July 7, 2013

Author Q&A: Heroic couplet

By TOM ATWELL/Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

(Continued from page 1)

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Gordon Weil

In addition, he wasn't merely an abolitionist wanting to end slavery. He actually believed in full racial equality, believing that God created everyone equally. That was the difference, and few people held those beliefs and were willing to act on them. 

Q: Could you discuss how Howard's Maine roots affected his career?

A: First, Maine was a simple, less sophisticated society than the one found in Washington. He brought a kind of naive belief that people would do the right thing because it is the right thing, and will be honest with you. 

Second, going to Bowdoin taught him the value of a general education, what we now call a liberal arts education, and seeing things in a broad concept.

And the contacts he made in Maine, like (William Pitt) Fessenden and (James G.) Blaine, continued throughout his life and had a big impact on his career.

Q: In creating Howard University, I was surprised that a liberal arts education for the Freedmen was so controversial, and even Booker T. Washington opposed the idea. Why was that?

A: I think (some people) preferred taking a gradual approach, with a belief that African Americans coming out of slavery totally uneducated needed to learn valuable skills with which they could earn a living. Howard was not against that, but he thought they had to go beyond that so you could have African-American professors, doctors and teachers, and not just people with technical skills.

It is an interesting thing about Howard -- and one point that is overlooked -- is that the premier educational institution for African Americans is named after a white man from Maine, and that is really a great monument to him.

Q: What achievement do you think was his greatest?

A: Oh, I think his greatest achievement definitely was in education. Reconstruction failed because the Freedmen's Bureau failed, and he realized that from the warning that he got from Sherman when he took the task that it was "Hercules' task," and he was not able to pull it off.

But he tried in the course of leading the Freedmen's Bureau to create things that would serve the most, and that was in the creation of educational institutions for African Americans, often funded privately or from religious groups or funds from the Freedmen's Bureau.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

A: Only this: One thing you can say about Howard is that he was a man ahead of his time in terms of race relations and the equality of people. And he paid the price in 13 years of grief (in several federal investigations) for his attempts to integrate a church in Washington.

I think he is a quiet hero about whom it is worth knowing more. 

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer.  He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:


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