By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the history center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.
The 1907 Independence Day Committee of Montclair thought that it “might be interesting” to invite a southern gentleman to speak at the July 4 celebrations that year. To counterbalance that speaker, a northern orator would also be invited.
As it turned out, the southerner spoke about race relations in the South while the northerner was mostly concerned about how to deal with Japan’s growing industrial and military influence in the Pacific. The festivities on July 4, 1907, were held at the “old” high school, on Orange Road. Sweet’s Coronet Band of Newark provided the music.
The northerner, retired Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, had lived in East Orange for a while and had spoken here several times before 1907. The southerner, former state legislator and former two-time governor of Georgia William Northern, was on a national speaking tour.
Howard had been the commander of the Union XI Corps and had made some questionable decisions during the Battle of Chancellorsville, but probably saved the Union Army during his staunch defense of Cemetery Hill at the Battle of Gettysburg.
He then commanded the Union Army of Tennessee during Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” He lost an arm at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862 and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He served on the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War, where he attempted to find jobs for freed slaves, tried to obtain voting rights for them, and tried to protect them from white backlash.
He was often frustrated by President Andrew Johnson’s weak enforcement of Reconstruction. When the Radical Republicans, who were in favor of complete Reconstruction, gained control during the Grant administration, Howard was put in charge of education for freed slaves. He was one of the founders of Howard University and served as its president from 1869 to 1874.
Howard was a deeply religious man. He was made superintendent of West Point and put in
command, first, of the Pacific Division (in charge of all military operations originating in Pacific Coast states), then of the Atlantic Division, covering all military operations originating on the East Coast, finally retiring from military service in 1894.
Ex-governor Northern, the Southern speaker, had been in the Confederate Army as a private in his father’s regiment, the 2nd Battalion, Georgia State Troops. He did not stay in the Confederate Army long. However, he often assisted at Confederate hospitals.
Northern was also a religious man who headed the Georgia Baptist Convention. The Montclair Times called him a “progressive” in 1907. His ideas on race would be looked down on today. He urged cooperation of the races and was against lynching, but in no way considered African Americans equal to white Americans.
His views could be summed up as “separate, not equal, but equal under the law.” He thought that African Americans should be given an education equal to the education whites received, but in separate schools. Atlanta had suffered race riots just one year earlier, in 1906; it was probably the reason why Northern made race relations the topic of his speech.
Although it was barely mentioned in the Georgia press and other southern newspapers,
there had been serious attacks on African Americans in Atlanta in September 1906 and some attempt at self-defense by the victims. The official record of casualties was 25 African Americans dead and two whites. Unofficial tallies put the African American death toll closer to 100.
After Northern finished his speech in Montclair, the crowd was urged to cheer “Hip-hip-hooray” by Howard. The men in the audience cheered; it was considered unseemly for the women to holler, so they waved their handkerchiefs.
Architect George W. DaCunha, representing the Civic Association, which had arranged for the speakers, made some patriotic comments and thanked the speakers for their thoughts. A final prayer was uttered in Turkish by Dr. Robert Christie, president of the American College in Tarsus, Turkey. Christie had served on Howard’s staff when he commanded the Army of Tennessee. According to The Montclair Times, Everyone went home satisfied that they had been part of some wonderful Fourth of July celebrations.