Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass debate in Oberlin

June 19th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

Did you know that Oberlin was the scene of a series of heated public debates featuring renowned abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass and their colleagues in the 1840s?  Well, it was, and if you didn’t know that, you’re not alone!  Even though the debates were attended by up to 3,000 people, the leaders in Oberlin at that time really weren’t all that keen about publicizing them.  But I am, so here’s my blog about them.

William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass

First some background.  By the time William Lloyd Garrison came on the abolition scene in New England in the early 1830s, the abolitionist movement had already been thriving for decades in many states, including Ohio.  But Garrison quickly realized the need to nationalize the movement, and together with the Tappan brothers of New York  (Arthur and Lewis, benefactors of Oberlin College), he co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS).   This was an era of good feeling between abolitionists (Lewis Tappan praised Garrison as a “discreet, humble and faithful Christian”), and the national movement took off like wildfire, quickly engulfing Ohio and the newly formed colony of Oberlin.  In its first seven years of operation, the AAS boasted almost 2,000 charter societies and 200,000 members nationwide.

Yet in spite of all its initial success, cracks were developing in the organization right from the very beginning.  Garrison was the editor of an anti-slavery newspaper in Boston called The Liberator.  Although its circulation was small, Garrison wrote with a style that journalist Horace Greeley described as “bold, radical, earnest, eloquent, extravagant, denunciatory, egotistic.”[1]  This style got him national attention, but was always an irritant to some of his fellow abolitionists.  But Garrison quickly became more and more radical and the list of people, groups and institutions he denounced grew ever longer.  He denounced organized religion for maintaining relationships with slaveholders.  He denounced the U.S. Constitution as a pro-slavery document, and encouraged abolitionists to withdraw from government altogether by refusing to vote or serve in public office.  He would eventually even advocate dismemberment of the United States, under the slogan “No Union with Slaveholders.” But he also became an ardent pacifist, advocating “non-resistance” in all circumstances.  And he brought abolitionist women into the cause, insisting that they be able to speak publicly in front of audiences comprised of both genders, which was considered taboo in that era.  He insisted on equal rights for women as well as African Americans.

Finally, by 1840, the Tappan brothers and many other abolitionists (including the Oberlin College faculty) came to believe that Garrison was “using the Society as an instrument” to promote ideas that he deemed “paramount to the Anti S[lavery] cause” with the result that “the slave has been lost sight of mainly.”[2]  So they withdrew from the AAS and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and a political party of their own called the Liberty Party, which focused exclusively on abolishing slavery through the church and government, within the constitutional framework of the United States.

But Garrison was undeterred, and by the mid-1840s he launched a program to urge Ohio abolitionists to “come out” of the church, the government, and the federal union – a movement dubbed “come-outerism”.  In the first wave of his effort, he sent Stephen Foster and Abby Kelley to Ohio as his ambassadors.  Stephen Foster was a radical New England abolitionist who had been physically ejected from 24 New England churches and arrested 4 times for disrupting sermons with loud oratories of his own, frequently referring to the clergy as a “brotherhood of thieves”.[3]  Abby Kelley was a New England Quaker feminist and abolitionist who “came out” of the Quakers in 1841 over a dispute about allowing abolitionist speakers in meeting houses.  In 1845 she married Stephen Foster and became Mrs. Abby Kelley Foster.  Together they founded a western Garrisonian headquarters and newspaper, the Anti-Slavery Bugle, at Salem, Ohio.

The Fosters

During the first half of 1846, the Fosters tried unsuccessfully to bring their message to Oberlin, but were blocked by the college faculty, who considered them “infidels” for their anti-church stance, and  “unsafe advocates of the slave.”  But finally, after insistence of  the Oberlin black community and some Oberlin College students (most notably Lucy Stone, Betsey Cowles and Sallie Holley), Oberlin College President Asa Mahan agreed to let them speak, as long as he was given equal time to rebut their arguments.[4]  The result was a five-day series of debates, two to three hours each, held at the chapel of Colonial Hall in September, 1846.  There were two main topics of discussion: is the Constitution a pro-slavery document, and “can Christian abolitionists consistently remain in a church sustaining the same relation to slavery that the church in Oberlin does?”[5]

Regarding the church question, the Oberlin church had long since resolved to sever all direct relationships with slaveholders and other supporters of slavery.  The Garrisonians approved of this, but they objected to the church’s position that they would not withhold fellowship from other anti-slavery ministers or churches who themselves maintained relationships with churches that didn’t denounce slavery.   Although we don’t have a record as to exactly what the debaters said on this topic, Lucy Stone, who was a correspondent to the pro-Garrison Anti-Slavery Bugle, probably spoke for the Fosters when she wrote that the Oberlin church “continues to give to, and receive letters from churches which are not only in full fellowship with, but made up in part of slaveholders”, thus forming “a link in the chain” of bondage.  And Asa Mahan likely took the position of the church itself, that maintaining these relationships could be “the best means of exerting an anti-slavery influence.”[6]

The bulk of the debate however (totaling about 12 hours of discussion), focused on the relationship of slavery to the U.S. Constitution.  Although the Constitution never mentions slavery or any derivative of the word “slave” by name, it did include three clauses that were widely recognized to relate to slavery.  For example, one of these reads:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall… be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due. (Article IV, Section 2)

It was widely accepted that the term “person held to service or labour” referred to both slaves and indentured servants, and this clause was the justification for the Fugitive Slave Law.  Therefore, the Fosters argued, the Constitution supported and encouraged slavery.  But Asa Mahan, borrowing an argument from philosopher Lysander Spooner, quoted an 1805 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (on an entirely different subject matter)[7]:

Where rights are infringed, where fundamental principles are overthrown, where the general system of the law[s] is departed from, the legislative intention must be expressed with irresistible clearness, to induce a court of justice to suppose a design to effect such objects. (United States v. Fisher – 6 US 358)

Mahan argued that the vague references to slavery in the Constitution didn’t constitute the “irresistible clearness” that would be required for “infringing rights and trampling down justice.”  He argued further that even when the American colonies were under British rule, no slavery laws had ever been passed with sufficiently  “irresistible clearness”.  Thus slavery was, and always had been, an “illegal usurpation” in the United States and the American colonies.[8]

As the debates continued, both sides began to engage in personal attacks, each accusing the other of not being “sincere” in their anti-slavery advocacy.  Mrs. Foster also spoke out, prompting one audience member to remark afterwards that she should be “tarred and feathered”.  Mahan concluded his arguments by comparing come-outerism to a “hideous monster… armed with hellish daggers” that could only “tear down and never build up.”  Stephen Foster responded by quoting a verse from the New Testament that said, “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” (Revelation 18:4)[9]

Asa Mahan
Asa Mahan (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

As for the outcome of the 1846 debates, the Oberlin Evangelist reported: “We are not aware that disunion and come-out-ism have made one new convert… the Fosters were deemed weak in argument – strong only in vituperation.” The Anti-Slavery Bugle reported from Oberlin that “the great mass of the people here, especially the students, believe that President Mahan achieved a complete victory”, but attributed this in large part to the faculty prejudicing the community in the weeks leading up to the debates.  The Fosters declared that Mahan “was very gentlemanly in deportment, but exhibited a recklessness of principle.”  Oberlin Professor James Fairchild said “the atmosphere waxed hot and lurid with the fire and smoke of the conflict.”  A group of black Oberlin residents passed resolutions claiming that both Mahan and the Fosters were “true and honest friends of the oppressed”, and that Garrison “has wreathed for himself a crown of unfading laurels.”[10]

But the Fosters clearly failed to break the ice in Oberlin, so Garrison now decided to send in the ‘first string’.  He would visit Ohio and Oberlin himself the next year, with his protégé Frederick Douglass, a compelling abolitionist speaker who had escaped from slavery and joined the Garrison movement in New England.  Garrison and Douglass received a much friendlier reception in Oberlin than the Fosters had, and were even allowed to present their arguments at First Church (the Meeting House) during commencement weekend in August, 1847.  Asa Mahan, who had a historically stormy relationship with Garrison, insisted once again on the right of rebuttal, setting up another series of debates.  This time Garrison would handle the Constitutional and disunion arguments, while Douglass handled the anti-church arguments.  Garrison described the debates and his Oberlin visit in a letter to his wife:

You know that from the commencement of the Institution in Oberlin, I took a lively interest in its welfare…  Oberlin has done much for the relief of the flying fugitives from the Southern prison house, multitudes of whom have found it a refuge from their pursuers and been fed, clad, sheltered, comforted, and kindly assisted on their way out of this horrible land to Canada. It has also promoted the cause of emancipation in various ways and its church refuses to be connected with any slaveholding or pro-slavery church by religious fellowship; though it is said to be involved in ecclesiastical and political relations which impair the strength of its testimony and diminish the power of its example. From these, if they exist, it is to be hoped it will be wholly extricated ere long, as light increases and duty is made manifest…

The meeting house is as spacious as the Broadway Tabernacle in New York, but much better arranged. Two of the graduates took occasion in their addresses to denounce the “fanaticism of Come-outerism and Disunionism” and to make a thrust at those who, in the guise of anti-slavery, temperance, etc., are endeavoring to promote “infidelity”…

Yesterday at 10 o’clock we began our meetings in the church – nearly three thousand persons in attendance. Another was held in the afternoon, another in the evening, and this forenoon we have had another long session. Douglass and myself have done nearly all the talking on our side, friend Foster saying but little. The principal topics of discussion have been Come-outerism from the Church and the State. Pres. Mahan entered into the debate in favor of the US Constitution as an anti-slavery instrument and consequently of the Liberty Party. He was perfectly respectful and submitted to our interrogations with good temper and courtesy. As a disputant he is adroit and plausible, but neither vigorous nor profound. I shall say nothing about my visit here for the public eye until my return. What impression we made at Oberlin I cannot say, but I was abundantly satisfied as to the apparent effect. I think our visit was an important one and very timely withal.[11]

Unfortunately, that’s about all the information we have about the 1847 debates.  The Oberlin Evangelist, which had summarized  its long article about the 1846 debates by saying “the discussion is now over”, apparently meant it; they said not one word about the 1847 visit or debates.  Garrison never wrote anything “for the public eye” after his return either, as he became deathly ill while in Cleveland, was incapacitated for weeks, and didn’t resume editing his newspaper until the following year.  The Anti-Slavery Bugle may have summed it up best when it said, “The people, in short, had become so accustomed to hearing Disunion and Come-outer doctrines uttered with all the harshness and sternness of Luther’s reformatory spirit, that when Garrison and Douglass came, they appeared, by comparison, the Melanchthons of the cause.”[12]  We do know that a member of the audience wrote that “Prest. Mahan was masterly and dignified, overturning and scattering to the winds every position of his opponent.”  And Mahan was highly impressed with Douglass, who he called “one of the greatest phenomena of the age… full of wit, human[ity], and pathos and sometimes mighty in invective.”[13]  Garrison and Douglass left town on good terms, with Professor Finney even loaning them his enormous revival tent to use in meetings around Ohio.

But interestingly enough, within two months of these debates, Frederick Douglass would begin to distance himself from the Garrisonians.  He started his own newspaper, against Garrison’s advice, in upstate New York, the “heartland” of the Liberty Party.   By 1851, Douglass would complete the schism with Garrison, declaring the Constitution to be an anti-slavery document and becoming an advocate of political activism.  He would now advance some of the very same reasoning that Asa Mahan used when speaking about the Constitution, and would denounce the idea of disunion as placing “the slave system more exclusively under the control of the slaveholding States.”[14]

So was the Constitution really pro-slavery, or was it anti-slavery?  Well, perhaps it was both.  In 1854, a new political party was founded on the premise that the Constitution protected slavery in the states where it already existed, but it provided no guarantees to expand it into the national territories, and that the Founding Fathers in fact opposed the expansion of slavery and hoped for its “ultimate extinction”.  That party was the Republican Party.  Ironically, the Republicans rose to power in the elections of 1860 with the help of votes and political action from many abolitionists.  (Garrison himself refused to vote, although he also refused to denounce the Republicans, which led to a schism between him and the Fosters).  Even more ironically, the victory of the Republican Party led to the attempted dismemberment of the Union by the slaveholders.  And in the crowning irony, the slaveholders’ attempt at disunion ultimately led to the abolition of slavery nationwide, although in a manner few intended, expected, or desired.

Sources consulted:

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College

Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery

Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison 1805-1879, Vol 3, 1841-1860

“The Disunionist Discussion”, Oberlin Evangelist, September 30, 1846, p. 158

“Mr. and Mrs. Foster at Oberlin”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, October 9, 1846

“Church action on the subject of slavery”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, October 9, 1846

Lindsay Swift, William Lloyd Garrison

Lysander Spooner, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery

Wendell Phillips, Review of Lysander Spooner’s Essay On the Unconstitutionality of Slavery

“The Cause in Ohio”, The Liberator, October 23, 1846, p. 171

“Garrison and Douglass”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, September 17, 1847

Frederick Douglass, “The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?”

James H. Fairchild, Oberlin: the colony and the college, 1833-1883

Edward H. Madden and James E. Hamilton, Freedom and Grace: The Life of Asa Mahan

John L. Thomas, The Liberator William Lloyd Garrison

Encylopaedia Britannica, “American Anti-Slavery Society”

Stephen Symonds Foster“, Portraits of American Abolitionists, Photo. Coll. 81, Massachusetts Historical Society Photo Archives.

Footnotes:

[1] Mayer, p. 427
[2] Thomas, p. 292
[3] Mayer,  p. 304; Madden, p. 86
[4] Fletcher, Chapter XIX
[5] “The Disunionist Discussion”
[6] “Church action on the subject of slavery”; Madden, p.86
[7] “The Disunionist Discussion”; Spooner; Phillips
[8] “The Disunionist Discussion”
[9] “Mr. and Mrs. Foster at Oberlin”
[10] “The Disunionist Discussion”; “Mr. and Mrs. Foster at Oberlin”; “The Cause in Ohio”; Fairchild, p.86
[11] Garrison, pp. 202-203
[12] “Garrison and Douglass”
[13] Fletcher, Chapter XIX
[14] Douglass, “Constitution”

Living Through History

June 11th, 2013

My name is Michelle Myers, and I am a summer intern at the Oberlin Heritage Center through the Leadership Lorain County Internship Program. This is my second summer here. I was born and raised in Elyria, and I am currently working on my bachelor’s degree in psychology at Swarthmore College. This is why I have come to the Heritage Center for my second summer: because I love learning about and talking to people.

History, as I have come to learn it, is not facts. History is stories. History is the light in someone’s eyes when they recall an event that made headlines. History is a grandfather telling his grandchildren about the war at a family event. The past is what connects us all together. It is all of our stories interwoven in a conversation where people recall the good old days, the not so good days, and feel less alone. History is not the history of individuals, but of a common humanity who has been through and seen it all. History is what makes us live forever.

This is why I love giving tours of the three buildings at the Oberlin Heritage Center. I love when a visitor recognizes an item in one of the historical houses and says, “My grandmother has one of those in her house.” Someone else says, “I used to use one of those when I was a kid.” Then a conversation starts. People talk to each other. A human connection is made. Meaning is made out of washboards and rug beaters.

When a woman and I talk about the hardships a mother with her child could have faced trying to find freedom from slavery, and the visitor is nodding her head, her eyes deeply concerned, I feel as if something beyond our words is being fulfilled. She understands what it means to work hard, to face destitution. Both women understand. It is all three of us in this conversation. We live through each other’s thoughts and words. This is what history looks like.

But history is also the amazement and hilarity that ensues when first graders realize what a chamber pot is. They get on their hands and knees on the wooden, creaky floors; look under the rope-wrung bed; see the white, shiny bowl; and cry “People would poop in that?!” Maybe they imagine a life, long before televisions and video games, without bathrooms. They have something to go home and tell their parents about. They gave me something to remember. They fill these buildings with laughter and excitement. They keep these buildings and the Oberlin Heritage Center alive. Thank you to all of you, past and present, who keep this place alive.

1940 DeSoto Coupe: History Lesson on Wheels!

May 29th, 2013

By Mary Anne Cunningham, Assistant to the Director

Last month, OHC staff visited with Michael and Dorene McAndrews of Brooksville, Florida, who traveled to Oberlin as part of a journey to research and document the history of their restored 1940 DeSoto, once hailed as “America’s Family Car.” The couple purchased the car two years ago, and since then have lovingly and painstakingly restored it to its former glory. Mike and Dorene not only are proud of their pristine restoration, but they’ve enjoyed all the history lessons they’ve acquired through their automobile. Early in this process, they discovered gas ration coupons and a tire inspection record that were used during WWII by the automobile’s original owner, Clyde A. Rawson (1879-1974), of Oberlin. The McAndrews began doing research via Ancestry.com. Some months later, they discovered a copy of Mr. Rawson’s WWII Draft Registration card that listed Oberlin College as his place of employment. The couple requested the assistance of the Oberlin College Archives, the Oberlin Heritage Center and most recently have spoken with a few current residents of Oberlin who remember Mr. Rawson proudly driving his 1940 DeSoto through the streets of Oberlin.

1940 DeSoto Coupe

1940 DeSoto Coupe
(Photo courtesy of Mike & Dorene McAndrews)

The couple compiled a biographical sketch about Mr. Rawson as well as the beautiful DeSoto that they are preserving as a piece of American History. Clyde was the athletic equipment manager at Warner Gymnasium on the Oberlin College campus for 37 years and loved his DeSoto so much that after purchasing the car new in 1940, he never purchased another vehicle and drove it until his death in 1974. He kept the car in his garage at his home on Lorain Street and proudly showed it to admirers who came by knocking on his door asking to see the car.

Clyde Rawson

Original Owner Clyde Rawson
(Photo courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives)

Mike and Dorene have also explored the history of the DeSoto Automobile which was part of Chrysler Corporation from 1928 – 1961. Thanks to the record keeping of the Chrysler Historical Society, they learned that the car was shipped to McDonough Motors in Cleveland in December 1939. In old newspaper articles the couple found about Mr. Rawson when they first began their research, there was information about Mr. Rawson visiting his Mother at the Cleveland Clinic and he himself being in the Cleveland Clinic Hospital. The pieces had finally all come together.

Mike and Dorene expanded their research to include materials on gasoline and rubber tire rationing, coupon books and promotional materials that rallied citizens around the wartime efforts as well as learning a great deal about America’s home front during World War II. Not only do they now feel a kinship with the car’s original owner, they are thrilled that they’ve been able to drive the local neighborhood streets upon which their vehicle traveled nearly 75 years ago and walk down the same sidewalks where Mr. Rawson went to work at Oberlin College.

You probably have a treasure of your own that can initiate a fun and fascinating new history lesson for you and your family!

Lewis Clarke: Hero in his own right

April 9th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

In my last blog entry, A Tale of Two Abolitionist Towns, I mentioned an Oberlin resident named Lewis Clarke (sometimes spelled Clark), who was born into slavery but eventually escaped, made his way north, and became an outspoken abolitionist. When he died in 1897, the Governor of his native state, Kentucky, ordered that his body lay in state in the Lexington City Auditorium. His remains were then brought to Oberlin and interred at Westwood Cemetery, with a tombstone that reads: “Lewis Clarke – The original George Harris of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Although there has been some controversy about whether Mr. Clarke was indeed the inspiration for this character in Mrs. Stowe’s epic novel, he nonetheless led a fascinating life in his own right. I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell his story, and at the same time examine the George Harris controversy.

Lewis Clarke

Lewis G. Clarke (courtesy Oberlin College archives)

Lewis Clarke was born a slave in Kentucky in 1815, the son of a white father and an enslaved mulatto mother. He had 9 brothers and sisters, but was separated from his entire family at just 7 years of age when he was given away to another family. This family treated him very cruelly. Years later, Clarke would write a narrative describing his experiences as a slave and his escape to freedom. He would say of this time in his life:

“All my severe labor, bitter and cruel punishments for these ten years of captivity with this *** family, all these were as nothing to the sufferings experienced by being separated from my mother, brothers and sisters; the same things, with them near to sympathize with me, to hear my story of sorrow, would have been comparatively tolerable… My thoughts continually by day and my dreams by night were of mother and home, and the horror experienced in the morning, when I awoke and beheld it was a dream, is beyond the power of language to describe.”

At the age of 16, Clarke was sold to another cruel master, who used severe beatings along with deprivation of food and water to enforce discipline. Finally, in his early 20s, Clarke decided he was ready to attempt an escape. He explained:

“I had long thought and dreamed of LIBERTY; I was now determined to make an effort to gain it. No tongue can tell the doubt, the perplexities, the anxiety which a slave feels, when making up his mind upon this subject. If he makes an effort and is not successful, he must be laughed at by his fellows; he will be beaten unmercifully by the master, and be watched and used the harder for it all his life. And then if he gets away, who, what will he find? He is ignorant of the world. All the white part of mankind, that he has ever seen, are enemies to him and all his kindred. How can he venture where none but white faces shall greet him?”

But he took the risk anyway and set out on horseback. At the end of the first day of travel he was near the Ohio River, but decided crossing at night would create too much suspicion. So instead he checked into a local tavern. Seeing familiar faces inside, he first bought a pair of eyeglasses to help disguise him. The next morning he made it across the river to Aberdeen, Ohio. From there he traveled to Cincinnati, then back to Portsmouth, from where he traveled the Ohio-Erie canal to Cleveland. At Cleveland he found passage across Lake Erie to Canada. As he would later say:

“When I stepped ashore here, I said, sure enough, I AM FREE. Good heaven! what a sensation, when it first visits the bosom of a full grown man – one, born to bondage – one, who had been taught from early infancy, that this was his inevitable lot for life. Not till then did I dare to cherish for a moment the feeling that one of the limbs of my body was my own.”

He was in Canada about six weeks when he learned that his younger brother, Milton, had also escaped slavery and was now living in a place called Oberlin, Ohio. So after working a while and saving up some money, he recrossed Lake Erie and took the stagecoach to Oberlin. On the coach he met several abolitionists from Oberlin, of whom he said:

“To be thus surrounded at once with friends, in a land of strangers, was something quite new to me. The impression made by the kindness of these strangers upon my heart, will never be effaced. I thought there must be some new principle at work here, such as I had not seen much of in Kentucky. That evening I arrived at Oberlin, and found Milton boarding at a Mrs. Cole’s. Finding here so many friends, my first impression was that all the abolitionists in the country must live right there together.”

Lewis stayed and worked in Oberlin for a year, then decided on a bold and dangerous plan. He would return to Kentucky and help his youngest brother, Cyrus, escape from slavery. So in July, 1842, he made his way back into the “den of lions”. He found his brother near Lexington, then accompanied him on a harrowing journey by foot back towards the Ohio River. At one point he said:

“in traveling through the rain and mud this afternoon, we suffered beyond all power of description. Sometimes we found ourselves just ready to stand fast asleep in the middle of the road. Our feet were blistered all over. When Cyrus would get almost discouraged, I urged him on, saying we were walking for freedom now. Yes, he would say, ‘Freedom is good, Lewis, but this is a hard, h-a-r-d way to get it.’ This he would say half asleep. We were so weak before night, that several times fell upon our knees in the road. We had crackers with us, but we had no appetite to eat – fears were behind us, hope before – and we were driven and drawn as hard as ever men were.”

But when they finally reached Ohio, Cyrus was beside himself with joy. They made their way to Ripley, Ohio, where they “went Up to the house of a good friend of the slave.” The lady of the house was so kind that Cyrus became suspicious, but “when the young men came home, he soon got acquainted, and felt sure they were his friends.” (Anyone who read my previous blog will probably have a good guess of whose house he’s talking about here!) From there they were sent on “by the friends, from place to place”, until they finally reached Oberlin, five weeks after Lewis had left there.

However Cyrus didn’t feel safe in the United States, so after several days in Oberlin he continued on to Canada, while Lewis and Milton remained in Oberlin. Then one day, Cyrus’ fears were justified, when Lewis and Milton were staying in Madison, Ohio, where Lewis had been asked to lecture about slavery. Slavecatchers had learned of their presence and were able to abduct Milton. But fortunately the residents of Lake and Ashtabula counties rallied, rescued Milton, and arrested the slavecatchers, who they eventually sent packing back to Kentucky, angry and empty-handed.[1]

After this, Lewis and Milton moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and stayed in the home of Aaron and Mary Safford. While here, Mary introduced Lewis to her sister-in-law, Harriet Beecher Stowe.[2] Lewis also wrote his ‘slave narrative’, which was widely circulated and which I’ve been quoting above. He also became a speaker on the abolitionist circuit and toured the country telling of his experiences as a slave. In fact he was one of the keynote speakers at the founding convention of the Republican Party in Michigan in 1854.

But his fame put the slavecatchers on his trail again, and Clarke was forced to leave the United States and return to Canada, where he stayed until 1874. Then he returned to Oberlin and continued to lecture, also helping former slaves return from Canada and find work in the United States. In his final years he returned to Kentucky, where he suffered from physical ailments and financial difficulties. He died in 1897 at the age of 82. In addition to being laid in state in the Lexington City Auditorium, he was eulogized by newspapers around the country.

Lewis Clarke tombstone

So is the inscription on Mr. Clarke’s tombstone correct? Although Clarke had claimed to be the George Harris character ever since Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, a daughter of Mrs. Stowe disputed the claim near the end of his life. Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, 7 years after Clarke’s narrative. In 1854, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote another book, called A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (referred to hereafter as “the Key”). In this non-fiction book she sought to set the record straight for those who claimed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was unrealistic, by revealing the sources that inspired the characters and events in her novel, as well as other supportive sources. One of the first topics she addresses is the George Harris character, of whom she says:

“With regard to the incidents of George Harris’s life, that he may not be supposed a purely exceptional case, we propose to offer some parallel facts from the lives of slaves of our personal acquaintance. Lewis Clark is an acquaintance of the writer. Soon after his escape from slavery, he was received into the family of a sister-in-law of the author, and there educated. His conduct during this time was such as to win for him uncommon affection and respect, and the author has frequently heard him spoken of in the highest terms by all who knew him. The gentleman in whose family he so long resided, says of him, in a recent letter to the writer, ‘I would trust him, as the saying is, with untold gold’ … The reader is now desired to compare the following incidents of his life, part of which he related personally to the author, with the incidents of the life of George Harris… ” [3]

She then goes on and recounts several pages of material from Clarke’s own narrative. Much of the material she cites was not included in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but some of it was and became part of the George Harris character: George Harris was born into slavery in Kentucky to a white father and mulatto mother and a large family. Like Lewis Clarke, he had a “handsome” older sister, “a pious, good girl – a member of the Baptist Church”, who was abused by her master before being sold down to New Orleans. George Harris was separated from his family at a young age, of which he says: “when I was a little fellow, and lay awake whole nights and cried, it wasn’t the hunger, it wasn’t the whipping, I cried for. No, sir, it was for my mother and my sisters – it was because I hadn’t a friend to love me on earth.” He made his escape when he was a young man, through Ohio and across Lake Erie to Canada. One other similarity that Mrs. Stowe doesn’t mention in the Key, but is quite apparent, is that George Harris also spent the night prior to crossing the Ohio River in a tavern, which he entered in disguise, and where he recognized some of the clientele.

But just like there are many parts of Clarke’s story that aren’t shared by George Harris, there are also parts of George Harris’ story that weren’t shared by Clarke. As Mrs. Stowe explains, the George Harris character, like other characters in the novel, is a “mosaic” of her own imagination and several real-life people, including the renowned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

But all this was called into question in 1895, when a newspaper article appeared in Boston, telling about Lewis Clarke and claiming that he was the inspiration for George Harris. This prompted a firm and prompt denunciation from Mrs. Stowe’s daughter, who wrote a letter to the editor claiming that her mother “never saw the man, or even heard of him, until two years ago” and that his claims were “entirely untrue from beginning to end, so far as it had any connection with my mother or her writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”[4]  But nowhere in the letter does the younger Miss Stowe explain the contradiction of what her mother wrote in the Key forty years earlier, nor does she even acknowledge that those words were ever written.

So what to believe then, the Key, or the letter? Well, the Key was written by Mrs. Stowe herself, 9 years after she would have first met Lewis Clarke and 2 years after she published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The purpose of the key was to validate the claims in her novel, as explained above. The contradicting letter was written by Mrs. Stowe’s daughter, 50 years after Mrs. Stowe would have first met Lewis Clarke, and 43 years after the publication of her novel. By this time, Harriet Beecher Stowe herself was 84 years old and had “drifted into dementia and was often found wandering through the gardens and greenhouses of her neighbors.“[5]

I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide for yourself which story to believe, but in my mind there is no question: Lewis Clarke was indeed a major inspiration (but not the only one) for the George Harris character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But more importantly, he was a real-life, flesh and blood, American hero in his own right.

Lewis Clarke is buried in Westwood Cemetery, 455 Morgan Street
(Section D-56#4; GPS coordinates N41°17.002′ W82°14.167′)

Footnotes:

[1] L. I. Rice, “Lewis and Milton Clark: A Bit of History”, Sept 14, 1892; The Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection

[2] Cambridge Historical Commission J. MILTON CLARKE (1820 – 1902) and LEWIS CLARKE (1818 – 1897) Writers and lecturers (Marker location: 2 Florence Place)

[3] Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, p. 23

[4] “A Contradiction from the Daughter of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe”, Boston Transcript, December 7, 1895; The Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection

[5] National Historic Landmark Nomination: Stowe, Harriet Beecher, House, p. 20

Other sources consulted:

Lewis Garrard Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Carver Gayton, “Lewis G. Clarke: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Forgotten Hero”

Leanne Smith, “Peek Through Time: The Republican Party celebrates its 157th anniversary with a re-enactment Under The Oaks on Wednesday”

Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life

Digitizing the Oral History Archive: Winter Term 2013

January 29th, 2013

For a few years, I have conducted a self-designed research project using oral histories and the Oberlin College Archives. Never before had I considered working on the other side of the archive, or to be the person who preserves these historical documents. After a month of serving as an oral history processing assistant at the Oberlin Heritage Center, I now better understand the process of preserving the history I’ve been studying for so long. I have always viewed historical research as one big puzzle where I find little pieces of a story that seem unrelated, but then I find links that tie them all together. I never saw archiving as a puzzle, or even like research, until I started working at the Heritage Center. One month later, I really regret my dismissive attitude toward the hard work and problem solving that preservation and archiving entail.

My Winter Term project consisted of taking the oldest tapes of Series I of the oral history archive and digitizing them so they can be preserved much longer than they can be on tapes. Over the month, I digitized all of the tapes from 1979 and 1982, as well as some of the 1983 collection and an occasional later tape. I spent each day playing the entire oral histories in a converter that created a digital file from a cassette tape. Afterward, I edited the file to take out large breaks between the sides of the tape and in the beginning of the interview. Some days, this task went smoothly. On other days, I regretted thinking it was so simple. There were a few days that I spent trying to solve a mystery, like tracking down tapes or finding out if an interview was really only 8 minutes long or why a tape stopped playing after so many minutes. I quickly realized that archival work was not just a mundane task that was necessary so that researchers could do their work. It is its own kind of research and problem solving; there are still pieces to fit together.

In addition to better understanding preservation of oral histories not recorded in digital format, I also learned more about Oberlin’s history. Although I have been researching Oberlin for a few years, my topic is very specific. With little time to finish my research project each summer before I must present it, I haven’t had the luxury of learning a lot of historical context, especially about the town. My project has always focused heavily on Oberlin College rather than the town, and only in the 1960s and 70s. I have learned some things about businesses in the town from alumni with whom I’ve spoken, but never about the 1950s or earlier. Listening to the Series I oral histories at the Heritage Center allowed me to learn more about Oberlin life, such as dating, racial tensions, and the depression, which helped me situate how and why the 1960s happened as they did—though perhaps, I’ve gotten even more confused and need to do more research!

A 1982 interviewee, Mildred Haines, said that when she left in 1920 and returned in 1975, one of the biggest changes was the appearance of the students, but that underneath, they were just as smart and dedicated as they were decades before. After only hearing the students’ side to the story, hearing a town impression of Oberlin College students was really interesting and highly relevant to my own interests even before I came to the Heritage Center. My research emphasizes that Oberlin’s history reflects and contributes to American history. After listening to oral histories of about 30 residents, I have a much more holistic—but hardly complete—view of Oberlin’s history. I used to think that an archivist’s job was to aid researchers. Now I realize that there is so much more to archives and places like the Oberlin Heritage Center and that they have a very rightful place next to researchers.

Brittany Craig, OC ’13