“Vast Good for Righteousness”: Animal Welfare, Human Rights, and the Work of Frederick Rivers Barnwell in Texas, 1914–45

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton)
Janet M. Davis, University of Texas at Austin
This paper analyzes the inseparable human rights and animal welfare activities of Frederick Rivers Barnwell, a black Baptist minister, humane education leader, and Director of Negro Health Service at the Texas Tuberculosis Association during the New Deal. In a racist society, Barnwell subtly critiqued white supremacy with an inclusive “gospel” of kindness for people and animals. Like other southern black animal advocates, Barnwell targeted the church and the school—two important sites of racial uplift and self help in post-Emancipation black society. Starting in 1914, the Fort Worth-based Barnwell traveled across Texas and the Lower South by automobile as a field officer for the American Humane Education Society. He staged lanternslide exhibitions on animal stewardship, established “Bands of Mercy” for thousands of black children, organized youthful birdhouse building competitions, and he preached “Humane Sunday” sermons to thousands of people every year. Occasionally, Barnwell spoke to racially integrated audiences, including a session with black and white soldiers at Camp MacArthur in Waco in July 1918 regarding humane warhorse care. Barnwell extended his condemnation of animal cruelty to other forms of oppression, but his emphasis on animals potentially deflected his denunciation of racism, thus giving him a measure of freedom to travel and speak about inequality across the color line. Consequently, diverse audiences read Barnwell’s activism differently—as an animal protectionist, or as a champion of social justice. Hailed by African American civic leaders for “accomplishing vast good for righteousness,” Barnwell was also praised by white politicians, such as Governor James E. Ferguson of Texas, who commended him in a proclamation supporting Be Kind to Animals Week in 1917. Ultimately, Barnwell’s animal advocacy illuminates how black leaders navigated and critiqued the treacherous terrain of racial segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence in their everyday lives in the Jim Crow South.
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