Professor David Richardson
Former Director of the Wilberforce Institute
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
Chandler B. Saint
President, Beecher House Center for Equal Rights
Co-director, Documenting Venture Smith Project
Africans have been part of US history since they first landed in the colony of Virginia twelve years after Jamestown was founded in 1607. Their numbers grew, first by import and then by natural reproduction, to around 4 million (or one in nine) of the US population by 1865, the vast majority enslaved, enriching with little or no personal gain their masters and the communities for which they were forced to toil. Simultaneously, the new nation that emerged in 1776-1783 emphasized its attachment to personal freedom, encouraging white migration by those facing persecution and poverty in Europe in search of an American dream of self-realization and prosperity linked to natural ability and to bountiful natural resources. Some arrived in forms of time-limited bondage, but no Europeans experienced life-long or heritable slavery. If Africans preceded the arrival of Dutch, Irish, German, and other settlers in the Americas, racial slavery denied them access to the American dream that the others were offered. Despite emancipation in 1863, the legacies of such slavery continue to blight the lives of most African Americans today. It does not need to be so. Indeed, by recognizing Africans’ long history in America and their historic contribution to its fortunes, social justice demands it should not be so. Realizing the American dream demands freedom for all, not just some.
The Narrative by Venture Smith (aka Broteer Furor), published in 1798, opens a window on how, even while debate over the future of slavery in the new nation was alive, Africans as free people would contribute to the national wellbeing. Several editions of Smith’s Narrative have appeared, the one that this blog highlights being the first to be published in Fante, the last language that Smith probably heard as he was forced to leave the land of his birth for America in 1739 (Facsimile editions of the narrative, produced by the Documenting Venture Smith Project, and including an introduction and a timeline, are available from Chandler Saint, at cost and with postage in the UK, at £5.50).
Enslaved in his youth, Smith prized the very freedoms upon which the idea of the American dream was based. He worked tirelessly over twenty-six years to liberate himself from slavery, achieving his goal in 1765. Freedom was not something he learned about in his acquired New England home; he brought the concept with him from Africa. It was part of his African heritage. Once free again, he established himself as a family farmer and built a successful business, in part by supporting the cause of those who fought to free the thirteen colonies from the alleged tyranny of George III’s government. He established a family dynasty and a reputation for integrity and honesty in his dealings with others. He helped others to acquire freedom from slavery. And, unlike so many enslaved Africans, whose final resting places are unknown, Venture Smith was buried in 1805 in a marked grave in the Congregational churchyard of East Haddam, Connecticut. Smith’s life and his gravestone revealed a belief in the American dream that few other of his contemporaries were allowed to demonstrate. They showed what was possible if only the American claim of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness applied to all Americans regardless of race or other forms of social difference.
The tragedy for Venture Smith and for the millions of those who came to or were born in America as slaves is that notwithstanding gaining personal freedom in law, race would disqualify them from fully realizing the American dream. To be African was a barrier to becoming an American. Venture Smith knew it. Despite 60 years residence in his adopted homeland, despite his economic success, despite his reputation for truth and integrity, despite even his reconciliation with his former owner Oliver Smith from whom he took his surname, Venture Smith’s last years were blighted by what he saw as racial prejudice. He fought it, as many others subsequently would, through the courts. He doubtless saw it too in the gradualism of slave emancipation that Connecticut enshrined in law in 1784. It was written large in the constitutional settlement of the new nation in 1789. And he almost certainly knew on his deathbed in 1805 that it would blight the lives of those of African descent who followed him.
The Narrative published by Venture Smith in 1798 is an inspirational story. It deserves to be better known, not only by those living in the continent where he was born (hence its translation into native African languages) but also by all Americans who are descended from those who, because of persecution, poverty, or enslavement, left the Old World for the so-called New. It reminds us in sober but uplifting ways how ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things even in the most unpromising circumstances. It speaks directly to its readers in uncomplicated language. It narrates a story of hope and, in the context of US history, one that imagines Africans as well as those of European descent sharing in the new nation’s dreams. But it was a story, too, tinged with profound sadness, even bitterness; one that foretold how racial prejudice identified with slavery would prevent so many of African descent from realizing their ambitions. Such prejudice would, Venture Smith knew, deny the nation he helped to found in his lifetime the full fruits of Africans’ inherent talents and values. The flame of hope that Smith identified in 1798 still remains alight today among at least some of his descendants, but two hundred years on continuing racial prejudice and social injustice prevent it from burning as brightly as it should for so many Americans of African descent. The human and social costs of such discrimination remain profound for the whole nation not just those directly subject to it. It is surely time to recognize that truth for the benefit of all who look, as Venture Smith did in 1798, to the United States as their place of residence or their home.