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Daniel Alexander Payne and the importance of a book in a digital age

The curator of the Slave House on Goree Island stands before a plaque listing Alex Haley
The curator of the Slave House on Goree Island stands before a plaque listing Alex HaleyPhoto by Professor Metze

On February 7, 1990, the present writer came to Washington in search of a book. As a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow and a South Carolina Graduate Incentive Scholar, the writer had completed research work on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, West Africa, that convinced him that African-American slaves had been deprived of literacy in order to subjugate and mentally enslave them. Gathering with scholars from around the world in July of 1986 for a week of research and study on slavery continued an interest that started with a research study on the negative impact of American slavery on present day literacy among African-Americans.

The research work on black literacy in South Carolina continued while teaching English grammar and Developmental Reading and studying Literacy 801P with Carol Chaski of Brown University. The search for the first book published by an African-American writer from South Carolina led the writer to Washington’s Moorland-Spingarn Collection at Howard University. He was searching for the first book published by a black writer from South Carolina. He argued that the South Carolina anti-literacy laws dating back to the 1700s and reestablished in 1835 obviously were the reason that blacks were illiterate and portrayed as being dumb and stupid. The laws were designed to keep African-America slaves illiterate. He argued that blacks would have been just as articulate and literate as their slave masters if it weren't for the black anti-literacy laws.

Daniel Alexander Payne was a teacher at the Tradd Street School in Charleston, South Carolina in 1834. He was born a free black in 1811 and in the curious institution of slavery he had been able to service customers in his school who were white and he also taught slaves. It was the latter pupils who got Payne in trouble with the South Carolina General Assembly. Literate slaves could write passes and escape from their masters. It goes without saying that literate blacks were a danger to the institution of slavery. Payne was forced to flee his school and the State of South Carolina as the black anti-literacy laws made teaching blacks illegal. However, when he wasn’t teaching he was writing and he left those writings behind.

Howard University Library was the only library to have a photocopy of the book. Dorothy Porter Wesley, the brilliant curator of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, helped the writer to locate the original copy of the priceless book which she said was stored at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Porter-Wesley explained that Brown University was able to afford to buy the rare and priceless book because Brown University had a financial endowment of $2.01 billion dollars. It had one of the richest university endowments in America. Its graduates include former first daughter Amy Carter and former first son John F. Kennedy, Jr. With its great wealth and prestige Brown University has produced some of the nation’s greatest professors and scholars. It also has been able to purchase some of nation’s greatest scholarly treasures.

In the research work of the National Endowment for the Humanities scholar there was only one university in the nation that owned a copy of The Pleasures and other Miscellaneous Poems. The book was written by Daniel Alexander Payne (1811-1893). After searching through every college and university collection in the nation the scholar found the original book at Brown University.

Thus Brown University provided a service that no other university could provide. Many critics in South Carolina said that the work did not exist. Brown University proved that the book did exist. It was not just a book. It was a book written by the first African-American born in South Carolina to publish a book of poetry. Brown provided the original and Howard provided the copy.

Only very ignorant and unlearned people laugh at books. Intelligent people realize that books are the cornerstones of civilization. Adolph Hitler in Nazi, Germany, burned books and murdered scholars because he knew the first way to destroy a people was to destroy their books and their scholarship.

A great university provides scholars with the resources to produce books and articles that share knowledge with the rest of the nation. When African-Americans in South Carolina were said to be ignorant and incapable of learning Brown University purchased and guarded the book that proved the illiteracy scam that had been used to prevent men and women from getting an education.

Daniel Alexander Payne went on to become the first African-American college president. He also advised President Abraham Lincoln and encouraged him to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Washington, DC just celebrated Emancipation Day in DC. President Barack Obama recently had the Emancipation Proclamation displayed in the White House. Payne wrote the book which now rests at Brown University and provided clear evidence that African-Americans should be free. Payne knew the power of literacy and he never laughed at a book. He literally starved himself to buy books. Scholars should always avoid people who make fun of the writing of a book. These people are very dangerous people.

As the digital revolution continues there is no need to fear. Books will continue to be written. A book published online is still a book. A newspaper published online is still a newspaper. Thomas Jefferson, the founder of The Library of Congress donated his books to start the library. He knew the power of books in keeping America free. Book stores continue to sell books even as the online and digital revolution makes ways of reading books easier. Amazon’s Kindle has revolutionized the way people read books; however, writing books has not changed since Daniel Alexander Payne wrote quietly in his school in South Carolina in 1834.

The present writer retired from Howard University to become the first American appointed chancellor of the first private journalism and communications university program in Bamako, Mali, West Africa. He spent a week on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal West Africa in July of 1986 conducting research on literacy and slavery. There was a plaque that listed Alex Haley's research work on Goree Island as he wrote his book, Roots: the Saga of an American Family. Haley knew the power of a book to change the world. A book is very important. Why did the chicken cross the road? A book will tell you.