It was the best of times and it was the worst of times for black intellectuals of the early 20th century. Thirty-five years after the Emancipation Proclamation blacks made strides in education, science and politics. It was a period of mass enlightenment, after being in bondage for 246 years without access to proper education they were eager to learn and explore.
“They were uninhibited because these were the next level of abolitionists, these were the civil rights leaders emerging,” said Clinton Byrd, a Florida A&M University alumnus and the owner along with his family of the Montague collection — an 8,000-piece collection of artifacts and black art. “So, you went from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and all those (people) in terms of abolitionists and then now (the next generation) were freed men and women and so the people were beginning to think for themselves.”
Black people could experience social and cultural freedom like never before. With the development of blues and jazz music, both genres were flourishing nationally and internationally. Black art and literature were also thriving.
Neighborhoods like Harlem were hubs for rapid cultural development where blacks could express their experiences through various forms of art.
There was also “Negro Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a name given by Booker T. Washington when he visited Tulsa because it was extraordinarily successful and lively. They had two high schools, a hospital, hotels, grocery and drug stores as well as theaters.
In addition to all of that, they had a plethora of office buildings in the city that facilitated clothing stores, nightclubs, doctor and lawyer offices — all of which were completely black-owned. Tulsa’s progressive black community had some of the most grandiose mansions in the whole state of Oklahoma — they were lavishly furnished with fine linen, china, and grand pianos.
“Booker T. Washington said, 35 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that the Negro has made more progress than any other race in the history of civilization,” said Byrd.
However, there was also a dichotomy between the success of blacks and the racially charged climate in which they were living.
Reginald Ellis, an African American historian and professor at FAMU, said the reason why the early 20th century was not portrayed in history as an enlightenment era for blacks was because of the racial violence that persisted during that time.
“A scholar by the name of Rayford Logan considered that the lowest point of the African American experience," said Ellis. "Because at the same time African Americans were inventing, at the same time African Americans were creating institutions, at the same time African Americans were creating their own organizations like black Greek letter organizations, is the same time where you had the highest number of lynchings taking place in America per capita,” said Ellis.
According to NAACP.org, from 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of these people that were lynched 3,446 were black. The blacks lynched accounted for 72.7 percent of the people lynched — and not all of the lynchings were recorded.
Ellis believes from a research perspective that African Americans have paid more attention to the white response to African American success rather than highlighting the African American success in the midst all the racial tensions.
“So, you had a very large climate of racial violence that was going on that coincided with African Americans’ self-determination and so while white America or in particular racist white supremacist were attempting to dial back black progress, African Americans the way they combated white supremacy, was by building institutions, establishing organizations and supporting black-owned businesses.”
It is in this societal backdrop that the black intellectuals of the early 20th century rose.
The Critical Mass exhibit in the Meek-Eaton Black Archives highlights the thoughts of black intellectuals of the early 20th century on various topics that were extremely pressing at that time. The exhibition is also a part of the Montague collection.
Byrd and his team’s reason for naming the Exhibition "Critical Mass" was because they felt that the black intellectuals in the book gave a good overview of the times.
“At this point in history you had all of these minds coming together, that’s the critical mass," said Byrd. " "You had 100 of the most distinguished African Americans —there were other distinguished African Americans at the time too — but when you start talking about James Weldon Johnson, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Dr. Tucker, Young and all of these college presidents, professors and all of these religious people, some of the best thinkers of the time.”
The exhibit features a culmination of excerpts from a book titled “Twentieth Century Negro Literature” edited and arranged by Daniel Wallace Culp.
“Daniel Wallace Culp, he was phenomenal himself, sort of self-educated, a scholar in Greek and Latin — at a young age he was not in the normal school system so when he went to school he was so exceptional they had to put him in a class by himself,” said Byrd. “He had 30 topics that he wanted them (the black intellectuals in the book) to write on.”
Coincidently, two of the 100 black intellectuals selected for the book were the first and second presidents of FAMU, Thomas DeSaille Tucker (1887–1901) and Nathan B. Young (1901–1923).
Byrd said that in the book “Twentieth Century Negro Literature,” the black intellectuals’ essays ranged from two pages to 12 pages. One of them being Francis Logan, who talked about mortality and she brought in some societal factors that help the reader to understand the causes during that period.
“Francis Logan … she talks about people of low-income … (and) about sanitary conditions, stress, all of that she brings in many factors that are still present today that people don’t give full thought to. If they were to take her writings and read what she has done, she would be further along than they are in understanding infant mortality,” Byrd said.
Half of the Critical Mass exhibit will be at the Tallahassee International Airport and the other half of the exhibition is currently on display at the Meek-Eaton Black Archives.