Through Russwurm's Eyes: 'The Conditions and Prospects of Haiti'

Story posted March 01, 2010

John B. Russwurm, the College's first African-American graduate and thought to be the third African-American to graduate from an American college, delivered a commencement address in 1826 that resonates nearly 184 years later.

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The speech, "The Condition and Prospects of Haiti," was delivered 22 years after Haiti won independence from France.

An excerpt from the speech:

May we not indulge in the pleasing hope, that the independence of Haiti has laid the foundation of an empire that will take rank with the nations of the earth — that a country, the local situation of which is favorable to trade and commercial enterprise, possessing a free and well-regulated government, which encourages the useful and liberal arts, a country containing an enterprising and growing population which is determined to live free or die gloriously will advance rapidly in all the arts of civilization.
We look forward with peculiar satisfaction to the period when, like Tyre of old, her vessels shall extend the fame of her riches and glory, to the remotest borders of the globe-to the time when Haiti treading in the footsteps of her republics, shall, like them, exhibit a picture of rapid and unprecedented advance in population, wealth and intelligence.

Read the speech in its entirety.

About John Russwurm

Russwurm was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, the illegitimate son of a white planter and a black slave. His father, John Russwurm, of a wealthy Virginia family, went to Jamaica after completing his education in England. He sent his son, John Brown Russwurm, to Quebec at age eight so that he might receive a good education. Soon after moving to Maine, his father married Susan Blanchard. Russwurm then came to live with his father's family, where he was accepted by his step-mother as one of her own. Russwurm stayed with the family even after his father died, continuing his education at Hebron Academy in Hebron, Maine. His step-mother and her new husband helped him to enroll at Bowdoin in 1824.

After graduation, Russwurm taught at Primus Hall, a school for black children in Boston. In 1827, he became junior editor of The Freedom's Journal, the first newspaper in the United States owned, operated, published and edited by African-Americans. The journal opposed the idea of African-American colonization of Africa until Russwurm became senior editor. He was forced to resign his position (1829) for expressing strong views on colonization that antagonized many. The same year Russwurm emigrated to Liberia where he worked for the American Colonization Society, serving as colonial secretary (1830-34) and as editor of The Liberia Herald. He then joined the Maryland Society, which recognized the importance of black leadership in their colony, and made him governor in 1836, a post he held until his death.

In 1833, Russwurm married Sarah McGill, daughter of Lieutenant-Governor McGill of Monrovia. They had three sons and a daughter.

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