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Frances Jackson Coppin – From Slavery to Trailblazer

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

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

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

Fanny M. Jackson

Fanny M. Jackson
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Jane Patterson

Mary Jane Patterson
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

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

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

Levi Jenkins Coppin, Unwritten History

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

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

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

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

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

Fannie Jackson Coppin, Class of 1865“, Oberlin College

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

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

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

Scott v. Sandford“, Legal Information Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roland M. Baumann, Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College

About CU“, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania

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

 

FOOTNOTES:

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

 

August First – the original “Juneteenth”

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

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

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

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

ClarksonWilberforce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WilliamHowardDay

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

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

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

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

 

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

Stone-August1st

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

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

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

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

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Catalogue of Oberlin College: 1833- 1908

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

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Kenny, pp. 55-56

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

[3] Oberlin Evangelist, August 17, 1842

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

[5] Barnes

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

[7] Calhoun; Hammond; Hale

[8] Oberlin Evangelist, July 30, 1862

Celebrating 20 Years of Community Service

Monday, April 27th, 2015

By Laurie Stein (Oberlin College 2006)

The Oberlin Heritage Center was delighted that former intern Laurie Stein was able to return to her alma mater to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Community Services Work-Study Program of Oberlin College, and also to present at the Annual Meeting of the Oberlin Heritage Center on April 1, 2015. The Oberlin Heritage Center has been a community partner since the inception of the work study program.  Here we reprint Laurie’s remarks on the impact community service at the Heritage Center had on her future career path. Laurie Stein is Curator of the Lake Forest – Lake Bluff Historical Society.

First of all I want to thank the staff at the Heritage Center and Tania Boster and Beth Blissman at Oberlin College for inviting me here this week. It’s wonderful to see a lot of familiar faces and see the many steps forward taken by this organization since my time here. It’s hard to believe that in 2016 it will be ten years since I graduated from Oberlin.

The reason I’m joining you today is to celebrate the 20-year partnership between the Oberlin Heritage Center and the college’s Community Services Work-Study Program, which has been absolutely wonderful. I give it all the credit in the world for allowing me to take my study of history and hone it into a passion for interpreting the past for a public audience.

I first became connected with the Oberlin Heritage Center through a Winter Term project in my second year. I conducted research for the Ohio Historic Inventory, surveying buildings and architecture and using archives to discover their former occupants.

At the end of the three-week winter term period, I recall thinking what a shame it was that my part in the project was ending. I was just starting to become familiar with the resources and with Oberlin’s built environment and there was so much more to do! But with double majoring, playing soccer, and working to help pay my tuition, I did not realistically see how I could continue as a volunteer, at least not on a regular basis.

So I was absolutely thrilled when Pat Murphy told me that as a work study student, I could apply to continue working there during the school year through the Community Services Work-Study Program, since the Oberlin Heritage Center was one of their community partners.

BBlissman+LStein+TBoster - blog

Beth Blissman, Director of the Bonner Center for Service and Learning, Laurie Stein, and Tania Boster, Director of the Community Services Work-Study Program

This was just terrific news, that I could work to defray the cost of my attendance at school in the field that I was interested in. I think I had an inkling even then that this wasn’t just a career-building opportunity; for me this might be the career-building opportunity.

And so I continued as an intern at the Heritage Center for the rest of my time at Oberlin, including over one summer, and then after I graduated, as a Museum Fellow for a year.

It was during this time that the Oberlin Heritage Center taught me what the “public” part of public historian really meant. At first I thought that for me it meant doing research that someone else would interpret – it was what I initially considered myself best at, being the most like “writing papers,” which I had already conquered as a history major. But after that first Winter Term, I was pushed out of my comfort zone, and I worked on not just the inventory, but on any number of other projects: giving tours, docent training, special events, stuffing envelopes for membership mailings, scanning photographs, summer camps, updating the website, taking photos of gravestones at the cemetery, copyediting the annual report, demonstrating the use of stilts on the lawn in front of the schoolhouse, and much more – all things, maybe except for the stilts, that I use regularly in my current job in Lake Forest.

This was a wonderful aspect of my intern experience at the OHC, that I wasn’t just buttonholed into one project. I really got a chance to see the inner workings of a small, active history museum – a museum that had become, thanks to Pat Murphy and Mary Anne Cunningham and all of you who are here tonight, a model for other history museums across the country, including mine in Lake Forest.

All of these experiences were invaluable when I applied to graduate school, and they were invaluable in signaling that I wanted to start my career at a museum like this one, where I would be able to work closely with our interns, our board, our volunteers – where I could get to know our museum members by name and say hello to them at events – where I could help develop innovative programs and provide services to the local community. The museum where I work now, the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society, is just starting a regular internship program with our local college, Lake Forest College, and I can only hope that eventually it has a similar impact to what I was lucky enough to experience here through the Heritage Center and the Community Services Work-Study Program. Thank you.

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”

Was Abolitionism a Failure?

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent and researcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Garrison & Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston

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

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

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

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

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

LovejoyMonument

Elijah Lovejoy monument – Alton, Illinois

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

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

SOURCES CONSULTED:

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

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

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

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

Republican Party Platform of 1860“, The American Presidency Project

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

1844 Liberty Party Platform“, Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanley Harrold, The Abolitionists & the South

About New-York Tribune“, Library of Congress

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

American Anti-Slavery Society“, Encyclopaedia Britannica

 All photos public domain.

 

FOOTNOTES:

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

[2] Anti-Slavery Record

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

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

[5] Calhoun; Richardson, p. 176

[6] Cheek, pp. 325-326

[7] Langston

[8] Lincoln

[9] “The Declaration of Causes