Richard Allen (1760-1831) was perhaps the most important Black activist in early American history — a precursor to more familiar civil rights leaders like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. Every American should know his story.
Born into slavery, Allen bought his own freedom in Delaware during the American Revolutionary era and then founded one of the first Black churches in the fledgling United States. He helped lead the first sit-in against racial injustice at a segregated church in Philadelphia and co-authored one of the first antislavery essays by an African American writer soon after the formation of the Constitution. Allen eulogized George Washington and challenged all Americans to not only end slavery, but treat African Americans as equal citizens. Without his early activism, the long civil rights struggle in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries would have been very different indeed. In many ways, Richard Allen is America’s Black founding father.
This lecture will examine Richard Allen’s amazing life and times by focusing on key aspects of his civil rights activism between the 1780s and 1830s. Allen was not the only Black activist of this era, but his unyielding focus on Black liberty made Allen the most significant African American reformer of his time. By understanding Allen’s role in the earliest American civil rights movement, we can better appreciate the ongoing struggle for justice in the 21st century.