Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912)

Edward Wilmot Blyden
Public domain image

Edward Wilmot Blyden, widely known as the father of Pan-Africanism, was born on August 3, 1832 in Saint Thomas, in what are now the U.S Virgin Islands. Blyden was the third of seven children and was born to Romeo and Judith Blyden, a tailor and schoolteacher, respectively.   The family lived in a predominantly Jewish and English speaking community, and attended church at the integrated Dutch Reformed Church. Blyden’s parents were free and literate at a time when most blacks on the islands were enslaved and illiterate. In 1842, the family moved to Porto Bello, Venezuela where Blyden first discovered his facility with languages.  He also found that black free Venezuelans performed much the same menial labor as enslaved blacks in the Virgin Islands.

Upon the family’s return to Saint Thomas Blyden became a student of Rev. John P. Knox, the pastor at the Dutch Reformed Church. Rev. Knox, impressed with Blyden’s scholarly potential, his mentor and through him Blyden decided to become a clergyman. In May 1850, Blyden accompanied Mrs. Knox, the clergyman’s wife, to the U.S to enroll into Rutgers’ Theological College in New Jersey but was refused admission because of his race.

Blyden turned his attention to Africa.  The West African nation of Liberia had become independent in 1847.  Blyden accepted an offer in 1850 to come to Liberia to teach.  Soon after his arrival in January 1851, Blyden was employed at Alexander High School in Monrovia.  There he began self-directed studies of theology, the classics, geography and mathematics.  In 1858 Blyden was ordained a Presbyterian Minister and appointed Principal of Alexander High School. He was also appointed editor of the Liberian Herald, then the only newspaper in the nation, by Liberian President Joseph Roberts.

Drawing on both scriptures and science, Blyden challenged the arguments about black inferiority that were increasingly popular in Europe and North America during this period.  He argued black equality and used examples of little known but successful persons of African ancestry.   Between 1856 and 1887 Blyden authored four books, A Voice From Bleeding Africa (1856); A Vindication of the African Race; Being a Brief Examination of the Arguments in Favor of African Inferiority (1862); Africa for the Africans (1872); and  Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (1887), as well as numerous articles to advance his case.

Blyden also challenged black and mulatto elites in Liberia who hoped to monopolize political power.  During the 1860s and early 1870s Blyden was Liberia’s Secretary of State and Professor of Classics at Liberia College.   From these posts he called for the emigration of skilled and intelligent Black West Indians and African Americans to Liberia. Not surprisingly his proposals drew determined opposition from the Liberian elite.  Nonetheless in 1885, Blyden ran for President of Liberia.  After his defeat he went into self-imposed exile in neighboring Sierra Leone.  Edward Wilmot Blyden died in Sierra Leone on February 7, 1912.