Skip to main content

A Leader Ahead Of His Times

May 2024
4min read

Who was the prosperous Negro in the long-lost painting? Scraps of evidence pieced together have revealed him to be

At first glance, the portrait at the left seems hardly unusual—hundreds of the same sort were painted by the largely self-trained artists who roamed the country in the days before the camera was invented. But the subject is a Negro, and from all indications of dress, an unusually prosperous onesomething of an oddity, for the portrait apparently dates from the 1830’s, a full quarter-century before the Emancipation Proclamation. Who was the man holding the book with the initials “W.W.”?

Of the origins of the painting, nothing can be said for certain. Stylistic and chronological evidence suggests that it is the work of William Matthew Prior (1806-1873) of Boston, a mass-production artist who advertised likenesses “without shade or shadow” for as little as 82.92 (today they bring $500 or more). Too, Prior was a confirmed abolitionist and is known to have done several portraits of Negroes.

A century after it was painted, the portrait with the enigmatic initials was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. William J. Gunn, a well-to-do couple from West Newton, Massachusetts, who collected folk art voraciously —but, as far as anyone can gather, merely for the fun of accumulating canvases. According to one Boston dealer who knew them slightly, they tended to act anonymously, dropping quietly into a shop, buying what they liked with cash, and sending a servant to pick up their purchase the next day.

Oddly enough, though the Gunns amassed more than six hundred examples of folk art over a period of some twenty-five years, they never did anything with their collection. When Mrs. Gunn—who had outlived her husband—died in 1958, all but three of the paintings were found stored hapha/ardly in the barn behind the house. Some had been taken out of their frames, and a fair number cut oft their stretchers; many were splattered by barn paint and the droppings of birds and bats. One hundred and eight) paintings from this neglected trove were acquired by the New York State Historical Association; among them was the portrait of the unknown Negro gentleman, “W.W.”

The mystery of his identity was eventually cleared up when I showed a photograph of the canvas to my friend Sterling Brown, professor of English at Howard University. He and some of his associates suggested that “W.W.” might be a seldom-mentioned and longforgotten figure of the abolitionist movement, William Whipper. Afore than that, they knew his grandson, Leigh Whipper, the former president of the Negro Actors Guild, who is still alive in New York. Leigh Whipper confirmed their surmise. It was a family tradition, he said, that everything his grandfather owned was initialed “W.W.”; moreover, he remembered that William Whipper wore on his watch chain a miniature saw exactly like the one in the painting.

The details of William Whipper’s life are ha/y at best; and yet from the few scraps of information that do exist, it is apparent that he was not only a remarkable individual, but one of the pioneer leaders of his race in America.

The tendency of most people is to assume that, because Lincoln freed the slaves, all the slaves were freed by Lincoln. This is simply not so: by 1840, for instance, there were no less than 386,000 free Negroes in the United States. William Whipper was one of them. The son of a Negro house servant and her white employer—a successful Pennsylvania lumber merchant in the early years of the nineteenth century—he was brought up in the household, along with his younger white half-brother. When a tutor was brought in to educate the white child, William, who looked after the boy, sat in on the lessons to make him behave. Since William was obviously curious, and quick to learn, his lather told the tutor to teach both boys together.

In due time, the white brother was sent away to Swarthmore College; on vacations he would bring home his textbooks and assignments and go over the previous semester’s work with William. William would then spend the following “term” covering the same ground as best he could, getting a hand-me-down but nevertheless effective education. As he grew older, William was apprenticed as a joiner; later, he went on to become a lumber merchant in his own right, operating businesses in the Pennsylvania towns of Columbia and Norristown. He eventually inherited his white father’s business, and (among other honors) was appointed an officer of the Freedman’s Bank after the Civil War. Apparently he lived on into the 1880’s.

But William Whipper was not content merely to make his mark as a prosperous businessman; he used his wealth and his standing in the free Negro community to help the vast majority of his race who were still slaves. He organized and spoke. He wrote. He helped fugitive slaves to escape via the underground railroad. In 1835—about tne tnile tne portrait was painted—Whipper was active in the founding of a Negro abolitionist group, the American Moral Reform Society; for a time he edited its publication, The National Reformer , one of the first Negro newspapers.

Whipper was never a militant—and perhaps for that reason, his voice was not heard as loudly as some in the troubled years before the outbreak of the Civil War. The Reform Society, in which he played so prominent a part, tried to promote such general aims as Negro education, a Negro press, and histories of the Negro people. Whipper himself went further: while he acknowledged that these were sound goals for the present, he also pressed for the integration of his race into the white community at the earliest possible moment. For his opposition to the building of separate churches and schools for Negroes and to the acceptance of any other segregated facilities, he was regarded by many of his contemporaries as a crankbut apparently he was merely ahead of his times.

Interestingly enough, Whipper was also an advocate of passive resistance. In September, 1837, an article of his on this subject was published in the Negro newspaper, The Colored American . It was titled “An Address on Non-Resistance to Offensive Aggression” and had originally been a speech delivered before the Reform Society on the subject: “Resolved, That the practice of non-resistance to physical aggression is not only consistent with reason, but the surest method of obtaining a speedy triumph of the principles of universal peace.” But the Colored American’s editor felt it necessary to take issue with Whipper’s thesis. In introducing the essay, he wrote, “We publish this address with pleasure… . But we honestly confess that we have yet to learn what virtue there would be in using moral weapons in defense against kidnappers or a midnight incendiary with a torch in his hand.” So then, and so today: it is an argument that never ceases.

Whipper’s address was written twelve years before the appearance of Thoreau’s famous essay on nonviolent resistance, “Civil Disobedience.” Despite similarities in their viewpoints, there is no indication that Whipper in any way influenced Thoreau—rather, they were both part of the liberal tide of their day. Yet the steps from Whipper to Thoreau—and from Thoreau to Gandhi and Martin Luther King—are at least chronologically obvious: the Negro lumber merchant’s intellectual career has overtones for our own times.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.