“American to the Backbone”

I’ve never written a biography, though they are my favorite reading. It’s hard work. You can’t get creative with a life already lived. It is what it was.

The challenge is to make that life come alive today. There’s a basic list of dates and copies of things he wrote, but what did he have for breakfast? What did he do between the events that got recorded?

My subject is James W. C. Pennington. It’s an assumed name because James Pembroke was born in slavery and had to change his name when he escaped to freedom. He did that at the age of nineteen when he decided he had been beaten once too often. At that age he was illiterate and had never heard of Jesus. Five years later he was hired to teach school. Ten years later he was ordained to the Congregational ministry having studied at Yale. Twenty years later he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Heidelberg. He organized the first interracial missionary society. He was President of the National Convention of Colored People. He was arrested for refusing to sit in the colored section of a New York City street car and helped bring segregated seating in New York city transportation to an end.

Is that not a story worth telling?

I wrote the first chapter in April two years ago. I am currently working on chapter fifteen. I have twenty years still to write.

The title is “American to the Backbone.” James Pennington said that of himself. In an age when many well-intentioned Americans (and others) thought the solution to America’s racial problems was to send them back to Africa, James Pennington wanted people to know that this was his country too. And his story is a part of our story. I can’t wait to read it.

But first I have to finish writing it.

1 Comment

Deb McCMay 14th, 2009 at 5:42 am

Christopher, HI, I’m Deb from Gettysburg. I found Woodburn, had the deed traced. It no longer stands and it behind today’s York Springs Auto Auction on Route 15 north of York Springs. You should be able to see this on Google Earth. Call me if you want to know more: 717-357-5812.

Tell me how you are doing on the book.

Deb Mccauslin

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