Sunday February 3, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- When the Rev. Dr. Thomas Nelson Baker died at age 80 on a February evening in 1941, slumped over a desk in his Robbins Avenue home after being overcome by gas fumes, he not only left behind four talented children, but a legacy of words and ideas that continue to provoke discussion among academics and others.

By age 43, Baker, who was born into slavery on Aug. 11, 1860 on the plantation of Robert Nottingham in Eastville, located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, had become the first black to receive a doctorate of philosophy in the United States, and the second to receive a Ph.D. from Yale.

His quest for an education took him north at age 25 after he was awarded a scholarship to a Massachusetts school. From there he entered Boston University and in 1893 received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree, graduating as valedictorian.

Baker later graduated from the seminary, also at Yale, and it was in his capacity as a pastor that he came to live in Pittsfield in 1901.

No mere small-town preacher, Baker wrote prodigiously on questions of race and philosophy for both national religious and secular periodicals during his life. One of those pieces, "Not Pity But Respect," which appeared in "Congregationalist and Christian World" in 1906, prompted another Berkshire County man, W.E.B. Du Bois, to write both the editor of the magazine and Baker.

Du Bois, born in Great Barrington in 1868, would become one of the pre-eminent spokesmen for his race and was a sociologist, writer, historian and civil rights leader. His work influenced later generations of civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr.

Du Bois, who graduated from Harvard with his Ph.D. in history in 1896, was the first black in the country to receive a doctorate.

In the face of the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1870s and the rise of Jim Crow laws that followed -- trampling the hard-won rights of Southern blacks -- a national debate among black intellectuals and leaders on how to advance the rights of their race had been raging. Du Bois and Baker had differing opinions on the issue.

Baker’s article focused, in part, on his idea that it was a sense of inferiority by blacks and less the segregationist practices of the South that needed addressing. The piece compared this to the degradation of black women by white men, which he said was helped by "the perverted aesthetical taste" of black women willing to sacrifice their "virtue" to have children with "light skin."

Du Bois, in a letter to Baker, called the article a "vicious and wanton attack" on "educated Negro womanhood" and "the most cowardly and shameless thing he has recently read."

According to Robert G. Anderson, in a paper he presented on Jan. 14 to a local organization, The Monday Evening Club, "Baker’s example and use of the word perversion seemed to distract from his main theme of calling upon the Negro to demand not pity but respect through cooperative participation in public settings."

While Baker believed in a cautious approach to equal rights, said Anderson, he "spoke of a racial pride based upon self-respect which aligned him with Du Bois’ principles ... the themes of respect and fortitude guided Baker’s life and ministry."

Close to a decade after Baker had become minister of the Second Congregational Church, replacing the Rev. Dr. Samuel Harrison, he turned away from writing to focus on his congregation and family.

His four children, like himself and his wife, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Baytop, were highly educated, and went on to teach at various schools and universities.

Baker’s wife, who died in 1937, was described in an obituary in the New York Times as "a leader among Western Massachusetts Negro women."

Baker remained the pastor of the Second Congregational Church for 38 years, retiring at age 78.

While Baker died in 1941, his ideas on race and philosophy continued on. Academics have found the roots of the Black Power movement in his philosophical views and consider him an important pioneer in the early-Civil Rights movement.

To reach Andrew Amelinckx:
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