The Age of Inquiry


In March, 1827, Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned and operated newspaper was established with the goal of reaching the free black population in the northeastern part of the U.S.  A speech (delivered in July, 1830) by one of its founders, Peter Williams, is among some of the earliest speeches held in the Black Abolitionist archive.

Soon, other black-owned newspapers followed.  Among these was Frederick Douglass’ Paper (which had evolved from his previous newspapers), and among the editors of this paper was teacher, writer, and Black Abolitionist, William J. Watkins.

One of the things that makes the Black Abolitionist archive unique is the collection of editorials and speeches by writers who may not be as well known as men like Frederick Douglass.  William Watkins is one of them.  Although he wasn’t born into slavery, he identified strongly with the plight of those who were. He lived during one of the bleakest periods in American history, and, through sheer determination and a powerful intellect, he became a compelling voice for justice that guided an entire race of people through that horrible time.

“The Age We Live In” (included here) is a great example of Watkins’ work.  In it, he describes his generation as the “age of inquiry and investigation.”  He saw among his people a renewed interest in education, research, and betterment. He viewed his time as a “revolution” of progress and enlightenment; and so it was in many ways.

William J. Watkins lived between around 1803 to around 1858.  When historians speak of these years, they tend to focus on the horrors of slavery and the way the country’s economy grew on the backs of the enslaved portion of its population.  But behind the scenes progress was taking place, encouraged and inspired by writers, editors, and journalists working with the power of the written word for the cause of liberation for all.  These were the heroes of this time.  These were the men and women who fought tirelessly for the cause of freedom.  Among these, William J. Watkins stands out as one of the most eloquent and outspoken.  His name has slipped into the cover of history.  This current “age we live in,” however, may be the perfect the time to re-introducing him to the world.

Contributed by Linda Papa, Digital Technician

Mercy College Newspaper 1970

Mercy College Newspaper 1970

From October, 1941 through April 1989, Mercy College of Detroit offered its academic population news and information through the publication of a bi-weekly newspaper. Although the name of the newspaper changed a couple of times since it first began, the publication continued through the 1988-89 school year. Each issue has been preserved in our Mercy College Student Newspapers digital archive to offer readers an intimate view of student life at Mercy College.

Outer Echoes, the original newspaper title, became Dateline in January, 1970.  In April of that year, the first page of Dateline (shown here) proudly announced that 200 students would graduate that year on Saturday, May 9, at St. Scholastica’s Church across the street.  It also offered something unexpected.

Included in this first page was a parable I’ve heard before in various tellings.  This time the story was presented as a wise philosopher interacting with his students.  The students were jealous of the philosopher’s great wisdom and set out to make a fool of him.  Regardless of the main characters, whether monks or priests or philosophers, the story goes like this:

The students approached an old philosopher and one of them said, “Old man, I  have in my hand a bird. Tell me if it’s dead or alive.”

The student with the bird thought he knew how to outsmart the old philosopher. The bird the student held was still alive, but if the old man replied “alive,” he would crush and kill the bird to prove him wrong. If the old man thought the bird was dead, the student would open his hand and let the bird fly away.

But the old man knew something that these students did not.  The future is undetermined before it is chosen.  The choice in that moment lay in the student’s hands.  Either choice would be proved right: end your future now, or release your limitations and fly free.

The old man replied, “As you wish, my son. As you wish.”

Funny how these stories work.  What was true for students then, is true now.  Graduation opens the way to the future, but it’s up to each student to decide the path.mercynewsblog

Contribution by Linda Papa, Digital Technician

Annual Slide Rule Dinner

slide11Since 1931, the Engineering and Science Departments have honored outstanding students and alumni with an annual Slide Rule Dinner. My guess is that most of the current students have never seen or even held a slide rule let alone know how to use it. A quick check on Wikipedia notes that for the most part slide rules are more of a collector’s item than for any actual use.


A browse through some of the past Slide Rule programs are some interesting items:

For the 1938 dinner, they had for their entertainment, Frank Venezia and his accordion and Community Singing (nothing in the file on what they were singing)


Some years, it was more than a dinner. In 1940 it was a full day of conferences that ended with a big dinner.


In 1968, students who attended the dinner had to have the program for a chance to get some free tickets to a concert held on campus.


Lately the the event has been a dinner/dance. Guess entertainment by an accordion is not going to cut it any more!

slide20My how times have changed!


Slide Rule Dinner-Date?



The Construction of Lansing-Reilly

lari1 One of the first buildings erected on the McNichols campus was Lansing-Reilly Hall, but that was not the first name of the building. At first it was simply the “Faculty Building” since that was the residence for the Jesuit faculty on campus. It was later christen McNichols Hall in 1951, in honor of Fr. John P. McNichols, who was president of the University during the 1924-28 building program. The name “McNichols Hall” actually started much earlier. There are various stories on how that name came about. One is that students and faculty alike had formed the habit of calling it the McNichols Building because of its location on 6-Mile Road. In another story, the name McNichols Hall originated with the Army personnel. From 1943 to 1944 the Jesuits lived downtown rather than at the McNichols Hall, which was given over to 400 men of the Army’s Student Training Corp, and they did not wish to refer to their residence as the faculty building.  However, in 1955 during construction of a three-story elevator, a 1925 cornerstone proclaiming the building the Reilly-Lansing Memorial was uncovered. I still have not found the reason the name is “Lansing-Reilly” instead of “Reilly-Lansing”.

In the archive files are pictures taken during the construction of Lansing-Reilly in 1925. In 1962 an addition was added to provide additional housing for 50 faculty members. The newer section is now used to house part of the College of Health Professions.


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Lessons in Lovemaking

Got you attention? Would you believe this was the headline of some articles in the Varsity News in 1930 – actually it was a three part series! How about if I told you it also included pictures. Well be prepared to be disappointed.

The Varsity News from May 7 to May 21, 1930, ran a series of articles that had that title, but how to describe what it actually is about is a problem. It does not seem to be about much of anything. Read it here and see what you think.


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Education – 1851

History has a way of collapsing time.  It moves along a social timeline from major event to major event and the small steps that occurred to the human beings involved in the day to day struggle between those events are often overlooked.  We see for example the settling of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 (and the African slaves who were included in this), the Civil War in 1861, and the emancipation of slaves in 1863. We’re told that slavery had a long history of cruelty and abuse, and we are hesitant to spend too much time exploring the detailed lives of those who survived this.

But the history of slavery is also the history of triumph, of survival, and of the joining together of an enslaved people toward a common goal of freedom. The tireless work of so many unsung heroes called the Black Abolitionists, along with their white counterparts, helped to realize something few would have thought possible during this time: emancipation. This is not to trivialize this milestone. The journey wasn’t smooth and neither were the years that followed, but the determination of those who would fight for freedom and continue this fight deserves recognition.

Before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 finally put an end to nearly 250 years of slavery in this country, there were free people of color living in almost every state in the Union. While freedom for these people didn’t also include social acceptance (or even citizenship), it did offer a way of working toward freedom for many of those who became Black Abolitionists during the 1800s.  Education for these people was rare, however, except for those privileged few who were sent to schools in Scotland and other countries.

An education was therefore highly valued, since it offered a way for those who fought hard for freedom to enter into a reasoning debate with those who had the power to influence change.  An educated mind, for example, knew that slavery was an economic institution and cotton was its driving force.  Uncovering the commodities that encouraged the continuation of slavery, meant the chances were better for making a logical argument for its end.  Convincing those countries that bought our cotton that their dollars were better spent elsewhere, for example, was an educated way to disrupt the economic value of this horrible institution.

The brief editorial shown here is from The Voice of the Fugitive newspaper issue published in 1851, twelve years before Emancipation.  Discovering these nuggets of history offers readers a way of better understanding the actual line of events that weaved its way through the years prior to and including those dreadful years.

Spend some time in the Black Abolitionist Archive and read this and other treasures you can discover there.

baacollegeContributed by Linda Papa, Digital Technician

“Southside View of Slavery”

A documentary on Public Television (PBS) called The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross offers an excellent overview of slavery in the United States from its early beginnings in the 1500s to its final end in 1865.  This view aligns closely with the history recorded in the Black Abolitionist Archive’s editorials and speeches.  Slavery wasn’t anything new when this country was first established.  What WAS new, however, was the notion of “who” slaves were and how this tied in with racial discrimination. This didn’t start suddenly. When slavery was first introduced in this country, slaves (and indentured servants) were of many races, including Native Americans. This change was gradual, but at one point in the history of the United States, “slave” was equated with African captives.

Slavery offered the free labor that helped this country grow. It was good for the economy, it made many people wealthy, and there seemed to be an endless supply of slave labor just waiting for transport and sale. The presence of so many enslaved people in the U. S. offered a reminder of our collective wealth and also of our collective guilt. This was difficult to reconcile for many people.  Social divisions by class soon included a division based on color. This began so subtly that when someone finally started paying attention to what was happening, they also recognized the dramatic (and unpleasant) potential for social change that would be required to correct it.

This country was not only built on the backs of slave labor, but also on a strong religious foundation. Treating fellow human beings as property, as little more than beasts of burden, seemed to counter Biblical teachings that spoke of brotherhood and love. The institution of slavery not only contradicted these teachings, it also contradicted the Constitution itself (the “self evident” statement that “all men are created equal” was difficult to ignore).

In order to bridge this gap in reason, some sort of justification was necessary, and towards the end of its well-held place in the American economy, a justification of slavery was the subject of many papers, books, and speeches. The rationale for continuing slavery ranged from creative logic to junk science to religious benefit. Those defending the institution of slavery were nothing if not creative in their reasoning.

In the March 1, 1856 edition of the Anti-Slavery Advocate, William Wells Brown discusses a book by Dr. Nehemiah Adams that had recently hit the bookshop shelves.  This wasn’t the first publication to offer a justification of slavery based on Biblical teachings but it was one worthy of note.

William Wells Brown was an escaped slave who rose to prominence through his writings, lectures, and abolitionist work. It was during his attendance at the Cincinnati Anti-Slavery Convention in May, 1855, that he had occasion to offer commentary on Dr. Adams’ book that praised slavery for benefiting the “religious character” of the slave. The book described the author’s experience with “southern slavery” after a trip to the American south.  It seemed the religious conservatives of this time, like Dr. Adams, were the main people wrestling with this problem of justifying slavery. William Wells Brown compared Dr. Adams’ writing to his own experience with a white minister’s family shortly after he (Brown) had escaped from slavery.  During that visit, Brown had received such kindness from the minister’s wife and daughter (Harriet) that he was dizzy from it all.

The story may have ended there and the reader may have drawn the conclusion that Brown was rethinking his passionate resolve to speak against slavery from this minister’s pulpit. He liked the family and had no desire to upset them or make them regret their kind hospitality. He considered toning down his speech, and adjusting his remarks. The last paragraph, however, sums up his thoughts nicely:

“But I had a bond of sympathy with the slave that Dr. Adams had not.  The little girl Harriet reminded me that I once had a sister; that she was torn from me and sent south; that I had not dared remonstrate, or even call her sister. The kindness of the lady whose hospitality I was then enjoying brought to mind my mother, from whose caresses I had been torn, and how she had been sent I knew not whither, never to see her boy’s face again. I therefore resolved to do my duty, and I did it.”

We’re proud to include with this digitized speech an audio version recorded by a volunteer. Click this link to view the entire record.

abolContributed by Linda Papa, Digital Technician


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