The coining of "Afro-American"

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Oct 13 00:43:26 UTC 2011

Lawyer E. J. Waring claims he coined "Afro-American" in 1878, when he
was the 18-year-old principal of the Colored Public Schools of
Columbus, Ohio.  He rails at a critic of his coinage.

One problem is that the OED has an instance of "Afro-American" from
1853, seven years before lawyer Waring was born.  (1878 would be the
2nd earliest instance, if one could be found.  Waring's 1898 claim
and use is coeval with the OED's 4th earliest.)

I have appended the article, which at the least provides one
African-American's picture of the conflicts over choice of the term
preferred by [African-Americans] for use by themselves or by others.

Collection: African American Newspapers
Date: January 12, 1893
Title: THE NEW RACE NAME, “AFRO-AMERICAN.” ----- -----
Location: Philadelphia, PA

[This is from Accessible Archives, which presents an easily copyable
text.  I did not confirm it from page images.]


I am the author of the word "Afro-American." I coined, or invented,
or constructed the word in 1878, in the month of May, at Columbus,
Ohio, when I was principal of the Colored Public Schools of that
city. I am now about to endeavor to answer an "arraignment" of the
title "Afro-American" published in the "Christian Recorder," December
15, 1892, and written by my friend, Hon. Isaiah C. Wears, the
distinguished American (Negro) scholar. I will not be deemed
presumptuous arrogant, or guilty of impropriety if I introduce myself
to some readers of the "Recorder," who may wonder who is this
Afro-American "Jack in the box," who "pops" up to answer Isaih C.
Wears, the eminent American (Negro) philosopher, who, it may be
stated parenthetically, has shown himself, in the article under
consideration, to be a "Jack," whether in or out of the box. If I am
"Jack in the box," and although only 33 years old, I have a record of
honorable achievements, which the "Jack out of the box," Mr. Wears,
cannot show, although he is close to the dignified, honorable and
beautiful period of human life, three score and ten; and if I am
spared so long, and shall become like Mr. Wears, a "Jack out of the
box." I shall know better than to write an article such as the one I
am attempting to answer. I have for years read his writings. I have
often listened to his eloquent tongue, but this article surprises me.
It seems that on this occasion, when Mr. Wears, the great American
(Negro) "Jack" escaped from his "box" to write this article, he must
have left behind him some essential intellectual equipments. It
sounds like an old speech "dished up" again. My word,
"Afro-American," is attracting wide spread discussion in all the
leading colored journals of the day. Time is too precious to answer
all objections raised to the word "Afro-American, - and many
objections raised have been too silly to answer - but Mr. Wears is
the first eminent American (Negro) to write a long article against
the new race name, and although the article is unfair; fallacious in
premises and conclusions; and made up of satire, sarcasm, ridicule
and innuendo, in great part, yet I wish to answer it. Mr. Wears, the
conspicuous American Negro literature, should know some things he
seems to know. He should know that usage and people largely make
language and words. Usage has applied the following names or epithets
to our race in the United States: viz. "moke," "coon," "darkey,"
"nigger," "negro," "colored man," "colored American," "African," and
"colored citizen of African descent." Will Mr. Wears deny this? Now I
add to the list, "Afro-American." No sensible man can object to it.
But Mr. Wears calls "Afro American" a "new-fangled cognomen." O! No!
it is not, it is 14 years old. I coined and gave the word to the
world in 1878. Mr. Wears has been a Rip Van Winkle. He has just waked
up; he heard the word he did not stop to learn that the word was in
universal use, so he popped up and objected, thus making himself
ridiculous. He knows, or ought to, that for half a century, Negro
writers have attempted to change our race name to African-American,
Africo American, AFric-American, or Af-American, but when I, a young
colored man, 18 years old, in 1878, coined the word "AFro-American,"
which, on account of its aptness and euphony, sprang immediately into
popular favor, continued to grow in use, and today is the real race
name, then Mr. Wears gets up like a "Jack out of the box" on his hind
legs and "howls!! O! ye Gods what what a sight! Mr. Wears does not
know does he? that our leading colored writers and speakers recognize
and use the word Afro-American. Our colored Journals use it, viz: -
"Age," "Lancet," "Plain Dealer," "Freeman," "Gazette," "Recorder,"
etc. White Journals and the Associated Press use it. We have an
AFro-American Press use it. We have an AFro-American Press we have an
AFro-American League, and W.D. Whitney, the compiler of Worcester's
dictionary, wrote me a letter, June 29, 1886, which lies before me as
I write, in which he says, 'The name Afro-American seems appropriate
enough, and if it is accepted and used by the public, it will serve a
very good purpose." And Mr. Wears places himself in antagonism to all
this, and he "arraigns" the word Afro-American. Yea, verily, things
are reversed. Mr. Wears should be "arraigned" for contempt. Mr. Wears
is too late. An avalanche of counter-opinions will overwhelm him. He
cannot turn the irresistible tide of usage. He is an Afro-American
and cannot help himself. Mr. Wears may vent his spleen if he will
feel better; he may charge race treason; he may charge that I seek
the "potencies of leadership;" he may call me a "modern Aaron" and
"Jack in the box." But none of these things move me. I am proud
indeed that I have given the world the word "Afro-American," a word
received with universal favor, thus making me in a sense god-father
to my race, numbering 8,000,000, in giving them the euphonious,
dignified, significant, comprehensive name, Afro-American. Yes! I am
gratefully proud of it. When we remember that leading colored
journals, writers and speakers use "Afro-American," it seems that Mr.
Wears goes a long way from truth, to charge as he does, that those
who use the term have in view "purposes of a character that no one
entitled to decent respect would care to acknowledge or presume to
defend." Bishop B.F. Lee, late editor of the RECORDER, distinguished
for piety and learning, adopted the word in his editorial writing. It
is universally conceded that for breadth and depth of learning he is
far the superior of Mr. Wears; in christian piety and noble manhood
he is par excellence. Does Mr. Wears contend that Bishop Lee is not
entitled to "decent respect," because he uses the word Afro-American?
Mr. Wears owes an apology for the inadvertent, I hope, use of the
words, "decent respect." Epithets are not arguments, and do not
command "decent respect." I sweep away a great part of Mr. Wears'
alleged objections to my word by stating that he ought to know that
no fixed rules govern the "coinage" of words as in case of derivation
of words. When I first published my word fourteen years ago, Dr. E.H.
Cook, one of the most learned white linguists in the country, raised
the point that in deriving my word Afro-American, I had destroyed the
root "Afric." I replied that I had "coined," not "derived" my word.
Dr. Cook at once conceded the correctness of my position. My Wears
who is not a linguist, of course will concede I am right. Hence it
follows that all Mr. Wears has said about ethnology was to no
purpose. It makes no difference whether the word has any technical
ethnological correctness or not. When I read that Mr. Wears proposed
to reject my word "AFro-American" and use instead "American," I
actually laughed aloud, and mentally exclaimed, "rot," "slop,"
"idiocy." The point is that those who reject "AFro-American," fail to
agree as to what shall be the race name. One says "Negro" with little
"n;" another, "Negro" with big "N;" another, "colored man," and now
comes Mr. Wears and proposes "American." O, no! If I tell some one
that Mr. Wears is man of much wealth, culture, character and
respectability and a credit to his race and city, no one would know,
if I said he is an "American," whether he is a Chinese, and Indian or
a white man. But I say Mr. Wears is an American (Negro) or an
"Afro-American," every one knows Mr. Wears is a colored gentleman.
Mr. Wears thinks I am "near-sighted." He is "blind" if he thinks
"American" is the name for colored people. American is not a race for
colored people. American is not a race or ethnological name. All
residents of inhabitants of the United States are Americans by usage
of the term, whether aliens, native born, or naturalized and not
because they live on the American Continent, for if this were so, the
people of Canada would be called Americans instead of Canadians, and,
further we have Anglo-Americans, Afro-Americans, German-Americans,
Irish-Americans, Scotch-Americans, Chinese-Americans. Mr. Wears knows
he is wrong when he pretends to say that white people of foreign
ancestry either immediately or remotely, are proud to call themselves
American. It is German-American, the fatherland and the adopted land.
I fear Mr. Wears is affected with a "fad" common to many colored
people who get a little money and learning, whose immediate desire is
to get away from the black people. I expected better things of him.
No! We are mulatto, yellow, brown and black, and a taint of Negro
blood is as fatal as the ebony hue. We are Negroes, "Afro Americans"
- all alike. All Mr. Wears' demagogic talk and buncombe about
"rallying around the name American" is too transparent. It is fancy
and fiction. Is Mr. Wears ashamed of his Negro or African lineage? If
not, why object to AFro-American, which simply means his ancestors
were Africans and he lives in he United States? Mr. Wears says he
objects to AFro-American because it may become a permanent "race
title." Well, is it not better than "nigger" and "darky." On another
important point he is wrong and ignorant. He says our race enemies
welcome the word. It is no such thing. They oppose its use. They say
it will be a recognition of us as "part and parcel" of the American
people. Fourteen years ago the "Cincinnati Enquirer" said it is not
time for the term "AFro-American," and at the same time the "Chicago
Tribune" said, we agree with Mr. Waring that AFro-American is just as
proper as Irish-American or German-American." We are separate and
distinct from other people in color, hair, civilization, religion,
education, business, and the law of the land makes us separate and
distinct. All Mr. Wears' high flown words and ridicule cannot alter
these facts. Down in Georgia he will be a "nigger" riding in a "jim
crow" car. The law and public sentiment of white people say so. I
prefer to call Mr. Wears an Afro-American rather than "nigger." But I
must close. Mr. Wears has failed to make a single tenable objection
to my word. Usage has adopted the word. The word is significant and
self-defining. It is euphonious and comprehensive. It is respectable
and dignified. It recognizes our African, Negro or black blood. It
recognizes our American citizenship, our American home, our American
birth. It points to our race history on two continents. It does in
fact, if not in theory, meet every ethnological and literary
requirement. It is repudiated by our white "enemies," therefore we
should use it. It is approved by our white "friends," therefore we
should use it. Mr. Wears' frantic lamentations will over extend the
use of the word. It is rooted, grounded and spreading. The opinions
of hundreds of intelligent and patriotic colored people will
out-weight the opinions of any one individual. Therefore, Mr. Wears
can masquerade as an "American," become lost among the white people
of this country, and the colored people derive no benefit by pointing
to him as a wealthy, cultured and able AFro-American, because he
objects to it. Mr. Wears owes nothing to colored people for his
successful career, therefore he owes them nothing.

217 Courtland St., Baltimore, Md.

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