by Crystal Lynn Webster, University of Texas at San Antonio, African American Studies Fellow at the MHS
“Beautiful morning-as usual, went to see my patients. I am feeling quite depressed in spirits today; what can be the matter with me? I hope it is not love for her who has treated me so badly. Indeed I trust that is fast dissolving. I must endeavor to arouse myself and look on the bright side of everything.”
Edwin Clarence Howard who composed these sentences, was the nineteen-year-old son of a prominent 19th-century African American family. Throughout his personal diary, he reflected on his daily rituals, medical studies, and on love during his time spent Liberia in 1865. In this way, the diary, which is part of the DeGrasse-Howard papers, provides a rare portrait of a Black, highly educated, young man’s life from his own words. Indeed, Howard continually offers the reader sincere glimpses into the interiority of the self. But this insight is veiled in secrecy. Howard composed much of his diary in a code.
At cursory glance, many of the words filling the pages of the diary appear to be written in a jumbled gibberish. This is perhaps why the diary of such an important individual and historical experience has passed from hand to hand and without published record. However, Howard’s code is a rather simple composition; a mere shift to the right of each letter in the alphabet reveals his clandestine message. For example, a commonly written word throughout the diary, “gdq” translates to “her.” It was indeed this word that allowed me to crack the code. Nevertheless, Howard would have expended a rather concerted effort to continuously write in such a code, especially taking care to transition in and out of it in specific moments. These shifts also indicate his own conscientiousness concerning the subject of the code, specifically his love life.
Early in his diary he describes an evening with “her” spent together, in code, “locked in each other’s arms.” Howard utilizes both the alphabetic shift and French to record a conversation in which she confessed, “I am yours.” Throughout the diary, the code is brought out for moments like this spent with her. Howard did not obscure other certain sensitive subjects, like the birth of a child whose paternity was questioned, and he includes the expected father’s initials. The code is most consistently deployed when describing walks, secret meetings, and stolen kisses with “her.” These reflections make up approximately half of the diary. The remaining passages include interesting observations of patients, diagnoses, and experiments while he studied medicine in Liberia.
Howard does not reveal why he chose to conceal these interactions. The reader may never know. Historical context can provide some possibilities. At the time, such behavior between two people who were not married may have violated social rules of engagement. He was also a young African American who was meant to be studying medicine, perhaps not fraternizing with an unmarried (or perhaps married?) woman. Even more so, he was in Liberia, and the racial identity of the woman is not revealed and had she been white, it would indeed provide a very serious incentive for anonymity.
Although the code is rather straightforward, the process of decoding the diary is arduous. The reader must decode both his handwriting and alphabetic shift, a method that is compounded by the fact that he sometimes erred in his own coding. Even still, without the code the diary provides an important personal reflection on African American history, colonization, and medical studies. Perhaps one day an electronic resource or software will make the decoding process of the entire diary simple and complete. Until then, much of Edwin Clarence Howard’s secrets remain secret, except to those with patience and intrigue enough to dive into the joy, heartbreak, and historical significance of an important figure’s life and love.