James Monroe Whitfield [was] born in New Hampshire in 1822 to free black [people], probably attended a local school in New Hampshire, and eventually married and had two sons and a daughter. By the late 1840s Whitfield was working in Buffalo as a barber. In 1850 Frederick Douglass urged Whitfield to relinquish what he regarded as his lowly, menial job, but the facts would indicate that Whitfield, like a number of free black [people] of the period, had few other opportunities for employment and needed the money to support his writing; he remained a barber for the rest of his life, working in Buffalo during the 1850s and in several Oregon and northern Californian cities and towns during the 1860s.
Though little is known about Whitfield’s private life, he became fairly prominent in his public life as a poet and social critic when his poems began to appear during the 1840s and 1850s in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’s The North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper. His poetic efforts culminated in 1853 with the publication of America and Other Poems, which was published by the James S. Leavitt Company in Buffalo, New York. Whitfield dedicated the volume to his friend, the nationalist Martin Delany (1812-1885).
Martin Delany had an enormous influence on Whitfield’s thinking about the situation of African Americans in the United States. In 1852 Delany published The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, which argued that, in light of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, black [people] should consider emigrating to Central and South America.
Frederick Douglass attacked Condition, and in 1853 held a national black convention in Rochester, New York, which called upon African Americans to resist the call of emigration and to fight for their rights in the United States. Whitfield attended that convention, but ultimately became disillusioned with what he regarded as Douglass’s accomodationism, and wrote a series of letters to Douglass, which were published in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, urging blacks to embrace Delany’s emigrationist mandate and to attend Delany’s national black emigration convention in Cleveland in July 1854.
During the mid to late 1850s Whitfield worked with Delany to forward the cause of black emigration, and there is evidence to suggest that during 1859-1861 Whitfield traveled to Central America to seek out possible places for a black colony. In his novel, Blake, serialized in the Weekly Anglo-African in 1859 and 1861-62, Delany pays homage to Whitfield by having his revolutionaries chant Whitfield’s poetry.
Like Delany, Whitfield abandoned emigrationism during the Civil War, embracing the War as a war against slavery. But he continued to fight for black civil rights, publishing letters and poems in San Francisco newspapers on his hopes for emancipation and citizenship. As part of his commitment to black uplift, he joined the Prince Hall Masons, and by 1864 was named a Grand Master of the California order.
Whitfield’s last published poem, an untitled poem on liberty which appeared in the 22 April 1870 San Francisco Elevator, praised America as the “One favored land.” Though America can seem much more caustic in its assessments of the U.S., it can be argued that Whitfield’s criticisms of his native land emerged from his sense of the nation’s possibilities. It’s not surprising that he would find both the hopeful Douglass and the more pessimistic Delany to be attractive leaders during the 1850s. Whitfield died in San Francisco in 1871, at the age of 49, and was buried in the city’s Masonic cemetery.