Daniel Laing, Jr.
By Sadie Van Vranken
Daniel Laing Jr., printer of Thomas H. Jones’s The Experience of Thomas Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years in 1850, was a free black printer living in Boston. Mentioned in the historical record as one of the first black students at Harvard Medical School, Laing’s printing career prior to his entrance into Harvard Medical School has fallen from view.
Much of Laing’s early life remains unknown. His father was Daniel Laing, sometimes spelled Lang, listed as a laborer in the Charlestown, Massachusetts, directory. Daniel Laing Sr. was married at least twice, first to Roby Tye in 1822, likely Daniel Laing Jr.’s mother, and to Harriet Ayers in 1831. Daniel Laing Jr. was born around 1823.
Laing was presumably apprenticed to a printer in Boston, although which printer taught him is unknown. As a young man, Laing presided over the Young Men’s Literary Society in Boston. That Society was described in the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator in May 2, 1845 as a group of young black men who aimed to “improve their minds, strengthen their intellectual faculties, and cultivate a refined literary taste.” Laing married Margarett H. Scarlett in 1845, and their marriage was announced in the Liberator.
Daniel Laing’s brief career as a printer seems to have lasted approximately from 1848, when he is first listed as a printer in the Charlestown directory, until his entrance into Harvard Medical School in November 1850. Laing’s printing office, listed as 1 1/2 Water Street in Boston, was previously occupied by George Coolidge, who last printed at the address in 1848, further corroborating Laing’s entrance into printing in 1848. The American Antiquarian Society holds one other item printed by Laing during this period: a broadside song based on the escape of Henry Box Brown (AAS catalog record). Laing also printed a collection of the works of three prominent African American writers edited by William G. Allen in 1849.
According to Phillip Cash, Laing and his fellow printer Isaac Snowden sought out the American Colonization Society for aid in traveling to Liberia. After being told that Liberia had too many printers and not enough doctors, Laing and Snowden agreed to study medicine with the American Colonization Society. Laing, Snowden, and Martin Delaney entered Harvard in the winter of 1850, but were disallowed from attending after student and faculty protest. Laing finished his medical training in Paris and at Dartmouth. Laing married again in 1858 to Anna Bicknell Parker, and he and his wife sailed for Liberia. He returned to the United States in the mid-1860s after contracting fever and died in South Carolina in 1869.
Researching Laing, whose connection to the Harvard Medical School ensures him an entry in Wikipedia and at least some documentation of his life, highlights the obscurity of other printers on this list. Laing enters the historical narrative when he enters medical school, leaving his early life as a free black man living in Boston untold. Might there be other black printers on this list whose obscurity in the historical record leaves their lives unrecognized? Further research into early black participation in the printing and publishing trades is certainly warranted.
Nercessian, Nora N. Against All Odds: The Legacy of Students of African Descent at Harvard Medical School before Affirmative Action 1850-1968. Cambridge: Harvard Medical School, 2004.
Sollors, Werner, et al., eds. Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History of African-American Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe. New York: NYU Press, 1993.