Irvine Penn: An intriguing chapter in black history

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Deirdre Parker Smith
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Irvine Garland Penn.
Most people haven’t. They know his contemporaries, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington. But Penn was the behind-the-scenes journalist, educator and churchman who, for example, welcomed Douglass as a houseguest.
Joanne Harrison and her husband, Dr. Grant Harrison, pastor of Soldier’s Memorial AME Zion Church, self-published a book about Penn in 2000, “The Life and Times of Irvine Garland Penn.” Although it has earned a place in school and church libraries, many who are interested in African-American history haven’t discovered Penn.
Some quick facts about him:
– He began teaching at 16, later earning a master’s degree.
– He was editor of The Laborer, the first black newspaper in Lynchburg, Va.
– In 1890, he edited the first comprehensive history of the black press, “The Afro-American Press and its Editors.”
– He was a member of the Grand Fountain United Order of the True Reformers, the first national movement formed to “uplift the Negro race through social and economic improvement.”
– In 1895, he founded the National Association of Colored Physicians, Dentists and Pharmacists.
– He founded the Negro Young People’s Christian and Educational Congress in 1902.
The accomplishment that started the Harrisons’ research is Penn’s book, “The College of Life or Practical Self-Educator,” which he wrote with two other authors, “to advise, encourage and educate the thousands of young people of the race and to inspire them with a desire to better their condition in life by self-improvement.”
Joanne Harrison’s grandmother had a copy of the book, which so inspired the music student at Howard University, she asked her adviser if she could write about Penn instead of music.
“We have come to love him as if he’s part of the family,” Joanne Harrison said. In a way, he is. She and Grant started dating while researching Penn’s life.
Joanne Harrison found little in the library about Penn. His book was not even in the Library of Congress. She discovered a short item in “Who’s Who,” then set off on a bus to Lynchburg, Va., where Penn lived for many years.
“I asked at the bus station, ‘Anybody here know the family of Irvine Garland Penn?’ ” she says with a laugh. Someone did, and told her about Penn’s nephew, who lived across the street from the old family home.
But the nephew, an older man with a shock of white hair, would not let her in, nor take his picture, nor record his voice. He gave her Penn’s daughter’s name and phone number and pointed to a padlocked building across the street. That had been the family’s kitchen, although the home was gone. When Joanne Harrison walked over to it, she turned to discover several people staring at her, not speaking. She went back to the bus station.
Penn’s daughter in Cincinnati turned out to be the supreme hostess, feeding Joanne a huge breakfast and tucking her in on a couch for a nap before bringing out documents and photos that had never been published.
No one had asked her about her father before. “She felt her father was neglected,” Joanne says. “But Penn was the type who pushed other people to be up front.”
Grant Harrison says Penn’s primary role was as an activist “and he did it through education, journalism, uplifting of his people, particularly the young people … and also being a general officer of the Methodist Episcopal Church.”
Both Joanne and Grant Harrison say it was the people Penn knew that made him such a mover and shaker.
Grant Harrison credits his wife with most of the research for their book. And he says they ended up in North Carolina at Soldier’s Memorial without fully knowing all of Penn’s connections here.
Joanne is the church’s organist and teaches music at Livingstone College, which is connected to the Rev. J.E.K. Aggrey. His granddaughter, Raemi Evans, attends the church. Aggrey donated a window at Soldiers. Aggrey and Penn had likely met, and Penn wrote of his speeches and accomplishments.
The Harrisons say Penn was also instrumental in trying to bring the Methodist church back together after a split between Northern and Southern factions after the Civil War.
So why isn’t Penn one of those names you immediately recognize? “It was a time when a lot of our people were very busy and active in the church,” Grant Harrison says. “They were known inside that circle. Only some became known on the world stage.”
Many of the early African-American newspapers Penn wrote about grew out of the churches.
The Harrisons didn’t find much interest in the book from mainstream publishers, so they published it themselves and put it in the churches and schools Penn was associated with, and some libraries.
Joanne Harrison says she would love to update the work as more information becomes available, but not much has surfaced. They were able to work with original documents and speak to some members of his family รณ it may be little else has survived.
Joanne says they have tried to get the story on Oprah Winfrey’s show, to unite the scattered family, but had no luck. The same with Tavis Smiley.
For now, the Harrisons are the “experts” on Penn.
The book is available at or by contacting the Harrisons at Soldiers Memorial AME Zion.