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The weary feet and willing shoulders of Almira Porter Barnes

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

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

Oberlin’s history is chock-full of people who have gained national and international recognition for their achievements, like Antoinette Brown (Blackwell) – the first female ordained minister in the United States.  But none of these people, no matter how deserved their recognition has been, could have reached their lofty heights without standing on the shoulders of people who came before them.  And Oberlin’s history is also chock-full of the unsung heroes and heroines who willingly offered those shoulders.  Few of those unsung heroines are as fascinating to me as an obscure grandmother from upstate New York named Almira Porter Barnes.  In an age when the conventional wisdom had it that a grandmother’s place was knitting by the fireside, this remarkable lady was traveling the northern United States and Canada, investigating and influencing, financing and philanthropizing, encouraging and endorsing the great reform movements of her day: abolitionism, universal education, temperance, and general moral reform.  (And she did her share of knitting too, by the way, but not always by the fireside.)  She left an indelible mark not only on Antoinette Brown, but on Oberlin as well.

Antoinette Brown

Antoinette Brown

Almira Porter, of whom we unfortunately have no photographs, was born in Connecticut in 1786.  In 1807 she married a tinsmith named Blakeslee Barnes.  They moved to Troy, New York and had 6 children before Blakeslee died in 1823.  She never remarried.  It’s not clear how much of Almira’s considerable wealth came from her husband’s tinsmith business or from other sources, but she clearly weathered the economic depression of 1837 with plenty of wealth intact to donate and loan to worthy causes. She donated hundreds of dollars (at least) to Oberlin College, the Oberlin Board of Education and the Ladies’ Education Society of Oberlin (likely in the tens of thousands of dollars in today’s currency). [1]

Her interest in Oberlin likely began through friendship with the Shipherd family in Troy, whose scion, John Jay Shipherd, was the co-founder of Oberlin colony and college.  After that she helped fund the Oberlin College education of her grandson, Francis Fletcher in the 1840s.  She also took an active interest in the Oberlin College education of her nephew, future Oberlin College Professor Henry E. Peck. [2]

Henry Peck

Henry Peck
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Although Barnes never officially resided in Oberlin or enrolled in Oberlin College, she spent summers in Oberlin during the 1840s attending, for her own personal edification, the theology classes of Oberlin College Professor Charles G. Finney.  Most of what we know about  Barnes comes from three letters that she wrote from Oberlin to her daughter, Mrs. Laura Willard in Troy, during the summer of 1844.  These letters shine an interesting light on early Oberlin and antebellum America. [3]

Barnes-writingsample

Sample from an Almira Porter Barnes letter. Not a millimeter of paper was wasted!
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Barnes arrived in Oberlin in June that year, having started her journey with a boat ride from Troy to Buffalo via the Erie Canal.  Along the way she arrived in Rochester just in time for a three day anti-slavery convention.  Barnes considered skipping the convention, but her friends “urged me to stay and thought I should loose [sic] my standing in the Liberty Party if I did not.”

The Liberty Party was the first national abolitionist party, and it’s interesting that in this era of  rough-and-tumble, male-only politics, Mrs. Barnes had any standing in a national political party to lose.   Although abolitionists tended to be more progressive in the realm of women’s rights than American society in general, the political wing of the abolitionists was generally considered to be the least progressive of this group.  But “the temptation of course was very great,” and Mrs. Barnes “concluded to remain through the week,” which she spent “very pleasantly.”

After the convention, she crossed Lake Erie to Cleveland, where she ran into Professor Calvin Stowe of Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary and William Beecher, the husband and brother, respectively, of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who eight years later would publish the epic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.   Together the three of them took a carriage to “of course… the Temperance House.”

On the stagecoach to Oberlin the next morning, Barnes chanced to meet her college instructor, Professor Finney, who was also the renowned revivalist pastor of Oberlin’s one and only church, and several other Oberlinites, including her nephew, Henry Peck, and her grandson.  The group had been attending a religious convention in Cleveland.  But they returned early,  “the convention having passed a vote that they would not let the Oberlin people say any thing, the object of the meeting was to promote pure and undefiled religion.”  Ha!  It wasn’t just abolitionism that made early Oberlin unpopular with its neighbors, but its unorthodox church and its unconventional pastor as well.

Reverend Charles G. Finney (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Reverend Charles G. Finney
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Finally arriving in Oberlin, Barnes settled in for a long stay in the home of Oberlin College President Asa Mahan and his wife, Mary.  Shortly afterwards word came from John Jay Shipherd “at Michigan” that he and his family were “all well and very happy and prospects flattering”  – news which Barnes asked her daughter to relay to the Shipherd family in Troy.  Shipherd had left Oberlin early that year for Olivet, Michigan to start a similar college and colony there.  Despite the good tidings, he would be dead within three months.

Barnes continued to gently push the envelope of gender roles in Oberlin, as she sat in on Professor Finney’s classes in the male dominated Seminary. [4]  But she was only in Oberlin for a month before she was already off on her next adventure.  She had an opportunity to visit Canada and the Mahans encouraged her to go, insisting that “it would be a great satisfaction and encouragement to Mr. and Mrs. Rice to receive a visit” from her.  The Rices were missionaries in the fugitive slave colony in Malden, Upper Canada (present day Windsor, Ontario).  And so  Barnes boarded a boat in Cleveland and crossed Lake Erie to Canada.  Here she had an opportunity to visit the colonists who had escaped from American slavery.  She wrote about this experience in her characteristically breathless style (which I’ve separated into paragraphs for ease of readability):

“Saturday morning we went out to call on the coulored [sic] people and spent most of the day, and I am sure I never spent a day so pleasantly in making calls as I did that day.  All that we called upon had made their escape from Slavery and it was exceedingly interesting to have them tell how they managed to escape and what hardships and fatigue they endured in getting away and their suffering for fear they should be taken and carried back and especially their trial on account of leaving behind them their friends[;] prehaps [sic] a Husband had left a wife and children[,] or a wife her husband[,] or children had left parents that they should never see again[,] and they manifested as much feeling about it as any other people would.

 

The most that I talked with were those had learnt that they were to be soald [sic] from their familys [sic] and separated probably for ever[;] some had managed to get their families with them and some had escaped alone at the risk of their lives.  They all seemed to feel as if they should have no mercy shown them if they should be overtaken.  I asked one of them what he would have done if he had been pursued[;] he said before he would have been taken he would have killed his pursuers as quick as he would have killed a black snake, but he seemed to have a kind heart and said he should be very glad to see his Master their [sic], and would do him a favor as quick as he would anyone…  But they all say if emancipation was to take place we would not be here long.  The most of them have a little place and manage to get along some how.” [5]

Barnes’ excursion to Canada was a short one, however.  By August she was back in Oberlin,  “regularly” attending Finney’s theology lectures “at nine o’clock and another at eleven”.  “My time is almost constantly occupied in some thing that is or might be both interesting and improving,” she explained.  One such activity was Oberlin’s third annual  commemoration of British emancipation in the West Indies – where she was “invited to the first table” reserved for “professors families and distinguished strangers”.  (See my “August First” blog for her description of this.)   Of Oberlin Barnes said, “no one can realise [sic] the difference in which such things are regarded here from what they are in other places, who has not been here, not only in regard to the treatment of coulored people but almost every thing else.” [6]

With the end of the school year in August, Barnes returned home to New York, where she undoubtedly heard the startling news of the passing of John Jay Shipherd in September 1844.  Shipherd’s death presented the Oberlin Collegiate Institute with a potential dilemma since they were occupying land that belonged to his estate.  Concerned that the Shipherd family might choose to sell the land if they didn’t return to Oberlin, the college wondered where they might get the funds to buy it from them if necessary.  With funds hard to come by, an agent for the college suggested that President Mahan “call upon Mrs. Barnes on his way to New York” and request a loan.  He also noted that “Mrs. Barnes wishes [to buy or lease] a lot in Oberlin”, but only “if it was located right” – near President Mahan’s home or the chapel on Professor Street.  (Since the Shipherds did move back to Oberlin, and there’s no record that Mrs. Barnes did, it appears that neither of these transactions took place.) [7]

The following year Henry Peck graduated from the Oberlin College seminary, but his aunt continued to attend Finney’s classes.  In 1847, at the age of 61, she was joined in the classes by 22 year old Antoinette Brown, who had graduated from the Oberlin College Ladies’ Literary course. Brown would speak highly of “My friend Mrs. Barnes… who used to bring her knitting to our Oberlin class exercises.”  (Wow – knitting during Finney’s classes.  I doubt there were many people who could get away with that!)  But Brown planned on taking the classes a step further than Barnes was.  For Brown, the classes were more than just about personal edification.  She wanted to preach, even though no woman had ever been ordained a minister and the college had made it clear that they weren’t about to graduate the first.  Brown would not be deterred, however, and in 1850 she completed the program as a “resident graduate”, without being ordained or awarded a degree. [8]

Brown was now in a dilemma, however.  She had completed her studies, but her life’s calling was unavailable to her because of gender discrimination.  But the ubiquitous Mrs. Barnes saw a way to assist her young friend through her own New York City missionary work.  “She now made this proposition to me,” Brown wrote, “if I would go to work in charities and in the slums, speaking as I could find opportunity in public and private, she would guarantee me a very fair salary and would find me a boarding-place with Zeruiah Porter Weed of the Class of 1838 Oberlin Literary.”  Brown gratefully accepted the offer. [9]

On her way to New York City, Brown stopped at an abolitionist convention in Oswego, where she hoped to deliver an address of her own.  But here too she encountered gender discrimination.  Although many of the conventioneers were likely the same people who gave Mrs. Barnes “standing” in the political anti-slavery movement, they still weren’t prepared to allow a woman to speak in public. [10]

Disappointed, Brown made another stop, at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in Massachusetts.  Here at last she was allowed to speak, impressing the audience with a lecture on one of her pet topics – that the Bible didn’t forbid women to speak in public.  But when she finally arrived in New York City, she learned that most of the ladies in Barnes’ Guardian Society didn’t share that viewpoint.  “The Guardian Society Ladies are of course not in perfect sympathy with my views,” Brown wrote, “& would not endorse the idea of my preaching on Sundays which was the plan we had formed.”  Since Brown was dead set on preaching (with or without ordination), the women finally concluded mutually that it would be best to terminate “our contemplated enterprise.”  Brown explained: [11]

“Mrs. Barns [sic] herself will still labor as a Missionary when she is able.  She is a noble woman, has really liberal views & would gladly sustain me in the contemplated labors notwithstanding any prejudice on account of my womananity.  So would Mrs. Weed.  I admire many traits in her character very much.  Neither of them would have fettered me in the least, yet they do not fully feel prepared to adopt all my views, & since there must be some prejudice against me I felt oppressed with the idea of compelling them to bear the credit of views which were not wholy [sic] their own though they had no hesitation about it.  The society ladies are kind courteous & pleasant, but they cannot with their views encourage my preaching.  So taking all things together we all thought it best to relinquish the enterprize [sic]… I can think of no person in the whole world that I would sooner have for my employer than Mrs. Barns, I love her very much; but I feel relieved that our engagement is broken.” [12]

Eventually it would all work out for Brown, of course, as she was ordained in 1853, preached in several churches, married Samuel Blackwell, and became a successful speaker and writer on behalf of abolitionism, racial equality, women’s rights, and temperance.  She also worked with her friend and fellow Oberlin College alumna, Lucy Stone, and others to found the American Woman Suffrage Association, which advocated women’s rights, but without sacrificing the principles of racial equality like other women’s organizations were then doing.

Almira Porter Barnes would only witness the early years of her young friend’s success, however, having passed away in 1858.  The American Female Guardian Society would remember her as one of “three specially influential Vice Presidents” (Mary Mahan being another), whose “weary feet have safely reached that peaceful shore.” [13]

After all that traveling over all those years, the feet may indeed have been weary, but the shoulders were always willing.

To hear more about Almira Porter Barnes and other Oberlin abolitionists, please join us on Saturday, April 2, 2016 at 11:00 A.M. at the Oberlin Public Library for a presentation of “Old Secrets, New Stories of Oberlin’s Underground Railroad”

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Almira Porter Barnes to Mrs. Laura Willard, June 28, 1844, Oberlin College Archives (OCA), Robert S. Fletcher collection, RG 30/24, Box 3, Folder: “Correspondence – Misc pre-1865”

Almira Porter Barnes to Mrs. Laura Willard, July 29, 1844, OCA, Robert S. Fletcher collection, op. cit.

Almira Porter Barnes to Mrs. Laura Willard, August 12, 1844, OCA, Robert S. Fletcher collection, op. cit.

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

Elizabeth Cazden, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, a Biography

Sherlock Bristol to Hamilton Hill, Oct 21, 1844, OCA, Robert S. Fletcher collection, RG 30/24, Box 14, Folder 9 (“Treasurer’s Office, File K”).

Sarah R. I. Bennett, Woman’s Work Among the Lowly

James Dascomb to Mrs. Almira Barnes, October 26, 1843, OCA, Autograph File, RG 16/5/3

Albert Welles, History of the Buell Family of England

Henry Porter Andrews, The Descendants of John Porter of Windsor, Conn. 1635-9. Vol. 1

“Receipts of the Oberlin Board of Education”, Oberlin Evangelist, March 17, 1841

“Pocket sized subscription book”, OCA, RG 7/1/2, Subseries 7, Box 2, Envelope marked “[Probably Dawes book pages used as agent…]”

General Catalogue of Oberlin College: 1833- 1908

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

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

George Derby and James Terry White, The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume XII

Blakeslee Barnes House (1820)“, Historic Buildings of Connecticut

“Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount – 1774 to Present”,  MeasuringWorth.com

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Welles, p. 224; “Receipts”; “Pocket-sized subscription books”; “Seven Ways”

[2] Barnes to Willard, June 28, 1844; Fletcher, p. 19; Dascomb to Barnes, Oct 26, 1843; General Catalogue, p. 333; Derby, p. 115; Welles, pp. 224-225

[3] Barnes to Willard, June 28, 1844; Lasser, p. 98

[4] Barnes to Willard, June 28, 1844

[5] Barnes to Willard, July 29, 1844

[6] Barnes to Willard, June 28, 1844; Barnes to Willard, Aug 12, 1844

[7] Barnes to Willard, June 28, 1844; Bristol to Hill

[8] Cazden, p. 56; Lasser, p. 12

[9] Cazden, p. 56

[10] Cazden, pp. 56-57

[11] Cazden, p. 57; Lasser, p. 96

[12] Lasser, pp. 96-97

[13] Bennett, p. 293

The Lincoln Assassination: 150 Years Ago

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent and researcher

[Warning – the following text contains some racist language in its original, historic context]

In the evening mist of April 11, 1865, Oberlin’s African American political leader, John Mercer Langston, stood among a crowd on the White House lawn and listened to the words of President Abraham Lincoln as he delivered, by candlelight from a second story window, a “grave and thrilling” speech.  In it, Lincoln outlined his general philosophy for Reconstruction of the Union after four years of bloody civil war – a policy made imminent by the surrender two days earlier of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.   Acknowledging that his Reconstruction plan was a work in progress, Lincoln nevertheless defended it against critics who saw it as too lenient and conservative.  “It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man,” the President confessed.  “I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers. . .The colored man, too, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end.  Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them?”  It might not have been everything that Langston, an elected public official himself, hoped for.  But in contrast to what any American President had ever said before, Lincoln’s words struck him as spoken “like a prophet, reminding one of the ancient Samuel as he called the people to witness his integrity.”  Not far from where Langston stood, however, another listener had a very different reaction to Lincoln’s words.  “That means nigger citizenship,” he hissed to his companions.  And he added a vow: “That is the last speech he will ever give.”  His name was John Wilkes Booth and, sadly, he was right about that. [1]

LangstonLincoln

Meanwhile, back in Oberlin, the air was electric with the flush of victory and the promise of peace.  A new term had just begun at Oberlin College, but students were finding it difficult to concentrate on their studies amid all the excitement of the recent news.  First the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia had fallen on April 2nd, then Lee’s army surrendered on April 9th.  The long, bloody rebellion, like the Confederacy itself, was in its death throes.  Oberlin College student Lucien Warner described the atmosphere:

“In the spring I returned to Oberlin to complete the last six months of my college course.  We had hardly commenced our term when Petersburg and then Richmond fell, and the terrible four years’ war was ended.  Victory rang through the nation, and people everywhere celebrated it in the most extravagant ways they could invent.  Everything that could make a noise was called into commission, from horns and tin pans to old anvils.  Such rejoicing comes to a nation but once in many generations.  The whole land took on new light and hope, and we felt that we really were again one nation.” [2]

Ohio Governor John Brough proclaimed an official day of Thanksgiving to be observed on Good Friday, April 14th – the four year anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter which had signaled the start of the Civil War.  Oberlin went enthusiastically about the business of preparing for the celebration.  When the appointed day arrived, there was something for everybody, as described by the Lorain County News:

“The day was opened by the firing of a salute at 6 A.M.  At half past ten the people gathered at the First Church to join in religious exercises and listen to addresses.  Prof. [James H.] Fairchild, Prof. Morgan, and Principal [E. Henry] Fairchild each delivered brief, appropriate, and eloquent addresses, and at the close of the meeting a liberal collection was taken up for the Christian Commission.  In the afternoon a prayer meeting was held in the First Church, and exercises were also held in the Second Church.  The rejoicings were opened in the evening by the firing of a salute and the ringing of the bells.  A general illumination of the College buildings, stores and private dwellings soon followed, and a procession representing beautiful designs, mottoes, transparencies of almost every description, moved through the principal streets, preceded by martial music, and brought up on Tappan Square, where patriotic speeches by citizens and students were listened to, fire-works and balloon ascensions were witnessed, and a huge bon-fire brilliantly lit up the entire square.  Not an accident or disorderly act occurred to mar the spirit of the occasion, and although every one seemed to celebrate and rejoice with a hearty good will, there was observable a mingling of serious earnestness, and quiet joy, which is rarely seen on such occasions.” [3]

 

WarnerTransparency

Lucien Warner described the festivities in a letter home to his mother:

“Last Friday was appointed by the Governor of this State for public Thanksgiving.  All businesses were suspended and every one rejoiced as best he was able.  In Cleveland every one rejoiced by getting drunk, but we remained sober and rejoiced.  In the evening almost every house, tree and door-yard was illuminated, and flags, banners and transparencies were without number.  There were about ten thousand candles burning all at once in the illumination.”  [4]

Oberlin went to bed that night and slept in a state of blissful peace.

But while Oberlinites slept, the telegraph did not:

Washington – April 15, 12:30 A.M.  The President was shot at a theatre to-night and is perhaps mortally wounded.

——————————————————————–

Washington – April 15, 3:00 A.M.  The President is not expected to live through the night.  He was shot at a theatre. Secretary Seward was also assassinated.  There were no arteries cut.  Particulars soon.

——————————————————————–

WAR DEPARTMENT, WASHINGTON, April 15
To Maj Gen Dix;
Abraham Lincoln died this morning at twenty-two minutes after seven o’clock.
EDWIN M. STANTON, Sec’y of War [5]

——————————————————————–

There was no daily newspaper published in Oberlin at that time, so the awful tidings traveled by word of mouth the following morning.  The sudden shock of the tragic news, in contrast to the jubilation of the night before, was still vividly recalled by Reverend Roselle T. Cross,  then an Oberlin College student, 28 years later:

“Who that was present can forget the rejoicing of April 14th?  Who can forget the illuminations of that night, or the great bonfire in Tappan Square, around which four thousand people were gathered.  And who can forget the awful shock of the next morning when news came of Lincoln’s assassination; all day it rained; recitations were suspended.  All day we walked the streets aimlessly, scarcely recognizing our friends when we met them.  All day long the college bell tolled.” [6]

The Lorain County News described the mood in its next issue, published the following Wednesday:

“But who will attempt to describe our feelings on the reception of the crushing news early on the following day?  At first it seemed incredible.  The sudden transition from overflowing joy, and praise and gratitude to God, to the overwhelming grief which the terrible tidings brought upon us, was too much for the great heart of the people to bear, and all sank beneath it like a crushed reed.  The stars and stripes were lowered half-mast, the chapel bell tolled solemnly and mournfully throughout the long, weary day, recitations were suspended in the Institution, crowds hurried to the [train] depot, to get a sight of the morning paper, business was nearly suspended, the land was overshadowed with dark and weeping clouds, and all nature seemed to mourn.” [7]

Lucien Warner, who had seen President Lincoln in person the year before while serving a 100 day enlistment in the Union army defenses of Washington, D.C., learned the news at the end of his morning recitation:

“The next morning at nine o’clock we received the sad intelligence of the assassination of President Lincoln.  It was as though a clap of thunder had stunned every person.  The news was brought to our class at the close of a recitation.  For nearly five minutes we sat motionless, forgetting that the class had been dismissed.  I have loved other public men, but the death of no one could have affected me like that of President Lincoln.  Ever since I looked upon his honest, genial countenance I have loved him like an intimate friend; and so I suppose did every loyal man.  I think there were but few in this town but that shed tears on that day.  Further study was out of the question.” [8]

Throughout the day, as the chapel bell tolled and the students “put on crepe”, details trickled in about the assassinations. The President had been shot in the back of the head by an actor named John Wilkes Booth.  Secretary of State William Seward had been the victim of a savage knife attack at approximately the same time by another assassin – one of Booth’s companions at Lincoln’s final speech, it would turn out.  Later that Saturday morning the telegraph brought news that Secretary Seward had also died.  It wouldn’t be until Monday that it was learned that Seward had survived, to the relief of “the overburdened public mind”. [9]

The assassinations would be the main topic of two sermons delivered the next day, Easter Sunday, by Reverend Charles G. Finney at First Church.  Finney was one of those who believed that “Mr. Lincoln was a man so intensely kind & accommodating that many of us felt that he might be induced to leave the power of the great slave holders unbroken, by too lenient an exercise of the pardoning power.”    And now  he told his congregation: “We must show the world that rebellion is a fearful, terrible thing. The President was an amiable man, tender, kind-hearted, but perhaps he stood in God’s way of dealing with the Rebels just as they ought to be dealt with for the good of the nation, and for the good of humanity.” [10]

John Mercer Langston was still in Washington, D.C. when John Wilkes Booth made good his vow – three nights after Lincoln delivered that fateful speech.  Langston had gone there before the surrender of Robert E. Lee with a bold proposal (for that era) – requesting a colonel’s commission and the command of a combat regiment of United States Colored Troops (USCT).  Just months earlier, Sergeant Milton Holland, one of several men Langston had recruited into the 5th USCT infantry regiment,  had been denied a promotion to captain because the War Department was reluctant to appoint African Americans as combat officers. (See my Battle of New Market Heights blog.)  But with the hearty endorsement of Ohio abolitionist General James A. Garfield (who himself would be assassinated as President sixteen years later), Langston received an encouraging reception from Secretary of War Stanton, and Langston and Garfield left the interview “with the belief firmly settled in their minds” that Langston’s proposal “would receive the sanction and approval of the authorities.”  With the surrender of Lee, however, the army immediately began to scale down, and Langston noted that “the department very properly concluded not to adopt the measure”.  On the heels of this came what Langston called “the horror of horrors” – “the assassination of the immortal Abraham Lincoln.”  While it was no secret among abolitionists that Lincoln himself shared some of the racial prejudices of his day, Langston saw him as “a statesman without an equal; a leader, as grand in the immense proportions of his individuality as Moses himself; an emancipator of a race.” [11]

Another Oberlin political leader, James Monroe, didn’t learn of the assassinations until more than a month after the fact, having been appointed by Lincoln as U.S. consul to Rio de Janeiro.  When the news finally reached Brazil of the “monstrous crimes”, Monroe declared: “Our strong men wept, and every one felt that he had experienced a great personal calamity.”   Back in 1861, Monroe had had the honor of accompanying President-elect Lincoln on part of his railroad journey from his hometown of Springfield, Illinois to his inauguration in Washington, D.C.   But by the time Monroe learned of Lincoln’s death, the Lincoln funeral train had already retraced the inaugural route back to Springfield, including a stop in Cleveland where thousands of mourners paid their final respects.  Among those mourners were some from Oberlin, including Oberlin College student John G. Fraser, who recorded in his diary: [12]

“The crowd was the largest I ever saw and by far the most quiet and orderly. The very skies seemed to be weeping for the good man’s fall. I looked upon his face three times. It has a quiet, peaceful look upon it, as though he were at peace with his God, himself and all the world. How could an assassin have the heart to kill such a man?”

LincolnFuneralCleveland-cro

Lincoln funeral reception – Cleveland

Some in that mournful throng may have recalled back to the inaugural train journey of four years earlier and a brief, impromptu, perhaps prophetic speech President-elect Lincoln delivered in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the nation was born.  But when Lincoln spoke there in 1861 the nation’s survival seemed uncertain, with several slaveholding states having declared themselves seceded from the Union because, as their own newly elected President, Jefferson Davis, explained it, “the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.” [13]  Speaking on Washington’s birthday, with the prospect of civil war looming and rumors of assassination plots abounding, President-elect Lincoln re-affirmed his commitment to that “sacred Declaration”: [14]

“I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence… which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it…

My friends, this is wholly an unexpected speech… I may, therefore, have said something indiscreet.  I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by and, if it be the pleasure of Almighty God, die by.”  – Abraham Lincoln, February 22, 1861

 

 SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Oberlin Local: The Thanksgiving and Celebration”, Lorain County News, April 19, 1865, p. 2

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

David Herbert Donald, Lincoln

Lucien Calvin Warner, Personal Memoirs of Lucien Calvin Warner

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College From its Foundation through the Civil War, volume 2

“Last Public Address”, Abraham Lincoln Online

“Assassination of President Lincoln and Secretary Seward”, Lorain County News, April 19, 1865, p. 2

Rev R. T. Cross, “The Fourth Decade”, The Oberlin Jubilee 1833-1883

Charles G. Finney to James Barlow, June 22, 1865, The Gospel Truth

“Address in Independence Hall”, Abraham Lincoln Online

“Jefferson Davis’ Farewell Address”, The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Senate Chamber, U.S. Capitol, January 21, 1861

“The Great Sorrow”, Lorain County News, April 19, 1865, p. 2

James Monroe, Oberlin Thursday Lectures, Addresses, and Essays

“Building Erected for the Reception of the Body of the President at Cleveland”, Library of Congress

“Lincoln Parade Transparency, 1860”, Smithsonian: The National Museum of American History

Catherine M. Rokicky, James Monroe: Oberlin’s Christian Statesman and Reformer, 1821-1898

William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom: 1829-1865

Jacob Henry Studer, Columbus, Ohio: Its History, Resources and Progress

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

General Catalogue of Oberlin College: 1833- 1908

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Langston, pp. 220-221; “Last Public“; Donald, pp. 581-588
[2] Warner, p. 45
[3] “Oberlin Local”
[4] Warner, p. 45
[5] “Assassination”
[6] Cross, p. 220
[7] “Oberlin Local”
[8] Warner, pp. 45-46
[9] Fletcher, p. 883; “The Great Sorrow”
[10] Charles G. Finney; Fletcher, p. 883
[11] Langston, pp. 219-223
[12] Monroe, pp. 206-207; Rokicky, pp. 65-66; Fletcher, pp. 883-884
[13] “Jefferson Davis’ Farewell Address”
[14] “Address in Independence Hall”

William Howard Day & Lucie Stanton

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

In 1850, a young African American couple from Oberlin,  acclaimed as up-and-coming spokespersons against slavery and racial injustice, gazed with optimism towards a future of bright hope for themselves, their race, and their country.  But as they took their leave of Oberlin to spread that hope through Ohio and the nation, they could little imagine the disappointment and disillusion they would suffer over the next several years. In the long run they would see their efforts rewarded, but only after a temporary separation from their country and a permanent separation from each other.  Their names were William Howard Day and Lucie Stanton.

William Howard Day
William Howard Day
(courtesy University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

William Howard Day came to Oberlin in 1843 at the age of 17, where he enrolled in the collegiate program at Oberlin College.  He brought with him a strong disdain for slavery and racial injustice, learned from his mother, who had escaped from slavery in upstate New York and settled in Manhattan.  It was there, as a nine year old boy, that William witnessed the terrible race riots that wreaked havoc on Reverend Charles G. Finney’s chapel and the home of abolitionist Lewis Tappan.  But now, attending the college that Finney and Tappan had done so much to turn into an abolitionist stronghold, William wasted no time in making his mark. [1]

He became close friends with George Vashon, who in 1844 would become the first black student to receive a Bachelor’s Degree from Oberlin College, and Sabram Cox, another African American who was one of Oberlin’s most important Underground Railroad operatives.   Working closely with Vashon and Cox, William became a leading orator and organizer of the Oberlin black community.  On August 1, 1844, as Oberlin’s black citizens celebrated their third annual observance of the anniversary of British emancipation in the West Indies, William stood before the crowd to “commemorate the emancipation of eight hundred thousand of our fellow men from the galling yoke of slavery” and urged his “‘Colored friends [to] struggle on – struggle on!  Be not despondent, we shall at last conquer.”  The audience listened to William’s speech with such “great interest” that they requested it be reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist. [2]

During the long winter recesses between semesters, William would travel to Canada and teach in the many black settlements founded there by refugees from American slavery.  He also found employment in Oberlin during the school months as a typesetter for the Oberlin Evangelist.  And as new students enrolled in Oberlin College, he developed new friendships.  Among these were Charles and John Mercer Langston, and Lawrence W. Minor, all of whom would become important contributors to Oberlin’s black community.  Another new friendship was with Lucie Stanton. [3]

Lucie (often spelled Lucy) came to Oberlin in 1846, William’s senior year.  She had been raised in Cleveland in a home that was a station on the Underground Railroad.  In Cleveland she attended public school with white children, but eventually she was forced, “heart-broken”, to leave because of her race.  It was against state law at that time for black children to attend public school, so her stepfather, a wealthy African American barber, started his own private school in Cleveland, which Lucie attended.  Thus Lucie, like William, came to Oberlin highly conscious of American racism and slavery.  She and William naturally gravitated towards each other and began a courtship that would last several years. [4]

William graduated in 1847, becoming the third black student to earn a Bachelor’s Degree from Oberlin College.  He was chosen to give a commencement address, which he entitled “The Millenium of Liberty” and was reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist. [5]  William remained in Oberlin after graduating, continuing to work for the Evangelist, and helping to organize Oberlin’s “vigilance committee”- black residents that would protect the community against “men-thieves”.  In 1848, William, together with Sabram Cox, Lawrence Minor, John Watson, and Harlow H. Pease (the white nephew of Oberlin’s first resident, Peter Pindar Pease) called together a “Meeting of Colored Citizens” of Lorain County, where they passed eleven resolutions, including: [6]

1. Resolved, That we the colored citizens of Lorain county hereby declare, that whereas the Constitution of our common country gives us citizenship, we hereby, each to each, pledge ourselves to support the other in claiming our rights under the United States Constitution, and in having the laws oppressing us tested…

4. Resolved, That we still adhere to the doctrine of urging the slave to leave immediately with his hoe on his shoulder, for a land of liberty…

5. Resolved, That we urge all colored persons and their friends, to keep a sharp look-out for men-thieves and their abettors, and to warn them that no person claimed as a slave shall be taken from our midst without trouble… [7]

William was making a name for himself as a superb organizer and orator, and he would be a driving force in local, state and national black civil rights/anti-slavery conventions for the next decade.  In January, 1849, at the “State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio” in Columbus, William delivered a speech in the Hall of Representatives of the Ohio General Assembly, becoming the first black person to address a session of that body.  It was an important milestone for Ohioans and for 23-year-old William, as he urged the Assembly to repeal Ohio’s notoriously discriminatory “Black Laws”:

We believe … that every human being has rights in common, and that the meanest of those rights is legitimately beyond the reach of legislation, and higher than the claims of political expediency…

We ask for equal privileges, not because we would consider it a condescension on your part to grant them – but because we are MEN, and therefore entitled to all the privileges of other men in the same circumstances…

We ask for school privileges in common with others, for we pay school taxes in the same proportion.

We ask permission to send our deaf and dumb, our lunatic, blind, and poor to the asylums prepared for each.

We ask for the repeal of the odious enactments, requiring us to declare ourselves “paupers, vagabonds, or fugitives from justice,” before we can “lawfully” remain in the State.

We ask that colored men be not obliged to brand themselves liars, in every case of testimony in “courts of justice” where a white person is a party…

We ask that we may be one people, bound together by one common tie, and sheltered by the same impartial law…

Let us … inform our opposers that we are coming – coming for our rights – coming through the Constitution of our common country – coming through the law – and relying upon God and the justice of our cause, pledge ourselves never to cease our resistance to tyranny, whether it be in the iron manacles of the slave, or in the unjust written manacles for the free. [8]

Ohio’s Black Laws had been in effect since the early days of statehood and had survived multiple attempts at repeal.  But William’s timing was perfect in 1849.  It so happened that the General Assembly was deadlocked between representatives of the Democratic and Whig parties, with a handful of abolitionist members of the new anti-slavery Free Soil Party holding the balance of power – and willing and able to wield that power effectively.  And so, less than a month after William’s passionate appeal, the General Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority to repeal most of the Black Laws, and to permit public schooling of black children (albeit racially segregated, for the most part).  It was a significant step forward for Ohio, and a major victory for William. [9]

But William wasn’t the only one achieving major breakthroughs during this period of time.  Back at Oberlin College, Lucie was elected the first black President of the Ladies’ Literary Society in 1850, and then became the first African American woman in the country to earn a college degree.  Lucie also was chosen to deliver a commencement address, which was also reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist.  With a “charming voice, modest demeanor, appropriate pronunciation and graceful cadences”, she delivered “A Plea for the Oppressed”: [10]

Dark hover the clouds. The Anti-Slavery pulse beats faintly. The right of suffrage is denied. The colored man is still crushed by the weight of oppression. He may possess talents of the highest order, yet for him is no path of fame or distinction opened. He can never hope to attain those privileges while his brethren remain enslaved. Since, therefore, the freedom of the slave and the gaining of our rights, social and political, are inseparably connected, let all the friends of humanity plead for those who may not plead their own cause…

Truth and right must prevail. The bondsman shall go free. Look to the future! Hark! the shout of joy gushes from the heart of earth’s freed millions! It rushes upward. The angels on heaven’s outward battlements catch the sound on their golden lyres, and send it thrilling through the echoing arches of the upper world. How sweet, how majestic, from those starry isles float those deep inspiring sounds over the ocean of space! Softened and mellowed they reach earth, filling the soul with harmony, and breathing of God–of love–and of universal freedom. [11]

And so with boundless optimism, Lucie left Oberlin and found employment in Columbus, teaching in the newly established public schools for black children, while William moved to Cleveland, where he became a correspondent for an anti-slavery newspaper called the Daily True Democrat and was active in the Cleveland vigilance committee, assisting refugees from slavery.  He also remained active in conventions, and in 1851 he took aim at the Ohio Constitution and its restriction of voting rights to “white male inhabitants” only. [12]

The discriminatory word “white” in the Ohio Constitution had been a target of progressives for decades, even though the Ohio courts had since diluted it to the point that light-skinned black men like William could now vote in some localities.  Even so, William set his sights at eliminating the word completely, and a state Constitutional Convention held in 1850-1851 gave him just that opportunity.  A “State Convention of Colored Men” was held concurrently in Columbus, and William was given the chance to address both conventions simultaneously in January, 1851.  Using statistics compiled by John Mercer Langston, William told the conventions: [13]

We respectfully represent to you, that the continuance of the word “white” in the Ohio State Constitution, by which we are deprived of the privilege of voting for men to make laws by which we are to be governed, is a violation of every principle [of our fathers of the revolution]…

Again, colored men are helping, through their taxes, to bear the burdens of the State, and we ask, shall they not be permitted to be represented?…  In returns from nineteen counties represented, we find the value of real estate and personal property belonging to colored persons in those counties, amounting to more than three millions of dollars…  [We] think the amount above specified, certainly demands at your hands some attention, so that while colored men bear cheerfully their part of the burdens of the State, they may have their part of the blessings…

We ask, Gentleman, in conclusion, that you will place yourselves in our stead,- that you will candidly consider our claim, and as justice shall direct you, so to decide.  In your hands, our destiny is placed.  To you, therefore, we appeal.  We look to you “To give us our rights – for we ask for nothing more.” [14]

But this time William’s timing wasn’t so good.  In fact, it was off by decades.  The delegates of the Constitutional convention voted overwhelmingly to retain the word “white” in the new Constitution.

It was the first of a long string of disappointments, but still William and Lucie battled on.  In 1852 they joined in matrimony and Lucie returned to Cleveland.  In 1853, William started his own newspaper, The Aliened American, the first African American newspaper in Ohio.  The paper employed a highly impressive and “intelligent corps of male and female correspondents”, which included Lucie, who wrote a fictional story for the first issue about an enslaved brother and sister.  The story, entitled “Charles and Clara Hayes”, has been recognized as “the first instance of published fiction by a black woman”.  The Aliened American dealt with local and state racial issues, but William also tackled national issues, including in his first issue an editorial rebuttal of President Franklin Pierce’s recent inaugural address:  “The President forgot, or if he did not forget, cared not to remember, that the South, for whom he was pleading, tramples every day upon the Constitutional rights of free citizens.” [15]

But the trampling of Constitutional rights, by the North as well as the South, was taking its toll.  In 1854, the Ohio General Assembly expelled William from the Senate press gallery largely because of his race.  (See my Oberlin Commenst this War! blog)  In 1850 the U.S. Congress passed the notorious Fugitive Slave Law, and the Pierce Administration now demonstrated the lengths the government would go to in order to enforce it when they sent “several companies of marines, cavalry and artillery” to Boston to rendition a single fugitive, Anthony Burns.  And the United States Congress overturned the long-respected Missouri Compromise by allowing slavery into U.S. territories that had been guaranteed free.  William, who had been criticized by some of the more militant black leaders for  “wrap[ping] the stars and stripes of his country around him”, began to take a more militant stance himself.  The crowning blow came in 1856, when William and Lucie were returning from a trip to the black settlements in Canada and ended up making the long journey by train and wagon because they were denied a berth on a Michigan passenger boat due to the color of their skin.  The incident, and the ensuing unsuccessful lawsuit against the boat operator, devastated William emotionally and financially, and crushed his remaining faith in American justice. [16]

And so it was, in 1856, that William and Lucie joined thousands of other refugees from American racial oppression and relocated to Canada.  There they had a child and took an active role in helping the Canadian vigilance committees protect even Canadian blacks from being kidnapped into American slavery.  In 1858, when the radical white Ohio abolitionist, John Brown, visited Canada to recruit support for a planned slave insurgency in the heart of the American south, William agreed to print his “Provisional Constitution” for him, but refused to participate any further. [17]  (An original Day print of this document recently fetched $22,800 at auction.)

In 1859 William sailed to Britain to solicit financial support “to establish a Press … for the special benefit of the Fugitive Slaves and coloured population” of Canada.  He was still there when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, and so he also urged the British people to reject the Confederacy and support the Union.  But he also solicited funds for a new colonization effort in Africa led by his militant friend, Martin Delany. [18]

The long separation from his wife, however – leaving her to raise their child alone – irreparably damaged their marriage.  When President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Days found faith enough in the United States to return and dedicate themselves to the advancement of the freedmen, but they would go in separate directions.  William became a superintendent of schools for the Freedmen’s Bureau and ultimately President of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania school board.  Lucie had to overcome the Victorian-era stigma of being a single mother (you can read about her trials and tribulations here), but she eventually fulfilled a long-term ambition “to go South to teach”, teaching black children in Georgia and Mississippi.  After finalization of the divorce, she remarried, and under the name of Lucie Stanton Sessions was an active officer of the Women’s Relief Corps and a local temperance society. [19]

Lucie Stanton Sessions in her later years
Lucie Stanton Sessions in her later years

Although the boundless, youthful optimism of their Oberlin days may have been tempered, both Lucie and William continued to “struggle on” and dedicated their lives to the cause of “universal freedom.”

Sources consulted:

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

Stephen Middleton, The Black Laws: Race and the Legal Process in Early Ohio

Frank Uriah Quillin, The Color Line in Ohio: A History of Race Prejudice in a Typical Northern State

Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection; State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio, “Minutes and Address of the State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio, Convened at Columbus, January 10th, 11th, 12th, & 13th, 1849”

State Convention of Colored Men, “Address to the Constitutional convention of Ohio / from the State convention of colored men, held in the city of Columbus, Jan. 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th, 1851”

Ellen NicKenzie Lawson with Marlene D. Merrill, The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women

“Meeting of Colored Citizens”, The Liberator, March 2, 1849, Vol XIX, No. 9, Page 1

The Oberlin Evangelist (see footnotes for specific issues)

C. Peter Ripley, et al, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume IV, The United States, 1847-1858

C. Peter Ripley, et al, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume II, Canada, 1830-1865

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

William M. Mitchell, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom

Victor Ullman, Look to the North Star; a life of William King

“Ohio Constitution of 1803 (Transcript)”, Ohio History Central

James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom

Oberlin Heritage Center; Harlow Pease, “Harlow Pease (1828-1910)”

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

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

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

 

Footnotes:

[1] Mealy, pp. 47-50
[2] Mealy, pp. 120-121; Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1844
[3] Mealy, pp. 121-126
[4] Lawson, pp. 190-191
[5] “Catalogue and Record”; Oberlin Evangelist, Oct. 13, 1847
[6] Mealy, pp. 134, 146; Oberlin Heritage Center
[7] “Meeting of Colored Citizens”
[8] Samuel J. May Anti-slavery collection
[9] Quillin, pp. 39-40
[10] Lawson, pp. 192-193; Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1850
[11] Oberlin Evangelist, Dec 17, 1850
[12] Mealy, pp. 169-172; “Ohio Constitution”
[13] Ripley, Vol. IV,  p. 225; Cheek, p. 153
[14] “Address to the Constitutional convention”
[15] Ripley, Vol. IV, pp. 215, 150; Lawson, pp. 196-197
[16] McPherson, p. 119; Ripley, Vol. IV, p. 75; Mealy, pp. 238-243
[17] Mealy, pp. 268, 277
[18] Mitchell, pp. 171-172; Mealy, p. 316
[19] Lawson, pp. 198-201

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

William T. Allan – Lane Rebel from the South

Monday, August 12th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

I’ve decided for my next two blog entries to tell the stories of two Southern rebels who had a tremendous  impact on pre-Civil War Oberlin.  But these weren’t Confederate rebels, they were Southern abolitionists, at a time when “abolitionist” was a dirty word even in the North.  They were also students of a theological seminary in Cincinnati – a college that tried to stop them from spreading their anti-slavery message and from doing good deeds among the African-American population of that city.  But these students wouldn’t be shut down.  Instead they  left that school in protest.  And they came to Oberlin, along with about two dozen of their anti-slavery brothers, in just the second year of the Oberlin colony, and put this town and college on an entirely new course that its founders couldn’t have envisioned just two years earlier.  One of these Southern rebels was the son of a respected Southern slaveholder.  The other was a native African who himself had been enslaved.

The slaveholder’s son was William T. Allan.  He was born in Tennessee in 1810, and moved with his family to Huntsville, Alabama about a decade later.  His father, John Allan, was pastor of Huntsville’s First Presbyterian Church.  John Allan owned two families of 15 slaves, who William would later say were “almost as kindly treated as slaves can be, yet they pant for liberty”. [1]  But even though he owned slaves, John Allan was opposed to slavery.  He was not an abolitionist, but a “colonizationist”, believing in the gradual emancipation of the slaves and their colonization back to Africa.  He was a co-founder of Alabama’s Society for the Emancipation of Slavery and the Madison County Colonization Society.

For a month in 1832, the Allan family had a houseguest – a young reformer from Connecticut named Theodore Weld.  Weld was on a mission from Lewis Tappan, a wealthy New York philanthropist, to travel the country and determine what kind of interest there might be for a new type of college that Lewis and his brother were interested in supporting, called a “manual labor institution”.  The idea was that students would engage in manual labor to help pay their way through college, both as a benefit to the college and as moral discipline for themselves.  To enhance the moral discipline,  the school would teach and emphasize moral values and religious purity.  As a secondary goal, Weld was to evaluate existing manual labor institutes that might be worthy of support from the Tappan brothers.

Theodore Dwight Weld

Theodore Dwight Weld

Weld did find such an institute, the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, and he spoke about it to interested young men who he met in his travels, like William T. Allan (who would become a lifelong friend) and his brother James.  Weld, the Allans, and several more of these young men enrolled in the Lane Seminary and arrived there in 1833 to begin their studies.

During the course of his nationwide tour, Weld became zealously committed to the abolitionist cause – believing that slavery was a sin and should be abolished immediately, without colonization. [2]  Once his original mission was complete, he embarked on a new, personal mission  to abolitionize the students of the Lane Seminary.  His first target was William Allan.  William was a colonizationist, like his father and like most of the Lane recruits.    But it didn’t take much effort for Weld to convert him into a full-fledged abolitionist.

With that, Allan became an ally of Weld, spreading the abolition message through the Lane student body.  Soon they had enough converts that they felt comfortable challenging the colonizationists to a series of debates.  The debates would cover 18 evenings, at two and a half hours each.  Seventeen students eagerly participated in the debates, many of them recruits who Weld had met during his travels, and most of whom had first-hand experience with slavery in the South, like James A. Thome, the son of a wealthy Kentucky slaveholder, and Huntington Lyman, a Connecticut native who had spent several years in Louisiana.

The debates were held in February, 1834.  Weld, a very powerful and persuasive orator, was the keynote speaker.  He spoke for two nights, followed by two nights of group discussion and debate.  This was followed by four nights of first-hand testimony about slavery.  This was probably the most powerful part of the debates, and William Allan led it off.  Here’s part of what he had to say:

What is slavery?  Before we can prescribe a remedy, we must understand the disease. We must know what we are attempting to cure, before we give the medicine…

At our house it is so common to hear their screams from a neighbouring plantation, that we think nothing of it. The overseer of this plantation told me one day, he laid a young woman over a log, and beat her so severely that she was soon after delivered of a dead child. A bricklayer, a neighbor of ours, owned a very smart young negro man, who ran away, but was caught. When his master got him home, he stripped him naked, tied him up by his hands, in plain sight and hearing of the academy and the public green, so high that his feet could not touch the ground ; then tied them together, and put a long board between his legs, to keep him steady. After preparing him in this way, he took a paddle, bored it full of holes, and commenced beating him with it. He continued it leisurely all day. At night his flesh was literally pounded to a jelly. It was two weeks before he was able to walk. No one took any notice of it; no one thought any wrong was done…

And lest any one should think that in general the slaves are well treated, and these are the exceptions, let me be distinctly understood — Cruelty is the rule, and kindness the exception.[3]

One audience member remarked later, “I was rejoiced to hear such a beginning from the son of a slave-holder; for I had longed to learn the true condition of the slave.”  Several other students also gave first-hand accounts of slavery, including James Thome and Huntington Lyman.  The abolitionism portion of the debates ended on the ninth evening with a vote being taken on the following question: “Ought the people of the slaveholding states to abolish slavery immediately?”  The answer was a unanimous Yes (although a few students who hadn’t made up their minds abstained from voting).

The students then entered into nine evenings of debate about the colonization issue, which included readings from extensive reports, addresses and repositories of the American Colonization Society.  According to student Henry B. Stanton, just reading the colonization society’s own promotional material was enough to change many attitudes:

Most of the Colonizationists who expressed any opinion on the subject, declared their ignorance of the doctrines and measures of the Society until this debate.  They cannot find words to express their astonishment that they should have been so duped into the support of this Society, as a scheme of benevolence towards the free blacks, and a remedy for slavery.  They now repudiate it with all their hearts.[4]

And thus when a vote was taken on the final night of the debates concerning the colonization issue, only one student voted in favor of colonization, with all the others opposed (except a handful of abstainers, as before).  The debates inspired the students to start their own anti-slavery society, with William Allan as President.  Many of the students also started distributing abolitionist literature and  going out into the Cincinnati African American community to teach and minister to the large population of ex-slaves there.  Said Henry Stanton, “Almost all of our southern brethren are engaged in colored Sabbath schools and Bible classes.  Some of them have devoted their lives in doing good to that oppressed race.”

But racism, which was prevalent in Ohio at that time (especially in Cincinnati, situated right across the Ohio River from the slave state of Kentucky), reared its ugly head.  The students met with much abuse and condemnation from white residents, and the Lane Seminary itself came under fire from the local community and its supporters, many of whom were slaveholders or conducted business with slaveholders.  The school was even threatened with mob violence.  The trustees of Lane Seminary asked the students to desist from their activities, but a committee of students, chaired by William Allan, stood firm. Finally the trustees came down hard on the students, banning any further anti-slavery discussion or activities, firing a professor, and recommending expulsion procedures against Weld and William Allan.  As a result, several dozen students quit the school in protest, becoming known as the “Lane Rebels”.

When news reached Huntsville, Alabama that the Allan boys had left Lane, their father was not happy, and their neighbors were incensed when they learned of their abolitionist activities.  Said William, “They blow away against abolitionists down there at a terrible rate – say they’ll cut my throat, that I’m afraid to come home, etc.”[5] However, one of Allan’s Huntsville neighbors, James Birney, a wealthy slaveholder who had co-founded the local emancipation and colonization societies with John Allan, was so moved by the Lane debates that he emancipated all of his slaves and became an outspoken abolitionist.

The news of what happened at Lane also sent shockwaves through colleges throughout the North.  Many institutions suddenly became aware of student anti-slavery societies on their own campuses and shut them down, in hopes of staving off a similar disaster.  One college, however, had the opposite reaction.  John J. Shipherd, a member of the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society and the co-founder of a newly formed manual labor institution called the Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College), went down to Cincinnati to visit the Lane Rebels and invite them to Oberlin, promising that their philanthropic and anti-slavery activities wouldn’t be squelched there.  After a complex set of negotiations (which I’ll describe in more detail in my next blog post), about two dozen of the Rebels agreed to come to Oberlin and enroll in the newly formed Theological Department, headed by the renowned revivalist minister, Charles G. Finney, with generous financial support from the Tappan brothers.  William Allan said of the plan, “This Oberlin plan, however, has opened up a new train… That, with me, will be putting on the capstone–I shall have passed the rubicon if I should go to an institution where abolition is concentrated–at the head of which is that arch-heretic Finney.”[6] James Thome and Huntington Lyman joined Allan in heading to Oberlin.  Theodore Weld enthusiastically supported the move, but did not join in himself.  Flushed with his success at abolitionizing first William Allan and then the Lane Seminary, he instead took off on a remarkable speaking campaign across the state that would “fast abolitionize Ohio” and create dozens of new local anti-slavery societies.

When the Lane Rebels came to Oberlin in early 1835, abolitionist students who had been silenced by other colleges in the North followed suit.  Thus the fledgling colony of Oberlin became a major national center of abolitionism virtually overnight.  This was encouraged by Weld, who arrived in Oberlin in late 1835 and gave rousing anti-slavery lectures for 21 nights.   According to student James Fairchild (future Professor and College President), Weld spoke with such “fervid eloquence” that “Oberlin was abolitionized in every thought and feeling and purpose.”  The college leadership remained true to their word of allowing unrestricted free speech, although Reverend Finney did attempt to temper the enthusiasm, believing the students should devote their time to general moral reform and revivalism, which he felt would ultimately lead not only to the abolition of slavery, but of all earthly sin.  In 1836 Allan wrote to Weld, “Bro. Finney has used his heart & head & influence to convince us that it is our duty to preach. He groans over the subject & speaks of himself as being agonized about it. Thus we are situated–you and Stanton groaning on one side & Finney on the other.”[7]

But it was the groans of Weld and Stanton that persuaded Allan.  He and fellow rebels James Thome, Huntington Lyman, John Alvord, and Sereno Streeter became lecturing “agents” of the American Anti-Slavery Society, numbering among “The Seventy” apostles of aboltionism who were selected to be trained by Weld to travel all over the North, endure peltings with rotten eggs, stones and bricks, and convert thousands to the cause.  (Allan and Thome had already become members of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society at its charter meeting in Zanesville in April, 1835.)

William Allan graduated from Oberlin college in 1836 and began a long and active anti-slavery career.    He preached and lectured against slavery in Ohio, New York, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, finally settling in the latter and becoming an agent of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society.  In 1839 Theodore Weld published a testimonial from William Allan in his book about the horrors of slavery.  In the 1840s Allan became an organizer of the Illinois and Iowa chapters of the first national anti-slavery political party, the Liberty Party, which nominated his ex-Huntsville neighbor, James Birney, for President of the United States.  When William’s mother became mortally ill in 1841, his father advised him not to return home, as local sentiment was so strong against him that he feared for his safety.  John Allan himself died in 1843, freeing his slaves in his will.  William remained in Illinois and helped free slaves himself, his home becoming a sanctuary on the Underground Railroad.  He died in Illinois in 1882 after a long, distinguished and honorable public career.

Allan Grave

Allan family tomb in Illinois. (Unfortunately this is the closest we have to a picture of William T. Allan)

(By the way, if you’re wondering why I haven’t made any mention since the first paragraph of the ex-slave rebel who came to Oberlin, it’s because I’ll be telling his story in detail in my next blog post.  Stay tuned!)

Sources consulted:

Benjamin P. Thomas, Theodore Weld: Crusader for Freedom

Elizur Wright, The Quarterly Anti-slavery Magazine, Volume 1

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

“William T. Allan and Lane Seminary”, The Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection

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

Theodore Dwight Weld, Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Grimké, 1822-1844, Volume 1

“Rev William T Allan”, Find a Grave

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

Theodore Dwight Weld, American Slavery as it is

Reinhard O. Johnson, The Liberty Party, 1840-1848

William Birney,  James G. Birney and his times

“James Gillespie Birney”, Huntsville History Collection

John Allan Wyeth, With Sabre and Scalpel. The Autobiography of a Soldier and Surgeon

“Rev. John Allan”, Huntsville History Collection

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

Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Birney, p. 106; Weld, American Slavery, p. 47

[2] Thomas, Chapter 2

[3] Wright, p. 64

[4] Stanton, March 10, 1834

[5] Thomas, Chapter 6

[6] Weld, Letters, p. 190

[7] Fairchild, p. 68, 75; Weld, Letters,  p. 324