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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

A Tale of Two Abolitionist Towns

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Earlier this Fall I had an opportunity to visit the little abolitionist town of Ripley, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River about 50 miles southeast of Cincinnati. As an avid history buff, this was a visit I really looked forward to. And as a docent on the Oberlin Heritage Center’s “Freedom’s Friends” tour, I couldn’t help but contrast these two very important abolitionist towns. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts and experiences.

I started out on a tour of the home of Reverend John Rankin, the spiritual leader of the Ripley abolitionist community. It’s believed that most of the estimated 2,000 freedom seekers who came through Ripley found shelter in his house or barn. The house itself is quite small. It certainly would have been cramped quarters for Rankin and his wife, Jean, and their 13 children, their several “foster” children, and whatever freedom seekers happened to be staying with them at the time. The house is a National Historic Landmark. It’s nice to see the meticulous work that’s being done to preserve it and restore its antebellum character.

Rankin House

Rankin House, Ripley, Ohio

The house sits atop a 540 foot high bluff overlooking the Ohio River. Reverend Rankin built a set of stone steps leading all the way down to the riverfront streets below so that freedom seekers could have “easy access” to his house after crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky. One of the highlights of my visit was descending, then climbing, these steps. (What can I say? I get into that kind of thing, lol.) A large section of the steps has since been replaced with a wooden stairwell, which undoubtedly made the climb easier than it would have been back in the day. It certainly would have been a difficult climb at night, possibly carrying a child, after a long hard journey through Kentucky and across the Ohio River to get there in the first place.

Rankin stairs

Rankin stairway overlooking the Ohio River

Rankin stairs

Rankin stairs from the bottom

Reverend Rankin was an “evangelistic abolitionist”, much like Oberlin’s spiritual leader, Reverend Charles Finney. Both believed that slavery could and should be ended through moral reform and prayer. However, where Reverend Finney felt that Underground Railroad activity was a distraction to the real work at hand, Reverend Rankin was one of the most active Underground Railroad conductors in the country. Rankin would also eventually come to take a more political stance, becoming a member of the Liberty Party (an abolitionist political party that would be a precursor to the Republican Party) in 1843. Rankin, however, was only the leader of Ripley’s anti-slavery element, which was only a small minority of Ripley’s overall population. Finney on the other hand was a spiritual leader of Oberlin as a whole, where the vast majority of the population was anti-slavery.

After visiting the Rankin House, I went down the hill for a visit to the John Parker House, on the riverfront street appropriately called Front Street. John Parker was born into slavery in Virginia, but eventually was able to purchase his freedom and move to Ripley, where he became a very successful businessman and industrialist. He was also one of the most daring of all conductors on the Underground Railroad. His house is now a museum. I enjoyed the many fine exhibits there and the informative presentation the staff gave about John Parker and his exploits. Parker has an Oberlin connection in that he sent two of his sons (Hale Giddings Parker and Cassius Clay Parker) to Oberlin College.

John Parker House

John Parker House

What was most unique about Parker is that unlike the other Ripley Underground Railroad conductors, he would actually cross the river into Kentucky to help freedom seekers escape from slavery. In this way he assisted hundreds of people to their freedom. His story brought to mind the story of Calvin Fairbank, an Oberlin College student who went to Kentucky and helped dozens of enslaved people find their way to freedom. Interestingly, both the Oberlin and Ripley abolitionist communities were uncomfortable with these exploits. It was extremely dangerous work, it violated Kentucky law, and many considered it provocative. Fairbank was caught and spent a total of 16 years in Kentucky prisons, enduring numerous beatings and whippings. Fortunately Parker was never caught. Being a black man, he undoubtedly would not have gotten off so “lightly”.

After leaving the Parker House I took a walk along Front Street and read some of the historical markers that line that road. One highlights the journey of an enslaved woman who crossed the thin ice of the Ohio River with her two year old child and became the inspiration for the story of “Eliza” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This too has an Oberlin connection, for in the book (but not in real life), Eliza was married to a man named George Harris, who also escaped from slavery and joined her in Ohio. The George Harris character is said to have been inspired by Oberlin resident Lewis Clarke, who is buried in Westwood Cemetery.

While in Ripley I bought a book called Beyond the River, by Ann Hagedorn. The book gives an outstanding description of the abolitionist history of Ripley, much like Nat Brandt’s The Town that Started the Civil War does for Oberlin. One of the things that really stuck out for me in reading this book was the detailed accounts of the “Lane Rebels”, who would play such an important role in abolitionizing Oberlin. These were students at the Lane Theological Seminary, in nearby Cincinnati. Some of the Lane students shared a similar background with many of the abolitionist founders of Ripley – Southerners who had been born and raised with slavery, but came to question it and even abhor it. In a series of 18 public debates in 1834, attended by Reverend Rankin and other Ripley abolitionists, a group of Lane students debated the question: “Ought the people of the slaveholding states abolish slavery immediately?” At the end of the debates, their answer was a unanimous YES. But the surrounding community wasn’t happy with this, or with the other anti-slavery/civil rights work the students were involved in. Eventually a mob even threatened to tear the school down. As a result, the trustees of the school prohibited any further anti-slavery activity or discussion, which prompted dozens of the students to quit the school in protest. Many of these so-called “Lane Rebels” would come to Oberlin the following year and become the seed of the abolitionist movement here.

But Ms. Hagedorn’s book also highlighted a major difference between Ripley and Oberlin. In Ripley, like in most abolitionist towns, the abolitionists were a small minority of the overall population, a situation aggravated by its close proximity to Kentucky. Oberlin, however, was quite unique among abolitionist towns in that its abolitionists formed the vast majority of its population ever since the arrival of the Lane Rebels in the second year of its existence. In Ripley, the abolitionists had to operate in top secrecy, and they were frequently subject to raids by mounted posses of slavecatchers who would storm into town, pound on their doors at any time of the day or night, and demand to search the premises, often at gunpoint. In Oberlin, by contrast, the abolitionists could be relatively open about their activities, and it was the slavecatchers who had to operate in secrecy. A freedom seeker coming to Ripley generally could not stay more than a day, for fear of being found in one of the few abolitionist homes. But the estimated 3,000 freedom seekers who came to Oberlin had many more options of where they could stay, and often would stay for months, years, or even “for keeps”. In Ripley and the surrounding area, there were many instances where pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist mobs burned down schools, churches, barns and homes, and even abducted abolitionists and people believed to be fugitives from slavery. In Oberlin, when the mobs gathered, they were mobs of abolitionists (and much less violent). Oberlin mobs might surround a house that was being staked out by slavecatchers and help the inhabitants escape undetected. Or, in the case of the “Oberlin -Wellington Rescue”, an Oberlin/Wellington mob even stormed a hotel to free a man who was being held by slavecatchers.

In closing, I have one final observation that came to me as I was doing some independent research. In an interview in the 1880s, John Parker said of Ripley, “The town in its simple way goes on unheeding its valiant men and their deeds.” In the decades following the Civil War, it would appear that Ripley, like Oberlin, lost sight of its abolitionist heritage. Fortunately both towns have long since rectified that. And thanks to dedicated organizations like Ripley Heritage, Inc., the John P. Parker Historical Society, the Ohio Historical Society, and our own Oberlin Heritage Center, the proud heritage of both towns will continue to thrive and flourish.

Ron Gorman
Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

Sources consulted:

Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

Oberlin Heritage Center “Freedom’s Friends” history walk

Duke University collection of John Parker autobiographical notes

John P. Parker, Stuart Seely Sprague, His Promised Land