Tag Archives: Scholarship

Salem’s Scholar-Activist

The second president of the university where I teach was Alpheus Crosby (1810-1874), although his title was Principal of what was then known as Salem Normal School, a pioneering institution in both the education of teachers and women. While “scholar-activism” is an integral part of professional life for many in higher education today, it was a somewhat different pursuit in the nineteenth century, and Crosby’s life exemplifies that of a scholar-activist in that time, while also representing the differences between his time and ours. Crosby was an eminent scholar of classical Greek who became a passionate advocate of public education: for women and freed slaves in particular, for everyone in principle. He managed to pursue these two callings simultaneously even though they did not always intersect—-to connect them, he also became an expert on educational instruction, publishing papers and delivering lecturing on “emulation” and grammatical “analysis” (which seems to refer to dissecting sentences—a practice I wish was still current) and serving as editor of The Massachusetts Teacher. These professional activities were just part of his life, which also included a decades-long devotion to the abolitionist and suffrage movements and major roles in Salem’s key cultural institutions: the Salem Lyceum, the Salem Athenaeum, and the Essex Institute. He was a very “public man” by vocation and predilection.

Crosby pic

Crosby Normal School 1865 SSU

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Crosby Ad The Massachusetts Teacher 13Alpheus Crosby and several (not all!) of his equally successful siblings, the sons of Dr. Asa Crosby of Sandwich, New Hampshire. The Normal School at Salem on Broad and Summer Streets during Crosby’s tenure, c. 1857-1865, Salem State University Archives; just a few of the Salem institutions to which Alpheus Crosby volunteered considerable time: the Salem Lyceum, the Salem Athenaeum (then at Plummer Hall) and the Essex Institute, Cousins collection of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth; Professor Crosby’s bestselling series of Greek textbooks, 1860.

Because Crosby was so active, he was memorialized everywhere upon his death in 1874. I read a lot of obituaries and none were pro forma: all were very personal and absolutely reverent. Some personal details: his first wife, Abigail Cutler of Newburyport, was an invalid whom he took on a tour of Europe after their marriage, during which she died in 1837. He returned to his professorship at Dartmouth, where he had commenced teaching at age 23, but resigned and moved to Newburyport to care for his mother-in-law, who was also an invalid, upon the death of her husband. During this period—over a decade—he continued his Greek scholarship but also served as Newburyport’s Superintendent of Schools. Upon Mrs. Cutler’s death, he went south to Salem and began his post at the Normal School. in 1857. There followed an expanded curriculum, a larger library, and enthusiastic (by all accounts) teaching by the Principal, who was clearly much more than an administrator: many student testimonies speak to his “remarkable spirit of earnestness” and enthusiasm, and then there is this glowing account in the Salem Observer, from December of 1861.

Crosby CollageCrosby Oberserver 3

In that same year, Crosby married Martha Kingman of Bridgewater, who was an instructor at the Normal School. As the Civil War progressed, he became increasingly focused on the emerging agenda of political, social and educational reform in the south, publishing several works on the topic, becoming the first chairman of the Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society, and taking on editorial duties for The Right Way, a new journal dedicated to advocating for progressive reconstruction. The urgency of this work prompted his resignation from the Normal School in 1866, citing “the critical condition of the country at the present time and the danger that the rights of colored people will not be duly regarded in the coming reconstruction.” That work—-and his classical scholarship—consumed him until his death in 1874. Several of the obituaries marking his death, including those in the New York Times and Boston Globe, make note of the two “colored girls” which Professor and Mrs. Crosby adopted, “an act which provoked much comment.” I have to admit I couldn’t find any comment and not much about these two girls, whom I suspect were fostered rather than adopted by the Crosbys. They are referred to (and provided for) in Crosby’s 1874 will as “Amy Lydia Dennis and Lucy B. Dennis, living with me.” I’d really like to know more about these two women.

Crosby Suffrage Collage

Crosby donation

Crosby Donation 3

20191117_151200 Post-“retirement”: advocacy for radical reconstruction and “impartial” suffrage, 1865-66, Library of Congress; just one donation to the Normal School at Salem. 111 Federal Street in Salem, the residence of Professor and Mrs. Crosby, along with Amy Lydia and Lucy B. Dennis, during the 1860s.

Obviously there is a lot more to learn about Professsor Alpheus Crosby: his life, his work, his world. He is book-worthy! I was inspired to post about him now because of a rather odd confluence of factors. I was reading up on Xenophon for the book I’m working on, as he was a very popular author of husbandry and household tracts in the Tudor era despite being dead for centuries, and I encountered Professor Crosby’s name everywhere I clicked. And the materialist side of me is a constant real- “estalker” and his Federal Street house has recently been on the market. Once I had Alpheus Crosby on my mind, he was suddenly everywhere: just last Friday I was walking back to my office after finishing my last class and I saw one of my students in the hall, waiting to begin her classical Greek tutorial with our Department’s ancient historian, Erik Jensen, and I thought: Professor Crosby would be so pleased!


Slaves in the Hunt House

There were two prompts for today’s post, both of which came as I was getting ready for the spring semester, after a productive sabbatical in which I thought and wrote very little about Salem’s history. The first prompt was the wonderful recognition of the work of one of my colleagues, Dr. Bethany Jay, whose book (co-edited with Dr. Cynthia Lynn Lyerly of Boston College) Understanding and Teaching American Slavery won the prestigious James Harvey Robinson prize for the “most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history in any field for public or educational purposes” at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The second prompt came from a former student of mine, now an archivist-in-training and public historian-by-passion, inquired as to the location of the remains of the burial ground of Salem’s Bulfinch-designed Almshouse on Salem Neck, a property which is now the site of a 1980s condominium development. I looked through the usual sources to try to help her, but then (as usual), got distracted: by this obituary in the Liberator, dated April 30, 1836.

slavery collage

Here we can read of the death of a long-time resident of the Almshouse, centengenarian Flora Jeans, an African-American woman who was once the widow of Bristow Hunt, a slave belonging to Capt. Wm. Hunt, who resided at the corner of Lynde Street. At the time of the general emancipation of the slaves in New England, Bristow partook of the sweets of freedom, in common with others of his race, and in the elevation of his feelings consequent on his being placed on a level with his fellow men, he nobly fought for the liberties of his country and was killed in battle by the side of a connection of his master’s family, who is now living. Sigh. Yet another amazing Salem story, drawing me back in: this city’s African-American history, as well as its revolutionary history, and its nineteenth-century history, and virtually all of its history, is so minimized and marginalized because of the incessant drumbeat: 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692. 1692, 1692.

bucks of america mhsThe paint-on-silk “Bucks of America” flag in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1785-86, commemorating what is “believed to have been a Massachusetts militia company composed of African Americans and operating in Boston during the American Revolution, although no official records of the unit seem to exist”.

I don’t know much about American history; I began this blog partly because I wanted to learn more about Salem’s history because it seemed so overwhelmingly focused on the Witch Trials and I was curious about other eras and institutions. The last time I studied American history was in high school, where I can assure you I learned nothing about slavery and its myriad consequences. I avoided American history in college studiously, because it seemed so short and one-dimensional compared to the European and Asian history (I didn’t even think about African history). By the time I finished my doctoral program and started teaching I had learned a lot about slavery in the early modern Atlantic world, or about the slave trade, and I assumed that it formed a larger part of the secondary-school curriculum than when I was in high school. But that’s not the case, even now. Dr. Jay consulted with the Southern Poverty Law Center on their Teaching Toleration project, which surveyed 1000 American high-school seniors, 1700 history teachers, along with popular textbooks and state standards, in 2017 about their knowledge and presentation of slavery. The results were alarming, to say the least, and really surprising to me, although I suspect not as surprising to my Americanist colleagues: only 8% of high-school seniors identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War, few than one-third identified the 13th amendment as the formal end of slavery in the United States,  and less than half could define the “Middle Passage”. Eight percent.

I feel fortunate to have learned a lot about slavery—its structures, consequences, and abolition—from my colleagues as well as my students. It’s not an easy subject; I really would prefer to look at our founding fathers as heroes rather than hypocrites, believe me (but Martin Luther and both Cromwells are troublesome creatures too). I teach our capstone seminar, in which students write long research papers over the course of the semester, pretty regularly, and I let students choose whatever topic they like, within reason and with my qualifications. Because Dr. Jay is such a popular professor, I’ve supervised papers on slave children, anti-slavery societies, the circumstances surrounding the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, and The Liberator, among other related topics. So I’m not surprised to see such a detailed obituary of a poor African-American woman in 1836. Another popular professor in our department is Dr. Dane Morrison, who teaches the Colonial and Federal eras: he has inspired a full range of Revolutionary topics in my seminars, including one on African-American soldiers who fought for the American side despite the enticements of the British. So I’m not surprised to read about Bristow Hunt either: despite the flowery rhetoric in the obituary, I assume he was offered manumission in exchange for his military service, rather than absolutely, as slavery was not formally abolished in Massachusetts (by judicial review) until 1783. I don’t really know this to have been the case, but the fact that he died by the side of a connection of his master’s family is pretty telling. I wish I knew more about Bristow—and Flora—and their lives rather than just their deaths. I wish we all knew more about them, and I’m a bit embarrassed of my previous preoccupation on the house in which Bristow and others were enslaved. I’ve always been fascinated by this first-period house, which was demolished during the Civil War. It survives in paintings and photographs, neither of which offer us any insights into what went on inside.

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hunt-house-on-washington-and-lynde-streets-salem-hneCirca 1857 photograph of the Hunt House in Frank Cousins’ and Phil Riley’s Colonial Architecture in Salem (1919); undated drawing, Historic New England.

The antiquarian approach focuses on the house, on physical remainders rather than social history. So I was being an antiquarian, just like Sidney Perley, who wrote in the Essex Antiquarian [Volume II, 1898] that William Hunt (whom he does not call Captain) died in 1780 possessed of the “mansion house”, bake house, barn and lot; in the division of his real estate in 1782, the buildings and eastern portion of the lot were assigned to his son Lewis Hunt [who was] a baker, and had his shop in the front end of the house”. When William Hunt died in 1780, slavery was still technically legal in Massachusetts despite its brand-new constitution’s provision that “all men are born free and equal, and have….the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties”. And in the early 1770s, when the public discourse calling for freedom and condemning tyranny was intense and incessant, he placed a series of advertisements in the Salem papers offering a reward for the return of another of his slaves, Cato. This much we do know.

slavery 1771 essex gazette may 28Essex Gazette, May 28, 1771.


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