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Unconventional Leaders (Part 1)

In celebration of the The Village at Ithaca’s 10th anniversary Cornell University’s Professor Nick Salvatore spoke about leaders who defy conventional notions of leadership and get things down through community organization and engagement.

The following three part series has been adapted from Salvatore’s talk entitled, “Leadership in the Community.”

When we think of leaders, we usually think of famous people.  Major business leaders, powerful politicians, dominant religious figures—it is often people in these categories to whom we refer, and often defer to one degree or another. For many of us, especially those of us over 40, the unspoken lesson of those grade school textbooks taught that leaders were male, and white. There were occasional exceptions to this, but the consistent ethical and political meaning conveyed was that they led, and the task of the rest of us was support. In this we may have required tasks to complete, but in terms of articulating aims and goals, most of us were portrayed as the passive recipients of their wisdom and direction.

The African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” suggests, however, a much more complex reality. A village may have a leader, but the proverb suggests that all in the community have both the responsibility and the opportunity, through their engagement, intelligence, and caring, to create the social framework for those children to emerge as informed, self-confident adults.

In the following series I’d like to briefly look at three individuals from the American past who were never leaders in that first, textbook definition, but who made significant contributions to raising the village itself to a greater awareness of its responsibilities and its possibilities.

The first person I want to discuss was neither a president nor a businessman, but rather a janitor and a messenger in a 19th-century iron and steel mill.

Born on April 25, 1826, in Attleborough, Pennsylvania, some 20 miles outside Philadelphia, to parents who were free people of color, Amos Webber grew to maturity in that small black community. While there is little record of Webber’s first twenty years, we do know that his family worshipped at the Bethlehem Colored Methodist Church which was a center for a wide variety of community activities beyond the worship service. Young Amos probably attended the church-based school, and certainly witnessed the parades and public celebrations of black fraternal groups. As a young adult, he probably knew of the extensive activities of the Attleborough black community in shepherding fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad.  In the late 1840s, Amos moved to Philadelphia. Over the next decade he worked for a series of white employers in various unskilled positions, seemingly got along well with white co-workers, and in March 1852 married Lizzie Sterling Douglass, a mulatto woman from New Jersey. Beyond work and family, his involvements centered in two areas.

As in Attleborough, Webber was deeply grounded in black social organizations. His church was now Lombard Street Central Presbyterian; but as with Bethlehem Colored, it was also so much else. As a mature man in his thirties, it was here he met Robert Jones, an elder of the church and leader of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, the black fraternal organization Webber joined. He also joined the Prince Hall Masons. Like other free black northern churches, Lombard Street instilled in its members a stern moral code and, recognizing the hostility of most neighboring whites, established church-run court system to settle disputes among blacks fairly. Webber himself gave testimony in one such trial. Even more, Lombard Street was one center of black Philadelphia’s Underground Railroad. Webber himself was involved in the Jane Johnson rescue in 1855, and a similar case involving the fugitive, Daniel Dangerfield, in 1859. It was shortly after this that Webber made an 11 day roundtrip to Canada, most probably accompanying fugitive slaves to safety. Tutored by older members of the black community as a youth, and as a recent migrant unfamiliar with urban manners and customs, Amos Webber had become a tutor and example to others, passing on moral guidance and political insights as he began to help raise the next generation.

The second involvement that occupied his attention was, for its duration and its depth, simply astounding for any non-elite American in the 19th century, regardless of race or ethnicity. Beginning on December 8, 1854, Webber began what he called the “Amos Webber Thermometer Book,” a chronicle he would maintained until his death fifty years later. The term, thermometer,  refers to his twice daily entries of weather conditions; but the essence of this book, actually 9 large business ledgers, was in the handwritten entries he made across these decades.  He recorded events from newspapers, at times described activities he himself was part of, and commented on political issues broadly, and those affecting black America particularly. The chronicle is also something else: It is the record of a man who deeply felt that his life, and the life of his community, had meaning and value beyond the racism that abounded, and therefore was worth preserving.

Amos and Lizzie Webber moved to Worcester, MA in 1860, where they both quickly reestablished their religious and fraternal activities. He found employment at Washburn & Moen, a prominent iron and later steel plant owned by a white abolitionist family. In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, Webber joined the 5th Massachusetts Calvary, served as a guard at a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Maryland, saw action at Petersburg, VA in 1864, and occupied Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation during early Reconstruction. He rose to become a Quarter-Master Sergeant, the highest rank most black troops could gain, and a number of the men he commanded resettled with him in Worcester. In these postwar decades Webber emerged as a leader of that community of some 800 blacks. He integrated the local lodge of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans’ group; founded and led the Worcester lodge of the black Odd Fellows; and was active in the Masons as well. He was a strong Republican Party enthusiast, leading meetings in support of national legislation for civil rights and enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments. Two moments capture well his role as a leader, and the communal nature of that leadership.

In October 1885, Webber issued a call to a number of black veterans throughout the Northeast to convene in Worcester where they formed the Colored Veterans Association. Many GAR lodges refused black veterans and those that did admit some, such as the Worcester lodge, kept black membership limited. The following  May, some 125 veterans, most wearing their twenty year old dress blues, gathered in Worcester for the first convention and to hear an address from the white Colonel, Norwood P. Hallowell, who had won their respect as a leader of black soldiers during the War. Webber presided over the meeting, led the public parade through the city’s streets, and organized the dinner and social that followed—all with the active support of Worcester’s black churches and the Ladies Auxiliaries of the fraternal groups, including his wife, Lizzie. In 1887, an even larger gathering met in Boston, and Amos again was active in its organization. Beyond specific veterans issues—pensions, for example—these activities were fundamentally, explicitly political. Even as they gathered for the first meeting in 1885, these black veterans and the communities they were part of well knew their exclusion from the growing popular myth of reunion between North and South, a reunion the majority would praise without reference either to the record of these veterans, the substance of the war itself, the issue of slavery, or the fate of free black Americans since. This exclusion literally whitewashed history—but Amos Webber, his comrades-in-arms, and the community in which he lived would not accept that nor allow their young men and women to grow to adulthood thinking that myth was reality.

On August 13, 1896, Amos Webber proudly led nine black veterans into Worcester’s GAR post. Throughout the prior 29 years, the post never asked black veterans to tell their stories in the “campfires” held regularly across the decades. Unfortunately, there is no record of either Webber’s address or the stories of the individual veterans. But the manner in which these black veterans entered the hall that evening spoke volumes. Those nine men were accompanied by a local black pastor, the church choir, family members, and numerous others from the community. It may have taken you 30 years to invite us, the black presence that evening might have said, but do not ever for a moment think that we waited on your recognition to validate our reality.

It is through events like this, I would suggest, that we today can see that, for all its quiet firmness and unspectacular valor, Amos Webber’s life reveals more sharply than the lives of many more famous people how the web of daily interaction, association, and commitment bound individuals one to another in that community of principled men and women.

On Monday Nick Salvatore will showcase another leader that fought hard for democratic rights in black communities.

Nick Salvatore is the Maurice and Hinda Neufeld Founders Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations. You can learn more about Salvatore here. (link)



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