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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

Dr. A.C. Siddall’s Life as a Medical Practitioner: Researching and Making History

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

by Michelle Myers, Leadership Lorain County Intern

Upon leaving my summer internship at the Oberlin Heritage Center and graduating from Swarthmore College in two years, I plan on going to nursing school and becoming a midwife. I have taken an interest in Dr. A.C. Siddall, an OB/GYN who practiced in the Oberlin Heritage Center’s Monroe House for twenty years, not only because of the feats he accomplished as a medical practitioner, but also for his engaging and vigorous writings. While looking through a file of his research papers, historical writings, and autobiographical keepings at the Oberlin College Archives, I came upon a paper he had written the year of his retirement, 1973, titled “From Practicing Obstetrician to Amateur Historian.” This paper reflects on his career and looks forward to a life of continuous medical curiosity. Now, as I look toward my future journey into the medical field, I find inspiration in what he has written. It is an example of what I may have to look forward to, as I pause and we both, Dr. Siddall and I, can breathe, reflect, and consider the wonderful medical history that had been laid before us.

A Clair Siddall, M.D., was a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology who practiced in Oberlin for 40 years. He developed the first hormonally-based pregnancy test in English literature, delivered 5,000 babies, and served as a medical missionary in China for nine years. He did all he could for the medical practice of Oberlin in his lifetime, ultimately co-founding the Oberlin Clinic and supporting the expansion of the Allen Memorial Hospital, now Mercy Allen Hospital. He lived an incredibly meaningful life, both by way of his own driving force and the inspirations of the past. He wrote paper after paper dealing with the medical history of Oberlin during his practice. In “From Practicing Obstetrician to Amateur Historian,” Dr. Siddall discussed just how much history inspired him and could inspire others, saying “…it is sufficient for this presentation to show how any physician can enlarge his horizon by more or less active interest in the history of his own profession.” Rather than viewing his retirement as a time of complete rest, Dr. Siddall used this free time to continue exploring his curiosity, as well as making up for lost time:

“So it is that now I can follow a beautiful schedule of working at my desk until noon every day then being flexible in the afternoon. Several subjects claim my attention now,
1. History of Chinese Medicine
2. Profiles of all physicians who have ever worked in Oberlin-includes the college
3. Eunuchism
4. Religious beliefs of the common man
[5.] Uninterrupted meals with my wife who has suffered interruptions and delays and cancellations for forty years, without complaint.”

Researching history inspired Dr. Siddall to reach higher standards of innovation in his own practice. He studied marvelous icons of medical history, including Hippocrates, Galen, Soranus, Sydenham, and others. He created an extensive guide of Oberlin’s history of medical practices and practitioners, which is now at the Oberlin College Archives. While he attended professional meetings on vacation, he made an effort to visit sites of medical innovation in the field of obstetrics. On one trip, he visited a monument of John L. Richmond in Newton, Ohio, who, in 1827, “carried out singlehanded, using only his pocket instruments, the first professional cesarean in the country.” Richmond performed this cesarean under the light of one candle in a log cabin. Dr. Siddall said of this character, “[s]uch courage stirs my imagination.” Dr. Siddall embraced a similarly courageous and self-assured approach in his own practice with the Pap smear, a screening test used for the detection of cervical cancer. He was one of the first individual practitioners to introduce cancer detection to the medical office. This was in the 1950’s, a point in history when physicians were skeptical of the American Cancer Association’s call for frequent cancer screenings. Because he was able to identify cancer early, Dr. Siddall was able to treat and save patients’ lives.


Dr. A.C. Siddall and his wife, Estelle.

Dr. Siddall was a historian, and at the same time, he was a medical practitioner who did things worth writing about. These factors resulted from each other, in a wheel of innovation. Medical practice is a result of medical history, and medical practice creates medical history. I believe this can be most emphasized by Dr. Siddall’s words: “So we learn that to make history takes precedence over and is more satisfying than to read history. However I never cease to be inspired by those who have gone before as pioneers in our specialty.” Indeed, these pioneers helped form Dr. Siddall’s practice and may continue to inspire medical practitioners of the future. For me, Dr. Siddall has been one of these moving pioneers in imagination. Studying medical history offers a clearer understanding to how the medical practices of today have developed. It also inspires a medical practitioner to come up with innovative and life-saving ways of handling his or her practice. I take historical research seriously because it has and will save lives.

Sources:

Siddall Papers, Oberlin College Archives.

“From Practicing Obstetrician to Amateur Historian”, Oberlin College Archives.

Oberlin commenst this war!

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

“Oberlin commenst this war.  Oberlin wuz the prime cause uv all the trubble.”  Thus spoke the Reverend Petroleum V. Nasby, one of the most well-known American cartoon characters of the Civil War era.  Nasby’s uncouth, semi-illiterate letters enjoyed nationwide newspaper circulation (in the North, at least) and appeared in several books, and were read with great amusement by President Abraham Lincoln.  And since Nasby enjoyed ranting about Oberlin, I thought it would be fun to do a blog about him and his creator, the journalist and political satirist David R. Locke.

David Ross Locke

David Ross Locke

At the time Locke started writing the Nasby letters in 1862, he was 29 years old and the editor of the Jeffersonian, a Republican newspaper in Findlay, Ohio.  At that time, newspapers often had political affiliations, and Locke, a staunch anti-slavery Republican, had been editing Republican newspapers since the founding of the party several years earlier.  Locke was also an outspoken advocate of racial equality, which was extremely unusual at that time, even among opponents of slavery.  In 1854 he wrote an editorial lashing out at the Ohio Senate for refusing to allow an African American journalist, William Howard Day (an 1847 graduate of Oberlin College), to report on their proceedings.  He called Day “a young man of striking ability” and the action of the Ohio Senate “one of the most contemptible actions on record.”

Locke also had close ties to the leadership of the Republican Party.  In 1855 he entered a brief newspaper partnership with Roeliff Brinkerhoff, a major Ohio Republican Party operative and a future legal consultant to the Oberlin-Wellington rescuers.  Locke was an enthusiastic supporter of Abraham Lincoln, who he first met during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois in 1858.  When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Locke volunteered for enlistment, was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, and raised a company of 100 men.  But when he got to Columbus, Ohio’s Republican Governor, William Dennison, convinced him that his unique journalistic skills would do more good for the Union cause than military service.  So Locke relinquished his command and took ownership of the Jeffersonian.

Ironically, the Jeffersonian was distributed in Hancock County, a strongly Democratic county in mostly Republican Ohio.  Locke was incensed at some of the extremely racist and pro-Confederate attitudes he encountered in Hancock County among a group of men known as “Copperheads” – anti-war, pro-slavery Democrats led by Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham.  One Hancock County man in particular had been circulating a petition throughout the county to expel African Americans from Ohio.  But Locke, who said “I can kill more error by exaggerating vice than by abusing it”, had a ready-made answer for this.  For years his journalistic writings had been dabbling in satire, letters from fictitious characters, and a form of writing that was popular in that era that included wild misspellings and malapropisms.  He would now combine the three to create a parody of the man distributing the petition, and use it to lampoon the Copperheads and the Democratic Party (often called “the Democracy” in that era).

Thus on April 25, 1862, Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby was born – an unscrupulous, ignorant, uncouth, blatantly racist, Copperhead Democrat.  On that day a letter appeared in the Jeffersonian, signed by Nasby, under the heading “Letter from a Straight Democrat”.  (When Locke later published a book of his Nasby letters, this letter would appear as the third entry, under the title “Negro Emancipation”.)  In this letter he railed against the growing black population in the region: “I am bekomin alarmed, for, ef they inkreese at this rate, in suthin over sixty years they’ll hev a majority in the town, and may, ef they git mean enuff, tyrannize over us, even ez we air tyrannizin over them.  The danger is imminent!… Fellow-whites arouse!  The enemy is onto us!  Our harths is in danger!… Ameriky for white men!”

Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby

Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby (illustrated by cartoonist Thomas Nast)

The letter got nationwide distribution through a journalistic process of the time called the “exchange”, and became an instant hit.   President Lincoln was so amused by it that he committed passages  to memory and would frequently recite them.  But Locke was only getting started.  Nasby would pump out letters for the next 20 years.

Two months after his first letter, Locke used Nasby to focus on the issue of abolitionism.  It was a common sentiment among the Copperhead Democrats that the abolitionists were the cause of the Civil War.   Lincoln’s predecessor in the Presidency, Democrat James Buchanan, voiced this sentiment in his last annual message to Congress, when he denounced abolitionist “agitation”:

…This agitation has ever since been continued by the public press, by the proceedings of State and county conventions and by abolition sermons and lectures. The time of Congress has been occupied in violent speeches on this never-ending subject, and appeals, in pamphlet and other forms, indorsed by distinguished names, have been sent forth from this central point and spread broadcast over the Union.

How easy would it be for the American people to settle the slavery question forever and to restore peace and harmony to this distracted country! They, and they alone, can do it. All that is necessary to accomplish the object, and all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way…

And so, in June, 1862, Locke lampooned the philosophy of former President Buchanan, who he had previously called “the most odious dough face in the north”.  He did this by having Nasby harangue the abolitionists, in a letter that would later be published in his book under the title  “Annihilates an Oberlinite”.  In this letter, Nasby writes about his encounter with a fellow traveler on a passenger train.  When he finds out the man is from Oberlin, Nasby erupts:

[Warning – the  following passages contain blatantly racist language and sentiments.  They are exaggerations of attitudes that were prevalent among a large portion of the population at the time, and are presented here uncensored for their historical value]

“Oberlin!” shreekt I.  “Oberlin! wher Ablishnism runs rampant – wher a nigger is 100 per cent better nor a white man – wher a mulatto is a objik uv pity on account uv hevin white blood!  Oberlin! that stonest the Dimekratik prophets, and woodent be gathered under Vallandygum’s wings as a hen-hawk gathereth chickens, at no price!  Oberlin, that gives all the profits uv her college to the support uv the underground railroad —“

“But—” sez he.

“Oberlin,” continyood I, “that reskoos niggers, and sets at defiance the benificent laws for takin on em back to their kind and hevenly-minded masters!  Oberlin! —“

“My jentle frend,” sez he, “Oberlin don’t do nuthin uv the kind.  Yoo’ve bin misinformd.  Oberlin respex the laws, and hez now a body uv her gallant sons in the feeld a fightin to maintane the Constooshn.”

“A fightin to maintane the Constooshn,” retortid I.  “My frend” (and I spoke impressivly), “no Oberlin man is a doin any such thing.  Oberlin commenst this war.  Oberlin wuz the prime cause uv all the trubble.  What wuz the beginning uv it?  Our Suthrin brethrin wantid the territories – Oberlin objectid.  They wantid Kansas for ther blessid instooshn – Oberlin agin objecks.  They sent colonies with muskits and sich, to hold the territory – Oberlin sent two thousand armed with Bibles and Sharp’s rifles – two instooshns Dimokrasy cood never stand afore – and druv em out.  They wantid Breckenridge fer President.  Oberlin refused, and elektid Linkin.  Then they seceded; and why is it that they still hold out?”

He made no anser.

“Becoz,” continyood I, transfixin him with my penetratin gaze, “Oberlin won’t submit.  We might to-day hev peese ef Oberlin wood say to Linkin, ‘Resine!’ and to Geff Davis, ‘Come up higher!’  When I say Oberlin, understand it ez figgerative for the entire Ablishn party, wich Oberlin is the fountinhead.  There’s wher the trouble is.  Our Suthrin brethren wuz reasonable.  So long as the Dimokrasy controlled things, and they got all they wanted, they wuz peeceable.  Oberlin ariz – the Dimokrasy wuz beet down, and they riz up agin it.”

(This letter became the inspiration for the title of journalist Nat Brandt’s outstanding book about antebellum Oberlin, The Town that Started the Civil War, available at the Oberlin Heritage Center.)

In Washington, President Lincoln “read every letter as it appeared”, and enjoyed them so much that he kept a folder of them on his desk, and would frequently read passages from them to visitors “with infinite zest, while his melancholy features grew bright.”  He even read them at cabinet meetings, much to the exasperation of the ever serious-minded Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.  On multiple occasions the President expressed the sentiment that “for the genius to write such things” he would gladly “swap places” with Locke.  At the end of the war, Lincoln sent Locke a letter thanking him for his services.

But the end of the war and the assassination of President Lincoln didn’t stop Locke – or Nasby.  The issue of Reconstruction became a new cause.  Locke was initially a solid supporter of President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor.  Although Locke was firmly in favor of equal rights for blacks, he appreciated President Johnson’s conservative and reconciliatory approach to Reconstruction, as opposed to the harsher policies of the Radical Republicans in Congress.  But as Johnson and the Radical Republicans battled it out and the rift between them grew wider, Locke began to feel that Johnson moved too far towards the Copperhead Democrats.  Then in April 1866, Johnson issued a proclamation declaring the insurrection “at an end” in ten of the seceded states, thereby effectively ending Johnson’s Reconstruction plan and returning control of their affairs entirely to their state governments.  Locke felt that this was a premature “breach of faith” and that “absolute equality in everything pertaining to person and property should be placed above the caprices of the State Legislatures.”   He now saw Johnson as a Copperhead himself and vented his full satirical fury against him (which is to say that Nasby now came out in favor of him).  In one letter, Nasby announces that President Johnson has personally assigned him the task of touring the country and removing all the Radical Republican postmasters (at that time, the Post Office was a major department of the federal government).  One of the towns he visited in the process was – you guessed it – Oberlin:

It wuz a crooel necessity, after all, wich druv me into the servis uv His Eggslency A. Johnson.  Crooel, I say; for whenever he hez a partikelerly mean piece uv work to perform, suthin so inexpressibly sneakin that Seward nor Randall won’t undertake it, they alluz send for me…

The biznis required uv me wuz statid by Seward in his usual loocid style.  It wuz merely to cirkelate incognito (wich is Latin for sneakin) among the recently appinted offis-holders, and assertain ther views upon general politikle topics, but more espeshally ther feelins toward the President and Sekretary uv State…

In Ohio, the first place I stopt at wuz Oberlin, the place where the nigger college is located at.  I regret to say that the Postmaster at that pint is a rantin Ablishnist; and in the two hours I wuz ther, I coodent find a Conservative Republikin who wood take it…  I don’t investigate ez fully ez I might, for ther ain’t a drop uv likker sold ther; and ez my flask give out, I felt that doo considerashen for my health woodent permit my stayin another hour.  I recommend the abolishen uv the office, or the establishment uv a grosery, with a bar in the back room, ez a nukleus around wich the Dimocrisy kin rally…

Locke would eventually advocate  the impeachment of President Johnson and would support the Radical Republicans in Congress when they overrode the President and implemented their own Reconstruction plan under new and harsher terms.  He even advocated the appointment of African American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Oberlin’s John Mercer Langston to cabinet level posts.  (Locke himself would decline the offer of an ambassadorship during U.S. Grant’s Presidency.)

Locke went on to enjoy great success in the years following the war.  His Nasby letters continued to bring him fame and fortune, but he also wrote plays, novels, short stories, poems and hymns, and became a successful lecturer and entrepreneuer, and a real estate mogul in Toledo, Ohio.  He became a close friend of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).  He never lost his interest in politics or social activism, and became an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage and temperance (the latter somewhat ironically, as Locke himself was a heavy drinker for most of his life).  But in the public mind he was always Nasby, which eventually led him to express regret that he had ever created the character.

Locke died in 1888 of tuberculosis, at the age of only 54 years.  One of his many Ohio Republican friends, ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes (a former Civil War general and Underground Railroad conductor), wrote in eulogy:

With his pen Mr. Locke gained for himself a conspicuous and honorable place among those who fought the good fight in the critical years of the anti-slavery conflict before the war.  During the war and after it, he was surpassed by no writer in the extent and value of his influence in the march of events until its great results were substantially secured.  He had the satisfaction of receiving from Mr. Lincoln himself the first meed of praise for his matchless service in the hour of this country’s trial.

Sources consulted:

David Ross Locke, The Struggles (Social, Financial and Political) of Petroleum V. Nasby

John M. Harrison, The Man Who Made Nasby, David Ross Locke

President James Buchanan, “Fourth Annual Message” (December 3, 1860)

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

Carl Sandburg,   Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years & the War Years

Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century

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

Lewis Clarke: Hero in his own right

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

In my last blog entry, A Tale of Two Abolitionist Towns, I mentioned an Oberlin resident named Lewis Clarke (sometimes spelled Clark), who was born into slavery but eventually escaped, made his way north, and became an outspoken abolitionist. When he died in 1897, the Governor of his native state, Kentucky, ordered that his body lay in state in the Lexington City Auditorium. His remains were then brought to Oberlin and interred at Westwood Cemetery, with a tombstone that reads: “Lewis Clarke – The original George Harris of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Although there has been some controversy about whether Mr. Clarke was indeed the inspiration for this character in Mrs. Stowe’s epic novel, he nonetheless led a fascinating life in his own right. I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell his story, and at the same time examine the George Harris controversy.

Lewis Clarke

Lewis G. Clarke (courtesy Oberlin College archives)

Lewis Clarke was born a slave in Kentucky in 1815, the son of a white father and an enslaved mulatto mother. He had 9 brothers and sisters, but was separated from his entire family at just 7 years of age when he was given away to another family. This family treated him very cruelly. Years later, Clarke would write a narrative describing his experiences as a slave and his escape to freedom. He would say of this time in his life:

“All my severe labor, bitter and cruel punishments for these ten years of captivity with this *** family, all these were as nothing to the sufferings experienced by being separated from my mother, brothers and sisters; the same things, with them near to sympathize with me, to hear my story of sorrow, would have been comparatively tolerable… My thoughts continually by day and my dreams by night were of mother and home, and the horror experienced in the morning, when I awoke and beheld it was a dream, is beyond the power of language to describe.”

At the age of 16, Clarke was sold to another cruel master, who used severe beatings along with deprivation of food and water to enforce discipline. Finally, in his early 20s, Clarke decided he was ready to attempt an escape. He explained:

“I had long thought and dreamed of LIBERTY; I was now determined to make an effort to gain it. No tongue can tell the doubt, the perplexities, the anxiety which a slave feels, when making up his mind upon this subject. If he makes an effort and is not successful, he must be laughed at by his fellows; he will be beaten unmercifully by the master, and be watched and used the harder for it all his life. And then if he gets away, who, what will he find? He is ignorant of the world. All the white part of mankind, that he has ever seen, are enemies to him and all his kindred. How can he venture where none but white faces shall greet him?”

But he took the risk anyway and set out on horseback. At the end of the first day of travel he was near the Ohio River, but decided crossing at night would create too much suspicion. So instead he checked into a local tavern. Seeing familiar faces inside, he first bought a pair of eyeglasses to help disguise him. The next morning he made it across the river to Aberdeen, Ohio. From there he traveled to Cincinnati, then back to Portsmouth, from where he traveled the Ohio-Erie canal to Cleveland. At Cleveland he found passage across Lake Erie to Canada. As he would later say:

“When I stepped ashore here, I said, sure enough, I AM FREE. Good heaven! what a sensation, when it first visits the bosom of a full grown man – one, born to bondage – one, who had been taught from early infancy, that this was his inevitable lot for life. Not till then did I dare to cherish for a moment the feeling that one of the limbs of my body was my own.”

He was in Canada about six weeks when he learned that his younger brother, Milton, had also escaped slavery and was now living in a place called Oberlin, Ohio. So after working a while and saving up some money, he recrossed Lake Erie and took the stagecoach to Oberlin. On the coach he met several abolitionists from Oberlin, of whom he said:

“To be thus surrounded at once with friends, in a land of strangers, was something quite new to me. The impression made by the kindness of these strangers upon my heart, will never be effaced. I thought there must be some new principle at work here, such as I had not seen much of in Kentucky. That evening I arrived at Oberlin, and found Milton boarding at a Mrs. Cole’s. Finding here so many friends, my first impression was that all the abolitionists in the country must live right there together.”

Lewis stayed and worked in Oberlin for a year, then decided on a bold and dangerous plan. He would return to Kentucky and help his youngest brother, Cyrus, escape from slavery. So in July, 1842, he made his way back into the “den of lions”. He found his brother near Lexington, then accompanied him on a harrowing journey by foot back towards the Ohio River. At one point he said:

“in traveling through the rain and mud this afternoon, we suffered beyond all power of description. Sometimes we found ourselves just ready to stand fast asleep in the middle of the road. Our feet were blistered all over. When Cyrus would get almost discouraged, I urged him on, saying we were walking for freedom now. Yes, he would say, ‘Freedom is good, Lewis, but this is a hard, h-a-r-d way to get it.’ This he would say half asleep. We were so weak before night, that several times fell upon our knees in the road. We had crackers with us, but we had no appetite to eat – fears were behind us, hope before – and we were driven and drawn as hard as ever men were.”

But when they finally reached Ohio, Cyrus was beside himself with joy. They made their way to Ripley, Ohio, where they “went Up to the house of a good friend of the slave.” The lady of the house was so kind that Cyrus became suspicious, but “when the young men came home, he soon got acquainted, and felt sure they were his friends.” (Anyone who read my previous blog will probably have a good guess of whose house he’s talking about here!) From there they were sent on “by the friends, from place to place”, until they finally reached Oberlin, five weeks after Lewis had left there.

However Cyrus didn’t feel safe in the United States, so after several days in Oberlin he continued on to Canada, while Lewis and Milton remained in Oberlin. Then one day, Cyrus’ fears were justified, when Lewis and Milton were staying in Madison, Ohio, where Lewis had been asked to lecture about slavery. Slavecatchers had learned of their presence and were able to abduct Milton. But fortunately the residents of Lake and Ashtabula counties rallied, rescued Milton, and arrested the slavecatchers, who they eventually sent packing back to Kentucky, angry and empty-handed.[1]

After this, Lewis and Milton moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and stayed in the home of Aaron and Mary Safford. While here, Mary introduced Lewis to her sister-in-law, Harriet Beecher Stowe.[2] Lewis also wrote his ‘slave narrative’, which was widely circulated and which I’ve been quoting above. He also became a speaker on the abolitionist circuit and toured the country telling of his experiences as a slave. In fact he was one of the keynote speakers at the founding convention of the Republican Party in Michigan in 1854.

But his fame put the slavecatchers on his trail again, and Clarke was forced to leave the United States and return to Canada, where he stayed until 1874. Then he returned to Oberlin and continued to lecture, also helping former slaves return from Canada and find work in the United States. In his final years he returned to Kentucky, where he suffered from physical ailments and financial difficulties. He died in 1897 at the age of 82. In addition to being laid in state in the Lexington City Auditorium, he was eulogized by newspapers around the country.

Lewis Clarke tombstone

So is the inscription on Mr. Clarke’s tombstone correct? Although Clarke had claimed to be the George Harris character ever since Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, a daughter of Mrs. Stowe disputed the claim near the end of his life. Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, 7 years after Clarke’s narrative. In 1854, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote another book, called A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (referred to hereafter as “the Key”). In this non-fiction book she sought to set the record straight for those who claimed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was unrealistic, by revealing the sources that inspired the characters and events in her novel, as well as other supportive sources. One of the first topics she addresses is the George Harris character, of whom she says:

“With regard to the incidents of George Harris’s life, that he may not be supposed a purely exceptional case, we propose to offer some parallel facts from the lives of slaves of our personal acquaintance. Lewis Clark is an acquaintance of the writer. Soon after his escape from slavery, he was received into the family of a sister-in-law of the author, and there educated. His conduct during this time was such as to win for him uncommon affection and respect, and the author has frequently heard him spoken of in the highest terms by all who knew him. The gentleman in whose family he so long resided, says of him, in a recent letter to the writer, ‘I would trust him, as the saying is, with untold gold’ … The reader is now desired to compare the following incidents of his life, part of which he related personally to the author, with the incidents of the life of George Harris… ” [3]

She then goes on and recounts several pages of material from Clarke’s own narrative. Much of the material she cites was not included in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but some of it was and became part of the George Harris character: George Harris was born into slavery in Kentucky to a white father and mulatto mother and a large family. Like Lewis Clarke, he had a “handsome” older sister, “a pious, good girl – a member of the Baptist Church”, who was abused by her master before being sold down to New Orleans. George Harris was separated from his family at a young age, of which he says: “when I was a little fellow, and lay awake whole nights and cried, it wasn’t the hunger, it wasn’t the whipping, I cried for. No, sir, it was for my mother and my sisters – it was because I hadn’t a friend to love me on earth.” He made his escape when he was a young man, through Ohio and across Lake Erie to Canada. One other similarity that Mrs. Stowe doesn’t mention in the Key, but is quite apparent, is that George Harris also spent the night prior to crossing the Ohio River in a tavern, which he entered in disguise, and where he recognized some of the clientele.

But just like there are many parts of Clarke’s story that aren’t shared by George Harris, there are also parts of George Harris’ story that weren’t shared by Clarke. As Mrs. Stowe explains, the George Harris character, like other characters in the novel, is a “mosaic” of her own imagination and several real-life people, including the renowned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

But all this was called into question in 1895, when a newspaper article appeared in Boston, telling about Lewis Clarke and claiming that he was the inspiration for George Harris. This prompted a firm and prompt denunciation from Mrs. Stowe’s daughter, who wrote a letter to the editor claiming that her mother “never saw the man, or even heard of him, until two years ago” and that his claims were “entirely untrue from beginning to end, so far as it had any connection with my mother or her writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”[4]  But nowhere in the letter does the younger Miss Stowe explain the contradiction of what her mother wrote in the Key forty years earlier, nor does she even acknowledge that those words were ever written.

So what to believe then, the Key, or the letter? Well, the Key was written by Mrs. Stowe herself, 9 years after she would have first met Lewis Clarke and 2 years after she published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The purpose of the key was to validate the claims in her novel, as explained above. The contradicting letter was written by Mrs. Stowe’s daughter, 50 years after Mrs. Stowe would have first met Lewis Clarke, and 43 years after the publication of her novel. By this time, Harriet Beecher Stowe herself was 84 years old and had “drifted into dementia and was often found wandering through the gardens and greenhouses of her neighbors.“[5]

I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide for yourself which story to believe, but in my mind there is no question: Lewis Clarke was indeed a major inspiration (but not the only one) for the George Harris character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But more importantly, he was a real-life, flesh and blood, American hero in his own right.

Lewis Clarke is buried in Westwood Cemetery, 455 Morgan Street
(Section D-56#4; GPS coordinates N41°17.002′ W82°14.167′)

Footnotes:

[1] L. I. Rice, “Lewis and Milton Clark: A Bit of History”, Sept 14, 1892; The Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection

[2] Cambridge Historical Commission J. MILTON CLARKE (1820 – 1902) and LEWIS CLARKE (1818 – 1897) Writers and lecturers (Marker location: 2 Florence Place)

[3] Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, p. 23

[4] “A Contradiction from the Daughter of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe”, Boston Transcript, December 7, 1895; The Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection

[5] National Historic Landmark Nomination: Stowe, Harriet Beecher, House, p. 20

Other sources consulted:

Lewis Garrard Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Carver Gayton, “Lewis G. Clarke: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Forgotten Hero”

Leanne Smith, “Peek Through Time: The Republican Party celebrates its 157th anniversary with a re-enactment Under The Oaks on Wednesday”

Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life