The Abolition Movement in Northeast Ohio

The Abolition Movement in Northeast Ohio from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

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ABOLITIONISM. The contribution that Clevelanders made to the cause of black emancipation was related to 2 geographic factors: the location of the city in the Puritan New England environment of the WESTERN RESERVE, and its position on Lake Erie opposite the shores of Canada, destination of many hundreds of fugitives from the slave South. The village, town, and city that Cleveland became during the antebellum years did not wholly reflect the hard piety and humanitarian zeal for which the surrounding counties of Yankee settlers were long renowned. Instead, Cleveland was like most other fast-growing northern centers of trade: crass, money-conscious, pragmatic, and chauvinistic about Flag, Work, and Progress. Clevelanders were generally skeptical of plans to rearrange society, but like most northerners they had little regard for slavery as a system. In time they came to despise the slaveholders’ arrogance and pretensions to political power. Although Cleveland did not rally to the cause of root-and-branch abolitionism, its record of sympathy and help for the black man’s plight in America matched, if not exceeded, that of any other metropolitan center in North America, with the exception, perhaps, of Boston and Toronto.

Abolition. At the outset, abolitionism was the most radical of several positions on slavery. The doctrine of “immediate emancipation,” disseminated in the 1830s, was the product of eastern reformers. According to the theory of Boston’s Wm. Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833), slavery was a personal and social sin requiring immediate repentance of slaveholders and all others who had failed to witness against the institution. Although the reform was theoretically akin to the temperance pledge and other conservative Evangelical goals, so extreme a position was bound to excite anger and fear because it threatened the existence of the Union and foretold a shattering of racial customs and prejudices.

In Cleveland, a more popular organization was the American Colonization Society, founded in Washington in Jan. 1817 to repatriate blacks to Liberia. According to conservative supporters, such as Elisha Whittlesey of nearby Tallmadge, Afro-Americans were too benighted and whites too antagonistic for both races to flourish in freedom in the same country. The county chapter of the organization was founded in 1827 by Jas. S. Clark, Samuel Cowles, and other town fathers. Although returning the entire southern labor force to Africa was hopelessly impractical, Cowles naively dreamed that American blacks would bring “the arts of civilized life” to the allegedly savage heathen there. The city elite soon heard from the rising Garrisonian reformers hoping to quench colonizationist enthusiasms and implant their own doctrines. In May 1833, Rev. Chas. Storrs, abolitionist president of Western Reserve College, Hudson, spoke at the Cuyahoga County courthouse on “the immediate emancipation of Slaves.”

In Cleveland, indifference more than outright antagonism greeted the abolitionists, whose postal campaign of 1835 aroused fierce mob action against the mailed propaganda and itinerant lecture agents. Protest was confined to a single meeting on 10 Sept. at the courthouse, where participants resolved that abolitionism threatened “the peace and permanence of the union” and assured southerners that they alone had “the right to free their slaves.” Not until 1837 was the first chapter of the American Anti-Slavery Society established. SOLOMON L. SEVERANCE†, W. T. Huntington, and JOHN. A. FOOTE†, all Cleveland business and social leaders, took the chief posts, but the society left few traces. The circumspection contrasted with the high-mindedness and sermonizings of the students and professors at nearby Oberlin College, a center of abolitionist influence, founded in 1834.

Fugitive Slaves. If abolition gained few converts, less radical approaches took root along the Cuyahoga. Most important was the operation of the “Underground Railroad.” The completion of the Ohio Canal in 1832 enhanced the strategic importance of the city in this regard, though the numbers assisted to freedom, especially by whites, were far lower than legend long claimed. For instance, the belfry of ST. JOHN’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH served as an occasional hiding place. Folklore, however, laid claim to a tunnel under the church that housed scores of slaves. Early 20th-century investigators exposed the fiction.

Not until passage of the rigorously enforced Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 were Clevelanders aroused to concerted action. Antislavery meetings drew crowds, particularly when fugitives told their dramatic stories of punishment, escape, and freedom. A typical gathering was held at the Disciple Church in Solon on 17 and 18 June 1847 where Wm. Ferris, “a fugitive slave of Oberlin, addressed the afternoon meeting.” Such incidents, as well as the denunciations of politicians such as JOSHUA GIDDINGS† at Cleveland rallies, encouraged otherwise law-abiding citizens to defy the hated Fugitive Slave Law. In 1855, for example, Jas. Adams of Big Kanawha, VA, fled with a cousin through Ohio, along a route used the previous year by 5 other fugitives from his neighborhood heading for Cleveland. A Cleveland antislavery clergyman, and then a white shoemaker whom the black travelers met on the outskirts of town, arranged their passage to Buffalo and from there to Canada. Such assistance kept the antislavery cause very much alive, but it rested largely on personal difficulties with which one could identify, not upon larger matters of polity and justice for the race as a whole.

Cleveland’s most dramatic signal of white protest against southern high-handedness grew out of the famed OBERLIN-WELLINGTON RESCUE. Oberlinites mobbed a jail in nearby Wellington to rescue a fugitive long resident in their community. Some 37, including Simeon Bushnell, a Cleveland store clerk who had helped to whisk the slave to Canadian freedom, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Cleveland and held in jail in the spring of 1859. Thousands attended a rally in the square, where Giddings, Benjamin Wade, and others denounced the Fugitive Slave Law, Democrats, and southerners. As Cleveland whites grew increasingly distressed about slavery and slave catchers, blacks also became more militant. For instance, in Nov. 1859 Deputy Marshal Wm. L. Manson took into custody Henry Seaton, a Kentucky slave. Although the prisoner was returned to his master without incident, one Geo. Hartman, who had betrayed Seaton by luring him into a trap, had to seek refuge from an angry black crowd, finding safety in the city jail. John Brown, a native of Hudson in neighboring Summit County, was the most famous beneficiary of Clevelanders’ pride in protecting the hunted from their pursuers. At the time of the Oberlin rescuers’ release and celebration assembly, Brown sojourned in Cleveland 10 days, planning his assault on Harpers Ferry. There was a price on his head for his Kansas guerrilla activities and killings at Pottawatomie, but although he passed the federal marshal’s office daily, no one turned him in.

By and large, such black activists as the Ohio canal boatman JOHN MALVIN† and some white church people cooperated in aiding fugitives, but some local blacks, influenced in part by the record of race relations across the Canadian border, adopted the idea of emigration, one formerly held by the Western Reserve’s colonization-minded elite–though for quite different reasons. On 24 Aug. 1854, the Negro Emigration Convention assembled in Cleveland to discuss plans for colonizing abroad. It could be said that the meeting was the birthplace of black nationalism–that is, a new consciousness of Afro-American culture. Although the CLEVELAND LEADER accurately surmised that “the objects of the convention met with but little favor from our colored citizens” of the city, Cleveland black spokesmen agreed with the convention’s protests against “insufferable Yankee intrusion,” civil and social discrimination, and abuse–in Ohio as elsewhere in the nation.

Political Antislavery. Neither Cleveland nor Cuyahoga County played a decisive role in the development of 3rd-party antislavery radicalism. Joshua R. Giddings, the dynamic though eccentric antislavery Whig congressman, represented Cleveland throughout the 1840s, but his base of strength lay in the rural villages. In 1852, despite the Ohio legislators’ gerrymandering to oust Giddings by removing Cuyahoga County from his district, Clevelanders helped elect Edward Wade, another staunchly reform-minded Ashtabulan. Yet the 2 Free-Soilers, Wade and his brother, Benjamin, elevated to the Senate in 1851, and Giddings were careful to restrict their reform leanings to such popular matters as “Free soil” in the Mexican Cession territories and in “Bleeding” Kansas.

On the whole, the press was also relatively conservative on slavery issues. But in contrast to the wildly proslavery and Democratic PLAIN DEALER, the Leader usually took a reform position and helped build a strong local Republican party. WM. DAY†’s ALIENED AMERICAN(est. 1852) served abolitionism in the black community, but the paper lasted only 2 years. Since there was no major college like Oberlin or Western Reserve at Hudson to give intellectual vitality to the antislavery impulse, and since political abolitionism was confined to conventional Republican efforts, abolitionism had no strong institutional base of support in the city.

Church Abolition. The only permanent bastion of rigorous immediatism was in a handful of churches. Though SAMUEL AIKEN† of FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (OLD STONE) helped launch the local antislavery society chapter, he was not dedicated enough to suit the abolitionist members of his church. Thereafter he became increasingly hostile. In 1837 reform members of his church formed Second Presbyterian Church; a larger antislavery group left in 1850 to establish Free Presbyterian Church (later Plymouth Church of Shaker Hts.). It was said that in 1850 Aiken hid behind a pillar when authorities dragged a fugitive from sanctuary in the church. Like Aiken’s church, the First Methodist congregation also experienced antislavery defections in 1839 in protest against slavery and other matters of concern; soon afterward the dissidents formed the Wesleyan Methodist church. The larger church bodies–the Cleveland Presbytery and the Methodists’ Erie, (later North Ohio) Conference, and the Cleveland Congregational Conference–made increasingly bold antislavery statements, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted. Yet there was no major abolitionist church leader in the city who commanded national attention.

The sole candidate to head local radicalism was JAS. A. THOME†, a veteran church abolitionist and former Oberlin professor. His First Church (Congregational) in Ohio City was an oasis of pure emancipationism. In 1862 Thome brought Theodore Weld out of retirement to address a throng on the meaning of the war effort. The occasion, though, was largely an exercise in nostalgia of youthful abolitionism 30 years before when the pair had traversed Ohio lecturing for black freedom. Tragically, guns and blockades were accomplishing more for racial justice than Garrisonian rhetoric did. In any event, the reform contribution of Cleveland–largely the work of its black residents–lay more in helping fugitives from slavery than in any other aspect of the humanitarian movement. Yet one may safely guess that Cleveland’s record of relative racial harmony owed something to the spirit of interracial cooperation in that cause. In 1865 the Cleveland Leader noted that “colored children attend our schools, colored people are permitted to attend lectures and public affairs,” and had done so for years even before the war. Not many northern centers could boast of a similar attention to racial justice.

Indeed, any final assessment of Cleveland’s antislavery position must acknowledge that its racial reform tradition more than matched that of most other northern cities. With their ethnic diversity, cities such as Boston, Cincinnati, New York, and Philadelphia, and smaller places such as Utica and Rochester, were sporadically torn by riots against blacks and abolitionists, a lawlessness that Clevelanders happily did not share. Whatever the failings of Cleveland’s civic leadership regarding formal abolition may have been, the commercial climate of the port and its locale in the heart of the Western Reserve made possible a relatively smooth transition from the era of slavery to the epoch of free-labor capitalism, to which Cleveland blacks and whites made their significant contribution.

Bertram Wyatt-Brown

McTighe, Michael J. “Embattled Establishment: Protestants and Power in Cleveland, 1836-60” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Chicago, 1983).

Peskin, Allan, ed. North into Freedom: The Autobiography of John Malvin, Free Negro, 1795-1880 (1966).

Reilley, Edward C. “The Early Slavery Controversy in the Western Reserve” (Ph.D. diss., Western Reserve Univ., 1940).


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