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Thomas Tucker and Charles Jones: Missionaries FROM Africa

November 22nd, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

It’s no secret that one of the primary goals of Oberlin College in its first decades of existence was to train Americans to become missionaries who would go out into the world and crusade against slavery and other moral ills.  That’s why I find the story of Thomas DeSaille Tucker and Charles Jones so intriguing; it’s an interesting twist on the traditional Oberlin narrative.  Tucker and Jones were native Africans who came to America, attended Oberlin College and devoted their lives to combating slavery right here in the United States, serving as missionaries in the American South in its hour of greatest need.

Thomas DeSaille Tucker

Thomas DeSaille Tucker
Courtesy State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Unfortunately I have no picture to post of Charles Jones, and the information on him is scant, but what we do have comes from reliable sources.  There is quite a bit of information available on Tucker, however, and his legacy continues to this very day (although his middle name is subject to a wide range of spellings, including deSaliere, DeSota, and De Selkirk).

Jones and Tucker were raised in Sherbro, Sierra Leone, Africa.  Jones was the son of a powerful Muslim chief, and Tucker was the grandson of another powerful chief, who also happened to be a slave trader.[1]  Both youths were educated in the Kaw-Mendi (a.k.a. Mende or Mendi) mission that was established on the western coast of Sierra Leone by American philanthropists in the 1840s.  In fact the land for the mission was rented to them by Tucker’s grandfather, and the original purpose of the mission was to repatriate the survivors of the slave ship Amistad.  Oberlin College benefactors Lewis and Arthur Tappan were among the main supporters of the mission, which was basically run by Oberlin students and alumni, about 30 of whom would ultimately serve there.  Certainly Jones and Tucker would have known, and perhaps been influenced by, Sarah Margru Kinson, one of the original Amistad captives, who was educated at Oberlin College after her release, then returned to Sherbro in 1849 to become a missionary and teacher herself.  (For more information on Sarah Margru Kinson, the Amistad, and the Mendi mission, see Sarah Margru Kinson: The Two Worlds of an Amistad Captive, by Marlene D. Merrill, available from the Oberlin Heritage Center gift shop.)

Jones and Tucker were brought to the United States in 1856 by Oberlin College alumnus George Thompson, who returned to Oberlin after relinquishing his post as director of the Mendi mission.  Tucker would have been about 12 years old at the time, Jones was probably about 17.  Interestingly, they arrived in the United States in the summer, and when asked how they liked it, they replied, “We like it very well, but it is too hot for us, we can’t stand it!”[2]

Both of the boys lived with Thompson initially, although Jones eventually took a shoemaker apprenticeship with Oberlin’s Orindatus S. B. Wall and moved in with his family.  Tucker entered the preparatory school at Oberlin College in 1858 at the age of about 14, and entered the collegiate program two years later.  Jones attended the preparatory school in the 1860-1861 school year.  But both had every intention of returning to Africa after receiving their education, just as Sarah Margru Kinson had, to dedicate their lives, as Tucker put it, to “do good in my native land.”[3]

Thompson and Wall

When Tucker was still in Africa as a 10 year old boy, he had written to Lewis Tappan about the “wicked practices” of his country, including warfare that involved attacking towns when “the enemy on the other part are asleep” and killing “their enemies so much even as not to have pity upon some of young babes.”  A relative of Tucker’s, who would eventually become a slave trader himself, had also written Tappan that “slavery and bigamy or polygamy will be the last sins an african [sic] will forsake.”   But now that Thomas Tucker had crossed the ocean, he came to see that the United States had its own sins and wicked practices, as he wrote to a friend back in Africa:

‘The colored men in this country have no voice in the general government; even in some of the States they have no voice in the State government.  It would fairly sicken you to be here on a fourth of July and hear guns firing and “starspangled banner” waving “over the land of the free and the home of the brave” while there are this day 4,000,000 of slaves in their possession.  O what a hypocrisy.  God will not always sleep but will yet come in judgment against this country except they speedily repent.’[4]

Then the American Civil War broke out.  Union forces made slow progress into the slaveholding states of the South, and as they did so they were thronged by slaves who had escaped from their owners.  The Fugitive Slave Law, which remained in force, demanded that slaves be returned to their owners on claim.  Although some Union commanders were all too happy to comply and relieve themselves of the burden of accommodating the freedom seekers, a few saw this as an opportunity to strike a blow against slavery and the Confederacy.  General Benjamin Butler, who had seized the military bases at Fortress Monroe in the Norfolk-Hampton region of coastal Virginia, was among the latter.  Arguing that the Confederates considered the slaves as “property”  which they were using to support the rebellion, he claimed the right to refuse their return.  And thus hundreds of freedom seekers became “contraband” of war.

Now came the tremendous logistical problem of sheltering them, feeding them, and providing them the education that most had been denied all their lives.  Mary Peake, a local free black school teacher, and Peter Herbert, a local fugitive from slavery, got permission to establish schools on property seized by the Union forces.  Herbert in fact established his school in the abandoned summer home of slaveholding ex-President John Tyler, who had left the area and thrown his support to the Confederacy.  Both Peake and Herbert soon had dozens of students in their classes.

Northern abolitionists, both black and white, from the American Missionary Association (the same group that ran the Mendi mission) also came down to help.  Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood directed relief operations in person and helped establish more schools, while George Whipple (one of Oberlin’s “Lane Rebels”) and Simeon S. Jocelyn petitioned the Lincoln Administration for support.  On December 3, 1862, the Oberlin Evangelist reported:

“Since the meeting of the Am. Missionary Association in this place, Oct. 15, five students from Oberlin College and Seminary have left us for service under the Association in labors among the freemen at or near Fortress Monroe, or in South Carolina, namely: Wm O. King and Palmer Litts, of the Junior Theological Class; Edwin S. Williams of the Middle Theological Class and his wife; and Thomas De Selkirk Tucker of the Junior Class, a native of Sherbro, Africa, brought thence by Rev. Geo. Thompson and in a course of education in Oberlin College.  They are all teachers of considerable experience, with the exception of the last named, and all give promise of efficiency and usefulness in their work.  They left us with many requests for prayer – their case and work awakening profound sympathy among their Christian friends.  Not having completed their course of study, they all expect to return for that purpose after a service perhaps of six months.”

Upon his arrival in Hampton, Virginia, Thomas Tucker immediately began teaching classes in the Tyler house.  It was difficult work.  The teachers were faced with overcrowded classrooms, they endured the hostility and prejudices of many of the Union troops as well as the local populace, and their varying backgrounds and skill levels sometimes created tensions among themselves.  But the missionaries drew their inspiration from their students, finding “their love of freedom strong.  Their desire for learning and the aptitude of children and adults to learn… remarkable.”[5]

Tucker returned to Oberlin in mid-1863.  The time he spent in Virginia and the substandard pay he received while there set his Oberlin education back one year, but with cooperation of the school administration he was able to secure good winter employment and continue his education.[6]

In 1864, Tucker expressed disappointment that his Mendi friend, Charles Jones, had joined the Union armed forces.  Tucker took this as a sign (quite correctly, it turned out) that Jones would not be returning to Africa.  That Jones enlisted is not surprising, given that his Oberlin mentor, O.S.B. Wall, became a tireless recruiter of black Ohio soldiers when the Lincoln Administration finally allowed African Americans to enlist in 1863.  (Wall himself earned a Captain’s commission, perhaps the first African American to do so.)  Wall recruited for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer and the 5th United States Colored Troops (USCT) infantry regiments in 1863, and the 27th USCT infantry regiment in early 1864.  Only one Charles Jones appears on the roster of these regiments, as a private in Company D of the 27th USCT, which recruited several African American men from Oberlin.  If this was our Charles Jones, he would have seen some of the hardest fighting of the entire war in Virginia in the Spring and Summer of 1864.[7]

Tucker himself was still intent on returning to Africa after completing his Oberlin education, saying:

“Whenever I reflect, so far as youth can, on all the Providences connected with my coming to, and residence in this country, thus far, I cannot resist the conviction that he intends me for some work in life.  To be sure all men know that they were not made to be drones; yet there are times when we are, as it were, divinely impressed with a sense of the path marked out for us in life.  I feel that my only highest goodness and happiness will consist in spending my life for benighted dear Africa…  At all events, unless I can see plainer indications of Providence allotting me a sphere of duty in this country, to Africa I will return.”[8]

However he also began to foresee difficulties if he returned to his powerful family in Sherbro, writing:

“Far from any desire to forget and foresake Africa; I still yet, as I have in the past, cherished the deepest sympathy for my native land… My family influences in the Sherbro, as you well know, are very extensive.  Returning there I would be subjected to trials and temptations which you perhaps can not well conceive of in this country.  As your Sherbro mission is the only one you have in Africa, and as I could not return and labor there without great disadvantages, I preferred to be where I could be most efficient.  I could willingly go to such a place as Shengay, Sierra Leone — anywhere where I can be farthest from my relatives.”[9]

But when Tucker received his A.B. (Bachelor of Arts) degree from Oberlin in 1865, there were no teaching opportunities for him in Africa outside of the Sherbro mission.  He thus resolved himself to be “governed by a sense of duty, and not by selfish inclinations” and to “teach in any capacity — for the elevation of the freedmen.”[10]

And that he did.  After graduating, Tucker returned to the South, this time to educate freedmen in Georgetown, Kentucky and later New Orleans, Louisiana.  His friend, Charles Jones, having survived the war, also heard the calling to head south and became a preacher in Mississippi.  (He was believed to be in Friars Point, Mississippi until about 1883, and then sometime thereafter might possibly have relocated to North Carolina, still preaching.)[11]  Tucker edited a series of newspapers while in New Orleans and studied law at Straight University, a school established by the American Missionary Association to train black missionaries and to provide legal training to students to help support civil rights in the South.  (Straight University eventually merged into present-day Dillard University.)  Tucker earned his law degree in 1883, then moved to Pensacola, Florida, where he had a successful law practice for four years.

In 1887, Tucker co-founded a college in Tallahassee, Florida called the State Normal School for Colored Students.  His co-founder was another Oberlin College black alumnus and one-time Florida state legislator, Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs.  When the State Board of Education selected Tucker to be the school’s first president, the editor of a local newspaper wrote:

“The State Board of Education certainly deserves much credit for the appointments recently made for this school. … We have known Professor Tucker for about 18 years and we have never met a more genial, broadminded and sterling gentleman. He possesses first-class qualities as a friend, gentleman and scholar, and commands the respect of all who know him. He is a strong man, morally and intellectually, and the new Normal has a security of success under his charge.”[12]

Tucker would serve as president for 14 years, but would eventually be forced to resign over policy differences with state authorities.  Influenced by his own Oberlin College education, Tucker wanted the school to offer a strong liberal arts education to its students to complement its vocational training.  State authorities believed the school should focus on vocational training only, and accused Tucker of providing instruction that was “void of the results of the kind for which the money was furnished” and of hiring instructors who were “not in sympathy… with Southern institutions.”  Interestingly enough though, Tucker was replaced by yet another African American Oberlin College graduate, Nathan B. Young.[13]

According to his contemporary Florida historian, Rowland H. Rerick, Tucker was “an able and intelligent man, of excellent character and notable executive ability and an admirable influence upon the students.’’[14]   But now he returned to his law practice and died just two years later in 1903.  If he were with us today, however, he would undoubtedly be proud of the college he co-founded.   No longer known as the State Normal School for Colored Students, it is now called the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (“Florida A&M”), and provides a wide range of studies and programs, from baccalaureate to doctoral, to students of all races and ethnicities, though predominantly African American.  And yes, it provides liberal arts instruction too.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Clara Merritt De Boer, The Role of Afro-Americans in the Origin and Work of the American Missionary Association: 1839-1877, Vols 1 & 2

Robert Francis Engs, Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1861-1890

Leedell W. Neyland, “State-Supported Higher Education Among Negroes in the State of Florida”, The Florida historical quarterly, Volume 43 Issue 02. October 1964, pp. 108-110

George Thompson, The Palm Land; Or, West Africa, Illustrated

“Teachers for the Freedmen”, Oberlin Evangelist, Dec 3, 1862, p.7

Joseph Yannielli, “George Thompson among the Africans: Empathy, Authority, and Insanity in the Age of Abolition”, Journal of American History, vol 96, issue 4, March 2010, p. 998

General catalogue of Oberlin college, 1833 [-] 1908, Oberlin College Archives

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1

Clifton H. Johnson, “Tucker, Thomas DeSaliere”, Dictionary of African Christian Biography

Oberlin College Archives, RG 28/1, Alumni and Development Records, Former Student File, Series B, Box 313, Folder “Jones, Charles 1860-1861″

1860 United States Census, Lorain County, Russia Township

National Park Service, “Soldiers and Sailors Database”

Ira Berlin, Joseph Patrick Reidy, Leslie S. Rowland, The Black Military Experience

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

Mark St. John Erickson, “An uneasy alliance of white missionaries and refugee slaves leads to freedom in Civil War Hampton”, HR History

Joe M. Richardson, Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861-1890

Adam Fairclough, “Being in the Field of Education and also Being a Negro…Seems…Tragic: Black Teachers in the Jim Crow South”, The Journal of American History, Vol. 87, No. 1. (Jun., 2000), pp. 65-91

Emma J. Lapsanky-Werner, Margaret Hope Bacon (editors), Back to Africa: Benjamin Coates and the Colonization Movement in America, 1848-1880

Marlene D. Merrill,  Sarah Margru Kinson: The Two Worlds of an Amistad Captive

Abdul Karim Bangura, “The Life and Times of the Amistad Returnees to Sierra Leone and Their Impact: A Pluridisciplinary Exploration”, Africa Update Newsletter, Vol. XIX, Issue 2 (Spring 2012)

Versalle F. Washington, Eagles on their Buttons

Daniel J. Sharfstein, The Invisible Line

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

Anne W. Chapman, “Fight for Home Saves Plantation”, Daily Press

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Yannielli, p. 998
[2] Yannielli, p. 998; De Boer pp. 121-122; 1860 U.S. Census; Thompson, pp. 441-442
[3] Sharfstein, p. 94; 1860 U.S. Census;  General Catalogue; Lapsanky-Werner, p. 152
[4] De Boer, pp. 119-121, 123
[5] Engs, p. 36, 48
[6] De Boer, pp. 258-259
[7] De Boer, p. 261; Washington, p. 13; Berlin, p. 93; Bigglestone, pp. 237-240; “Soldiers and Sailors Database”
[8] De Boer, p. 259
[9] ibid, p. 261
[10] ibid, pp. 260, 262
[11] Yannielli, p. 998; Oberlin College Archives, RG 28/1
[12] Neyland, p. 108; General Catalogue; Johnson, “Dictionary”
[13] Neyland, pp. 109-110; Yannielli, p. 998; General Catalogue
[14] Neyland, p. 110

“There’s Mischief in this Man”: William Mallory and the Oberlin Collegiate Experience

November 14th, 2013

by Jen Graham, Ohio History Service Corps member at the Oberlin Heritage Center

As a historian, I’ve fallen in love with letters. There is a striking liminality in reading someone else’s mail. It’s as if, by unfolding the delicate creases of yellowed paper and losing yourself in a sea of cursive, you unfold time as well. With each new reading, experiences of the past come alive in the present.  People long since dead become children again. Couples who grew old together find themselves back in the adorably awkward throws of courtship. Every casual misspelling, every witty retort, tells a story, and what began as a research topic ends up feeling more like a close friend.

My most recent foray into historical familiarity has been with a man named William Garfield Mallory (1880-1918).  William Mallory was born in Chautauqua County, New York, and entered the Oberlin Senior Academy in 1899.  He graduated from Oberlin with an A.B. in 1905 and a Masters in Physics in 1907.  In 1909, he married Mary K. Pope of Oberlin. Afterwards, he moved back to New York to study physics at Cornell and graduated with his Ph.D. in Physics in 1918.  He then accepted a teaching position in the Physics Department at Oberlin College, but, unfortunately, died only a few months later of influenza.

William Mallory, from the Oberlin Heritage Center collections

William Mallory
(courtesy of the Oberlin Heritage Center collection)

I first met William Mallory when Prue Richards, the Oberlin Heritage Center’s collections assistant, invited me to help her organize the letters in a writing box donated by his descendants, Marianne Caldwell and William Dickerman. Also donated with the box were a sled, a jacket, a portable stove, and myriad family photos. At first I was just taking the letters out of their envelopes, laying them flat, and placing each one in an archival plastic sleeve. I wasn’t reading them or transcribing them; I was just preparing them for storage in the collections.  Well, curiosity got the best of me.

What piqued my interest was not the overall story of his life. Those were just facts to me—information to help contextualize the task at hand—until I noticed a return address on a letter. That’s when I had my first moment with William Mallory. The letter was a note from Mallory to his cousin, Edith, penned while he was a student at Oberlin College. The address was 115 E. College St., which I recognized because, just over a century after that letter was written, I had lived right across the street in Tank Hall.

Spatially, our college experiences were beginning to merge. I had to get closer. I devoured that letter and the others with it. I followed Mallory through the Oberlin College “Hi-O-Hi” yearbooks like a lovesick teenager.  I found him on the track team in 1902. I found him included among the stony-faced members of the Phi Delta literary society in 1905. I even found his graduation picture and quote. Surrounded by “cheery-voiced” men and women with “an abhorrence of sin,” our straight-backed, intellectual William Mallory was described rather differently. Five words laid it all on the table: “There’s mischief in this man.”

William Malloyr's yearbook photo from the 1906 Hi-Oh-Hi Oberlin College annual

William Mallory’s senior yearbook photo
(from the 1906 Hi-O-Hi Oberlin College annual)

And it must have been true, because his accomplice in the prank described below, Merton Chamberlain, was accompanied by the quote, “A kinder gentleman treads not the earth.”

Into our freshman’s bed there strayed a tin can, and a spool of thread. Sometime after going to bed he was aroused, lighted a match and began looking about for “the devil,” as he said. Mr. Luckey came to the stair door to see what was the matter. My partner and I then jumped into bed, and let the fun go on.
– William Mallory to his grandparents February 17, 1905

Not simply a prankster, in another letter, Mallory casually poked fun at his roommate Laverne’s facial hair, writing:

“He is growing a mustache (comprised of 8 hairs, the color of road dust, and a stick of wax on each end.) He must spend 15 minutes daily cultivating it. What a waste of time!”
– William Mallory to his cousin Edith, 1900

William Mallory had a dry wit, but, like most Oberlin students, he worked hard. While he took a particular interest in the sciences, he also studied German, Latin, geometry, botany, history, and religion. Even reading his schedule was exhausting. He often rose before dawn to begin his studies, and worked or attended literary society meetings until 9:30 or 10:00 at night, only to repeat the process again the next day. He had laboratory sessions to attend, and various odd jobs in town to earn money for the rooms he rented. He joined a basketball team (“the best team in the college”) with some boys in his class and attended church four times on Sundays. Surprisingly, he somehow found time to sleep six to nine hours every night!

My favorite passage about his schoolwork concerned a history course Mallory took from Mrs. Adelia Field Johnston. Mrs. Johnston was first a graduate of Oberlin’s literary course for women in 1856. She then accepted a position as principal of the Oberlin Ladies’ Department. In 1878, Johnston was appointed the first female professor in Oberlin, and she later became the first woman on the Oberlin College Board of Trustees.  Of her class Mallory writes:

History is my most enjoyable course now. Mrs. Johnston gives us outlines of her lectures, then we listen, and write them out from memory. Because it compels attention, as well as because the course itself is valuable, I like it.
— William Mallory to Edith (undated)

A similar highlight in the collection of William Mallory’s letters (and in any account of Oberlin’s past) has to do with girls. In describing Oberlin to his cousin Edith in 1900, he lamented that “the rules are very strict about fooling with the girls. Cannot stay at the boarding house after 7 P.M. Must not speak to them after meals on Sundays, etc. etc.” Even still, despite his busy schedule and all the restrictions, he managed to find time to visit the ladies once a week. By the end of that first year, he already had favorites. As students were leaving for spring break, he wrote to William Wood, his grandfather: “There are only two girls left. But as they are the two best ones of the lot, I could stand it, if the other boys did not think so too.”

He didn’t just talk about women, though. In multiple letters, Mallory mentioned speaking with people of different races. Whether it was the African-American student who won an oratory contest in the Academy, or John Williams who spoke at a party of the treatment of African-Americans in the southern United States, or two Chinese boys who had survived the Boxer Rebellion, these encounters with such a diverse community expanded William Mallory’s horizons and opened his mind to new experiences.

William Mallory also encountered all the diversity of weather northeastern Ohio has to offer. His meteorological observations were a delight to read. I remember last October when residual storms from Hurricane Sandy blew off part of the roof of the Science Center on campus. Once, when driving into Cleveland, I experienced four different weather patterns on my commute. It wasn’t so different for William Mallory in the early 20th century.

Yesterday was a beautiful day, but it snowed hard in the evening. The weather changes very quickly.
– William Mallory to his grandfather April 4 1900

Once in a while we have a day with blue sky, but twice in a while we have dark, rainy days…The wind blew down the flag pole, on the campus, and took off a good many large limbs, and more small ones. But the next morning the sun came up clear, there was a little breeze from the north, and we thought we had a promise of fair weather, but now rubber boots are the proper things to wear again.
–William Mallory to his grandparents, 1903

The more I got to know William Mallory, the less I was prepared to stumble across the last two letters from Oberlin, dated October 6, 1918. One was from William Mallory to his mother in New York, wishing her a happy birthday, and describing a little of his new teaching job at Oberlin. He was busy because the laboratory was not in very good shape. There were a surprising number of young women in his classes, he declared, though “not all of them give early promise of being great scholars of Physics.” He wondered if some of the young ladies might not “drop out soon.”

The other letter was from his ten-year-old daughter, Stella Irene, to her grandmother, also wishing her a happy birthday. In the letter, little Stella Irene wrote in the large, careful print of a child about her school, her younger brother, Robert, a pet chicken, and her father’s health. “Dada is much better,” she said. “He is so he can get up and around some. A lot better than when we came.”

Sadly, not long after these letters were posted, William Mallory was dead. He was 38 years old. Out of respect for his memory, classes at Oberlin College were cancelled on October 21, 1918 for his funeral. He was survived by his wife, Mary Pope Mallory, and his two children, Stella Irene, age 10, and Robert, age 5.

William Mallory with his wife, Mary, daughter, Stella Irene, and son, Robert.

William Mallory with his wife, Mary, daughter, Stella Irene, and son, Robert
(from the Oberlin Heritage Center collection)

William Mallory’s letters are important, not simply for their sentimental value. They tell a story of a time in Oberlin when strict rules for female students were beginning to loosen, when people of all races came together to talk about their experiences, and when World War I took control of the community’s routine. The letters, photographs, and objects donated by Marianne Caldwell and William Dickerman add important dimension, not only to the name William Mallory, but to the already multi-faceted story of Oberlin as well.

The Secret Rooms of the Fitches

October 20th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

One of the most romanticized aspects of the Underground Railroad is the secret rooms and tunnels that were used to hide enslaved people seeking their freedom.  And naturally it would be expected that a staunchly abolitionist town like Oberlin, a major hub on the Underground Railroad, would be teeming with secret rooms and tunnels, right?  Well, put it this way, Oberlin residents can take comfort in the knowledge that they’re in little danger of being swallowed up by sinkholes created by collapsing networks of subterranean tunnels.  Ironically, the very fact that Oberlin was such an abolitionist stronghold made secret rooms and tunnels largely (but not entirely) unnecessary.  With literally hundreds of anti-slavery households, the entire campus of an abolitionist college, and a sizable African American population for freedom seekers to “disappear” into, combined with a vigilant, savvy, abolitionist community, slavecatchers were already at a hopeless disadvantage in Oberlin.

That said, we do know that some secret rooms existed in and around Oberlin.  But we only have documented evidence of a few of Oberlin’s secret rooms actually being used to harbor freedom seekers.  Two of those rooms were in the home (no longer standing, unfortunately) of James and Jane Fitch, on South Professor Street.

James M. Fitch

 James M. Fitch (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

The Fitches were both native upstate New Yorkers.  James was one of the early students of Oberlin College, attending in 1836 (the era of the Lane Rebels) and transferring to Oberlin College’s Sheffield branch in 1837.  (See my James Bradley – from hopeless bondage to Lane Rebel blog entry for background.)   But when the Sheffield institute closed after just one year, James did not return to Oberlin College.  Instead, sometime around 1838, he married Jane Bushnell.  Jane hailed from a staunchly abolitionist family.  Her uncles, Daniel and Horace, moved to Cincinnati where they would become conductors on the Underground Railroad.  Horace would become a prominent anti-slavery minister, and Daniel would move to Oberlin in 1856, become a justice of the peace, and finish his life here.  One of Jane’s older brothers, Albert, attended Oberlin College in 1838 and became a missionary to Africa.  One of her younger brothers, Simeon, attended Oberlin College in 1852.

During the time that James Fitch was attending Oberlin College, abolitionists were excited by the news that the British Empire was abolishing slavery in its domains, including the West Indies.  In 1837, some of Oberlin’s Lane Rebels established a mission in Jamaica to educate and Christianize the freed slaves and help them adjust to their new lives of freedom.  Both James and Jane went to Jamaica to help with the missionary work.  They returned to Oberlin around 1844, at which time James went into the printing business, printing the Oberlin Evangelist and numerous catalogs and volumes for Oberlin College.  He also opened a campus bookstore on College Street and became superintendent of Oberlin’s Sunday School.  Jane became one of its teachers.  Jane’s brother, Simeon, became a typesetter and a clerk in James’ bookstore.

The Fitches also became active Underground Railroad conductors in Oberlin, so active in fact that they decided to construct secret rooms in the house they built on South Professor Street (at the intersection of South Street, the site of the present Old Barrows building).  Jane described the rooms in a newspaper interview several decades later:

“My husband was a merchant in Oberlin and when he built the house we lived in during the days of the underground railway, he decided to have at least two rooms built in the house in which fugitive slaves could be concealed while they were being harbored there on their way to Elyria, where they were taken on board a vessel in the Black River, and thence carried to the end of their journey toward freedom in Canada.  One room was reached by a blind door cut through the back partition of a closet off a sleeping room.  From the sleeping room the closet seemed to extend to the end of the house, and really there was not much room behind it.  But there was space enough for a fugitive to remain comfortably while waiting for dark, perhaps, to continue his journey.  You know, under the operation of the Fugitive Slave Act our houses could be searched.  If any one opened the closet door he would only see some of the children’s dresses hung up against the wall.  If the searcher were more than usually inquisitive and took down the dresses there was no door visible.  Another room was in the attic.  The stairs leading to that attic room were so arranged that a searching party going up them would be at a great disadvantage if the fugitive would resist.

Of course when a slave was taken to the attic Mr. Fitch would tell him that if the searchers came he would be obliged to admit them to the house, but the slave would be provided with something to – well, he would have something that would make it possible for him to resist a number of people.”

Jane went on to describe how freedom seekers were frequently brought to their home “under a load of hay or in closed vehicles, disguised.”  The freedom seekers would be fed and housed while arrangements were made to transport them to Elyria.  But this wasn’t the extent of the Fitches’ Underground Railroad activities.  Records also show that they financed the boarding of freedom seekers in other parts of town.

The great irony about the Fitches’ secret rooms is that in the moment of Oberlin’s greatest need for a secure place to hide a freedom seeker, it was decided that he would be safer in one of the houses in Oberlin without a secret room.  This was in the infamous Oberlin-Wellington Rescue case, in which a crowd of Oberlinites and Wellingtonians rescued John Price, a fugitive slave, from the custody of law enforcement agents in Wellington.  Price, who had been abducted by the agents just outside of Oberlin, called for help from a passing carriage as he was being transported southwards by his abductors towards Wellington.  When the passengers in the passing carriage returned to Oberlin with the news, Jane’s brother, Simeon, was one of the first of hundreds of Oberlinites to head down there.  After the crowd in Wellington helped Price break free from his captors, it was Simeon who rushed him back to Oberlin in a buggy.  His natural inclination was to bring Price to his sister’s home and hide him in one of the secret rooms.  Jane Fitch tells the story:

“I, like all the other women of Oberlin, was excited and anxious for news.  So when my brother entered our house, as he did from the back way and shortly after dark, I demanded of him to tell me at once what had happened.  In response he gave me a look of caution, and that, in those days, was all that was required.  When I found that all was safe in the house my brother brought the slave in from the backyard and he was taken to one of the secret rooms.  That night John was passed on to Elyria, and the next day he was crossing Lake Erie on his way to Canada and freedom.”

Interestingly though, that last sentence is incorrect.  Although John Price was indeed escorted out of the Fitches’ home that night, he was not taken to Elyria.  Instead he was taken to the home of Oberlin College Professor (and future President) James Fairchild.  In a meeting between James Fitch, Professor Fairchild, and Oberlin College Professor James Monroe, it was decided that Fitch and Monroe were too well known as Underground Railroad conductors to safely harbor John Price, Fitch’s secret rooms notwithstanding.  So they brought Price to the Fairchild’s house instead, where he stayed for 3 days, even though they  had no secret rooms and had never harbored a freedom seeker before.  Perhaps in the great secrecy of the moment Jane Fitch didn’t realize that Price had been removed to the Fairchilds’ home, or perhaps at the time of the interview she was still protecting the Fairchilds’ secret and was unaware that James Fairchild himself had gone public with his story a few weeks earlier.

It turns out that it was all a moot point anyway, as the law enforcement agents never pursued to Oberlin (presumably they understood the futility of such an endeavor), and never learned that either the Fitches or the Fairchilds had sheltered John Price.  That didn’t stop the federal government from indicting and arresting James Fitch, however, along with Simeon Bushnell and three dozen other men, for violation of the Fugitive Slave Law.  (See  The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue 1858 for more information).

During the 3 months that her husband and brother were held in jail, Jane Fitch remained defiant, urging her husband to “flinch not an inch!”  James and Simeon remained defiant as well, and with the support of a sympathetic jailer and sheriff they even managed to set up a printing press and print 5,000 copies of their own abolitionist newspaper, which they called The Rescuer, during their incarceration.  (Complimentary reprints of this newspaper are available at the Oberlin Heritage Center.)  It was a very makeshift operation, using borrowed fonts and improvised tools.  Lacking even an italics font, they enjoined the reader to “supply the emphasis according to taste.”

Of all the interesting things that were printed in The Rescuer, one in particular stands out to me as a good note to close this blog with.  One day in jail with his fellow “political prisoners”, James Fitch received 60 letters from the children in his Sunday School.  Excerpts from some of those letters were printed in The Rescuer.  One of those letters came from an African American girl named Mary, from South Carolina.  It appears that Mary might have been a fugitive from slavery, for the rescuers defied the federal government to “catch her if you can.”  But if Mary was a fugitive, she was apparently living a relatively normal life out in the open, as did many of Oberlin’s fugitives, rather than hiding in secret rooms or tunnels.  Here’s what Mary wrote:

“I never knew what freedom was till I came here.  I was not allowed to go to school nor Sabbath School.  They made us say some questions after them, such as “Servants be obedient to your masters,” and the like.  I never in all my past life have had so much enjoyment as since I came here.  I feel very sorry to have you shut up in jail.  If I could do anything to make you happy I would gladly do it.”

James Fitch replied simply, “Thank you.  You have made me happy.”  [Emphasis supplied according to taste]

 

James and Jane Fitch and Simeon Bushnell and their families are buried side-by-side at Oberlin’s Westwood Cemetery (Section R; GPS coordinates N41° 17.039′  W82° 13.990′).  Their graves are among those visited in the Oberlin Heritage Center’s “Radicals and Reformers” walking tour of Westwood Cemetery.

Sources consulted:

“Rescue of a Slave”, The Sun (New York, NY) April 7, 1895

Bushnell Genealogy, “The Bushnell Book”, Parts A and B

James Harris Fairchild, The Underground Railroad

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

Gale L. Kenny, Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-emancipation Jamaica, 1834-1866

“General catalogue of Oberlin college, 1833 [-] 1908″, Oberlin College Archives

Oberlin Heritage Center, “Radicals and Reformers” history walk

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

Jacob R. Shipherd, History of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1

Wilbur Henry Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom

“Sheffield Manual Labor Institute”, The Village Pioneer, March, 2008

Thornton Bigelow Penfield, Sarah Ingraham Penfield, Letters from Jamaica 1858-1866

Oberlin Heritage Center Resource Center

The Society, 1901, Ohio History, Volume 13

The Oberlin News, February 10, 1899

New Kid on the Block

September 24th, 2013

Hello!  My name is Jen Graham, and I’m the new Local History Corps Americorps volunteer serving at the Oberlin Heritage Center.  I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, and graduated from Oberlin College in 2012 with an honors degree in early U.S. history.  After graduation, I stayed in Oberlin and spent the past year working at Agave and doing research with Dr. Carol Lasser, Professor of History at Oberlin College.  I enjoyed a lovely summer here in Northeastern Ohio, working at Hale Farm & Village in Peninsula, shuffling around in a hoop skirt and getting a taste of what it was really like to live in Ohio in the 1800s.  When I’m not talking about historical things, you can probably find me Irish dancing, gardening, reading, hiking, stargazing, or singing silly songs.

I am very excited to begin work at the Oberlin Heritage Center.  When I say I’ve fallen madly in love Oberlin’s history, it’s not a figure of speech.  Anyone who knows me will attest: with me at your side, a casual stroll through town quickly becomes a trip back in time.  I can’t help it!  The landscape of Oberlin is a rich tapestry of earth-moving events, inspirational stories, and extraordinary people, and I love to share.  History has always been an interest of mine, but it wasn’t until I came to Oberlin that I truly understood the positive impact it can have on communities.

The African environmentalist Baba Dioum wrote: “In the end, we will only conserve what we love. We will only love what we understand. We will only understand what we are taught.” I most often hear this said with regards to environmentalism–the more we teach people about the natural world, the more likely they are to fight to save it–but I believe its message can be expanded to history as well.  Working with youth across Ohio—in Yellow Springs, Columbus, Cincinnati, Peninsula, and Oberlin—I’ve witnessed how life-changing the historical process can be.  Engaging people in memory-making not only inspires a sense of place and pride in their community, but develops valuable connections across socioeconomic, racial, and gendered lines as well. By making local histories relatable and accessible, we can inspire a generation to care, not only about where they’ve been, or where they are, but all the possibilities of where they have yet to go.

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Lucy Stone and the Margaret Garner tragedy

September 21st, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

The winter of 1856 was a particularly harsh one – harsh enough that the Ohio River froze solid in January, something that only happened every few years.  When it did happen, enslaved Americans on the Kentucky side of the river would take the opportunity to make their break for freedom across the solid ice.  January 1856 saw two freedom seekers cross the frozen Ohio who would eventually make national headlines.  They were unknown to each other, and crossed at different places with different groups, but both would have an Oberlin connection.  One of their stories would have a happy ending; the other would be one of the most tragic stories of American slavery.

The story with the happy ending belonged to John Price, of Oberlin-Wellington Rescue fame, who crossed the Ohio River on horseback at Maysville, Kentucky.  But this blog post is about the tragic story, belonging to Margaret Garner, who crossed fifty miles downriver at Cincinnati.  The Oberlin connection in her story is through Oberlin College graduate Lucy Stone.  However, Stone’s role was sadly not as a rescuer, but instead as a consoler, as two women from vastly different backgrounds came face-to-face in a grim chapter of American history.

Lucy Stone
Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone had come to Oberlin from Massachusetts in 1843 and enrolled in the general program at Oberlin College, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree.  She was 24 years old and already an avid follower of William Lloyd Garrison and his radical abolitionist/feminist/pacifist “no government” views.  She was immediately impressed with Oberlin, writing “The teachers are pleasant, and the young ladies too.  Colored gentlemen and ladies eat at the same table with us, and there appears to be no difference.”

As progressive as Oberlin was, in one area it was still quite conservative, much to Stone’s frustration.  The general nationwide tabboo against women speaking in public was quite evident at Oberlin, prompting her to say, “I hoped when I came to Oberlin that the course of study would permit such practice, but I was never in a place where women are so rigidly taught that they must not speak in public.”  But Stone was a natural orator, with tremendous charisma, persuasiveness and logical power, and “the voice of an angel” that could yet project enough to be heard by thousands.  And she would not be silenced.  She helped resurrect the Young Ladies’ Assocation on campus and led many spirited debates there.  She also engaged in ad hoc speeches and debates whenever she could, sometimes enduring the disapproval of much (but not all) of the faculty, and greatly honing her already exceptional oratory skills.  In one debate with an older male student, her opponent later confessed that she “swept [my arguments] away like chaff before the wind.”

When she wasn’t debating or studying, she earned spare money by teaching classes to fugitive slaves and freedmen.  Initially there was some discontent among the male students at having a female teacher, but Stone quickly overcame the objections and became quite popular with the students.  Not only did she teach them, but she learned from them as well, listening empathetically to their stories of life in slavery.  She wrote, “When I saw how they were dehumanized… I wondered, that in the wide universe of god, one tongue could be found, that failed to utter its indignant rebuke against all that pertains to so execrable a system.”

She also wrote numerous articles and became the Oberlin correspondent for the Anti-Slavery Bugle, a radical anti-slavery newspaper published in Lisbon, Ohio.  Her articles were sometimes critical of Oberlin for being too conservative (as ironic as that may sound), preferring the much more radical brand of abolitionism espoused by Garrison and his Boston followers (see my William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass debate in Oberlin blog post for more information.)  Her career at Oberlin was thus a love-hate relationship, culminating in her 1847 graduation with a Bachelor’s degree.

After graduating she returned to Massachusetts and became a paid lecturer for the New England Anti-Slavery Society.  Her lectures were exceedingly popular, albeit controversial because of both the abolitionist topic and the gender of the speaker.  She found herself speaking more and more on behalf of women’s rights, sponsoring her own lectures and drawing large crowds of paying guests.  Her lectures took her all over the country, including even some Southern states, and to Canada as well.  Then, in 1855, she married a Cincinnati businessman named Henry Blackwell, in a ceremony in which the couple issued a protest against the traditional subservient role of the wife.  By mutual agreement, Stone kept her own surname – the first woman in the country to do so.

Then, just nine months after the wedding, the shocking news of the Margaret Garner story broke nationwide.  Stone was on a speaking tour in the Northeast when Margaret Garner crossed the frozen Ohio River on foot with a party of 16 other freedom seekers.  Margaret Garner was just 22 years old, but already was married and had four children and was pregnant with a fifth.  When her party reached the Ohio shore they split up into smaller groups and went in different directions.  Margaret’s group of eight included her husband and children.  They made their way to the residence of a freed slave who they knew by the name of Elijah Kite.

Kite, being concerned about the safety of his guests, went to consult with Cincinnati’s foremost Underground Railroad conductor, Levi Coffin.  Coffin advised that the Garner party be moved “at once” to an African American settlement on the western side of the city where freedom seekers often took refuge.  Kite returned to his home to get the Garners, while Coffin made arrangements for their transportation northward that night.

But while all this was going on, Garner’s owner, Archibald Gaines, had crossed the Ohio River and gathered a posse of slavecatchers in pursuit.  They interviewed people who had seen the Garner party on the road and were able to track them to Kite’s residence.  Kite had not had time to remove the Garner’s before his dwelling was surrounded by the slavecatchers, who demanded that they surrender.  Levi Coffin described what happened next:

“The fugitives were determined to fight, and to die, rather than to be taken back to slavery.  Margaret, the mother of the four children, declared that she would kill herself and her children before she would return to bondage.  The slave men were armed and fought bravely.  The window was first battered down with a stick of wood, and one of the deputy marshals attempted to enter, but a pistol shot from within made a flesh wound on his arm and caused him to abandon the attempt.  The pursuers then battered down the door with some timber and rushed in.  The husband of Margaret fired several shots, and wounded one of the officers, but was soon overpowered and dragged out of the house.  At this moment, Maragert Garner, seeing that their hopes of freedom were vain, seized a butcher knife that lay on the table, and with one stroke cut the throat of her little daughter, whom she probably loved the best.  She then attempted to take the life of the other children and to kill herself, but she was overpowered and hampered before she could complete her desperate work.  The whole party was then arrested and lodged in jail.”

Garner painting
Artist’s (incorrect) depiction of the Margaret Garner tragedy

The party remained in jail for almost a month while the legal wrangling continued.  They had numerous visitors, but according to Coffin, “those who came to speak words of comfort and cheer felt them die upon their lips, when they looked into [Margaret's] face, and marked its expression of settled despair.  Her sorrow was beyond reach of any words of encouragement and consolation, and can be realized in all its fullness only by those who have tasted of a cup equally bitter.”  Visitors noticed two old scars on Margaret’s face, but when asked about them she would only reply, “white man struck me.”  Others noticed the light complexion of her children and speculated that it was evidence of sexual abuse at the hands of her owner.

One of the visitors who tried to console Margaret was Lucy Stone, who returned to her new home in Cincinnati after completing her speaking tour.  While Stone met with Margaret, a rumor started that Stone had attempted to procure a knife for Margaret so she could finish the job if the trial went against her.  The slaveholder’s attorney, Colonel Chambers, openly accused Stone of this in court.  When Stone heard about the accusation, she asked to be allowed to address the court after it adjourned for the day.  At that time, speaking with her natural eloquence, Lucy Stone Blackwell (as the court called her) made the following statement to a packed courtroom:

“I am only sorry that I was not in when Colonel Chambers said what he did about me, and my giving a knife to Margaret. When I saw that poor fugitive, took her toil-hardened hand in mine, and read in her face deep suffering and an ardent longing for freedom, I could not help bid her be of good cheer. I told her that a thousand hearts were aching for her, and that they were glad one child of hers was safe with the angels. Her only reply was a look of deep despair, of anguish such as no words can speak.

I thought the spirit she manifested was the same with that of our ancestors to whom we had erected the monument at Bunker Hill–the spirit that would rather let us all go back to God than back to slavery. The faded faces of the negro children tell too plainly to what degradation female slaves must submit. Rather than give her little daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right to do so? That desire had its root in the deepest and holiest feelings of our nature–implanted alike in black and white by our common Father. With my own teeth I would tear open my veins and let the earth drink my blood, rather than to wear the chains of slavery. How then could I blame her for wishing her child to find freedom with God and the angels, where no chains are?

I know not whether this Commissioner has children, else I would appeal to him to know how he would feel to have them torn from him, but I feel that he will not disregard the Book which says: ‘Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best.’”

Listening to Stone speak was a reporter from the women’s rights newpaper, The Lily, who was enthralled with “the fascinating power of her voice, so irresistibly sweet and powerful.  Its melody has lingered around my heart ever since I first heard its tones, like a magic spell, and I only wish that it might reach the ear of the nation – when I am sure its stubborn heart would relent.”

But the stubborn heart of the nation did not relent.  The Fugitive Slave Law reigned supreme.  The Garners had top-notch legal counsel in the person of the abolitionist attorney,  John Jolliffe, and support from the newly inaugurated abolitionist Governor of Ohio, Salmon Chase.  But it wouldn’t be enough.  Jolliffe argued that the Garners had, in prior years, been brought into Ohio by their owner on business, and that under Ohio law that made them free, even though they had not realized it at the time.  The court agreed that they would have been free at that time, if only they had claimed their freedom.  But since they “voluntarily” returned to Kentucky and slavery with their owner, they had surrendered that freedom.   And now, being in Ohio as fugitives without their owner’s consent, they were subject to be returned to his custody.

Then Jolliffe tried an extremely unusual maneuver.  He asked the county prosecutor to indict his own clients for the murder of Margaret’s two year old daughter, believing that a conviction would bring them out of federal custody and into state custody where Governor Chase could pardon them.  But the court would have no part of it.  The Fugitive Slave Law superseded even Ohio’s murder laws.  To the “outrage” of Governor Chase, a U.S. district judge ordered the Garners released to the slavecatchers, and “hardly an hour elapsed… before the fugitives were lodged in a Kentucky jail.”  Governor Chase issued a warrant of extradition, but the slavecatchers eluded his agents, and the Garners were sold “downriver” to what attorney Jolliffe called “the seething hell of American slavery.”

But fate would intervene on the boat ride down the Mississippi, as the boat was involved in a collision and Margaret Garner and one of her children ended up overboard.  The child drowned, but Margaret was pulled back aboard the ship.  Some claimed that Margaret “displayed frantic joy” when told of the death of her child.  Margaret herself would survive to make it to New Orleans, but would die there of typhoid fever two years later.  The Underground Railroad, which helped tens of thousands of freedom seekers escape from bondage, had been unable to help Margaret Garner.  Like her two children, and millions of other enslaved Americans before her, death was Margaret Garner’s rescuer.

 

Margaret Garner’s story became the inspiration for Lorain native Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved.  The novel, and a series of park benches she placed in “important locations in African American history” around the world, are dedicated to the memory of the slaves.  One of those benches is in Oberlin’s Toni Morrison Park on the northeast corner of Lorain and Main Streets. (Click for video, courtesy Visit Lorain County).

 

Sources consulted:

Levi Coffin, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin

Andrea Moore Kerr, Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality

Jacob William Shuckers, William Maxwell Evarts, The Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase

Mark Reinhardt, Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?

“Bench by the Road Project”, The Toni Morrison Society

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1