The Moral Universe – Samuel Harrison: Local Hero


While it took Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a long time to embrace fully the legacy of native-born son W.E.B. DuBois, a group of people has been working for years to have the neighboring city of Pittsfield embrace its adopted son, the Reverend Samuel Harrison.

The Reverend Samuel Harrison

The Reverend Samuel Harrison

The Samuel Harrison Society was organized in 2004 by a group of Berkshire County men and women. This summer its efforts in making all aware of those African-American giants who lived among us will bear fruit with the cutting of the ribbon on the restored former home of the Civil War pastor and chaplain to the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Reverend Harrison’s great-granddaughter, Ruth Edmonds Hill, donated the house to the society.

Probably not as widely known as his South County brother, Reverend Harrison still put his mark on an era with his work for equality, particularly in the area of equal pay for soldiers of color.

Born into slavery in 1818, Reverend Harrison came to Pittsfield in 1850 to take the pulpit of the Second Congregational Church. He was born in Philadelphia, a city that came to the conclusion that slavery was an abomination earlier than most, and Samuel Harrison and his mother were freed when he was three years old. At the age of 17, he felt the call to the ministry; with the help of famed abolitionist Gerrit Smith,

The Samuel Harrison House in Pittsfield, MA

The Samuel Harrison House in Pittsfield, MA

he was able to attend Western Reserve Academy in Ohio. Upon graduation at the age of 22, he married his childhood sweetheart; the couple moved to New Jersey, where Samuel was able to work while preparing for the ministry with the Congregational Church. Ten years later he would accept the call from the newly formed Second Congregational Church in Pittsfield.

Two days before the famed and tragic assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina by the Massachusetts 54th Regiment under Robert Gould Shaw, Samuel had been recommended to Colonel Shaw by fellow clergy and Governor Andrews of Massachusetts to be the regiment’s chaplain. After Shaw and half of his regiment were killed at Fort Wagner, Governor Andrews came to Lenox to visit Shaw’s widow; the couple had made their home at what is now called Ventfort Hall and is a museum dedicated to the Gilded Age.

Samuel was commissioned the first chaplain of the 54th Regiment at Morris Island, South Carolina. While he wrote that he was treated with the same respect as chaplains of a “fairer hue,” he was disabused of his standing when payday came and neither he nor the African-American soldiers received pay equal to that of the white chaplains and soldiers. Having left his wife, Ellen, and six children plus a mortgage and household bills in Pittsfield, the situation was intolerable for him. As months went by and appeals were made unsuccessfully, he found himself becoming sick and resigned the chaplaincy.

Direct appeals to President Lincoln were eventually successful in gaining equal pay for equal service under an appropriations bill that was retroactive. It was suggested to Samuel that if not for his victimization vis a vis equal pay, the issue would not have come forth and eventually benefited the 180,000 black soldiers serving in the Union armies.

After his medical discharge, Samuel served at a Congregational church in Springfield, Massachusetts, before returning to Pittsfield in 1872. He remained as pastor of the Second Congregational church until his death in 1900.

The Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield holds the biography of the Reverend Samuel Harrison as well as other documents and sermons. As well, the Library of Congress contains papers related to the battle for equal pay in the Abraham Lincoln papers (1850-1865).

The Samuel Harrison Society’s web site is at



Let’s Talk About the ‘R’ Word


Just about a year ago, Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates caused quite an uproar with his article, “The Case for Reparations.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

It is a very long article and a very important article. It starts in this way: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

What jumps out at me most right now is the phrase “compounding moral debts.” I believe Mr. Coates is absolutely right in saying that America will never be whole until we pay off those moral debts. But also distressing to me is that, no matter what I believe or write or do on this subject, as a white person, I will always feel the burden of that moral debt.

Things could have been different had not a young man with sociopathic tendencies not stood in a narrow space in a theater in Washington, DC, and pulled a trigger.

General William Tecumseh Sherman had completed his March to the Sea by January 1865, pushing back General Joe Johnston’s army (and there is reason to believe that Johnston allowed his army to be pushed back) and taken all the important Southern coastal areas. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton traveled to Savannah where he and Sherman met with black community leaders and worked out a plan to grant land to formerly enslaved African-Americans and African-Americans who had served in the Union forces.

“Forty acres and a mule” was the basic plan, and General Sherman released Field Order #15 on January 6. In part it reads:

“I. The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States. “II. At Beaufort, Hilton Head, Savannah, Fernandina, St. Augustine and Jacksonville, the Blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations – but on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority and the acts of Congress.”

To the shame of assassinating President Lincoln may be added to John Wilkes Booth’s infamy that this plan would never be allowed to be fulfilled. Default President Andrew Johnson, who had been a slaveholder and was a Southern Democrat, rescinded the order and ensured that all of the land was returned to ex-Confederates.

So now, in 2015, we still have to talk about reparations and moral debts. When Mr. Coates added the adjective “compounded” to “moral debts,” he refers not only to the failure of Reconstruction, but to Jim Crow laws, lynchings, housing inequality, wage inequality – all of the blasphemies committed against African-Americans since the first enslaved people were brought to this country in the 17th century.

I might add that the murder of Trayvon Martin is a direct link to the overturning of Field Order #15, for what right has a young black man to be walking at night in a gated community? Or so segments of our society think.

The names of the murdered African-Americans for whom no justice has been done makes such a long list now, but all of them might be alive had not we compounded our moral debt to enslaved people.

So what do we do now? Where to begin?

Rep. John ConyersPassing Representative John Conyers’ HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, would be a start. Representative Conyers has been introducing the bill in one form or another every year since he’s been in office. He named it HR 40 in honor of “forty acres and a mule.” Oddly, it never makes it to the House floor, and no one in the Senate has yet written a version of the bill for that body.

The issue isn’t going to go away, though. I say, it’s now or never; what do you think?

You can see the full article by Ta-Nehisi Coates here: “The Case for Reparations”

The New Abolitionist Movement


Justice Sonia Sotomayor, how dare you suggest that a sedative with a ceiling might constitute cruel and unusual punishment? Or that firing squad, gas chamber or electric chair might be faster and more humane than lethal injection?

That was the reproof that Chief Justice Roberts gave her last week while hearing testimony on the woes of the poor little death penalty states, particularly Oklahoma, on how they can keep on shoveling souls on death row into the next life.

At issue is the sedative midazolam, which has not been putting executees into a deep enough state so that they do not feel the agony of paralysis and organs shutting down as the next two chemicals are injected. One of the surreal aspects of that hearing was Roberts’ suggestion that firing squads et al are “offensive.” Apparently writhing in agony on a gurney for 40 minutes or so is not.

Increasing the dosage of midazolam does not help; its efficacy is not increased by more of it, thus it is said to have a ceiling effect. The case was brought to the Supreme Court on behalf of three death row prisoners in Oklahoma.

Justice Sam Alito blamed “guerilla wars” by opponents of the death penalty who have pressured pharmaceutical companies into restricting the sale of previous drugs used in executions. Justice Antonin Scalia called anti-death penalty advocacy an “abolitionist movement.” Okay, I needed another movement to be part of.

Justice Sotomayor’s questions pointed up the absurdity of the entire discussion. Judicial homicide is just not humane, period. Nothing will ever make it so.

Meanwhile, Baltimore’s tragedy has brought new crazies out of the woodwork. A letter in the newspaper that serves my county asked Monday, “Why haven’t t black leaders fixed things for ‘their people’?”

As if African-Americans are a separate species who can only be treated with by their own kind. As if racism were their fault. Racism isn’t a black problem; it is a white problem that only acknowledgement and the dismantling of the white privilege structure will begin to address.

Of course, while racism is a white problem, it is the people of color who suffer its effects on a daily basis. Not just when police kill a black man or child, but every single day in White World.

I was driving through southern Maryland the other day. At a rest stop, I noticed a truck with a Confederate flag decal on it. Did I confront the owner of the truck? No, I did not. I was hundreds of miles from home and no one knew where I was. You have to pick your battles to fight another day.

An hour or so later, on a route that goes through a built-up area with a lot of traffic lights, I happened to glance over a couple of lanes to my left. A young black girl was looking out the window of her back seat. She saw me at the same time and gave me a big, wistful smile. I smiled too and raised my hand in greeting. She gave me a shy wave as the car she was in started its left turn.

It made my day. Every day I pray for the Holy Spirit to “grant me humbly to receive thy mysterious companionships.” I’m pretty sure that was one of them. But I teared up as I drove off thinking of those people who would rather hate than love their neighbors.

And would rather kill than redeem their prisoners.