Every seat was filled Friday as the Alfred O. Heath Distinguished Lecture Series presented a symposium on the life and work of Edward Wilmot Blyden. The crowd filled the Great Hall at the University of the Virgin Islands’ St. Croix campus, and many attendees were forced to stand along the walls.
Blyden, a free black born in Charlotte Amalie in 1832, was a noted scholar and historian of his day and is widely regarded as the father of “Pan-Africanism.”
The symposium’s panel included local historian Myron Jackson, pastor Jeff Neevel of the St. Thomas Reformed Church, and two of Blyden’s great-granddaughters, Nemata Blyden — history professor at George Washington University — and Isa Blyden.
The evening’s keynote speaker was Hollis Lynch, professor emeritus at Columbia University and one of the foremost scholars on Blyden’s life.
“Blyden was without question the greatest champion and defender of the black race in his time,” Lynch told the crowd as he began his lecture.
Blyden left St. Thomas as a young man to pursue his education in the United States, but after being refused admission to Rutgers University, he immigrated to Liberia in 1850. He saw in the young African country a solution to the discrimination and oppression his people faced in the United States.
“Blyden’s idea was if you could start a successful modernized nation in West Africa, it would act as a magnet for blacks in the Americas who were being exploited,” Lynch said.
Blyden devoted his life to building Liberia. He edited a newspaper there, taught at the national university, served as the country’s secretary of state and minister of the interior, and traveled to both England and France as the nation’s ambassador.
He traveled frequently to the United States and encouraged African-Americans to immigrate to Liberia and help build the nation, a message that received a mixed reception.
Internationally, Blyden is best remembered for his writing. He was a self-trained scholar, never receiving more than a high school education. That did not stop him from expounding at length in pamphlets, magazines, and books about the history and culture of African people.
His most influential book, “Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race,” published in 1887, won international acclaim and the grudging respect of white academics in the United States and Europe.
Lynch said that Blyden was widely considered the most accomplished black scholar of his day and argued that he was one of the best in the world, regardless of race.
Blyden’s work inspired generations of civil rights activists and pan-African nationalists. He occupies a large role in the story of the struggle for racial equality. However, as many of the panelists at the symposium pointed out, his memory in the Virgin Islands is not widely celebrated. Blyden’s family home was torn down and there is no statue of him on St. Thomas.
The panelists urged greater appreciation for Blyden throughout the Virgin Islands.