Historian Louis Venters reexamines the life of a forgotten African-American intellectual and religious leader, and explains why the battle for racial justice is neverending.
In October 1914, when a young attorney named Alonzo Edgar Twine died—alone, starving, and broken—in the South Carolina Hospital for the Insane, his home state lost one of its best and brightest minds. But in a society with a long and sordid history of removing troublesome black men from its midst, the admirable qualities that had helped him to succeed were the very ones that made him a target.
At 37 years old, Twine was a member of the optimistic first generation of black southerners born after Emancipation. His father was a freeborn carpenter and Union army veteran, his mother a domestic servant. The family lived in a tiny house on a side street deep in the moldering old seaport of Charleston, and they frequently took in boarders to make ends meet. But they were able to give their son the best education possible. At a time when only a fraction of a percent of the country’s ten million African Americans had earned a college degree, Alonzo Twine not only graduated from Claflin University in nearby Orangeburg but took the bar and became an attorney, eventually arguing cases before the state supreme court. He was a trustee of his church and an officer of a professionals’ club that brought some of the country’s leading black activists and lecturers to Charleston.
In short, Alonzo Twine was a member of the South’s rising new African American elite, who worked to leverage education, political awareness, entrepreneurship, and cultural pride to lift up a race; who had every intention of living out the citizenship rights conferred on former slaves during Reconstruction; who fought tooth and nail against the rising tide of white supremacy that, by the early twentieth century, seemed to have engulfed black southerners in a sea of segregation, disfranchisement, poverty, and violence.
To the defenders of the Jim Crow order, Alonzo Twine was already a dangerous man long before he encountered the Baha’i Faith, the radical religious vision that promised to lead America out of its racial nightmare. But in 1910, following a visit by Louis Gregory, a young fellow-attorney and black Charleston native who had become a Baha’i in Washington, D.C., Twine ascended the pulpits of area churches to announce what he had just learned: In the Orient, only a few years earlier, Christ had returned like a “thief in the night.” His new name was Baha’u’llah, the “Glory of the Father,” and it was his will that all the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion or nationality, embrace each other as members of one family and citizens of a global commonwealth. The Kingdom of God on earth was at hand, and it meant, sooner or later, the dismantling of every system people had devised to take advantage of each other—including Jim Crow.
Less than a year later, in October 1911, Alonzo Twine found himself arrested and held in the psychiatric ward of Roper Hospital (known to locals as the “Black Hole of Calcutta”). The charge: “religious obsession.” Although his family testified that he had been neither “irritable” nor “quarrelsome,” had remained regular in his work and spotless in his behavior, a white judge ruled him a threat to society and ordered him transported to the State Hospital in Columbia.
Given the especially horrific conditions faced by black inmates—which the state legislature had recently investigated but done little to correct—the judge’s order amounted to a death sentence. The building where he was housed was severely overcrowded and crawling with vermin, with overflowing toilets and nothing but straw on the ground for beds. The staff was poorly trained and violent. Nearly a quarter of the black inmates died each year, mostly from tuberculosis, which spread easily in the overcrowded facility, and pellagra, a nutritional deficiency caused by a meager diet of grits, cornbread, fatback, and coffee. Victims of pellagra suffered painful skin lesions, debilitating intestinal distress, dementia, and eventually death.
Alonzo Twine’s only respite from the horrors of his new life were his few Baha’i books. But these, too, were soon stripped from him. When Twine’s former pastor was transferred to a church in Columbia, he came to visit. He took Twine’s books away, “knowing,” he later explained, “that it was this that caused him to lose his mind.” Only a few blocks away from the state supreme court where he had argued cases, Twine was a prisoner surrounded by broken men and women—and now with nothing left to nurture his spirit. He survived, somehow, for three years and three weeks, until he died the putrid death of pellagra on October 26, 1914.
A few months ago, a friend and colleague who is a middle-aged black man took it upon himself to point out that my children—two delightful black boys, ages three and one—will have better chances than most to deal with the harmful effects of racism because their mother and I are white (my wife is culturally Latina, but that’s a story for another day) and middle-class.
Somehow, this fact had not escaped me. I am a professor of African American history, I am raising black children in the Deep South, and, you know, I happen to not live under a rock. Of course my children will have advantages—from the safe neighborhood they live in and the college funds we’ve started for them, to their diverse little Montessori school and the host of aunties and uncles and grandparents and cousins, black and brown and white, who love and cherish them—that may blunt the effects of racism and make them more resilient. If any black boys in our country have a chance of growing up to be strong, capable, self-confident black men, with generous reservoirs of love in their hearts and an unshakable ethic of global citizenship and social responsibility, then our boys do. To the extent that my and my wife’s white privilege serves this end, so be it. I can sleep just fine at night on that account.
The real problem with my colleague’s comment, however, is that in a country that still doesn’t treat black people as full and equal partners in the body politic or as true and valued members of the nation, the social benefits that come with higher class status have been and still are only imperfect hedges against the ravages of racism.
When Trayvon Martin was shot to death, it didn’t matter that his father lived in a gated community. When Henry Louis Gates was arrested for trying to open his own front door, it didn’t matter that he was a prominent Harvard professor. When Danièle Watts was detained on suspicion of prostitution, it didn’t matter that she was a well-known actress (or that the white boyfriend she’d been kissing was a celebrity chef). Forest Whitaker’s Academy Award didn’t prevent him from being patted down in front of other customers by an employee of a New York City deli. When DeShawn Currie was pepper-sprayed and handcuffed by police, it didn’t matter that the house neighbors thought he had broken into was the one where he lived with his white foster parents. And when passers-by hurled the n-word at a black youth on the campus of a Connecticut boarding school, his parents’ string of Ivy League degrees and impressive publications weren’t there to help.
No one can seriously argue that the race relations in America haven’t changed dramatically, and for the better, since Alonzo Twine died a hundred years ago. But even after all the profound structural changes—and changes in individual attitudes—brought about by the civil rights revolution, far too many people, in every corner of the country and from all walks of life, still harbor fear, suspicion, and resentment of blacks, consciously or unconsciously. For the relatively few who are able to acquire them, superior education and wealth are only an illusory armor. For the rest, there is hardly a pretense of protection.
My sons will only be small for a short time. They will likely spend the vast majority of their lives away from their mother and me. White and middle class or not, there is only so much we can do to shield them from a country that is still largely unwilling to embrace the beauty and inherent worth of the souls of black folk. All the wealth and education, all the public policy remedies in the world cannot solve this fundamentally spiritual problem. And that is what should keep us all up at night.