IT is common during Black History Month to make lists of "firsts" for African-Americans. Certainly, Baltimorean Daniel Coker, a 19th-century educator and religious leader, would be on any such list.
Coker was one of the first African-Americans to become an ordained Methodist minister, publish a pamphlet ("A Dialogue Between a Virginian and an African Minister," in 1810), start a school and lead the independent black church movement.
Coker, born Isaac Wright in 1780, was the son of an African-American slave father and an English indentured servant mother. After learning to read through his friendship with his master's son (who was also Coker's half-brother), Coker escaped and found freedom in New York, where he was educated and later ordained a minister by Bishop Francis Asbury, the minister most responsible for the spread of Methodism in colonial America.
At some point, he adopted the alias Daniel Coker, apparently to avoid re-enslavement. Upon returning to Baltimore, he quietly worked to raise enough money to buy his freedom from his former master. With that accomplished, he assumed a very public role of building institutions, including churches, schools, benevolent societies and fraternal groups that served the enslaved and free.
A break for freedom
In 1807, Coker opened Bethel Charity School for Negroes, a school sponsored by the Colored Methodist Society of Baltimore. By 1816, the school was operating out of Bethel Church, where he became pastor.
Bethel, which along with Sharp Street Church were the first black Methodist churches established in Baltimore (between 1786 and 1787), both originally were affiliated with the white-controlled Methodist Episcopal Church.
Coker established the school in defiance of Maryland laws forbidding the education of black people. In Baltimore, where a large number of free blacks lived, such laws were not strenuously enforced to prevent open rebellion.
With an enrollment of more than 150 students a year, Coker sought to instill in his students the need to create viable black institutions, to become community builders. His teachings paid off: One of Coker's students, William Watkins, started a school bearing his name, the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, in the 1830s. After the Civil War, students from Watkins' schools helped start Douglass Institute, the forerunner of the public Douglass High School.
Coker is best known for his leadership in the independent black church movement, which formed when racial discrimination resulted in black congregations breaking away from white churches to form their own.
In 1816, Coker was elected the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but he declined the office and Philadelphia's Richard Allen became bishop.
In Baltimore, Coker became an outspoken critic of slavery, writing many pamphlets.
In the early 1820s, he joined the controversial American Colonization Society, and helped the group's members establish the West African nation of Liberia, where Coker immediately built an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Leaders of Coker's A.M.E. denomination and many others opposed the group's push for the emigration of U.S. blacks to escape racism.
Coker encouraged his Baltimore friends to resettle in Liberia and "bring about two hogsheads of good leaf tobacco, cheap calico, and cheap handkerchiefs, pins, knives, corks, pocket knives, etc." With these, he informed them, "you may buy land, hire hands, and buy provisions. I say, come; the land is good."
Coker also wrote: "I expect to give my life to bleeding, groaning, dark, benighted Africa.
He died in Freetown, Liberia, in 1846 after helping to put in place his three pillars of black community development: a school, a church and a strong economic base.
Elmer P. Martin Ph.D. is a social work professor at Morgan State University and co-founder, with his wife, Joanne M. Martin Ph.D., of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.
Pub Date: 2/19/98