By Patricia Patula, Town Archivist
When one looks through old books, perhaps having a slight tinge of mustiness, there is always the anticipation of a “find.” In May of 2018, the Town’s archival researchers were not disappointed.
The “find” – a heavy, thick tome with the gold, ragged page edges of publications in 1905 – bears a title in gold type: John Fletcher Hurst: A Biography, by Albert Osborn. It was clear why this book was in the Church’s storage area, that Church being the Washington Grove United Methodist Church on Chestnut Road here in the Grove. Albert Osborn (1849-1944), a resident of Washington Grove residing first at 315 Brown Street and later at 109 Maple Avenue during the Camp Meeting Era (1873-1937), founded this church in 1910 and served as pastor there for twelve years. The book was signed by Osborn himself and given to “To Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Becraft with the warm regards of Albert Osborn, Washington Grove, MD May 10, 1923.”
A yellowed newspaper article written in 1940, a camera-study style portrait of Osborn, austere looking with white hair and beard and engrossed in reading a large book, was tucked inside this biography. The heading of the newspaper clipping is “Work is Still Man’s Salvation, says Dr. Osborn at 90” and a sub-title reads “American U. Historian Recalls Some Personal History on His Birthday; His Advice to Youth: Be Thorough.”
Questions arose immediately. Who was John Fletcher Hurst, and why did Osborn write this detailed biography now “selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.” Thus, the detective work began – and it led to a startling contemporary link.
Who was John Fletcher Hurst?
Clicking the internet to track down historic information is always a fun beginning. Much information is available on John Fletcher Hurst, (1834-1903) a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, a prolific writer, and founder of American University (AU) in Washington D.C. Not much was easily found on the Grove’s Osborn other than he wrote the biography of Hurst! The internet provided a connection with AU which was celebrating Founder’s Day in early spring of this year (2018), and some startling statements appeared. In his article dated February 28, 2018, as Black History month ended, Nickolaus Mack, a student at AU and head of the opinion section of the University’s student newspaper, The Eagle, wrote: “Founder’s Day is a celebration of a slave owner and the razing of Black communities . . . The University’s founding is characterized by slavery, African-American displacement and racism.”
Mack goes into detail on Hurst’s father and uncle’s slave ownership upon which their wealth was built, and then provides background of Tenleytown Heritage Trail in Washington, D.C. relating to the razing of the Black communities. He also suggested that “the University should reconsider holding this year’s Founder’s Day Ball at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture . . . and publicly acknowledge its connection with slavery in the United States.”
This article, at least the portions about Hurst, shows that Mack drew heavily from Osborn’s biography of Hurst. This quote from the biography, page 382, surely serves as a trigger for these opinions.
Hurst, during a sermon in 1895 said: “I had educated myself for the work of the ministry, because I fully realized my call to that work, but in the settlement of my father’s estate two colored men fell to me as slaves. While they were in my possession as such I was greatly hampered in my ministerial work, and did not get relief until I had provided for their freedom . . .
After Mack raised questions through research on how the institution of slavery impacted American University’s founding, AU established the AU Working Group on the influence of slavery. “The occasion of the University’s 125th anniversary is an appropriate time to ensure that our history is accurate and comprehensive,” said Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence. . . This group will present their findings and recommendations to the community no later than September of 2018. Mack continues to write in The Eagle, the student newspaper, about the racial history of AU over the years. (To view Nickolaus Mack’s impressive full profile, go to https://www.linkedin.com/in/nickoluas-mack-8b9a291a.)
Why did Osborn write this biography?
What motivated Osborn to write this incredibly detailed biography that is now stimulating a lot of activity at AU a century later?
It took reading “A Word with the Reader,” Osborn’s personal introduction to the biography, to understand. While it is simple enough to garner the facts of what happened between Hurst and Osborn to bring about Osborn’s obligation to write this biography, it may be challenging for a modern mind to read this slowly enough to savor Osborn’s poetic language, and to comprehend the intensity of appreciation and reverence that Osborn, and others, had for Hurst.
The biography is actually a good read for the contemporary fast-paced person and is now available as a free e-book online. Through its quotes from Hurst’s journal, and the many quotes of others who knew and admired Hurst, the reader will arrive at a new comprehension and admiration of someone intensely devoted to his work. Osborn was of a similar nature, and being an accomplished writer himself, was able to capture well these aspects of Hurst.
It is fitting this now famous “find,” an original copy of the Hurst biography, signed by Osborn himself, will be placed in Washington Grove’s library of rare books devoted to “Grovers.” Residents can arrange to see or read this book in the Town’s Archives by appointment.