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Frances Jackson Coppin – From Slavery to Trailblazer

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent, researcher and trustee

Frances (“Fanny”) Jackson came to Oberlin in 1860 with a dream – a dream “to get an education and to teach my people”, she said. “This idea was deep in my soul. Where it came from I cannot tell, for I had never had any exhortations, nor any lectures which influenced me to take this course. It must have been born in me.”   It was a big dream for a 23 year old woman who ten years earlier had been bought out of slavery by her aunt. But it was a dream that had been nurtured at the Rhode Island State Normal School, would blossom at Oberlin, and would inspire the dreams of thousands of others. [1]

Fanny M. Jackson

Fanny M. Jackson
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Fanny Jackson entered the Oberlin College preparatory school in 1860, where after a year of study she would make a bold decision. She would enroll in the baccalaureate program (the “gentleman’s course”) at Oberlin College, rather than the literary program commonly prescribed for women. “The faculty did not forbid a woman to take the gentleman’s course,” she explained, “but they did not advise it. There was plenty of Latin and Greek in it, and as much mathematics as one could shoulder.” But with an unquenchable dedication that would characterize her life, she “took a long breath and prepared for a delightful contest.” [2]

At that time no African American woman had ever graduated from Oberlin’s baccalaureate program. But Jackson felt comfortable in Oberlin, even though she felt she “had the honor of the whole African race upon my shoulders.” She would room with the families of Professors Henry Peck and Charles Churchill, and would always acknowledge “the influence upon my life in these two Christian homes, where I was regarded as an honored member of the family circle.” [3]

Jackson’s teaching career began during the extended Oberlin College winter breaks, when she taught a night school, as described by the Lorain County News in 1864:

This School is open to all the Colored people of Oberlin, both young and old, who desire to receive instruction in the elementary branches, reading, writing, spelling, grammar, etc., and is most ably conducted by Miss F.M. Jackson, a young lady of rare accomplishments and devotion to the work. On the evening of our call the exercises were most interesting. The pupils were mostly adults, who, after a hard day’s labor[,] embracing the opportunity afforded them for self-improvement, bent their minds to the task before them with an earnestness and concentration that were truly gratifying. Miss Jackson has the knack of at once interesting and instructing, a fact evidently well appreciated by her scholars who appeared to enter with great enthusiasm into all her novel plans for their improvement. [4]

Jackson found her work with adults who had been kept in ignorance by slavery and prejudice to be immensely rewarding. “It was deeply touching to me to see old men painfully following the simple words of spelling; so intensely eager to learn”, she explained years later. “I felt that for such people to have been kept in the darkness of ignorance was an unpardonable sin, and rejoiced that even then I could enter measurably upon the course in life which I had long ago chosen.” [5]

For practically all of Jackson’s tenure at Oberlin, the United States was embroiled in Civil War. Jackson watched closely as her white classmates enlisted in droves to fight for the Union cause and her black classmates were turned away – admonished that “this is a white man’s government… white men are able to defend and protect it.”  When the federal government finally did allow black men to serve in 1863, the state of Massachusetts raised the first black northern regiment: the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Jackson, voted “class poet” by her college classmates, wrote a poem in honor of the men who enlisted in this regiment, which included eighteen Oberlinites.  It was published on page one of the Lorain County News and minced no words as to what the men of the 54th were fighting for: [6]

Now, Freedom stands holding with uplifted face,
Her hands, dipped in blood, on the brow of our race.
Attest it! my country, and never again
By this holy baptism, forget we are men,
Nor care, when we’ve mingled our blood in your battles,
To sneer at our manhood and call us your “chattles.”  [7]

But in this same year of the Emancipation Proclamation and bloody draft riots, Jackson noted that “a very bitter feeling was exhibited against the colored people of the country, because they were held responsible for the fratricidal war then going on.”  It was in this volatile environment that the faculty of Oberlin College embarked on a bold endeavor. “It was a custom in Oberlin that forty students from the junior and senior classes were employed to teach the preparatory classes,” Jackson explained.  “As it was now time for the juniors to begin their work, the Faculty informed me that it was their purpose to give me a class, but I was to distinctly understand that if the pupils rebelled against my teaching, they did not intend to force it.” [8]

Unlike the voluntary classes she had taught so far, Jackson would be teaching a compulsory class of mostly white students – the first African American teacher to do so.  Certainly the faculty’s hedge against forcing the issue would be considered unacceptable and discriminatory by today’s standards, but in 1863 America, where the Supreme Court of the land had a standing ruling that descendants of Africans were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”, Jackson understood that “it took a little moral courage on the part of the faculty to put me in my place against the old custom of giving classes only to white students.”  What she didn’t mention was that it took even greater courage for herself to accept the offer. But where the cause of education or the advancement of her race or gender was at stake, Jackson would never back away from the challenge. The result was, in her own words, “an overwhelming success”: [9]

Fortunately for my training at the [Rhode Island] normal school, and my own dear love of teaching, tho there was a little surprise on the faces of some when they came into the class, and saw the teacher, there were no signs of rebellion. The class went on increasing in numbers until it had to be divided, and I was given both divisions. One of the divisions ran up again, but the Faculty decided that I had as much as I could do… [10]

The Principal of the Preparatory Department was “delighted” with the results.   A visiting reporter from an African American Philadelphia newspaper described it even more glowingly: [11]

It affords us much pleasure to say, that we never saw a teacher who took so much pains to explain every thing so clearly, as did Miss Fanny, to her class. Her manners are very pleasant and graceful. Her class is very large, being composed of both white and colored. She is the first colored person that ever taught in this institution, and we are proud of her. In the class she now teaches, the young white men and girls were a little prejudiced against her, when she was first placed as a teacher over them by the Faculty, but now they deem it an honor to be taught by her. [12]

Indeed, one student was so upset after his first class that “he came into his boarding place, flaming with indignation, and threatening to write at once to his parents and get taken home again, because his teacher was a woman, and a BLACK woman. But his matron persuaded him to a little delay, and it was not long before he preferred Miss Jackson to any other teacher.”  [13]

In 1865, Fanny Jackson graduated from Oberlin College with a bachelor’s degree. Interestingly, she was not now the first black woman to do so.  Mary Jane Patterson had attained that honor at Oberlin in 1862 (and perhaps was the first black woman in the country to earn that degree). Both women would now be offered teaching positions at the Institute for Colored Youth in Pennsylvania, but ironically Jackson would be appointed Principal of the Female Department, while Patterson would become her assistant. [14]

Mary Jane Patterson

Mary Jane Patterson
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Jackson was thrilled about the Institute and her prospects, writing:

In the year 1837, the Friends [Quakers] of Philadelphia had established a school for the education of colored youth in higher learning. To make a test whether or not the Negro was capable of acquiring any considerable degree of education. For it was one of the strongest arguments in the defense of slavery, that the Negro was an inferior creation formed by the Almighty for just the work he was doing. It is said that John C. Calhoun made the remark, that if there could be found a Negro that could conjugate a Greek verb, he would give up all his preconceived ideas of the inferiority of the Negro. Well, let’s try him, and see, said the fair-minded Quaker people. And for years this institution, known as the Institute for Colored Youth, was visited by interested persons from different parts of the United States and Europe. Here I was given the delightful task of teaching my own people, and how delighted I was to see them mastering Caesar, Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Xenophon’s Anabasis. We also taught New Testament Greek.  [15]

Already after her first week of teaching, the Quaker managers of the Institute declared her a “very valuable acquisition” and noticed a “greater animation of manner and a louder and clearer mode of speaking among the girls.” In her first year, enrollment in the Female Department almost doubled.  She lived and taught by a simple philosophy: “Many a child called dull, would advance rapidly under a patient, wise and skillful teacher, and the teacher should be as conscientious in the endeavor to improve himself as he is to improve the child.” [16]

By 1869 the managers were so impressed that they promoted her to head Principal of the entire Institute, the first African American woman in the country to take such a position. At that time, Mary Jane Patterson resigned and took a teaching position in Washington, D.C. Two years later she too would become a Principal, of the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (the forerunner of prestigious Dunbar High School).

The focus of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia at this time was to train students to become teachers themselves, a task that was not only sacred to Jackson, but was critical in this era of Reconstruction, when millions of freedmen needed and yearned for education. Indeed during the interval from 1861 to 1875, the Institute would send 56 known teachers to the South, comparing favorably with the 290 known teachers sent from the much larger Oberlin College, which sent far more than any other northern academic institution. [17]

But Jackson realized that not all students were meant to be teachers, and so as the Reconstruction era came to a close in the late 1870s, she embarked upon what she called an “Industrial Crusade”, to bring industrial education to the Institute: [18]

At a meeting of the public school directors and heads of some of the educational institutions, I was asked to tell what was being done in Philadelphia for the industrial education of the colored youth. It may well be understood I had a tale to tell. And I told them the only place in the city where a colored boy could learn a trade was the House of Refuge or the Penitentiary, and the sooner he became incorrigible and got into the Refuge or committed a crime and got into the Penitentiary, the more promising it would be for his industrial training. It was to me a serious occasion. I so expressed myself. [19]

Despite the tremendous regard the managers of the Institute held for their Principal, they were reluctant to move in this direction. But Jackson would not be deterred. It would take a decade of diplomatic persuasion, but ultimately the industrial school would become a reality. By this time Fanny Jackson had become Mrs. Fanny Coppin, marrying the Reverend Levi Coppin of Baltimore’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, who had been impressed by her “irreproachable character” and her “undisputed leadership in all matters of race advancement.” [20]

In 1890 a large celebration was held to honor Mrs. Coppin’s 25th anniversary with the Institute. By then thousands of students had studied under her tutelage, 3/4ths of the black teachers in Philadelphia and nearby Camden were graduates of her Institute, and there was a waiting list to get in.  In addition to her schoolwork, she founded the Women’s Exchange and Girls’ Home for disadvantaged females in Philadelphia, and wrote a women’s column for an influential African American Philadelphia newspaper. [21]

Through the 1890s, the industrial college turned out to be an unqualified success, training bricklayers, shoemakers, carpenters, printers, plasterers, tailors, dressmakers, and stenographers.  Mrs. Coppin insisted that women be included in the courses as well as men.  “During my entire life, I have suffered from two disadvantages,” she told one audience, “first, that I am a woman; second, than I am a Negro.”   But as the 19th century drew to a close and the 20th century was ushered in, changes were in the air.  Mrs. Coppin began to have health problems.  Reverend Coppin was appointed a Bishop in South Africa.  And the managers of the Institute requested that Mrs. Coppin “tone down” her beloved academic curriculum, claiming that it was “pitched too high”, and began a move towards a re-organization that stressed more elementary courses and “manual training” in its stead. [22]

These factors, to varying and unknown degrees, likely influenced Mrs. Coppin’s decision in 1902 to resign from the Institute after 37 years of service.  But she left on good terms.  The newly appointed “Committee to Re-organize the Institute” reported: “Your committee has much satisfaction in recording the high esteem that they have found general for the past work of the Institute and the enlightened views of its devoted head, Frances J. Coppin. Radical changes in the future will not of course discredit the work of the past…”  [23]

That same year the Coppins moved to South Africa. Mrs. Coppin called it “a fortunate incident to finish my active work right in Africa.”  But failing health brought her back to Philadelphia a year later, and there she continued to decline. In her final year of life, at age 75, she wrote her autobiography at the request of her friends.  Published shortly after her death in 1913, the book was characteristically only one third about herself, and the remainder about teaching methods and biographical sketches of her colleagues and students. Even the portion that was about herself was full of praise for others. “My obligation to the dear people of Oberlin can never be measured in words,” she wrote. [24]

But that obligation was paid forward – many thousands of times.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Fanny Jackson-Coppin, Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching

Linda Marie Perkins, Fanny Jackson Coppin and the Institute for Colored Youth (PhD dissertation)

Levi Jenkins Coppin, Unwritten History

“Oberlin Colored School”, Lorain County News, Feb 10, 1864, p. 2

“Sketches by the Wayside”, The Christian Recorder, August 26, 1865, p. 2

“To the 54th Mass. Volunteers”, Lorain County News, June 10, 1863, p. 1

“A Worthy Enterprise”, Lorain County News, February 4, 1863, p. 3

“A Fortnight in Oberlin”, National Anti-Slavery Standard, March 11, 1865, p. 3

Fannie Jackson Coppin, Class of 1865“, Oberlin College

Ronald E. Butchart, “Mission Matters: Mount Holyoke, Oberlin, and the Schooling of Southern Blacks, 1861-1917”, History of Education Quarterly, Spring 2002

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

John Mercer Langston, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol

Scott v. Sandford“, Legal Information Institute

“Fanny Jackson Coppin” graduate file, Oberlin College Archives, RG 28/2, Box 208

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College From its Foundation through the Civil War

“Mary Jane Patterson (1840-1894)”, Notable Black American Women

“The Grandeur of our Triumph”, Lorain County News, Nov 15, 1865, p. 1

“From Slavery Onward”, Oberlin Weekly News, Aug 22, 1889, p. 3

“Prejudice at Oberlin”, National Anti-Slavery Standard, July 9, 1864, p. 2

“Notes by the Way”, The Christian Recorder, Nov 27, 1902, p. 1

“Gala Week in Philadelphia”, New York Age, July 5, 1890

“Philadelphia Anniversary”, New York Age, Oct 4, 1890

Ellen N. Lawson and Marlene Merrill, “The Antebellum ‘Talented Thousandth’: Black College Students at Oberlin Before the Civil War,” The Journal of Negro Education, Spring 1983, pp. 390-402

James H. Fairchild, Oberlin: The Colony and the College, 1833-1883

Roland M. Baumann, Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College

About CU“, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania

Minority Student Records“, Oberlin College Archives, RG 5/4/3

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Jackson-Coppin, p. 17
[2] Jackson-Coppin, p. 12
[3] Jackson-Coppin, pp. 13-14, 15
[4] “Oberlin Colored School”; “A Worthy Enterprise”
[5] Jackson-Coppin, p. 18
[6] Langston, p. 206; Jackson-Coppin, p. 15; Bigglestone, p. 237
[7] “To the 54th”
[8] Jackson-Coppin, pp. 12, 18
[9] “Fannie”; “Scott”; Jackson-Coppin, pp. 18-19
[10] Jackson-Coppin, p. 12
[11] Jackson-Coppin, p. 19
[12] “Sketches”
[13] “A Fortnight”
[14] “Mary Jane”, pp. 826-827
[15] Jackson-Coppin, pp. 19-20
[16] Perkins, p. 84; Jackson-Coppin, p. 53
[17] Butchart, pp. 7-8
[18] Jackson-Coppin, pp. 27, 36
[19] Jackson-Coppin, p. 28
[20] Coppin, p. 353
[21] Perkins, pp. 160-161, 245
[22] Perkins, pp. 251, 257, 262, 281, 294
[23] Perkins, p. 285
[24] Jackson-Coppin, pp. 13, 122, Preface

 

August First – the original “Juneteenth”

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent, researcher, and trustee
July 23, 2015

In my last blog, I wrote about how Juneteenth became a national celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.  But before there was a Juneteenth, there was the First of August, to celebrate the end of slavery in the British West Indies.  While it may not sound like a big deal to us today, West Indian Emancipation Day, as it was called, was a big deal in early Oberlin and other abolitionist and African American communities.  In an era when American slaveholders were tightening the chains ever tighter on their bondsmen, West Indian Emancipation (which would soon lead to the extinction of legalized slavery throughout the British Empire) was a glimmer of hope just 600 miles from the American mainland.

West Indian Emancipation was the result of the labors of Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and other British abolitionists who had devoted decades of their lives to the anti-slavery cause.  A short but bloody slave uprising on the West Indian island of Jamaica during Christmas 1831 gave traction to the movement, and finally Parliament decreed that slavery in the British West Indies would be abolished beginning August 1, 1834.   Three of the West Indian islands – Antigua, Montserrat, and Bermuda – would set their slaves free unconditionally on that date, while the other islands would begin a gradual emancipation plan, called “apprenticeship”, that would take several years. [1]

ClarksonWilberforce

But whereas a bloody slave rebellion had helped lead to the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire, a similar rebellion in the United States at about the same time had exactly the opposite effect.   Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia in August, 1831 caused slaveholders to tighten the chains (figuratively speaking) on their slaves all the more.  Discouraged by the turn of events at home, American abolitionists and blacks looked to Britain as a sign of hope.

And so it was that the first August 1st celebration in the United States took place in New York City on August 1, 1834, and abolitionist missionaries, teachers, and reporters flocked to the British West Indies to observe and assist in the emancipation process.   Among the early Americans to arrive there was Oberlin’s own Lane Rebel and future college professor, James Thome, who was commissioned by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1837 to report on the progress of West Indian Emancipation.  Not surprisingly, Thome reported that Antigua, which had experienced immediate, unconditional emancipation, “is the morning star of our nation, and though it glimmers faintly through a lurid sky, yet we hail it, and catch at every ray as the token of a bright sun which may yet burst gloriously upon us.”   He was less sanguine about the gradual emancipation in the other islands, yet he still insisted “that we are much better off now than we have been for a long time.”   Reports like these caused Arthur Tappan’s anti-slavery newspaper, The Emancipator, upon the completion of the British emancipation process in 1838, to declare that August 1st should be celebrated as a recurring holiday by abolitionists everywhere. [2]

So it was written, and so it was done, with annual celebrations spreading outward from New York and New England over the next several years.  Oberlin’s first August First celebration occurred in 1842 under the leadership of Sabram Cox, an escaped slave who came to Oberlin to obtain an education a few years earlier and would remain the rest of his life as a key community leader.  Assisting Cox was George B. Vashon, a free-born black who two years later would become the first African American to earn a Bachelor’s Degree at Oberlin College and then go on to become a teacher in Haiti (another Carribbean island that achieved emancipation, but in this case by a massive slave uprising in the 1790s).  Also assisting was William P. Newman, another escaped slave and Oberlin College student who would go on to become an educator and minister to the fugitive slave colonies in Canada.  The Oberlin Evangelist described the results of their efforts as follows:

Perhaps there has never been more interest felt, on any public occasion in this place, than at the celebration by the colored people, on the first [of this month].  The anniversary of the emancipation of 800,000 persons held in slavery in the British West Indies, must be a more interesting time to the friends of human rights, than the anniversary of American Independence, so long as the principles of the declaration of that independence are so utterly disregarded by our slave-holding and pro-slavery citizens.  And then this was probably the first effort made by any portion of the colored people of Ohio to show their improvement and the effect of giving them equal rights.  The idea of the celebration originated with, and all the arrangements were made and executed by the colored people, with scarcely a suggestion from others.  And, no doubt, we speak the feelings of the very large audience in attendance, when we say that the whole was conceived and executed with excellent judgment, and good taste.  We heard no expression but that of satisfaction and gratification.

The celebration lasted from morning to evening, with speeches by the organizers as well as Oberlin College President Asa Mahan, Professor John Morgan, and Professor Thome, who told of his personal experiences in the West Indies.  As reported by the Evangelist,  “The large chapel was crowded to excess, and the interest continued to the close, as was manifested by the earnest attention and moistened eye of many in the congregation…  After the meeting, two hundred and fifty persons sat down to a plain free dinner, provided by the colored people, eighty of whom were at the table.  Of these nearly one half had felt the galling chain of slavery.” [3]

The following year would see the celebration return, and the Oberlin Evangelist would once again report that “Throughout the whole, the true principle of equality, the essential brotherhood of man, prevailed, and the effect was most happy on all concerned.”   In 1844, a new leader of the Oberlin African American community and the First of August celebrations would emerge in the person of Oberlin College student William Howard Day.  Although only 18 years old at the time, Day would deliver a stirring address and become the chief organizer of the annual event for the next two years. Invoking the legacy of the African liberator Cinque, whose 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad ultimately led to the liberty of its enslaved passengers, Day proclaimed: [4]

I love my country, but never can I sacrifice the rights of man for a love of country.  The truth must be told: our country is guilty – we are guilty, and slavery must be abolished soon, or we may prepare to suffer the consequences.  We have long enough clung to the faint hope of a change; we have long enough listened to the frequest whisper, “Peace, be still”, and now the call is for action.  From the memorable rock of Plymouth, a beacon has been lighted by the fires of liberty.  The irrevocable decree has gone forth from the Supreme Court of the universe – “Proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants thereof.”  If such were the sentiments of the pilgrim fathers, if such be the command of God, liberty we can, and liberty we must have.  If “coming events cast their shadows before”, who can prophesy that the decks of the Amistad and Creole are not the faint sketches of our future history.  If a Cinque or a Washington shall hereafter rise, (which may God forbid) – if our land shall be deluged in blood – if your attention shall be directed to the Southern quarter by the roar of the booming cannon, and the shrieks of the wounded and dying – if devastation and ruin take the place of supposed peace – or if with the burning of villages they shall be enveloped in one common grave – you will be responsible.  You have it in your power to avert it.  The same means used for the abolition of Slavery in the West Indies, will avail now.  Their efforts were few and feeble, but at last they conquered; and with the same well-directed efforts, with the same spirit, and with the dependence on the same God, we shall conquer.

WilliamHowardDay

Day would go on to have a long career of anti-slavery and equal rights advocacy, locally, nationally and internationally.  (See my William Howard Day blog.)  Among those listening to Day’s speech that August 1st was a frequent visitor to Oberlin, Mrs. Almira Porter Barnes, from Troy, New York.  Mrs. Barnes was an abolitionist and moral reform activist who was on close terms with the Oberlin College establishment.  She described the day’s events as follows:

… at eight oclock in the morning there was a prayer meeting [and] a number of prayers and addresses were made by both coulored [sic] and white[;] a white gentleman from Jamaca [sic] was present who was a slaveholder untill [sic] a short time previous to Emancipation and gave us some account of the manner in which the day was kept there and the effect it had had upon the slaveholder and the slave.  At three o’clock in the after noon a large assembly met in the church and listened to several addresses from coulored young men that would have done honor to students from any institution in the country.  A dinner was provided by the coulored people and between two and three hundred invitations given including of course the professors families and distinguished strangers like myself.  After partaking of an excellent repast consisting of pyes [sic] cake fruit &c we had some excellent singing and some appropriate remarks by a Mr Hall a Baptist Minister who formerly preached in Rochester and then the invited company dispersed and the tables were filled again with any who were disposed to partake… [5]

The African American organizers of the Oberlin August First celebrations also welcomed participation by women.  Many of the female participants prepared essays that were read to the audience by male proxies, in deference to the contemporary tabboo against women orators sharing the stage with men and speaking before a mixed audience.  In 1846, Oberlin resident Mary Hester Crabb, an emancipated slave, and Oberlin College student Emeline Crooker had their essays read, and the following year, Oberlin College student Antoinette Brown (who would become the first female ordained minister in the United States in 1853) also wrote an essay.  But the event organizers were also amenable to women who would dare to defy the public speaking tabboo.  On August 1, 1846, Oberlin College student Lucy Stone did just that, and in the words of one reporter, “in a clear, full tone, read her own article”. The speech, entitled “Why Do We Rejoice Today?”, was the first in an illustrious speaking career that spanned several decades.  (See my Lucy Stone blog).  The following is an excerpt: [6]

We rejoice to-day, not simply because the genius of freedom is now presiding and scattering blessings, where eight years ago the Demon of slavery brooded; – nor merely that where ignorance and heathenism then prevailed, the light of science and christianity is now dawning; – nor yet because to-day is the anniversary of the moral and political birth-day of eight hundred thousand human beings, – but we rejoice in the grander fact, that in one of the largest and most influential kingdoms of the world, a public sentiment exists which shivers the chains of the slave and lets “the oppressed go free” – which practically recognizes the equal brotherhood and inalienable rights of man…

 

The doom of slavery everywhere is sealed in the public sentiment which caused England to reach out her hand over the broad Atlantic, to lift up from his deep degradation, and make conscious of his manhood, the bondman pining there.  The influence of that event will be wide as the world, and longer than the stream of time.

Stone-August1st

But as Oberlinites and abolitionists found hope and cheer in the example set by the British, the political leaders of the American slaveholding states had a vastly different view of the situation.  To them West Indian emancipation was a catastrophe like none other, to be avoided at all costs.  Just months before William Howard Day delivered his first August 1st address, and as Thomas Clarkson and other British abolitionists were turning their attention towards worldwide abolition, U.S. Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, one of the South’s most powerful slaveholders, wrote to the British Foreign Minister and warned him that if Britain were to “succeed in accomplishing in the United States, what she avows to be her desire and the object of her constant exertions to effect throughout the world, so far from being wise or humane, she would involve in the greatest calamity the whole country.”  The following year, South Carolina Governor James Hammond went a step further in a scathing letter to Clarkson himself, declaring that the anti-slavery agitation of recent years had served only to drive American slaveholders into “a close examination of the subject in all its bearings, and the  result had been an universal conviction that in holding Slaves we violate no law of God – inflict no injustice on any of his creatures – while the terrible consequences of emancipation to all parties and the world at large, clearly revealed to us, make us shudder at the bare thought of it.”  Even fifteen years later, as Alabama prepared to secede from the Union on the eve of the Civil War, Alabama secession commissioner Stephen Hale warned the Governor of Kentucky that if secession failed, “the dark pall of barbarism must soon gather over our sunny land, and the scenes of West India emancipation, with its attendant horrors and crimes (that monument of British fanaticism and folly), be re-enacted in our own land upon a more gigantic scale.” [7]

Clearly the road to Juneteenth in the United States would be a vastly more difficult path than the road to August 1st had been in the British Empire.  But with the British example before it,  Oberlin would stay the course through many more August 1st commemorations.  Even as late as August 1, 1862, in the midst of bloody civil war, at a meeting chaired by Oberlin College graduate Elias Toussaint Jones, its “citizens irrespective of color” would resolve:

That this day – the memorial day of Freedom to 800,000 slaves in the West Indies – was the first instalment [sic] in modern times of the redeeming power of true Christian civilization upon the destinies of the oppressed; that the work begun then and there still progresses and cannot cease till the same power shall have pervaded every Christian nation, not excepting our own; that we have unmistakeable indications that God is moving his almighty agencies towards this result; that the insane rebellion of the South was permitted and will be over-ruled of God to this end, and that a thousand lesser subordinate events conspire to assure us that the day of universal emancipation in this country is at hand. [8]

Eight weeks later President Lincoln would unveil to the nation his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“First of August – Colored People”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 17, 1842, p. 5

“The First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 16, 1843, p. 7

“The First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 14, 1844, p. 7

“Emancipation in the West Indies. Slavery in America”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1844, p. 3

“First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 14, 1845, p. 6

“First of August in Oberlin”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 19, 1846, p. 6

“Jamaica”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 18,1847, p. 6

“First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 18,1852, pp. 6-7

“Annual Report of the Female A. S. Soc”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 15,1855, p. 7

“First of August in Oberlin”, The Oberlin Evangelist, July 30, 1862, p. 7

“First of August in Oberlin (Concluded from our last)”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 13, 1862, pp. 5-6

“Why do we rejoice to-day?”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, November 27, 1846, p. 3

Almira Porter Barnes to Mrs. Laura Willard, August 12, 1844, Oberlin College Archives, Robert S. Fletcher collection, RG30/24, Box 3, Folder: “Correspondence – Misc pre-1865”

Dr. John Oldfield, “British Anti-Slavery“, February 17, 2011, BBC

James A. Thome, Joseph Horace Kimball, Emancipation in the West Indies

Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists

Todd Mealy, Aliened American: A Biography of William Howard Day, 1825-1865, Volume 1

“Celebration of the Disenfranchised Americans of Oberlin, Ohio, First of August, 1846”, Oberlin College Archives, Oberlin File, RG21, Series XI, Box 2

John C. Calhoun, letter to Mr. Pakenham, April 18, 1844, Proceedings of the Senate and Documents Relative to Texas, from which the Injunction of Secrecy Has Been Removed, p. 53

James Henry Hammond to Thomas Clarkson, March 24, 1845, The Pro-Slavery Argument: as Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States, pp. 169-170

Stephen F. Hale, letter to Gov. B. McGoffin of Kentucky, December 27, 1860, Official Records of the Rebellion, Series 4, Volume 1, p. 9

Gale L. Kenny, Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica

John Stauffer, “American Responses to British Emancipation: The Problem of Progress“, Third Annual Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference at Yale University, October 25-28, 2001

Kevin O’Brien Chang, “Sam Sharpe – Emancipation Hero“, July 27, 2012, The Gleaner

Lucy Stone to “Dear Father and Mother”, August 16, 1846, Oberlin College Archives, Robert S. Fletcher collection, RG30/24, Box 10, Folder 2

Carol Lasser and Marlene Deahl Merrill, ed., Friends & Sisters: Letters Between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846-93

Roland M. Baumann, “A Voice Beneath History: the Story of Mary Hester Crabb”, presentation at Oberlin Public Library, February 1, 2014

William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College From its Foundation through the Civil War, volume 1

General Catalogue of Oberlin College: 1833- 1908

Minority Student Records“, Oberlin College Archives, RG 5/4/3

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Kenny, pp. 55-56

[2] Quarles, pp. 123, 124; Thome, pp. 209, 478

[3] Oberlin Evangelist, August 17, 1842

[4] Oberlin Evangelist, August 16, 1843; Mealy, pp. 123-124; “Celebration”; Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1844

[5] Barnes

[6] Baumann; “Celebration”; Lasser, p. 24; Stone to “Dear Father and Mother”; “Why do we rejoice to-day?

[7] Calhoun; Hammond; Hale

[8] Oberlin Evangelist, July 30, 1862

Was Abolitionism a Failure?

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent and researcher

Last week the New York Times published a blog posted by Jon Grinspan that asked the question, “was abolitionism a failure?”  The author answered the question with the assertion that “as a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop.”  It probably won’t come as a great surprise to anybody that the Oberlin Heritage Center doesn’t necessarily share that view, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to reply to some of the specific issues raised in that blog, and to let one of Oberlin’s most esteemed historical figures reply to the question in general.

The basic premise of Mr. Grinspan’s blog is that abolitionism was unpopular before the Civil War, and it was only the war itself that turned Northern public opinion decidedly against slavery.  To demonstrate the unpopularity of abolitionism, the blog points to the scant support for the country’s first national abolitionist political party, the Liberty Party, and to the meager 3,000 subscribers to The Liberator, which the blog refers to as “the premier antislavery newspaper.”

Mr. Grinspan is indeed correct that the abolitionist Liberty Party, which existed in the 1840s, only garnered a paltry number of votes (6,797 in the 1840 Presidential election).   But  it should be remembered that prior to the Civil War many abolitionists were opposed to political action altogether, and very few advocated nationwide abolition by the federal government.  Instead, the majority of abolitionists looked to “moral suasion” to convince the public that slavery was wrong, believing that government action, to the extent it was necessary, would naturally follow the shift in public opinion.   This position was explained in 1835 in the Anti-Slavery Record, published by the American Anti-Slavery Society (which by 1840 would have almost 200,000 members): [1]

The reformation has commenced, both at the North and at the South.  The more the subject is discussed, by the pulpit, by the press, at the bar, in the legislative hall and in private conversation, the faster will the change proceed.  When any individual slave holder is brought to believe that slavery is sinful, he will immediately emancipate his own slaves.  When a majority of the nation are brought to believe in immediate emancipation, Congress will, of course, pass a law abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia.  When the people of the several slave states are brought upon the same ground, they will severally abolish slavery within their respective limits. [2]

However, in the closing years of the 1840s the threat of slavery’s expansion caused many abolitionists to take a more active role in politics.  The old Liberty Party was dissolved and was supplanted by the Free Soil Party, which received exponentially more votes, and which in turn was supplanted by the Republican Party, which took control of the Presidency, the House of Representatives, and most Northern governorships by 1860.  And while the Free Soil and Republican parties were pragmatic political coalitions in contrast with the purely abolitionist Liberty Party,  they both espoused opposition to slavery as their core issue.  The 1860 Republican Party platform contained 7 (out of 17) planks that directly advocated anti-slavery principles and policies.  To be sure, it also included a states’ right plank leaving the legality of slavery to the individual states to determine for themselves, but the 1844 Liberty Party platform left slavery to be “wholly abolished by State authority” as well.  Pledging federal non-interference with slavery in the states where it already existed was a sentiment shared by the vast majority of abolitionists throughout the antebellum period, and was in no way an attempt to “abolish abolitionism”, as the blog describes it. [3]

As for the characterization of The Liberator as “the premier antislavery newspaper”, this is also taking a partial snapshot of the early abolitionist movement and applying it to the entire antebellum period.  The Liberator, published in Boston and edited by William Lloyd Garrison, was arguably the premier antislavery newspaper in 1831 when it was first published.  (See my William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass debate in Oberlin blog.)  But its strident disunionist, “no government” message, despite grabbing national attention, was too radical to ever develop a large subscribership, even as scores of anti-slavery newspapers proliferated throughout the Northern states over the next 3 decades, including The National Era (with a peak subscription base of 28,000),  Frederick Douglass’ Paper,  the Tappan brothers’ American Missionary (which was “read by twenty thousand church members”), and Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (with a peak weekly circulation of 200,000).  Ohio had numerous anti-slavery newspapers of its own, including the radical Garrisonite  Anti-Slavery Bugle (with Oberlin College student Lucy Stone as a correspondent), the Cleveland Morning Leader, and the Oberlin Evangelist (which itself  had a peak subscribership of over 4,300).  Thus by the start of the Civil War hundreds of thousands of Northerners were subscribing to unabashedly anti-slavery newspapers.  So it’s no wonder that William Lloyd Garrison, despite his own newspaper’s scant subscription base, could declare in 1860 that “a general enlightenment has taken place upon the subject of slavery. The opinions of a vast multitude have been essentially changed, and secured to the side of freedom.” [4]

 

Garrison & Stone

But even in the lean years of the 1830s and early 1840s, abolitionists had enough clout to make a significant impact.  In 1835 they launched a mass mailing campaign, sending hundreds of thousands of anti-slavery publications to clergymen and prominent leaders nationwide.  Southern slaveholders felt so threatened by this campaign that they began a program of postal censorship, with South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun advising them to “prohibit the introduction or circulation of any paper or publication which may, in their opinion, disturb or endanger the institution” of slavery.  Even President Andrew Jackson, himself a slaveholder, asked Congress in his Annual Message to censor the mail “in the Southern states”.  Some of the less politically inhibited early abolitionists also  flooded Congress with tens of thousands of anti-slavery petitions – so many that slaveholders tried unsuccessfully to prohibit (“gag”) anti-slavery petitions in the Senate and did succeed in gagging them in the House of Representatives from 1836 to 1844. [5]

Although the leaders of the South did indeed manage to squelch the abolitionists in the southern states, their assault on free speech and constitutional rights only served to strengthen the abolitionist message in the North, where many Southern-born abolitionists emigrated and added their voices to the chorus.  (See my William T. Allan – Lane Rebel from the South blog.)  One of these was Oberlin’s John Mercer Langston, born in Virginia to an emancipated slave, sent to Ohio in his youth to escape the growing racial repression in the South, and educated at Oberlin College.  On August 2, 1858, now a successful attorney and political leader, Langston delivered a “very stirring and excellent” speech to a Cleveland audience describing his impressions of the American abolitionist movement.  Here are some excerpts: [6]

The achievements of the American anti -slavery movement since that time have been such as to impart hope and courage to every heart. Of course, I do not refer to the achievements of any separate and distinct organization. I refer to the achievements of that complicated and stupendous organization composed of persons from all parts of this country, whose aim is the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of the colored American. What, then, are some of its accomplishments? In the first place, it has brought the subject of slavery itself distinctly and prominently before the public mind. Indeed, in every nook and corner of American society this matter now presents itself, demanding, and in many instances receiving, respectful consideration. There is no gathering of the people, whether political or religious, which is not now forced to give a place in its deliberations to this subject. Like the air we breathe, it is all-pervasive. Through this widespread consideration the effects of slavery upon the slave, the slaveholder, and society generally, have been very thoroughly demonstrated ; and as the people have understood these effects they have loathed and hated their foul cause. Thus the public conscience has been aroused, and a broad and deep and growing interest has been created in behalf of the slave.

In the next place, it has vindicated, beyond decent cavil even, the claim of the slave to manhood and its dignities. No one of sense and decency now thinks that the African slave of this country is not a man…

More than this, the anti-slavery movement has brought to the colored people of the North the opportunities of developing themselves intellectually and morally. It has unbarred and thrown open to them the doors of colleges, academies, law schools, theological seminaries and commercial institutions, to say nothing of the incomparable district school. Of these opportunities they have very generally availed themselves; and now, wherever you go, whether to the East or the West, you will find the colored people comparatively intelligent, industrious, energetic and thrifty, as well as earnest and determined in their opposition to slavery… In the State of Ohio alone thirty thousand colored persons are the owners of six millions of dollars’ worth of property, every cent of which stands pledged to the support of the cause of the slave. Animated by the same spirit of liberty that nerved their fathers, who fought in the Revolutionary war and war of 1812, to free this land from British tyranny, they are the inveterate and uncompromising enemies of oppression, and are willing to sacrifice all that they have, both life and property, to secure its overthrow. But they have more than moral and pecuniary strength. In some of the States of this Union all of their colored inhabitants, and in others a very large class of them, enjoy the privileges and benefits of citizens. This is a source of very great power…

Another achievement of the American anti-slavery movement is the emancipation of forty or fifty thousand fugitive slaves, who stand to-day as so many living, glowing refutations of the brainless charge that nothing has, as yet, been accomplished…

But the crowning achievement of the anti-slavery movement of this country is the establishment, full and complete, of the fact that its great aim and mission is not merely the liberation of four millions of American slaves, and the enfranchisement of six hundred thousand half freemen, but the preservation of the American Government, the preservation of American liberty itself. It has been discovered, at last, that slavery is no respecter of persons, that in its far reaching and broad sweep it strikes down alike the freedom of the black man and the freedom of the white one. This movement can no longer be regarded as a sectional one. It is a great national one. It is not confined in its benevolent, its charitable offices, to any particular class; its broad philanthropy knows no complexional bounds. It cares for the freedom, the rights of us all… [7]

John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston

Of course Langston would be among the first to tell you that race relations in the North were far from perfect in 1858, but they had clearly come a long way since the advent of The Liberator and the Liberty Party.  As a gauge of just how far they had come, consider this:  in 1837, an abolitionist journalist named Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by a mob in Alton, Illinois, for expressing anti-slavery sentiments.  Two decades later, in October 1858, an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln took the podium in that same town and said this:

I have said, and I repeat it here, that if there be a man amongst us who does not think that the institution of slavery is wrong in any one of the aspects of which I have spoken, he is misplaced, and ought not to be with us…

Has anything ever threatened the existence of this Union save and except this very institution of slavery? What is it that we hold most dear amongst us? Our own liberty and prosperity. What has ever threatened our liberty and prosperity, save and except this institution of slavery? If this is true, how do you propose to improve the condition of things by enlarging slavery,-by spreading it out and making it bigger? You may have a wen or cancer upon your person, and not be able to cut it out, lest you bleed to death; but surely it is no way to cure it, to engraft it and spread it over your whole body. That is no proper way of treating what you regard a wrong. You see this peaceful way of dealing with it as a wrong,-restricting the spread of it, and not allowing it to go into new countries where it has not already existed…

It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. [8]

But far from being lynched, Lincoln was applauded for these words in 1858, and this and similar speeches gained for him the national recognition that would help elect him to the Presidency two years later.  It was the heroic efforts of people like Elijah Lovejoy, John Mercer Langston, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone, and thousands of other abolitionist teachers, preachers, lecturers, authors, journalists, politicians, Underground Railroad agents, and parents (many of them educated at Oberlin College) that made that possible.

LovejoyMonument

Elijah Lovejoy monument – Alton, Illinois

Just six weeks after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina would secede from the Union, stating as the cause that the Northern states had “united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery” and who believed that “the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.” [9]

As it turns out, it was.  The attempt to avoid that reality via secession only served to hasten its demise.

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Jon Grinspan, “Was Abolitionism a Failure?“, New York Times, January 30, 2015

John Mercer Langston, “The World’s Anti-Slavery Movement; Its Heroes and its Triumphs

Abraham Lincoln, “Last Joint Debate at Alton; Mr. Lincoln’s Reply

The Anti-Slavery Record, Vol 1, No. 1, January 1835

Republican Party Platform of 1860“, The American Presidency Project

Free Soil Party Platform (1848)“, Teacher’s Guide Primary Source Document Collection

1844 Liberty Party Platform“, Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project

The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States“, Civil War Trust

William Lloyd Garrison, The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison: From disunionism to the brink of war, 1850-1860

John C. Calhoun, Speeches of John C. Calhoun. Delivered in the Congress of the United States from 1811 to the present time

James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1907, Volume 3

William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65

1840 Presidential Election Results“, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Robert S. Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College from its Foundation through the Civil War

Stanley Harrold, The Abolitionists & the South

About New-York Tribune“, Library of Congress

Blacks and the American Missionary Association“, The United Church of Christ

American Anti-Slavery Society“, Encyclopaedia Britannica

 All photos public domain.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “1840 Presidential Election”; “American Anti-Slavery Society”

[2] Anti-Slavery Record

[3] “Republican Party”; “Free Soil Party”; “1844 Liberty Party”

[4] Harrold, p. 142; “Blacks”; “About New-York”; Fletcher, Chapter XXVII; Garrison, p. 698

[5] Calhoun; Richardson, p. 176

[6] Cheek, pp. 325-326

[7] Langston

[8] Lincoln

[9] “The Declaration of Causes

Kidnapped into Slavery: Northern States’ Rights, Part 1

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

The movie 12 Years a Slave, now showing in northeast Ohio, graphically depicts several deplorable aspects of American slavery, including the fact that freeborn African Americans could be kidnapped and carried into a life of bondage.  The true-life story of Solomon Northup, portrayed in the movie, was the result of an illegal kidnapping in Washington, D.C.  But to make the story even sadder, in 1850, just nine years after Northup’s illegal abduction, the laws of the United States were modified, not to make it harder for such atrocities to occur, but in such a way as to make it easier – to in fact make such abductions possible with the full sanction of U.S. law and with the support of federal law officers and American citizens deputized to assist them, whether willingly or not.  This blog will discuss how such a law could come to be, and how some northern legislators, like Oberlin’s James Monroe, eventually fought back, to defend the rights of their states to protect their citizens from the tragic fate of Solomon Northup.

James Monroe

James Monroe (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

The law I’m alluding to is the infamous Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, passed at a time when this country was on the verge of splintering in two and disintegrating into civil war.   The northern states (north of the Mason-Dixon line/Ohio River) had for the most part abolished slavery by then, to the point that only about 1% of their black population remained enslaved (in Delaware and New Jersey).  In the southern states, however, slavery was flourishing, so that more than 93% of their black population was enslaved.[1]  This led to tremendous tensions between the sections, as described by South Carolina’s “states’ rights” Senator, John C. Calhoun, in his last speech to Congress in early 1850:

There is a question of vital importance to the Southern section, in reference to which the views and feelings of the two sections are as opposite and hostile as they can possibly be. I refer to the relation between the two races in the Southern section, which constitutes a vital portion of her social organization. Every portion of the North entertains views and feelings more or less hostile to it… On the contrary, the Southern section regards the relation as one which can not be destroyed without subjecting the two races to the greatest calamity, and the section to poverty, desolation, and wretchedness; and accordingly they feel bound by every consideration of interest and safety to defend it.
 
Unless something decisive is done, I again ask, What is to stop this agitation before the great and final object at which it aims–the abolition of slavery in the States–is consummated? Is it, then, not certain that if something is not done to arrest it, the South will be forced to choose between abolition and secession? [2]

The “agitation” to which he refers includes several anti-slavery policies and practices of the northern states and their citizens, but one of the most irritating to southern slaveholders was what Calhoun called the failure of the North “to do her duty by causing the stipulations relative to fugitive slaves to be faithfully fulfilled.”  In other words, the North was not cooperating, and even downright obstructing, the return of enslaved persons who had escaped from their owners in the South to seek freedom in the North.  This, the slaveholders felt, was in violation of the fugitive slave clause of the U.S. Constitution:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, 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, Clause 3

Many Northerners felt differently, however – that the vagueness of this clause left them latitude to insure, at the minimum, that freeborn Americans like Solomon Northup would not be carried off into slavery.  Without going into the long, complicated series of litigation and legislation that this clause precipitated in the decades prior to 1850, I’ll just suffice it to say that by 1850 the situation was as confused and turbulent as ever.

And so it was that a group of U.S. Congressmen crafted the “Compromise of 1850”, the latest in a long series of compromises designed to attempt to preserve a democratic Union by supporting and maintaining institutionalized slavery.  One of the key pieces of this compromise was a new fugitive slave law, to enforce the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution.   But this law was so tilted in favor of the slaveholders that the New York Evening Post called it “An Act for the Encouragement of Kidnapping.” [3]

The Fugitive Slave Law brought the Southern viewpoint, that a black person was assumed a slave until proven otherwise, into the northern states, where all people, white and black, were assumed free until proven otherwise.  It required neither the alleged fugitive slave nor the alleged slaveowner to appear in person to testify.  In fact, the alleged fugitive was prohibited from testifying in his/her defense altogether, while the alleged slaveowner need only file an affidavit claiming ownership and providing a physical description of the alleged fugitive.  It established a set of federal Commissioners to “exercise and discharge” the provisions of the act.  It also charged United States Marshals and Deputies with enforcement of the act.  Where the Marshals had insufficient numbers to perform their duties, they were authorized to “summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus  of the proper county.”  And if any of the Marshals, Deputies, or bystanders refused or failed in their duties, they were subject to stiff penalties themselves, as anyone assisting an alleged fugitive would be as well.  The act also provided for monetary remuneration of the Commissioners for each case they heard, to be doubled if they decided in favor of the alleged slaveowner.[4]

No wonder the Oberlin Evangelist lamented, “Everything is yielded to the slave power which can be asked…  O this horrible legislation for iniquity, and against freedom and righteousness!” And yet it passed both houses of the United States Congress, and was signed into law in September, 1850 by President Millard Fillmore.  It was overwhelmingly opposed in Ohio, where abolitionist Senator Salmon P. Chase voted against it (his colleague, Senator Ewing not voting), and 14 Representatives voted against it while only 3 voted in its favor. But it had virtually unanimous Southern support, and enough northern Congressmen either voted for it or abstained from voting altogether, to dress this “hideous deformity”, as Oberlin’s John Mercer Langston called it, “in the garb of law.”[5]

Even the Cleveland Plain Dealer, noted for its vehement anti-abolitionist opinions, complained that the law was not “confined to the slave States,” but was enforced “wholly in the free States… by free men.  The service it requires is not the kind we owe to either God, man, or the devil.” [6]  Lewis Tappan, the abolitionist New York merchant and key benefactor of Oberlin College, minced no words:

It constitutes at the North, in our neighborhoods, and by our firesides, the most anomalous, overshadowing, insulting, and despotic police that perverted mind can contrive, or guilty power sustain—a police which guilty power cannot sustain, until honor, and purity, and freedom have fled from among us, and we have consented to be the most drivelling, and base, and worthless slaves that ever crawled at the foot of tyranny. [7]

But it was now the law of the land and President Fillmore ominously pronounced the Compromise of 1850 a “final settlement.”  The nation now watched and waited to see if the “finality” would hold.  But as it turns out, it didn’t even take four months for a freeborn black man to be “returned” to slavery under this law.  On December 21, 1850, a United States Commissioner in Philadelphia ordered that Adam Gibson be sent to his alleged owner in Maryland, based on the testimony of a witness who was currently under indictment for kidnapping.  Fortunately for Gibson, his alleged owner was honest enough to admit the error and return him to Pennsylvania, otherwise Gibson would have suffered the same horrible fate as Solomon Northup.  One can only wonder how many Adam Gibsons weren’t so lucky. [8]

Over the next few years scores of blacks were arrested under this law, with the vast majority being remanded to slavery.  But other than a handful of rescues, Notherners were powerless to do anything about it.  In 1853, Solomon Northup was finally released from his 12 year ordeal and published his narrative, further dismaying the northern public.  Northern indignation grew with each rendition and reached a crescendo in 1854, when President Franklin Pierce sent hundreds of U.S. troops to Massachusetts to return Anthony Burns to slavery, marching him through the Boston streets as crowds watched helplessly and church bells tolled in lament. [9]

Still, only one northern state, Vermont, had been able to pass legislation to dilute the effects of the Fugitive Slave Law, but it was too far away from ‘ground zero’ to make an impact.  But another momentous event occurred at the same time as the Burns debacle that would change everything.  The United States Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing slavery into Kansas and Nebraska, which at that time were United States territories.  Many Northerners felt this was a flagrant violation of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in the territories that far north.  Having simmered with indignation while they upheld the Compromise of 1850, Northerners now boiled over into action.  The anti-slavery Republican Party was formed, and state legislatures began to pass “personal liberty laws” to counteract the Fugitive Slave Law. [10]

Ohio had its first opportunity to test the waters of this new political climate in the election of 1855, and the result was a stunning victory for the infant Republican Party.  Republicans took control of both houses of the Ohio General Assembly, and Republican abolitionist Salmon P. Chase was elected Governor.  One of the new freshmen Republican members of the Ohio House of Representatives was another abolitionist, Oberlin College Professor James Monroe.

Salmon Chase

Salmon P. Chase

When the Republicans took office in January, 1856, Monroe, despite being a political rookie, immediately began feeling out his Republican colleagues on the idea of passing personal liberty laws in Ohio.   As he wrote in his personal notes, “If Ohio would be a free state with free citizens & maintain the great safeguards of liberty, she must make a stand.”  He quickly discerned, however, that “about one half of the Republicans were very conservative” and “had nothing that could be called anti-slavery principle as that term was understood in Oberlin.” [11]

Then another momentous event occurred, this time in southern Ohio, that changed everything once again.  Just three weeks after the Republicans took office, news broke of the tragic Margaret Garner affair (see my Lucy Stone and the Margaret Garner tragedy blog for details).  Ohioans were horrified at the story of the freedom seeker who had killed one of her children in Cincinnati rather than letting slavecatchers take her.  Years later, Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President, who had been an abolitionist lawyer in Cincinnati at the time, told Monroe of the reaction in Cincinnati:

[Hayes] lived in a street of Southern sympathizers; but, as he expressed it, the whole street was converted by the tragedy of Margaret Garner.  The next day after it occurred, a leader among his pro-slavery neighbors called at his house, and as he met Mr. Hayes, exclaimed with great fervor, “Mr. Hayes, hereafter I am with you.  From this time forward, I will not only be a Black Republican, but I will be a damned abolitionist.” [12]

Governor Chase and other state and local anti-slavery officials had tried every trick in the book to get Garner and the rest of her family out of federal custody, but they could not get past the Fugitive Slave Law, and the whole family was eventually returned to slavery.  The Governor was incensed at the impotence imposed upon him, and he vented his frustration to Monroe:

… there was a knock at my door, and Governor Chase entered.  He was laboring under great excitement of some kind, and appeared to be angry.  He broke out abruptly, “What are you Republicans doing in the House, and what are you doing, Monroe, when a mother who is a free woman is compelled to kill her children on the soil of Ohio to save them from slavery, and that because there is no efficient law for her protection?… You ought to introduce a bill into the House in the morning, have it carried through both Houses under a suspension of the rules, and have it become a law before you adjourn to-morrow.” [13]

Though it didn’t happen quite that fast, Monroe, with Chase’s support, in the wake of the outrage over the Garner case, wrote and passed a law that would arguably become one of the most radical personal liberty laws in the country.  The law went into effect on April 5, 1856.  It was a law that Monroe would say years later “had not much growl or bark in it, but it had plenty of teeth.”  Its critics would call it “insane and aggressive legislation” (and that’s when they were being nice.)  I’ll discuss this very intriguing law in detail in my next blog post. [14]

It would be a full year after passage of Monroe’s law before the Ohio legislature would pass any further personal liberty laws, and when they did they would be among the most conservative of such laws.  In the Spring of 1857, they  passed “An act to prohibit the confinement of fugitives from slavery in the jails of Ohio”, and “An act to prevent slaveholding and kidnapping in Ohio”, and “An act to prevent kidnapping”.  The latter law would turn out to be the most noteworthy of the three.  Here’s an excerpt:

… no person or persons shall kidnap or forcibly or fraudulently carry off or decoy out of this state any black or mulatto person or persons within this state, claimed as fugitives from service or labor, or shall attempt to [do so],  without first taking such black or mulatto person or persons before the court, judge or commissioner of the proper circuit, district or county…
 
… any person or persons offending against the provisions of this act shall be… confined in the penitentiary at hard labor for any space of time not less than three years nor more than eight years…
[15]

Three to eight years hard labor in the notorious Ohio State Penitentiary.  That sounds pretty severe in our day and age.  But it pales by comparison to Solomon Northup’s twelve years of brutality and “unrequited toil”, or the life sentences that hundreds of victims of the Fugitive Slave Law endured.  Nevertheless, the new laws made an impact, as we shall soon see.  Stay tuned.

 
SOURCES CONSULTED:

James Monroe, Oberlin Thursday lectures, addresses and essays

Thomas D. Morris, Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North 1780-1861

William Cox Cochran, The Western Reserve and the Fugitive Slave Law

Lewis Tappan, The Fugitive Slave Bill: Its History and Unconstitutionality

John C. Calhoun, “The Clay Compromise Measures”, National Center for Public Policy Research

Samuel May, The Fugitive Slave Law and its Victims

“Doings of Congress”, Oberlin Evangelist, September 25, 1850

Carol Wilson, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861

James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom

“Fugitive Slave Act, 1850”, National Center for Public Policy Research

Joseph Rockwell Swan,  The Revised Statutes of the State of Ohio, of a General Nature, in Force August 1, 1860

“Historical Census Browser, 1850”, University of Virgina Library

“Amendment of the Habeas Corpus Act”, Oberlin College Archives, RG30/22, “James Monroe”, Box 19

Clement L. Vallandigham, SPEECHES, ARGUMENTS, ADDRESSES, AND LETTERS OF CLEMENT L. VALLANDIGHAM

President Millard Fillmore, “First Annual Message, December 2, 1850”, The Miller Center

Philip S. Foner, “History of Black Americans From the Compromise of 1850 to the End of the Civil War”

Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave

 
FOOTNOTES:

[1] “Historical Census Browser”
[2] Calhoun
[3] May, p. 3
[4] “Fugitive Slave Act”
[5]  “Doings of  Congress”, p. 6;  Tappan, pp. 12-16; Foner
[6] Cochran, pp. 103-104
[7] Tappan, p. 29
[8] Fillmore;  May, p. 12; Wilson, pp. 52-53
[9] Potter, p. 138;  McPherson, pp. 119-120
[10] Morris, pp. 159, 168
[11] “Amendment”, p.2; Monroe, p. 111
[12] Monroe, p. 116
[13] ibid., p. 117
[14] ibid., p. 120, Vallandigham, p. 154
[15] Swan, p. 418

James Bradley – from hopeless bondage to Lane Rebel

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

Seven years before the celebrated abolitionist Frederick Douglass first stood before a sympathetic audience of white abolitionists and “trembling in every limb” told them the story of his life as a slave, another ex-slave, James Bradley, stood before an audience of white colonizationists (people who believed freed slaves should be returned to Africa), and skillfully debunked the rationale of colonization and slavery.  His presentation was part of a series of academic debates on abolitionism and colonization that would have an important impact on the American abolition movement and dramatically alter the course of Oberlin’s history.

James Bradley statue

James Bradley statue – Covington, KY

The debates were held at the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, in February, 1834 (see my William T. Allan – Lane Rebel from the South blog post for details).  Of the approximately 45 total hours of debate time, James Bradley occupied about two hours, but an argument can be made that they were the two most important hours of the debates.  Bradley started by telling his personal story, of being born in Africa, enslaved as a toddler, and brought across the Atlantic Ocean to South Carolina.  Although we don’t have a transcript of his exact words at the debates, we do have a published account of his life story, written by him shortly afterwards.  Here are some excerpts:

A slaveholder bought me and took me up into Pendleton County, Ky.  I suppose I stayed with him about six months.  He sold me to a Mr. Bradley, by whose name I have ever since been called.  This man was considered a wonderfully kind master and it is true I was treated better than most of the slaves I knew.  I never suffered for food and never was flogged with the whip but oh, my soul!  I was tormented with kicks and knocks more than I can tell…

I used to work very hard. I was always obliged to be in the field by sunrise and labored until dark, stopping only at noon long enough to eat dinner.  When I was about 15 years old, I took what was called the cold plague in consequence of being overworked and I was sick a long time.  My master came to see me one day, and hearing me groan with pain, he said, “This fellow will never be of any more use to me.  I would as soon knock him in the head, as if he were an opossum.”  His children sometimes came in and shook axes and knives at me, as if they were about to knock me on the head…

My master kept me ignorant of everything he could.  I was never told anything about God or my soul.  Yet from the time I was 14 years old, I used to think a great deal about freedom.  It was my heart’s desire. I could not keep it out of my mind.  Many a sleepless night I have spent in tears because I was a slave.  I looked back on all I had suffered and when I looked ahead, all was dark and hopeless bondage.  My heart ached to feel within me the life of liberty.

After the death of my master I began to contrive how I might buy myself.  After toiling all day for my mistress, I used to sleep three or four hours and then get up and work for myself the remainder of the night. I made collars for horses out of plaited husks.  I could weave one in about eight hours and I generally took time enough from my sleep to make two collars in the course of a week.  I sold them for 50 cents each.  One summer, I tried to take two or three hours from my sleep every night, but I found that I grew weak and I was obliged to sleep more.  With my first money, I bought a pig.  The next year I earned for myself about $13 and the next, about $30…

I used to go out with my hoe and dig up little patches which I planted with corn…got up at night to tend it.  My hogs were fattened with this corn and I used to sell a number every year.  Besides this, I used to raise small patches of tobacco and sell it to buy more corn for my pigs.  In this way I worked five years.  At the end of which time, after taking out my losses, I found that I had earned $160.  With this money I hired my own time for two years.  During this period, I worked almost all the time, night and day.  The hope of liberty stung my nerves and braced my soul so much that I could do with very little sleep or rest.  I could do a great deal more work than I was ever able to do before.  At the end of two years, I had earned $300 besides feeding and clothing myself.  I now bought my time for 18 months longer and went 250 miles west, nearly into Texas, where I could make more money.  Here I earned enough to buy myself, including what I gave for my time, about $700.

As soon as I was free, I started for a free state.  When I arrived in Cincinnati, I heard of Lane Seminary, about two miles out of the city.  I had for years been praying to God that my dark mind might see the light of knowledge.  I asked for admission to the seminary.  They pitied me and granted my request, though I knew nothing of the studies which were required for admission.  I am so ignorant that I suppose it will take me two years to get up with the lowest class in the institution.  But in all respects I am treated just as kindly and as much like a brother by the students, as if my skin were as white and my education as good as their own…[1]

Bradley also told how he secretly taught himself to read and write, against his masters’ wishes (and against the law in most Southern states).  After telling his life story, Bradley went on to attack the concepts of slavery and colonization.  This was a crucial time in the national abolition movement, when a large number of white Americans, even those who opposed slavery, believed that blacks couldn’t be integrated with whites in large numbers without a detrimental effect on  both.  This was one of the biggest arguments against abolition and in favor of colonization.  At this point in time free blacks comprised less than 3% of the American population.  Enslaved blacks, on the other hand, made up more than 34% of the population of the Southern states (and more than 50% of the population of South Carolina and Louisiana).  The only knowledge many white Americans had of blacks came through the dehumanizing institution of slavery and the racial stereotypes that were used to rationalize it.  In the words of South Carolina’s pro-slavery statesman John C. Calhoun:

“…two races differing so greatly, and in so many respects, cannot possibly exist together in the same country, where their numbers are nearly equal, without the one being subjected to the other.  Experience has proved that the existing relation, in which the one is subjected to the other in the slaveholding States, is consistent with the peace and safety of both, with great improvement to the inferior…”[2]

Bradley’s mere presence at Lane Seminary, and the energy, ambition and hard work that brought him there, seriously challenged this philosophy.  But Bradley had more to say, as described by Lane student Henry B. Stanton:

This shrewd and intelligent black, cut up these white objections by the roots, and withered and scorched them under the sun of sarcastic argumentation, for nearly an hour, to which the assembly responded in repeated and spontaneous roars of laughter, which were heartily joined in by both Colonizationists and Abolitionists. Do not understand me as saying, that his speech was devoid of argument. No. It contained sound logic, enforced by apt illustrations. I wish the slanderers of negro intellect could have witnessed this unpremeditated effort.

In response to the common argument that freed slaves would be unable to take care of themselves, Bradley said: “They have to take care of, and support themselves now, and their master, and his family into the bargain; and this being so, it would be strange if they could not provide for themselves, when disencumbered from this load.”[3]

In response to the common argument that the slaves were content with their position, we know him to have written: “How strange it is that anybody should believe any human being could be a slave and yet be contented.  I do not believe there ever was a slave who did not long for liberty.  I know very well that slave owners take a great deal of pains to make people in the free states believe that slaves are happy but I know likewise that I was never acquainted with a slave, however well he was treated, who did not long to be free.”[4]

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Bradley’s contribution was critical to the debates.  Theodore Weld had the impassioned fervor and unassailable logic; William T. Allan and Huntington Lyman generated sympathy and outrage with their tales of victimization and abuse; but someone needed to attack the pervasive stereotypes and demonstrate that the John C. Calhouns were wrong.  Only James Bradley could do that, and by all accounts he did it masterfully.

After the debates, Bradley became a manager of the newly formed student anti-slavery society, and when the school tried to squelch the students’ anti-slavery activities, he became one of the “Lane Rebels” who withdrew from the school in protest.  When John J. Shipherd came down and invited the rebels  to attend Oberlin College instead, Bradley was interested.  But there was one hitch.  Oberlin College at that time didn’t have a policy to admit black students.  So the rebels demanded that such a policy be instated before they would come to Oberlin.

Shipherd, being a progressive member of the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society, was fine with this demand, but he needed the approval of the students, faculty and trustees of Oberlin College, and he expected he was in for some opposition.  He wrote back to Oberlin: “Indeed, if our Board would violate right so as to reject youth of talent and piety because they were black, I should have no heart to labor for the upbuilding of our Seminary, believing that the curse of God would come upon us, as it has upon Lane Seminary, for its unchristian abuse of the poor slave.”[5]

Opposition he expected, and opposition he got.  And then some.  It was led by none other than his colony co-founder, Philo P. Stewart, who “at once proclaimed Bro. Shipherd Mad!! crazy etc. etc. and that the School was changed into a Negro School.”  The Tappan brothers of New York offered generous financial support to the college, and the renowned revivalist minister Charles Finney offered to come to Oberlin and head a new Theological Department, if only the demands of the Lane Rebels were accepted.  But this had little or no impact on the opponents.  The college and the colony split on the issue and entered into several weeks of heated and sometimes acrimonious debate.   Finally, with Shipherd threatening to depart “for another field of labor”, the college trustees voted by a narrow 5-4 margin to accept the demands of the rebels, and Oberlin College became the first college in the country to have a formal policy of race-blind admissions.[6]

With that the Lane Rebels, James Bradley included, came to Oberlin, as did two other notable African Americans, Charles and Gideon Langston (older brothers of John Mercer Langston).  In fact so many students (the vast majority white), came to Oberlin over the next year that Oberlin College was forced to open four branch institutions in 1836 to handle the overflow.  One of these was the Sheffield Manual Labor Institute in nearby Sheffield, which stressed agricultural manual labor and preparatory coursework.  James Bradley transferred to this branch and attended along with about forty  students, including the Langston brothers, James Fitch, Mary Hosford, and Mary Kellogg (future wife of future Oberlin College President James Fairchild).

Burrell Homestead

Sheffield Manual Labor Institute at the Burrell Homestead

But things didn’t go well at Sheffield.  Its agricultural experiments failed, and the school and many of its students faced financial difficulties.  The crowning blow came when the school applied for a charter from the state of Ohio in 1837, and was told that it would only be granted if the school excluded black students.  By this time the presence of James Bradley and the Langston brothers at Oberlin and Sheffield had allayed the community’s fears, with even Philo Stewart taking “his position with the foremost of Abolitionists”, so excluding black students from any Oberlin-affiliated school was unthinkable.  (In fact, the Oberlin College campus was already openly harboring escaped slaves.)  Consequently the Sheffield institute closed, with a few of the students returning to Oberlin, but most scattering to the wind.  Unfortunately James Bradley was among the latter, and we have no record of him after leaving Sheffield.[7]

But even though we don’t know what happened to James Bradley, he clearly made his mark on Oberlin.  His sheer indomitable will propelled him out of “dark and hopeless bondage” and to the Lane Seminary debate platform 7 years before Frederick Douglass, 9 years before Sojourner Truth and William Wells Brown, and 11 years before Lewis Clarke took the national stage.  I can’t help but wonder what the results of the Lane debates might have been without him, and what the effect might have been on abolitionism and especially on the history of Oberlin.  But I’ll have to leave those questions as food for thought, along with these closing words that James Bradley wrote in his letter to abolitionist Lydia Maria Child:

“God preserve you, and strengthen you in this holy cause, until the walls of prejudice are broken down, the chains burst in pieces, and men of every color meet at the feet of Jesus, speaking kind words, and looking upon each other in love – willing to live together on earth, as they hope to live in Heaven!”  – James Bradley

Sources consulted:

Lydia Maria Child, The Oasis

Henry B. Stanton, “Great Debate at Lane Seminary”, letter to Joshua Leavitt, March 10, 1834

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

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

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

“Marker #15-47 Burrell Homestead”, Ohio Historical Society

“Mr. Calhoun to Mr. Pakenham”, Proceedings of the Senate and Documents Relative to Texas, from which the Injunction of Secrecy Has Been Removed

“Catalogue and Record of Colored Students,” 1835-62, RG 5/4/3 – Minority Student Records, Oberlin College Archives

Historical Census Browser, Census Data for Year 1830,  University of Virginia Library

“Statue story of freedom”, Cincinnati.com

“James Bradley – Covington, Kentucky”, Waymarking.com

Delazon Smith, A History of Oberlin

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

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Child, pp.  106-107
[2] “Mr. Calhoun to Mr. Pakenham”
[3] Stanton, March 10, 1834
[4] Child, pp. 110-111
[5] Fairchild, p. 55
[6] Fletcher, Chapter XIV; Fairchild, p. 61
[7] “Sheffield Manual Labor Institute”; Fairchild p. 63; “General catalogue”; Smith, pp. 63-64