Historical Marker #2194, located in Munfordville, KY (Hart County) celebrates the racial progressivism and valuable artistry of Black poet, writer, pastor, and educator Albery Allson Whitman.
Albery was born on May 30, 1851, to enslaved parents Caswell and Caroline Bronner Whitman in Munfordville, Kentucky. He worked on the farm throughout his childhood until his emancipation in 1863. His mother died in 1862, and his father passed a few months after their emancipation.
Orphaned, Albery had nowhere to go after emancipation, so he continued to work on the farm where he was born until he moved to Louisville as a young teenager. His teenage years were spent as a transient worker, finding odd jobs in Louisville, Cincinnati, and finally in Troy, Ohio at the age of eighteen. There, he worked in a plow shop as well as in railroad construction, but he also began his education, attending a local school for about seven months. He then discovered his passion and talent for literature, and spent about a year as a schoolteacher in Carysville, Ohio, and in his hometown of Munfordville, Kentucky.
Now determined on a career as an intellectual, Whitman enrolled in the all-Black Wilberforce University in 1870, where he studied for six months under Bishop Daniel A. Payne. It is unknown why Whitman halted his studies and never graduated, but he had already initiated his career as a writer by 1871, when he published his first volume of poetry, Essays on the Ten Plagues and Miscellaneous Poems. The volume, whose publisher is unknown, sold around 1,000 copies, none of which have survived to today.
In 1873, he then published Leelah Misled, a 1180-line narrative poem, with independent publisher Richard LaRue. By 1877, he had secured a job as Wilberforce University’s General Financial Agent and was also preaching at an African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church in Springfield, Ohio. That year, as part of his fundraising and advertising campaign to raise the reputation of Wilberforce, he published his most celebrated book of poetry, Not a Man, and Yet a Man, a 250-page narrative in which he addresses racial issues through the experiences of a mixed-race protagonist.
Whitman’s later poems nearly all dealt with racial identity in America, as he critiqued the nation’s government and society with The Rape of Florida, published in 1884, and An Idyl of the South, published in 1901. His philosophy was both bold and optimistic, and the heroes and heroines of his stories always embodied the independence and agency that he wished to promote in Black society.
He asserts these views in the introduction to Not a Man, Yet a Man: “I have yielded to the firm belief that [America’s Black man] has a future. I abhor the doctrine that he is but a cipher in the world’s greatness—a captive in the meshes of dominating influence.” Likewise, in the introduction to The Rape of Florida, he famously declares, “I was in bondage—I never was a slave… Adversity is the school of heroism, endurance, the majesty of man and the torch of high ambitions.”
After an extensive career of publishing, fundraising for Wilberforce University, and preaching to congregations in Ohio, Kansas, Texas, and Georgia, Whitman died of pneumonia on June 29, 1901 in Atlanta, Georgia. His poems, sermons, and educational work still speak to his life of determination and progressivism.