This Virgin Islands native became one of the most articulate spokesmen of Africa and its people there and the others dispersed from the African homeland. He was born in 1832, 16 years before slavery was abolished in these islands to free black African parents; Judith, a teacher and Romeo, a tailor.
The Reverend John Knox, Pastor or Dominie of the St. Thomas Dutch Reformed Church, and his wife recognized Blyden’s talents at an early age and counseled him to go to the states to continue his education. The minister is best remembered as the author of a comprehensive history of St. Thomas published in 1852 which drew together the histories of Oldendorp, Host and Nissen and brought them up to date. His history entitled “Historical Accounts of St. Thomas, Danish West Indies” is still recognized as a classic study.
Well versed in St. Thomas history and the African diaspora, both the minister and his wife recognized the spark of genius in Edward Wilmot Blyden and spent a substantial amount of time encouraging and mentoring him. Times were very uncertain and while Blyden’s freedom was a matter of law and record here, in the United States slavery in all its evil still existed and Blyden was subject to false arrest as a fugitive slave.
The Knoxes enlisted a network of friends to watch over him as he began his scholastic life. Unfortunately, he was denied admission to three universities based on his race. Mrs. Knox visited him and encouraged him not to give up but rather to accept sponsorship of the New York Colonization Society to attend school in Monrovia, Liberia.
He became a leading world advocate for a progressive civilization to be built in Africa with help from New World blacks. This was at a time when blacks in the United States were degraded and even the most intelligent could never hold any prominent positions. This was in stark contrast to Liberia where blacks rose to the most dignified stations. About 6,000 black Americans had settled there when Blyden joined them.
He held progressively responsible positions in education and government including as a classics professor at Liberia College, newspaper editor, Secretary of State, Interior Minister, and President of Liberia College. Throughout his career he wrote books and articles to inspire and encourage his fellow Africans to realize their self-worth and to raise their confidence. He never forgot the continuing support of Rev. Knox and in 1882 the College of Liberia honored Knox with an Honorary LLD degree.
“The President of the College, Revd. Edward Wilmot Blyden, DD., LLD., when a youth in St. Thomas, Danish West Indies, was brought to a knowledge of Christ through the instrumentality of Revd. Knox, and was in part instructed by him and induced to go to Liberia where he has risen to his present eminent usefulness,” according to the citation.
Fortunately, our children are benefiting from the work of Edward Wilmot Blyden and the Pan-African movement right here on St. John. Dr. Gilbert Sprauve, Professor Gene Emanuel, K. Leba Ola-Niyi, and Sele Adeyemi lead a tour of St. John including Fortsberg located on the private property of the Samuel family every year. Fortsberg was the site of the 1733 Slave Revolt, the most important event to ever happen in the history of St. John. The tour emphasizes the grueling labor conditions that maimed and killed the enslaved Africans. It’s much more pleasant to see white folks at Williamsburg sashaying around in period costumes but it’s not an accurate representation of living conditions in a slave society.
Please consider joining the Pan-African group on the Friday after Thanksgiving — November 28, 2008 — to learn some black history you won’t soon forget.