The Souls of Black Folk | Study Guide

W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Souls of Black Folk | Chapter 12 : Of Alexander Crummell | Summary



Alexander Crummell, born in 1819, is depicted as a man who struggled against the temptations of hate, despair, and doubt to pursue his life's work and become a black priest in the Episcopal Church. His persistence is an inspiration to Du Bois. Crummell had tried to attend a school run by abolitionists in New Hampshire when he was a boy, but the townsfolk were so opposed to educating black children that they dragged the whole schoolhouse into a nearby swamp. With the help of Beriah Green, the president of Oneida Institute in New York State, Crummell got an education and felt called to become an Episcopal priest. The Church leaders would not allow him to attend the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church. Du Bois recounts how slowly attitudes changed, and by 1842 Crummell had his own church in Providence, Rhode Island. Dissatisfied by how few African Americans attended, he asked to be transferred to Philadelphia. There Bishop Onderdonk refused to let Crummell's black church be represented at his church convention, so Crummell departed, caught between "the Valley of Humiliation" and "the Valley of the Shadow of Death." In poor health he studied at Cambridge University, and then traveled abroad to Liberia where he preached the Gospel to Africans and tried to convert them to Christianity. After a time he wondered again what his purpose was. Eventually Crummell settled down ministering to poor urban black communities. He did this until he died, relatively unknown and alone.


The Tennyson quote of this chapter's epigraph is the last stanza of "The Passing of King Arthur" from Idylls of the King, a long narrative poem in 12 parts by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). In this part of the poem, King Arthur is mortally wounded in battle and is brought to a chapel by Sir Belvedere to die in peace. The awe that Du Bois felt toward his hero Alexander Crummell is echoed in the feelings of Belvedere for his great dying king. These two heroes both give of themselves to the very end and then pass the mantle on to the next generation that they inspired. Aptly, the accompanying spiritual notation is of bars from the well-known "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," where the speaker is looking forward to dying and going "home" to God after a life of struggle.

Du Bois mythologizes the figure of African American clergyman Alexander Crummell in this biographical account. The contrasts between the persons of Alexander Crummell and W.E.B. Du Bois seems to underscore the twoness Du Bois sees in African American experience. Du Bois, a relatively privileged son and celebrated man of his people is humbled by what he comes to learn about this spiritual leader who led a life of loneliness and much struggle.

This chapter also sets up the contrasting characters that will follow in the short story of the thirteenth chapter. Alexander Crummell's journey from curiosity to disillusionment foreshadows the journey the character John Jones will make in the next chapter, as well as his eventual loneliness.

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