Wednesday, August 24, 2016

James D. Corrothers Set Forth to be a Writer

Discouraged by his lack of success as a writer,
James D. Corrothers trained to be an amateur boxer. 

When it is told, the life of James D. Corrothers appears as a success story about persistence and a few fortuitous encounters with influential people.

In truth, Corrothers’ life was a zigzag of good turns and bad turns: those he chose himself and those that others dealt him. Nearly every achievement was followed by a setback. Corrothers had a hard time keeping on moving forward. 

There are some discernible reasons. He hampered himself; he slammed into the poisonous racism of his time, and he was victimized by powerful Black clergymen. It may be useful to say that he felt optimistic about the future of Black Americans. Actually, he never strayed from the harsh view he expressed in 1894:

. . . that the race question would never be definitely settled in America; that the whites would never extend to us the full social and commercial privileges which other races enjoy here; that all we had suffered and done in this country was merely disciplinary and temporary, and that the Negro’s destiny was AFRICA.  

Born in 1869, neglected by his parents, and raised in Michigan, James had a close relationship with his grandfather. From a young age, he wanted to be a writer.

As the only Black boy growing up in the lumber town of South Haven, Michigan, Corrothers got in the middle of a race riot that started during a July 4th celebration when visitors came from neighboring towns. He was unhurt but did have to fight every white boy in order to take a place at school. The teachers whipped and punished him.

Harder times came. James and his grandfather moved to Muskegon where the 15-year old worked an 11-hour day in a lumber mill.  He went from the mill to a skating rink to a farm; survived typhoid fever, returned to the mill. Living in a freight car, James got to know an Irish sailor named Jack who persuaded him to go to Chicago where they would work together on a boat. Unsurprisingly, they could not get a berth together.

The men soon met a “brisk quick-spoken chap who had a foreign accent.” He told them there was work to be found on canal boats in upstate New York. James decided to go with him. But he ended up by the side of the road, the stranger having “borrowed” all of his money.

Next James found work at a hotel in Liberty, Indiana; this time a 17-hour day spent scrubbing floors and waiting tables. He still found time to read the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley, Longfellow, and Tennyson. A few months later, as a field-hand on an Ohio farm, he thought about attending Wilberforce University (the oldest African-American university in the U.S.).

"Yes James," she repeatedly protested to me, "you wrote it
but who was the author of it?"

Instead he became a coachman in Springfield, Michigan, where the editor of the local newspaper published one of his poems. The wife of his employer did not believe that it was Corrothers’ work:

              “Yes James,” she repeatedly protested to me, “you wrote it but who was the author of it?” 

Finally, Corrothers got work on the Peerless, one of the freight boats that plied the Great Lakes. By the time he arrived in Chicago, he had saved $90. He bought a suit and was hired as a porter in a barber shop. One day the muckraking journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd walked in and they got to talking about literature. Through his wife, Lloyd had a connection to the Chicago Tribune. When he left, Lloyd took a few of James’ poems which were published in the paper. 

Elated, Corrothers accepted an offer to be a porter in the Tribune’s counting room.* He had never earned so much money. He also became a frequent guest at the Lloyds’ home, where he met Jane Addams, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Booker T. Washington.

A Tribune editor, Robert W. Patterson, invited Corrothers to write a story “about the progress of the coloured people of Chicago.” After considerable research and interviews conducted during his time off, Corrothers produced the article. Patterson assigned a white reporter to edit it. The reporter rewrote it entirely in what was called “Negro dialect.” Corrothers was mortified. When he complained, Patterson laughed in his face. Then Patterson fired him from the counting room.

After the Civil War, many Black men found work as “dinner waiters” in Northern hotels, where they fought for stale bread and the leftover meat on diners’ plates. Joining the ranks, Corrothers decided that he would never have a career as a writer and should become an amateur boxer. He trained, but he never got there.

Instead, Corrothers was invited to recite his poem, “The Psalm of the Race,” at the first meeting of the National Afro-American League in Chicago in 1890. The League, established by Timothy Thomas Fortune, editor of the Black newspaper, the New York Age, preceded the NAACP by two decades.

Now hailed as “Chicago’s coloured poet” and “the coming poet of the race,” Corrothers ran into a long-lost aunt who, with Henry Demarest Lloyd, provided money for him to enter Northwestern University. Later, James met WCTU president Frances Willard, who also helped fund his education. He studied there from 1890 to 1893.

Then along came the Reverend Dr. Charles Nelson Grandison, purportedly the grandson of an African king, who dreamed of starting a Christian Negro Republic in Africa (a decade before Marcus Garvey launched the Back to Africa Movement). He persuaded Corrothers to join him on a tour of the South – at the height of Jim Crow – and stay on at Bennett College in North Carolina to study and teach.

Corrothers detested the South although he readily acknowledged that African-Americans who lived in the North encountered just as much racism.

Back in Chicago, Corrothers married
Fannie Clemens, with whom he had two sons.
He decided to return to Chicago where he married and had two sons. He got by writing articles for the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Daily Record, Chicago Journal, and Chicago Times-Herald. His earnings picked up when he started to write in Negro dialect. At this time, he began to write the stories that would be collected in his 1902 book, The Black Cat Club.

But still he despaired of ever making a living from writing.

*In the newspaper business during the late 19th century, advertising and sales were managed in the counting rooms. “Counting-room journalism” referred to papers where the goal of increasing circulation drove the editorial content. Joseph Pulitzer was considered its greatest exponent; later it would be known as “yellow journalism.”

See also August 17 and September 7 posts.

1 comment:

  1. Reading literally-rendered dialect is actually terribly distracting. It says a lot about the white need to "see" only uneducated black that it was such a requirement.


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