We are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential declaration that all slaves were no longer property but free. Lincoln shifted the justification for the civil war from preserving the union to liberating those enslaved. The proclamation began to undo the entanglement of the 1850’s when it was federal law to seize and return escaped slaves to their owners while abolitionists were extending the underground railroad and taking up arms to promote civil freedom in new territories. The contentious adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution by Congress in the final months of the Civil War and the subsequent confirmation by the States, rendered the intent of the emancipation proclamation federal law.
I want to tell you about a person whose life as a 2 year old was dramatically altered by Lincoln’s proclamation, enacted January 1, 1863. His name was Thomas Nelson Baker, born a slave on August 11, 1860. His significance for us is that, at age 71, Baker was voted into membership of the Monday Evening Club, the first African American. The 1863 proclamation declared that he and his family were free. Since we each likely have tracked genealogy back to 1860, whether in the US or abroad, we might consider what impact the proclamation had on our ancestors, whether soldiers, slaveholders, merchants in the cotton trade, conductors in the underground railroad, victims of collateral war damage, or even those entrapped in oppressive countries where freedom from bondage was a dream.
Baker’s life is an extraordinary story which transpires the growth, struggle and transformation of our nation from the Civil War to the Great Depression and the brink of WW II. He grew up on the rural east shore of Virginia, spent his 20s and 30s in Massachusetts and New Haven and the remaining four decades of his life in Pittsfield. He is claimed by academics and historians of the civil rights movement as an unheralded prophet, a lesser known but important African American pioneer in ministry, philosophy, civil rights and public discourse. He lived here as a church and community leader, respected citizen and family man. He was a learned man of faith, principle and vision who was controversial in his day. He wrote and spoke of enduring themes about our common life.
The Early Years
T. Nelson Baker, first known as Tom, was born to Thomas Shadrack Baker and Edith Nottingham Baker, slaves on Robert Nottingham’s east shore Virginia plantation in Northampton County, an area known as Eastville. His father would become a Union soldier. His mother was the daughter of Southey and Sarah Nottingham, a woman with scars on her back from whippings. All ancestors were slaves, in his words, “Negroes of unmixed blood.” After the end of the war, when learning to read was no longer punishable, Baker recalled:
My mother taught me my letters, although I well remember when she learned them herself. My first reading lesson was the second chapter of Matthew, the Bible being the only book we had. I never read a bad book in my life which is one of the blessings I got by being poor. I began to attend the common schools at eight and learned to love books passionately. I used to read through my recesses. Evenings I read the Bible to my parents and grandparents, while they listened with weeping eyes, thankful that I had the great blessing of being able to read.When Baker was 12 his father, against the wishes of his mother, took him out of school to plow on the grandfather’s farm to help meet payments for the family home. For nine years he lived what he called “a bookless life." “On becoming of age, I was again seized with a burning desire to get an education.”
At 21, he entered Hampton Normal School in Hampton, VA for four years, his tuition paid in part by the Rev. John Dennison of Williams College. His ties with the north had begun. After teaching for a year in a wild Virginia marshland region known as the Dismal Swamp, in 1886 at age 25 he was awarded a scholarship to study at Mt. Hermon School in Northfield, Mass founded in 1879 by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Dennison, “particularly struck by Baker’s intelligence and drive to educate himself as well as his interest in ministry,” continued to support him.
Mt. Hermon was unique for accepting students of color and different nationalities. Baker headed north against the advice of some Hampton teachers. At age 25 he was one of two Negro students, became a drill master and substitute summer principal, graduating in June 1889 at age 28. His academic and intellectual gifts were recognized, his determination and leadership abilities grew. He had fulfilled a dream to study Greek and Latin and thrived in a racially mixed school atmosphere , stating later that “the people of Northfield were color blind.”
Opportunities in New England continued with the assistance of white patrons, including Mrs. Moody, also impressed with his intellect and maturity. Baker, a youngster during Reconstruction, had left the south as a young adult just as the Jim Crow era was emerging and the wounded pride of Dixie was being born.
Public Discourse in Post Civil War America
Let us set the context of his early life. The years of Reconstruction, the military occupation of the South and post war federal initiative to implement rights and opportunities for former slaves was an effort to create a new normalcy for all citizens and ended in 1876. The ensuing 25 years could be characterized as a return to black subordination through the restoration of political and economic power into the hands of the local white population.
Characteristic too was the migration of blacks to the north at a time of dramatic industrialization, even though in the 1880s 80 percent of all blacks lived in the rural south. Under the Jim Crow era “the colored” were to know and keep their place, segregated in private and public life. The Supreme Court issued the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling in 1896 instituting the validity of “separate but equal” travelling train arrangements for blacks in Louisiana, setting a principle that ruled all elements of public life for over 60 years, such as separate drinking fountains and educational systems.
Negro leaders, focusing on the south, emerged with differing views as to how new citizenship might be claimed in such diabolical and oppressive conditions. Poll taxes and other discriminatory qualifications rolled back newfound voting rights and basic public education for poor children of color was amiss. Vigilante lynchings, the terror of night, totaled 900 between 1893 and 1899. Black subservience was institutionalized once again.
Many former slaves were conscripted to economic slavery, bound to the land as farm tenants or sharecroppers. Racial identity was drawn sharply. One third of all former slaves had both white and black lineage but even those who formerly had a distinctive identity as “mulattoes” no longer had status. One drop of Negro blood made you colored. Questions of pride and shame as to racial color were daily troubles. The Congressional election in 1900 of the first black man since Reconstruction, George A. White from North Carolina, sent a shock wave through the country and a steely resolve in the south to initiate local and state laws to redeem the south for whites and reclaim total control as a one party system. The Jim Crow culture was becoming law.
A notable division in the black community developed between two national leaders, Booker T. Washington and by W. E. B. Du Bois. Washington, born into slavery in 1856 and founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, emphasized economic development and gradual conciliatory action by Negroes in the post civil war era, to exhibit cooperation and advancement through self development and industrious actions. Moving too fast to claim the right to vote would be destructive.
Washington, emphasizing mobilization through economic action, founded the National Negro Business League in 1900. His autobiography, Up From Slavery, published in 1901, described his quest for an education, the founding of Tuskegee, the dignity of work and his civic efforts to promote constructive race relations and harmony. National outrage erupted, however, when President Teddy Roosevelt invited him to lunch at the White House. Du Bois on the other hand emphasized political mobilization and action and the claiming of civil rights, even forms of public protest to fulfill the strivings and yearnings of black folk.
Du Bois, born in 1868 in Great Barrington, emerged as an academician, sociologist, civil rights leader, writer and spokesperson, the first African American to be granted a Ph.D. at Harvard, in 1896. The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, a series of 14 essays, became the 20th century’s most foundational statement for black identity and political action, influencing political consciousness and the civil rights movement. Washington was seen as too accommodating by Du Bois, while Dubois was viewed as too radical and oppositional by Washington. Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, fostering a civic and political agenda. There was a strong divide between perspectives originating in the south and in the north with regard to the progress and strategy for blacks in society.
An Academic and Minister
Baker entered Boston University in 1890 and in 1893 at age 33 received a Bachelors of Liberal Arts, graduating as valedictorian and one of two commencement speakers. Described by another in this period as cautious and shy, he began socializing in co-ed gatherings and gaining confidence. Older than his peers, he was experiencing tolerance and respect as an unusually gifted black person. Upon graduation he declared that he would seek further education to enter the Methodist ministry and work among his people in the south.
His quest brought him, against the advice of friends, to Yale University for the study of ministry and philosophy. “I had learned by this time that no one knows enough except a fool. “ He received a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1896 and continued at the Graduate School in the fields of Philosophy and Psychology. Baker shifted affiliation to New Haven’s Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, became the minister in 1896 and was ordained there at age 37 on February 9, 1897, succeeding a pastor who had caused strife. The Congregational Church of the north, having served as a bastion of abolition, was ordaining blacks to serve in separate churches.
His life took hold in the new century as he reached 40. I will give you an overview and return to the narrative. He left New Haven for Pittsfield to become the minister at Second Congregational Church August 1, 1901, a position he held for 37 years. He succeeded The Rev. Dr. Samuel Harrison, also born a slave, recognized for his service as chaplain in the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first all black infantry to fight in the civil war. Upon the church’s founding on First Street in 1846, Harrison served as pastor almost continuously from 1850 until his death in 1900 at age 82. Baker arrived to find the church in trouble following the death of Harrison. He began with a message of hope and an ethical approach to religion that would have a practical impact on people’s lives. He was warmly received by the Pittsfield Minister’s Club when he spoke at their October meeting. It was at this time that he became known as T. Nelson Baker.
|Baker's business card (W. E. B. Du Bois papers, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass.)|
Completing his Yale dissertation, Baker graduated with a Ph.D. in 1903, the second African American at Yale with that distinction and the first in the nation with a doctorate in philosophy. Mrs. Baker was an accomplished musician and soloist, having taught music at Tuskegee Institute and served as librarian at Hampton. Their four children were musical and studious, all eventually graduating from Oberlin College and pursuing significant careers in music, academics and education. It is curious that Baker was admitted to the club in 1931, his 30th year in Pittsfield. He may have been regularly attending as a guest since 1926. At the time of his retirement from Second Congregational eight years later, in July 1939, he was the dean of Pittsfield ministers and at one time or another had spoken in every Protestant church in town.
So now, let’s double back to Yale. His dissertation was entitled “The Ethical Significance of the Connection Between Mind and Body,” an impressive document I read at the Yale Archives. Having studied classical philosophy, the search for wisdom and truth, and the new science of psychology, the study of human personality, his thesis identified the essential tie between the mind and the body. The body is the locale where the mind gains moral and ethical victories and suffers moral and ethical defeats. There is not a dual realm of body and mind but one realm with essential interaction. The mind is never known apart from the body.
Socrates, for example, said “know thyself” but would not walk in the country because he professed there was nothing to be learned from the fields and the trees. Baker underscored the interconnection of the natural and spiritual realm of life where the body and mind lives. As a student of William James, of phenomenology and observation, Baker discussed the importance of hygiene, attending to the body and mind as the locale where health, ethics and religion meet. The body is a prime factor in the ethical struggle, wherein the mind as the soul must seek self mastery. Baker cited the importance of heredity, what one inherits from parents physiologically, such as diseases, traits and mental disorders, combining the influence of what we refer to as nature and nurture. He called for the study of real life as a basis for philosophy, concluding that the primary ethical obligation is not first to God, nor to one’s fellowman, nor to his soul but to his body. A life of nutrition, sensation, reason and soul development produces better men, for bodily habits shape mental habits. It is worth noting that Baker does not acknowledge or cite explicitly a perspective as a black man, the innovation lies in tying psychology and philosophy, what one sees, experiences and knows as bodily reality. Baker brought his research findings to Pittsfield in 1901 where he completed his dissertation as a newlywed and minister, graduating as Doctor of Philosophy from Yale in 1903.
Baker’s first decade in Pittsfield
In his early years in Pittsfield, Baker claimed his views in the division between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. As a religious leader in a small community, Baker had conciliatory, controversial and radical views. He was a son of the rural south, where conciliation was essential to survival and then a student of the north, where one could voice views and claim the liberties offered to all men. Baker stood in a unique place between Washington and Du Bois.
During his first years in Pittsfield, Baker wrote numerous articles that were published in civic and religious magazines. His article, “A Negro’s View of the Race Problem” was published April 1903 in the Congregationalist and Christian World, in response to an earlier article on snap shots of the south, written by a northern white clergyman, impressions critical of separate schools for the colored, laws to disenfranchise the Negro, and the embarrassment of white features and fair skin for some Negroes . Baker affirmed separate schools in the south as positive for both races, particularly to foster Negro children overcoming inferiority by having Negro teachers. He advocated a slow pace in becoming enfranchised, based upon his belief that it should not be instituted disruptively. In the very volatile issue of skin color brought about by the mingling of the races through births outside of marriage, he professed that Negroes with lighter skin need not feel inferior or ashamed of their parentage, that “the consummation to be wished for the Negro is not to make him a white man but a fully developed black man, with all his racial possibilities raised to their highest powers.” Baker was calling for patience and self respect along the lines of Booker T. Washington.
An article by Baker entitled “Not Pity but Respect” appeared February 1906 in Congregationalist and Christian World and led to strong opposition by W. E. B. Du Bois. Baker criticized the activities the summer of 1905 at the Student Volunteer Movement Convention in Nashville, Tenn., indicating that evangelization in the south needed to be directed to Caucasians and not Negroes. He was not outraged by the actions taken during the convention to designate separate seating for Negro delegates and called for facing self pity, a plight stemming from inferiority. “When the Negro really feels as proud of being black as the white man does of being white he will no longer feel humiliated by being seated by himself.” Baker stated that focus ought to be on destroying the “Jim Crow Negro” instead of the “Jim Crow Car.” He critiqued the Negro students at the convention who, when learning they were to be seated separately from whites, chose to stay outside. He referred to this as, “whining and pouting like children over their real and imaginary wrongs and losing their place” to participate where respect might be gained.
He went on to address the multi-colored aspect of the American Negro, how protest based upon pity, exemplified by demonstrations at the convention, correlated with the degradation of Negro women by white men. This is “made easy through the perverted aesthetical taste of the Negro woman, perversion which made her willing to sacrifice her virtue that her child might be made a little more beautiful by having good hair, thin lips, light skin and a pretty nose.” The forced sexual abuse by white men upon black women birthing children of mixed color and often ambiguous identity brought unnecessary humiliation in the black woman’s soul. Baker ended with his contention that the young Negro, whatever skin color, needs to view the name Negro not as a sign for tender sympathy and pity but a sign of manhood and womanhood which always and everywhere demands respect. Not pity but respect were his watch words.
Du Bois wrote a letter to Baker and to the editor of the magazine on April 14, 1906 with a condemnation of Baker’s critical statement of the protesting Negro delegates attending the Nashville convention. In his letter to Baker he opened with mention that he had read his writings with interest and sympathy as a fellow soul striving for the light, hoping that sometime they might work together, since Baker was working in the area of western Massachusetts where Du Bois’ family lived for more than two centuries. He proceeded to call the article a wanton and vicious attack on educated Negro womanhood, a nasty slur on the chastity of Negro women, the most cowardly and shameless thing he has recently read. He stated his indignation and righteous contempt for maligning the very class of women to which Baker’s own wife and mother belonged.
Du Bois’ letter to the magazine was more restrained. He contended that Baker’s statement implied that educated Negro women including such delegates are, “little better than ‘public prostitutes." Du Bois would not settle for Baker’s example of pity based upon self demeaning perversion. He called upon Baker and the magazine to issue an apology to his wife, the young women delegates of Fisk and Atlanta and the all the colored delegates, who he said in every single case are chaste and decent. I found no record of a reply by Baker.
Baker’s example and use of the word perversion seemed to distract from his main theme of calling upon the Negro to demand not pity but respect through cooperative participation in public settings. Here Baker favored Washington’s methods of gradualism and accommodation but spoke of a racial pride based upon self respect which aligned him with Du Bois’ principles. This, in our time, came to be known as black pride. The themes of respect and fortitude guided Baker’s life and ministry.
I did not find any additional material regarding interaction between Baker and Du Bois. Other writers have unsuccessfully sought such evidence. I did learn that the Du Bois Archives at U Mass, Amherst has a copy of Baker’s dissertation, which could be why Du Bois mentioned being familiar with Baker’s writings. They both stood out in their day with Ivy League Ph.D.’s. The Archives makes reference to a course of lectures offered by Baker entitled, “The Ethical and Religious Meaning of the Body.”
Baker’s two-part article in Alexander’s Magazine September and October 1906, a Boston based monthly journal devoted to spreading of information and the improvement of the Negro race in the US, demonstrated the evolution of his public voice as philosopher and theologian. Entitled “Ideals,” he discussed two foundations for race relations through the ages. The first is the right ethical ideal of justice, with Greek and Christian roots, the recent civil war an example of the battle between conflicting ethical ideals. Justice prevailed, “doing unto others as he desires others to do unto him.” He described how “Slavery, oppression and race prejudice cannot live in peace with such an ideal.” The great need for mankind is not to be racially one but to be ethically one.
The second foundation is the right aesthetical ideal, appealing to feelings, where the right and good become the beautiful. What is ethical is united with aesthetics and religion. Baker called for the Negro to see the beauty of one’s own skin, not to be ashamed, and for the white not to degrade or defame the Negro for racial differences, or each race to cast aside a view of the other as ugly but to embrace an aesthetic ideal of beauty, thereby assuring the possibility of justice. When such perversion is cast aside, the mulatto will not see beauty in one racial type. Baker was speaking again to a very volatile and emotional identity crisis alive in every black family and community. How he was heard is unclear but the posture from which he lived his adult life is clear, built on a firm rock of intellect and experience.
All the known published writings of Baker fell within the first 8 years of his ministry in Pittsfield. He wrote three additional articles in Alexander’s Magazine. By 1910 his focus was as a Congregational pastor with a growing family and a commitment to preaching and teaching. Baker in his early years of ministry hoped to be able to relocate to teach in a southern Negro college. If that was a dream, it was never fulfilled, even though others advocated for him. Early in life he had said, “My purpose is to teach. I hope to come into touch with thinking youth of my race and help them lay a foundation for a thoughtful and ethicized religion.” He did so through his ministry in Pittsfield. He was remembered as instrumental in leading 25 young people to college.
Baker is Recognized as a Leader in Pittsfield
The Thursday, October 30, 1919 issue of The Berkshire Evening Eagle, with the headline, "Says Hampton Institute is Doing a Miraculous Work," had Baker reporting on a visit to his alma mater, known then as the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute for Negro and Indian Students, where he had graduated in 1885. Baker, aged 59, described how southern white people were learning to be kind to black people but that did not mean they were just. The Rev. James E. Gregg was the new director at Hampton and likely instrumental in Baker’s visit his first year there. Gregg was the former assistant pastor of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Congregational where he served from 1912 to 1918, joining the Monday Evening club in 1916.
Baker, who surely knew him in Pittsfield, cited him as a northern white man who understood justice. Baker elaborated on hunger for justice as the message of Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly. Tom would settle for “poor food, poor clothes, and poor everything and have them mine.” Baker observed systemized, legalized injustice, what he called “an ethical and moral stench in the nostrils of the Almighty.” He reported that “the colored people of the south are not seeking to associate with the white people; they are glad not to associate with them in their social life for they do not know how to have a good time.” Negroes want equal return for their money in travel and just treatment. Separate but equal was tolerable to Baker, yet he indicated a hopefulness that God would rectify injustice. Teachers and preachers need to tell the people to wait on God. Baker seemed to be speaking as someone who had settled in the north.
On Memorial Day 1926, Monday, May 30th Baker, aged 65, delivered a notable and stirring address at the annual observance of war dead held at Pittsfield Cemetery. In attendance were 18 veterans of the Civil War, 12 from the Spanish American War and over 100 from the World War. The day began with a parade up South Street, 21 units unfurling their colors in tune with bands and Scottish pipers. Baker stated to the gathered assemblage:
Memorial Day is not to teach the rising generation that the boys in Blue were better men than the boys in Gray. It took the boys in Gray to make the boys in Blue show the stuff that was in them. The boys in Blue were not better soldiers than the boys in Gray but they were engaged in better business. They died defending the Union and the constitution… they were engaged in saving the life of the nation and did not have time to save their own lives…Abraham Lincoln was not a blood thirsty war tyrant, seeking whom he could destroy – Abraham Lincoln was a man of peace – but he found himself where he was obliged to fight or lose his right to be called a man. Many of them right out of slavery stood up with the boys in Blue. Among those black boys in Blue who came right out of slavery were my father, his brother, their three cousins, my mother’s four brothers and their six cousins. They are gone all but one of them and they sleep in the soil in which lies the ashes of seven generations of their ancestors whose “ two hundred years of unrequited toil” educated seven generations of their master’s children.
The black man loves this nation – not her little prejudices – not her ingratitude – not her racial injustice but the thought that underlies the life of the nation – justice and the equal chance for all, regardless of race, color, creed or previous condition of servitude. The black man loves this nation with a love that blind and foolish prejudices have not been able to crush – and never shall! For life is strong as death. “Many waters cannot quench love. Neither can floods drown it.” The floods of prejudice and injustice have never been able to drown the love and loyalty of the black man for this nation. No other race has ever yet stood such a test and come out of it loyal and loving.Baker’s address was received with much applause. He had the fire of a preacher who took his listeners to uncharted waters; he had mastered his craft and could speak with clarity and distinctiveness. The message had been quoted at length in the next day’s issue of The Berkshire Evening Eagle.
Second Congregational Church celebrated Baker’s 26th year of ministry in Pittsfield on Sunday, August 28, 1927, with two worship services and a dinner in his honor. The guest preacher was the Rev. Gregg from the Hampton Institute who told of Baker’s patient hope with the small congregation. He was praised for “upholding the highest gospel standards, strengthening the bond of fellowship, sharing the social and civic responsibilities of our city which owes much to the consecrated and scholarly minister, the dean of ecclesiastical forces in our midst.” Daughter Edith Baker, student at Oberlin, offered a piano selection and greetings were read from a representative of the Pittsfield Federation of Churches.
When Baker Joins the Club
Baker was voted into Monday Evening Club membership in 1931 together with Dr. Modestino Criscitiello, a local physician in his late 30’s who had been born in Italy, graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and had come to Pittsfield as a physician five years before, distinguishing himself in his local practice. As you are aware, we have no record of the Club’s activity at the time, no topics of papers read. The backdrop of the town in the 30s might give us a context to speculate upon the club’s decision to admit Baker.
Pittsfield was a bustling small city of 55,000 in 1930. The 300th anniversary of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a big event, especially for those with colonial lineage. The Presidential election of 1928 between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith generated nasty local political accusations and outright prejudice. Smith was defamed by the anti-saloon league and the local chapter of Ku Klux Klan, “Berkshire Klan, No. 9.” Crosses were burned in Pittsfield as a warning to “undesirables” but no violent clashes occurred in Pittsfield as was the case in three other towns in the commonwealth. The nameless Klan members were castigated in the local press and by a former state senator, Thomas F. Cassidy, who publicly attacked them as casting the “menace of a moron.”
Unemployment increased slowly after the first few years of the depression. It was a dire time for the poor. Local municipal relief increased continuously. In 1932 there was a run on the banks and the disappearance of a prominent banker, William Adam, shocking the community. Civilian Conservation Corps camps were 8 in number, a labor source for paving roads, cutting trails and campsites. Over 900 men worked for the CWA on public projects. The depression would deepen in 1934 with no work, many foreclosures, work stoppages and serious labor union organizing, those with jobs walking to work. By the end of the decade, economic conditions were slowly improving and Pittsfield would gradually grow in prosperity as the Second World War began. The club drew new members from the increasingly diverse community. Baker, at first a colleague and friend of The Rev. Gregg, a former member, since at least 1912, was a well known public figure and remained a member until his death.
The Family and the Pursuit of Education
All of Baker’s four children graduated from Oberlin College. The archives there provided some basics. Edith Elizabeth was born on July 12, 1902, received her BA in 1926 and BSM in 1928. She went on to receive an MA at Columbia University becoming a music teacher at high schools and colleges including Fisk University. She was the director of a NYC based foundation dedicated to African American community music. Harry Baytop was born on February 14, 1904 received a BA in Music Theory in 1928 and a BM from Syracuse University in 1935. He was a music teacher and a professor at Kentucky State University, chairman of the music department and a music minister. In his life he was a GE employee, was married and had an adopted daughter. Ruth, the third child, birthdate not given, received her BA in 1933 and BSM in 1934, having previously received a diploma at the Berkshire Business College in 1928. She was a music teacher in the NYC public school system, serving in Harlem. Thomas Nelson Jr. , the fourth, received his BA in 1929 and MA in 1930, completing his Ph.D. in chemistry at Ohio State University in 1941. He became a chemistry professor and department chair at Virginia State College, Petersburg VA and had two sons, Thomas Nelson III and Newman Taylor, a renowned jazz drummer and percussionist who performs internationally and in his bios claims slave ancestry and a rich family musical heritage.
The Final Years
On the front page of The Berkshire Evening Eagle of Thursday, January 5, 1939 along with the announcement of FDR’s appointment of Felix Frankfurter to the Supreme Court, a headline read: "T. Nelson Baker Resigns as Pastor of Local Church." Baker indicated that he was resigning at the annual church meeting the next day not because he wanted to but because he ought to; a hearing impairment also was making it increasingly difficult. He stated that he wanted to see a younger man serving the church and the city. He retired in July just before his 79th birthday and was succeeded by The Rev. Harold Leslie Nevers, also a Yale Divinity School graduate who would join the Club in 1944. Under his leadership, the church relocated in 1941 from First Street to Onota Street where it remains to this day. The years leading up to Baker’s decision to retire were gloomy; Lizzie, his wife had died June 26, 1937.
His subsequent death on February 22, 1941 was also front page news. He died tragically at home of gas poisoning, found by son Harry slumped in a chair in his study at 256 Robbins Avenue. A victim of fumes, he apparently fell asleep before the flame of the open gas heater went out, the medical examiner calling the death accidental. Harry was living with his father at the time. Arrangements were made with the Wellington Funeral Home and Baker was buried in the Pittsfield Cemetery next to his wife. Her headstone reads, “Thou excellest them all,” a portion of Proverbs 31:29, “Many daughters have done virtuously, thou excellest them all.”
Still More to Learn
My search to learn more about T. Nelson Baker has been fascinating with information about him leading to many questions about the man, his journey, the racial struggles of the day and his impact upon others as a leader and minister. I found rich resources and most helpful staff at Yale Archives and Divinity School Library, The DuBois Archives at University of Massachusetts, the archives of Dixwell Congregational Church, New Haven, and Second Congregational Church, Pittsfield, the alumni offices of Boston University and Oberlin College and The Pittsfield Atheneum. I developed an opener — “I am researching the life of an African American, born a slave, awarded a Ph.D. from Yale, a distinguished congregational minister for over 40 years.“ In the last few weeks I shared resources with the researcher and writer who contacted Martin [Langeveld] back in November asking permission to use our website photo of Baker.
T. Nelson Baker left a legacy as a pioneer for civil liberties and justice and lived with the fulfillment of seeing his children each receive a solid education and contribute as pioneers in academic, educational and musical fields. He has been identified as a notable philosopher who looked outside classical European modes to propose a way of engaging in truth telling from a black perspective with pride in black identity and community.
He grew up in poverty in a family newly freed from slavery on the east shore of rural Virginia in the era of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, farming for years before resuming his education at age 21. He pursued academics at a Massachusetts boarding school, then in Boston and New Haven at the end of the 19th century. Ordained at age 37, the second half of his life was as a congregational clergyman, writer and community leader in Pittsfield. He wrote and spoke with a foundation in philosophy that acknowledged the struggles of humanity and the need for justice and beauty. In his early writings he pioneered in describing the essential connection between the mind and the body for development and health. He used that unity to underscore hunger for justice, a visceral image that coincides with his deep seated longing for racial equality and respect in our society, benefitting white and black alike. He called for “an ethicized religion.”
What I have garnered is but a glimpse of the man, events about him and words by him that light up key elements of his public life and thought. His words ring as succinct, clear and fiery. He grew in wisdom in his Pittsfield years and spoke from an embodied heritage as a black man. I would like to know more of how he interpreted his struggles, tragedies and setbacks, the fiber that shaped him as a man of strong faith and personal principles. I wonder about how he made it into the Monday Evening Club, how he was received and what papers he read in his 10 years with the club. But then I also respect mystery; not knowing enough is again where I end.
Addendum, 2018: We have heard from Dr. George Yancy, Professor of Philosophy at Emory University, who has written two articles students of Thomas Nelson Baker may be interested in. They are:
- Yancy, G. “Thomas Nelson Baker: The First African-American to Receive the Ph.D. in Philosophy,” in The Western Journal of Black Studies, 21, no. 4, 1997: 253–260.
- Yancy, G. “On the Power of Black Aesthetic Ideals: Thomas Nelson Baker as Preacher and Philosopher,” The AME Church Review, vol. CXVII, no. 384 (Oct./Dec.), 2001: 50–67.