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Posts Tagged ‘Lane rebels’

Juneteenth – the “extinction” of legalized slavery in America

Friday, June 12th, 2015

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

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first “Juneteenth” – June 19, 1865 – a day which has come to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.  Since Juneteenth is such an important day in modern Oberlin, and the fight against slavery was such an important part of Oberlin’s early history, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write a blog describing how American slavery ended, how Oberlin reacted to it, and why Juneteenth has been chosen as the day to celebrate it.  None of it was as straightforward as one might think.

Most people are aware that  American slavery was ended by the Civil War, and that specifically President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had something to do with it.   But the actual demise of slavery was in fact a complicated process, as might be expected of an institution that had become so deeply ingrained in the American social, political and economic landscape throughout the first “four score and 7 years” of this nation’s existence.

When President Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, seven slaveholding states had already declared themselves seceded from the Union and were in the process of arming themselves for potential war.   “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended,” Lincoln said in his inaugural address, “while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”   And he meant it.  Three months earlier, when slaveholding states began to call for secession conventions in response to Lincoln’s election, President-elect Lincoln told a colleague in a private dispatch: “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery… Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than later.”   But while Lincoln always maintained that stopping the expansion of slavery would put it on “the course of ultimate extinction”, he also reassured slaveholders in that same inaugural address that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” [1]

Most abolitionists and Oberlinites concurred.  Initially, that is.  But surely, they thought, when the Confederate states opened fire on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, President Lincoln would use the opportunity to eradicate slavery forever.   After all, former President John Quincy Adams, who as a Constitutional lawyer successfully argued the Amistad case before the U.S. Supreme Court, had told Congress twenty years earlier that “under a state of actual invasion and of actual war… not only the President of the United States but the commander of the army has power to order the universal emancipation of the slaves.”  But even as Lincoln called up troops to put down the rebellion, he held fast to both his promises – he would not compromise on the extension of slavery into new territory, but he also would not interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed.  In fact as combat operations began, he censured those military commanders who took it upon themselves to emancipate the slaves in their jurisdiction, and supported military commanders who returned escaped slaves to their owners.  More than a year into the war, Lincoln would still insist that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union”, and that although his “personal wish” remained “that all men every where could be free”, he would use his war powers to free the slaves only insofar as he believed it would “save the Union”. [2]

Perplexed on how to proceed, the citizens of Oberlin called a series of public meetings during commencement week, in August, 1861, to discuss the situation.  The meetings drew not only local dignitaries, but such nationally recognized figures as the renowned abolitionist Reverend Edward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) from Massachusetts, and U.S. Representative James Ashley from Toledo.   (Ashley was himself a former Underground Railroad conductor who was portrayed, not altogether flatteringly, in Stephen Spielberg’s recent movie “Lincoln”.)  Speaking just weeks after Union forces had suffered a major, humiliating defeat in Virginia, Representative Ashley told his Oberlin audience:

“I am now on my return homewards from Washington.  I saw President Lincoln but the day before I left.  He said to me – Can you tell me why it is that one Secessionist [soldier] is equal to five Union men?  I said, Yes.  The reason is that the Secessionist has an idea; the Union men have not.  The former knows what he works and fights for.  The latter don’t know.  They must save Slavery and yet must fight it; and in this everlasting perplexity and conflict of aims and interests, they cannot have energy, or will…

 

Now, friends, if you will speak out, and if the people of the Great West will speak out, our rulers will obey.  And for myself I am not willing to give such favors to rebels as the policy of our Government thus far seems to accord them.”

James Ashley

Reverend Beecher resolved that “By virtue of the present treason and war, we have a legal right to strike Slavery down”, and “If this is not done, a dark mist of uncertainty hangs over the issue of this war.”  These sentiments resonated with the locals.  Cleveland Reverend James Thome (a former Oberlin College Professor and Lane Rebel) proclaimed, “We who have spoken out all along thus far, ought to speak out now.  Our Government needs and perhaps desires just this expression from us.  If ever there was a time when courage and unswerving boldness were in season, that time is now.”

Edward H. Fairchild, Principal of the Oberlin College Preparatory Department, took it a step further.  Not only should the slaves be freed, they should be armed and allowed to fight: “Let the blacks, bond and free, be marshalled for this contest, and come up to strike for Freedom, and to smite down this rebellion.  When armed and disciplined, let them sweep the Gulf States, take possession, and hold the country.  It is legitimately theirs.”  And according to the Oberlin Evangelist, “All agreed that, through a specially kind Providence, Slavery had put itself into a position where it may be smitten down, and that it is in the highest degree wise for the Federal Government to exercise this war power as fast as it can be done to purpose.” [3]

Jame Thome, E. H. Fairchild

But it would be more than a year later before Lincoln was finally ready to act.  And even then it wouldn’t be the “universal emancipation” that John Quincy Adams had envisioned two decades earlier.  Lincoln insisted that the Constitution only gave him authority to free the slaves in regions that were in rebellion, and thus his Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, freed only those “persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States.”  Fully aware that slaveholders in those rebellious regions would not feel the least bit bound by the President’s proclamation, some abolitionists cried foul – insisting that the proclamation didn’t free any slaves at all.  But in Oberlin it was generally cheered.  The Proclamation in fact freed thousands of slaves immediately, some of them right in Oberlin, who had escaped from the rebel states and had ever since lived in constant apprehension of recapture and return to slavery.  And it was understood that with each advance of Union arms many more slaves would be freed, and many of them in turn, would “be marshalled for this contest, and come up to strike for Freedom” themselves, as Principal Fairchild had advocated more than a year earlier.  And so the Oberlin Evangelist jubilantly proclaimed: [4]

“We shall account this proclamation as the great and glorious decision.  It fixes a policy.  It is a mighty word for freedom.  Its echoes will gladden four millions of hearts where little joy has found place for many generations.  We hope the watchword as the tidings flash from one plantation to another all the way from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, will be Pray and wait.  The God of the oppressed is surely coming!”

5th USCT
5th USCT troops

And that’s exactly how it happened.  As Union armed forces made their slow but steady advance into the Confederate interior, the tidings did indeed flash from one plantation to another.  In 1864 the tidings were carried to coastal North Carolina and Virginia, as the 5th United States Colored Troops (USCT),  a regiment of “blacks, bond and free” with a strong Oberlin presence, conducted raids into rebel territory, freeing slaves as it went.  (See my Battle of New Market Heights blog.)   Hundreds of miles away the tidings flashed to Eliza Wallace, in Natchez, Mississippi, who with her three children was helped on the road to Oberlin and freedom by Oberlin resident and alumnus, Chaplain Sela Wright of the 70th United States Colored Infantry.  Nobody knows how many thousands of slaves were freed between Natchez and the Virginia coast, but it’s estimated that 130,000 of them served in the United States army.  And ultimately, after much praying and waiting, the tidings did indeed make it all the way to the Rio Grande, but not until weeks after Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, President Lincoln had been assassinated, and many considered the war to be over.  And so it was that on June 19, 1865 Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas with a proclamation that “all slaves are free” and with the military power to back it up. The promise of the Emancipation Proclamation was now complete. [5]

Sela Wright

Reverend Sela Wright, in later years

(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

But wait!  We seem to be forgetting something.  Recall that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed those slaves in regions “in rebellion against the United States”.  What about the hundreds of thousands of slaves held in regions where the rebellion had already been suppressed, or slaveholding states which had remained loyal right from the start, like Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware?  Well, the Lincoln Administration didn’t forget about them either.  In fact it employed a carrot and stick approach to entice these regions to abolish slavery voluntarily, which most of them did by the time General Granger landed in Galveston.  And for the last stubborn holdouts – Kentucky and Delaware – the Lincoln Administration had also been using a carrot and stick approach to pass a Constitutional Amendment, originally introduced into Congress by none other than Representative James Ashley (mentioned above), that would ban slavery nationwide and forever.  That amendment was finally ratified on  December 18, 1865, becoming the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, making institutional, legalized slavery extinct everywhere in the United States of America.

So why do we celebrate June 19, 1865, a date that really only affected the slaves in Galveston, Texas?  Probably for the simple reason that they and their descendants kept the memory alive, year after year after year.  Today we might be more inclined to see January 1 (the date the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect) or December 18 (the date the 13th Amendment was ratified) as more appropriate for a national celebration.   But the vast majority of slaves were freed between those two events, and with a bloody Civil War and a strife-filled Reconstruction in progress, the freed men and women had all they could do to make the difficult transition to freedom, without trying to organize a national day of commemoration.  It wasn’t until the civil rights era of the 20th century that Galveston’s celebration garnered national attention, and the idea spread slowly across the country.  In 2004 the City of Oberlin officially joined the throng by designating “Juneteenth, the Saturday in June that falls between the 13th and 19th of June each year, as an Officially Recognized day of Commemoration and Celebration.” [6]

So please join us in celebrating the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth this Saturday, June 13th, in Oberlin.  Enjoy the many cultural festivities, stop by the Oberlin Heritage Center’s booth on Tappan Square, perhaps even sign up for one of our historic tours.  But as you’re enjoying the food, music and fun, remember too the millions of Americans who endured the bitter hopelessness of this awful institution, and remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, who fought for freedom – some, like Gordon Granger, Sela Wright and the men of the 5th USCT, who freed slaves outright, and others who fought to preserve a Union that would finally bring slavery to its “ultimate extinction”.  And remember too that while institutional slavery is indeed extinct, the racial prejudices and mistrust that propagated it and were perpetuated by it are not.  But that’s our battle.

Happy Juneteenth (and go Cavs)!

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Discussion on Slavery and the War”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Sept. 11, 1861, p. 4

“Legal Notice of Coming Emancipation”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Oct. 8, 1862, p. 3

“The Emancipation Proclamation”, National Archives & Records Administration

History of Juneteenth“, Juneteenth.com

Oberlin Resolution (R01-06-CMS),  Oberlin Juneteenth, Inc.

Abraham Lincoln, First inaugural address, March 4, 1861

Abraham Lincoln to William Kellogg, December 11, 1860, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol 4

Abraham Lincoln reply to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1861, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol 5

Worthington Chauncey Ford and Charles Francis Adams,  John Quincy Adams: His Connection with the Monroe Doctrine (1823)

Oberlin News, June 12, 1893

Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895

Abraham Lincoln, “Mr. Lincoln’s Reply”, Third Joint Debate at Jonesboro, IL, Sept 15, 1858

“Wright, Sela G.”, Soldiers and Sailors Database – The Civil War, National Park Service

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

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

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] First inaugural address; Kellogg; Jonesboro

[2] Ford, Adams, p. 77; Greeley

[3] “Discussion”

[4] Emancipation Proclamation; “Legal Notice”

[5] Oberlin News; “Wright“; General catalogue; Finkelman, p. 394; “History

[6] “History“, Oberlin Resolution

Thomas Tucker and Charles Jones: Missionaries FROM Africa

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

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

Thomas DeSaille Tucker

Thomas DeSaille Tucker
Courtesy State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

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

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

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

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

Thompson and Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1860 United States Census, Lorain County, Russia Township

National Park Service, “Soldiers and Sailors Database”

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

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Versalle F. Washington, Eagles on their Buttons

Daniel J. Sharfstein, The Invisible Line

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

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

 

FOOTNOTES:

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

The Secret Rooms of the Fitches

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

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

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

James M. Fitch

 James M. Fitch (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sources consulted:

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

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

James Harris Fairchild, The Underground Railroad

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

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

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

Oberlin Heritage Center, “Radicals and Reformers” history walk

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

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

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

Wilbur Henry Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom

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

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

Oberlin Heritage Center Resource Center

The Society, 1901, Ohio History, Volume 13

The Oberlin News, February 10, 1899

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