On September 16, 1833, a special public meeting was held in New York City. Those in attendance had assembled at the Colored Presbyterian Church at the behest of the Officers of the Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Color in the United States.

It was a singular event. For they were met together to consider how they ought to mark the passing of Wilberforce who, for nearly fifty years, had been “the friend of Africa.” For twenty years, Wilberforce had led the fight to abolish the British slave trade—a victory achieved in 1807. Twenty-six years later and just days before his death in late July 1833, Wilberforce had learned that slavery itself would be abolished throughout Britain’s colonies. News of this great human rights victory had just reached America’s shores, as had the news of Wilberforce’s passing.

And so sons and daughters of Africa met in New York to consider how they ought to pay tribute to Wilberforce’s memory. During that September meeting several resolutions were unanimously adopted. A committee was also appointed to draft resolutions “expressive of the sentiments of regret felt by the people of color for the death of the Honorable William Wilberforce.” It was their considered opinion that “the most extensive manifestations of feeling be recommended to the people of color throughout the United States.”

The other resolutions adopted included a request that “colored freemen throughout the United States” be requested to wear a badge of mourning for thirty days. Pastors of the African-American churches in New York City were asked “to deliver discourses in the several Churches, as soon as practicable, descriptive of the life and virtues of the late William Wilberforce.” Lastly a committee of five was appointed “to select a suitable person to deliver an Eulogy on the Life and Character of the distinguished Philanthropist whose death we so much lament.” Soon afterward, this committee reported “that they had selected Mr. Benjamin F. Hughes, Principal of the Free School.”

Hughes’ delivered his eulogy on October 22, 1833.

Perhaps no portion of Hughes’ oration was more powerful than the one in which he compared Wilberforce and Napoleon.

Napoleon, and the band the preceded him in ambition’s lawless strife have ceased to breathe—their swords to other hands have passed, their crowns on other heads are placed. A thousand tongues have their praises told—a thousand songs their requiem sung. The scourge of mankind, the extirpator of this species, the Corsican is no more; and with him sleep those vast designs, which convulsed the world in bloody contest for empire. . .

[Why is] there is a charm that attracts the admiration of men to their destroyers; a propensity to applaud those very acts that bring misery on the human race; and on the other hand to pass by unheeded, the placid and even tenor of the real benefactors of their species?

There is a spectacle more glorious and venerable than the transient blaze of a meteor; or the triumphant entry of a conqueror. It is the benign manifestation of those nobler feelings of our nature in behalf of the oppressed, in munificently extending the arms to embrace and succor the unprotected, it is that species of love to man, designated philanthropy. It is not circumscribed within the narrow precincts of country, restricted to religion or party;—it is co-extensive with the world. Hence, of all men, it is to the Philanthropist that we are chiefly indebted; it is upon his disinterested deeds that we are to stare;—and his is the memory for which we should cherish the fondest recollections…

William Wilberforce is dead!

I present to you no bloodstained hero; he had led no slaughtering armies, he has desolated no kingdoms, for him not triumphal arch is raised; his laurels have been won in another and nobler sphere. He was no aspirant to popular applause; no time-serving politician; he was the friend to the “robbed and peeled”. . . he was a perfect character, “that shot effulgence like a solar ray.”

Yes! the earthly career of him, who was emphatically one of the greatest men of the greatest nation of modern times, was terminated on the 29th day of July last; and in him fell the Hercules of Abolition.

Source: Kevin Belmonte’s Tribute to Wilberforce, honoring the Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday


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