that “I became a member of the Episcopal Church in Detroit, Michigan, and was immediately admitted a candidate for Holy Orders (http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/jtholly/facts1897.html).”
He was ordained a deacon in Michigan, and requested his bishop to recommend him for missionary work in Haiti. He was sent by the Episcopal Church’s Foreign Committee to explore the feasibility of a mission in Haiti, and spent two months there in 1855. When he returned, the committee agreed that he should be sent as a missionary as soon as funds could be raised. However, the raising of those funds took six years. In the meantime he was ordained a priest and served as Rector of Saint Luke’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut.
He finally set sail for Haiti in May of 1861, just a few weeks after Frederick Douglass himself was supposed to leave for the island nation. Holly had known Douglass since his time in New York, and some of the same desires motivated the two men. Douglass’s intended move to Haiti was motivated by disgust at an America that was preparing for Civil War but not, apparently, for emancipation. Douglass changed his mind at the last minute. But Holly sailed forth with about a hundred others, including his wife and seven children. They were greeted by President Fabre Geffrard, who had seized power in a coup but who ended his reign by attempting to establish a constitutional government. Geffrard gave the American missionaries some of his own land for the establishment of their mission. It was about three miles from Port-au-Prince, and it soon proved to be unhealthy. Contagion broke out during the next nine months, and many of the missionaries died, including Holly’s wife and five of his children. Many of the survivors chose to return to the United States. Only about twenty chose to remain.
An American living in Port-au-Prince gave the missionaries a large hall to relocate to, and Holly returned to the U.S. in 1862 to gather funds, leaving his “two motherless boys behind me, in the care of a member of the colony, as a guarantee of my return to Haiti, and to assure them that I would not desert them.” He returned with a missionary stipend, which had been granted him by the General Convention, and rented a house in the city.
Given the suffering, the uncertainty, and the poverty of the situation, it’s amazing that Holly managed to accomplish so much during the following years. He oversaw the building of a church, schoolhouse, and rectory in Port-au-Prince, and an expansion of missionary efforts into Haiti’s rural districts. By 1897 he had established or helped to cultivate schools and hospitals. He had ordained priests and deacons, the majority of whom worked at several jobs, farming and helping to administer the government. Chapels were built in the mountains, and lay readers went out from them to minister to a scattered flock. “They make missionary visits from house to house, and like Saint Andrew, they return, bringing their brethren to the Lord Jesus,” Holly wrote of them. The main church in Port-au-Prince burnt down twice during those years as fires spread through the city. Again and again, Holly came up against hardship and disaster, but he always stayed true to his vision of educating and healing in Haiti, of spreading the church, and of proving the full of equality of the children of the African diaspora. He died on March 13, 1911, having established a lasting mission in Haiti and served as Episcopal bishop there for thirty-seven years.