Richard Newman

is a Richard Allen biographer

In February 1828, Freedom's Journal, the nation's first black newspaper, covered a special birthday in Philadelphia. The Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the leading black activist in early America, had celebrated his 68th birthday. "The evening entertainment was intermingled with singing and prayer," the paper noted of the revelry at Allen's longtime Spruce Street home. The paper also reminded black and white citizens just why Allen mattered. He had helped found two revered institutions in the black community - the Free African Society, a mutual-aid organization, and the AME Church - and proved himself a zealous defender of civil rights.

For years after his death in 1831, Allen's birthday was an important part of black civic life, both in Philadelphia and beyond. Using the "sainted Allen's" memory as a guide, as one commentator remarked during the Civil War, African Americans everywhere could trace their struggle for justice all the way back to the nation's founding. Frederick Douglass hailed the bishop as the architect of a "new Declaration of Independence."

Today, Allen's birthday rates little mention. With Black History Month and Martin Luther King Day celebrations covering the territory once occupied by "Allen Day" festivities, why bother?

But Allen's forgotten birthday is a symptom of a larger problem: the invisibility of black founders in our stories about the creation of the nation. While Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Adams and Franklin have once again become the stars of the nation's founding era, black founders such as Allen sit on the sidelines of popular imagination. American founders remain those white men in wigs who gave the world grand words about liberty and justice for all. And the struggle for racial justice? That's a product of the Civil War era.

Allen's birthday allows us to look at the nation's founding with a more critical eye. From the 1770s onward, black founders - including not only Allen but fellow Philadelphians Absalom Jones and James Forten, Bostonians Prince Hall and Phillis Wheatley, New Yorkers William Hamilton and Peter Williams - struggled mightily to solve the American dilemma: racial oppression in the land of the free. They published antislavery pamphlets, challenged racial segregation in emancipating Northern states such as Pennsylvania and claimed America as their own.

Just who was Allen to challenge Americans to live up to their lofty ideals? Born a slave - probably in Philadelphia - in 1760, he secured his freedom during the Revolutionary era by adhering to the American work ethic, doing various sorts of labor to earn enough money to buy himself out of bondage. He converted to Methodism and believed that saving souls would be his life's work.

Soon after moving to Philadelphia in 1786, Allen took on another mission: fighting for black equality in a nation with nearly 700,000 enslaved people. During the last decade of the 18th century, when Philadelphia served as the federal government's temporary capital, he published three soaring antislavery treatises, each one highlighting African Americans' claims to citizenship beyond slavery. In one address, he pleaded with Americans to try the "experiment" of treating black children as they would their own - the future of American society. In his 1799 eulogy of George Washington, the first offered by an African American writer and the only one highlighting the general's emancipation of slaves, Allen referred specifically to black citizenship rights.

Such egalitarian thinking was rare. Among Atlantic slave societies, only the United States would grapple with the twin issues of emancipation and integration. For many white leaders, free blacks were an enemy in waiting. Most statesmen agreed with Thomas Jefferson: Black and white people could never live together peacefully in the United States (that's why he supported black removal).

Richard Allen refused to let the Virginian's logic prevail. "If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of Love," he proclaimed in 1794, "clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children or country with them." Like his fellow reformers, he used the Declaration of Independence and the Bible to build a moral wall around racist thinking.

Richard Allen's 250th birthday in 2010 is fast approaching. Will we celebrate it with the same seriousness as Ben Franklin's tercentenary (2006)? Or Abraham Lincoln's much-anticipated bicentennial (2009)? We should, for this black founder's vision of racial equality remains as compelling as anything offered by either Honest Abe or Poor Richard. He is truly an American original.

Richard Newman's "Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church and the Black Founding Fathers," is due out in March from NYU Press. E-mail him at rsngsm@rit.edu.