The African-American experience in columbus blog
This blog features 28 posts on the African-Experience in Columbus from the Underground Railroad to the civil rights era.
Note: This article was originally published in 2014, and update in 2019 to reflect additional research by The Ohio State University Archives.
By Matt Doran
By time of his death in 1845, former President Andrew Jackson had more than 100 enslaved men, women, and children on his Nashville plantation, the Hermitage, making it one of the largest plantations in Tennessee. One of those enslaved men, Washington Townsend, escaped the Hermitage in 1860 and arrived in Columbus, Ohio, presumably by the means of safe houses that were part of the Underground Railroad in Ohio.
Townsend is listed in the directory of employees at The Ohio State University in 1890, where he earned an annual salary of $480 as a janitor--the entire university payroll was less than $58,000. He later worked at the new Orton Hall building (constructed in 1893), and gained the favor of Edward Orton, Sr., professor of geology and former university president.
Much of the historical documentation of Townsend comes from the epitaph on his gravestone along the Brown Road side of Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus. The epitaph, written by Edward Orton, Jr., reads:
Born 1828 on the Hermitage Plantation, Davidson county, Tennessee as the slave of Andrew Jackson, Ex-President of the United States, escaped to Ohio in 1860, lived in Columbus 45 years, 30 years with the Ohio State University, died December 24, 1904. Not all the debasing influences of his early life as furnace man, field hand, deck hand, jockey, fighter, and slave could undermine his perfect honesty, faithfulness, dignity, courtesy, and sweetness of disposition. He was essentially one of nature’s nobleman. His example was an inspiration to his race and a rebuke to those who opportunities were greater and achievements less.
Townsend’s name also appears in a few city directories prior to 1904, where he is listed as a farmer in North Columbus, the town that started in the 1840s as a stagecoach stop between Columbus and Worthington. His address would place his home in the present-day 2300 block of North High Street (near the intersection of Northwood and High). Interestingly, this address also places his home on land that, forty years earlier, had been the large estate of Samuel Medary. Medary supported Andrew Jackson for President in 1828, and later became a prominent Copperhead journalist who was outspoken in his opposition to the Civil War and his support for the rights of Southern slaveholders.
By Matt Doran
The two-story white house at the corner of Livingston and Linwood Avenues in Columbus is shrouded in myth and mystery. While many of the local legends are false, the house does have a fascinating history dating back to the decade before the Civil War.
Identified as a stop on the Underground Railroad by the Friends of Freedom Society, the house was originally occupied by an African-American woman, Caroline Brown, and her two children, Edward and Constantia.
The Neighborhood Design Center has unpacked the history of this antebellum home in a recent publication: The Caroline Brown House and the History of the Streetcar District.
The story of the Caroline Brown House begins in 1848 in Henrico County, Virginia (near Richmond). John D. Brown, a slaveholder and plantation owner, died on March 6 of that year. Brown owned seven slaves according to the 1820 census and perhaps more by the time of his death. His will specified that Caroline Brown, his “indentured servant,” was to be emancipated and a sum of money given to her son Edward (who was likely the son of John D. Brown as well), to move to Ohio and build a house for his mother. Three years later, the administrators of John D. Brown’s will purchased an 11 acre plot (Lot 29) in Township 5, just outside the city limits of Columbus at the time.
Caroline, Edward, and Constantia arrived in Columbus around 1852. Caroline was close to 70 years old by this point, but Edward was only around 21 and Constantia around 19. (There are differences in the years of birth in various census records.) Edward built the house for his mother–originally a single-story house with four rooms and a flat roof. The Browns, none of whom could read or write, lived in the home through the Civil War.
No records indicate how many runaway slaves may have found safe harbor at the home. The house did have tunnels suitable for hiding. Some neighbors believed the tunnels led to a nearby barn and ended near Main Street. About ½ mile away, the Kimball House, near Main Street was also an Underground Railroad stop.
Caroline Brown died in 1869 and Edward maintained possession of the home. By this time, Constantia had married a German (Prussian) immigrant, John Johnson, and had four children of her own. Edward sold the house to Asa Parker in 1877. Edward, who never married, apparently went to live with Constantia and her family at that time. In the 1880 census, the Johnsons and Edward Brown, all listed as “White,” show up living in the same household in Marion Township, on the south side of Columbus, and working as farmers. We know little else from historical records about their lives or deaths.
By Doreen Uhas Sauer
On April 10, 1844, David Jenkins, an African-American leader and editor of the Palladium of Liberty, announced in his newspaper there would be a “grand rally of the colored people of the State for liberty and right on Wednesday the 18th of September, 1844” in Columbus.
Born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1811, Jenkins came to Columbus in 1837, where he became active in the Underground Railroad. The Palladium of Liberty was published in Columbus from 1843-1844, following organizational meetings at the Second Baptist Church. As the editor, Jenkins used his paper to call for social justice against the state’s Black Laws. He was a respected political force, and almost single-handedly created the first schools for African-American children in the city.
The following excerpt from his paper reveals a great deal about the tactics Jenkins used, the nature of labor among African-American men in Ohio, and his moral determination. He urged:
At 10 o’clock A.M. on this occasion we want to see every community (in Ohio) represented, and if possible every colored man present; the time has come when each should feel it to be a duty which he owes to himself—to his race—and to his God to raise in the majesty of unangered, yet unawed manhood and contend for that which the inhuman citizens of his professed free State have deprived him. To be present at this Convention, the teacher should leave his school—the farmer—should leave his plow—the barber—should leave his chair—the laborer—should leave his work—and the steward should leave his lord, for they all have rights given them by God, which they have lost by the oppression of tyrants, Come if you can’t read—come if you have not a nice suit of clothes—come if you have no money—come if you have to walk! Come not—for vanity or might: Come up for LIBERTY AND RIGHT!”
Although the newspaper was short-lived, Jenkins continued his activism during and after the Civil War. He became a recruiter for the 127th Ohio Infantry during the Civil War. During Reconstruction, Jenkins moved to Mississippi, where he was appointed to the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Click here to read more excerpts from the Palladium of Liberty.
By Doreen Uhas Sauer
The cultural history of Columbus has religion at its roots. Churches represented religious beliefs, community, charity, education, and medical help. Many of the African-American churches in the King-Lincoln-Bronzeville neighborhood are well over 100 years old. The churches may have expanded to new buildings, but the congregations are both ancient and evolving—with some new churches growing out of other ones.
In 1814, on a Town Street lot donated by the new City of Columbus, the first Methodist Church was built for the sum of $157 and 53 ½ cents. The Town Street Methodist Episcopal Church was formed with an integrated congregation of charter members. In 1823, one of the charter members, Moses Freeman, separated from the church to form an independent church, but one founded in Methodism. Meeting at first in homes or rented rooms, they established a building of their own (a log cabin) on Lazelle Street (then called Straight Alley) just north of Spring Street. Within ten years, the congregation had purchased a site at 71 East Long and built a brick church—and grew to be a much larger church, St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church. In 1905, St. Paul’s relocated to 639 East Long (where it is today) and a new church was built for the staggering sum of $40,000. St. Paul’s also established the first African-American high school in Columbus.
The beginnings of the historic Second Baptist Church began with the organization of First Baptist Church on May 16, 1824 and an integrated congregation of 11 members, 3 of whom were African American—Patsy Booker, George Butcher, and Lydia Jones. In 1834, the African-American members of the church were given “their liberty” to form a branch of First Baptist, hold meetings, and do their own business and pay their own expenses. In 1836, Reverend Ezekiel Fields was chosen as the first pastor. They worshiped in several buildings in downtown Columbus until 1907 when they built the church they continue to occupy today at 186 North Seventeenth Street.
One of the most well-known pastors of Second Baptist was James Poindexter (1858-1898), a tireless and outspoken leader in the anti-slavery movement. He and forty members of Second Baptist left the church during a split over abolitionism, forming the Anti-Slavery Baptist Church. The charter members of the church were Rev. Poindexter, John T. Ward, John Booker, William B. Ferguson, Jeremiah Freeland, James Hawkins. David Jenkins, and William Washington who were known for their active work on the Underground Railroad in Columbus. In 1858 the Anti-Slavery Baptist Church and the Second Baptist Church reunited. Second Baptist Church is also known as the “Mother Church,” having in some way helped to form other churches, including Good Shepherd Baptist, Oakley Baptist, Urban Baptist in Urbancrest, Shiloh Baptist, Union Grove, Bethany Baptist, and Pilgrim Baptist.
By Matt Doran
There are over twenty documented homes still standing in Central Ohio today that were part of the Underground Railroad before and during the Civil War. Only two of these sites, the Kelton House in Columbus and the Hanby House in Westerville, are open to the public.
When Fernando Kelton moved to Columbus from Vermont in 1852, he married Sophia Stone and built a house at 586 East Town Street–the last home on Town Street and considered far out in the country at the time. The Keltons were drygoods wholesalers by trade and active members of the antislavery society and conductors on the Underground Railroad.
Because the Underground Railroad was a highly illegal endeavor, there were few written records left behind. Most of the evidence for these sites comes from oral histories and information passed down through family lines. In the case of the Kelton House, the oral history of the Kelton and Lawrence families supplies the following narrative, as recorded on the Ohio Historic Marker located on the site:
One documented story is that of a 10-year old runaway named Martha Hartway. Born a slave in September 1854 on a plantation near Richmond in Powhattan County, Virginia, Martha, along with her sister Pearl, fled the plantation. They left at their mother’s urging when she was told the girls would be sent to work at the Big House. Kelton family tradition states that Sophia found the girls under a shrub next to the house. Too ill to move, Martha was taken in by the Keltons and remained for ten years. Pearl continued north to Wisconsin because she felt Ohio wasn’t safe. In 1874, Martha married Thomas Lawrence in the front parlor of this house. The son of free-black parents, Thomas was employed by the Keltons as a cabinet-maker. . . .
From Columbus, those seeking freedom moved north to Clintonville and Worthington along High Street, and to Westerville along Harbor Road (Cleveland Avenue) and Sunbury Road. In Clintonville, they may have hidden at the Clinton Chapel where Rev. Jason Bull conducted services while his daughter took food and water to runaways hidden in an interior room. Further north in Worthington, Henry and Dolly Turk, the first African-American family to live in Worthington beginning in 1856, used their home as a safe house. Those seeking refuge through Westerville were often harbored at the home of Bishop William Hanby, one of the founders of Otterbein University.
The ultimate end of the Underground Railroad was to reach Canada, where runaways would be outside the scope of the federal Fugitive Slave Law, and truly free.
Click here to view more Central Ohio Underground Railroad homes.
By Matt Doran
Under the Black Laws passed by the Ohio General Assembly, whites were prohibited from employing blacks who had no proof of freedom, and were mandated to turn in any runaway slaves. In spite of these laws, the Underground Railroad was active in central Ohio. James Poindexter, a barber and minister, led an active network of black conductors on the Underground Railroad.
The video segments below, from the WOSU Columbus Neighborhoods series, highlight the activities of the Underground Railroad in Downtown Columbus, Clintonville, and Worthington.
By Matt Doran
A statue and accompanying marker on the north side of Broad Street near Veterans Memorial tell the story of Arthur Boke, Jr., the first African American to live in Franklinton. Depicting Sarah Sullivant, wife of Franklinton founder Lucas Sullivant, holding up a baby over her head, the statue’s marker inscription reads:
Arthur Boke Jr. was the first African-American resident of Franklinton, Ohio. His story tells far more than the color of his skin. It is a story of love, selflessness, compassion, and understanding expressed by Sarah Sullivant. Her example reaches out to humanity with a mother’s pure love that accepts all human beings as equal, who share each other’s burdens, listen to each other’s stories, and learn what it is to live in harmony.
Who was Arthur Boke, Jr.? We know a few things about his birth and death, but very little about his life. Joseph Sullivant, the youngest son of Lucas and Sarah, wrote this journal entry about Boke:
I was surprised at the seeing the letters L.S. and a date on the bark. This event, which I had heard related in my boyhood, instantly occurred to me, and I perceived I was standing on the precise spot where my father had left this memorial to himself, in the solitude of the wilderness, nearly fifty years before, when fleeing for his life, with nought but his own courage and self-reliance to sustain him.
Joseph Sullivant’s account sheds more light on the Arthur Book, Jr. story. Sarah Sullivant was raised on slaveholding plantations in Kentucky, and Boke's mother had been enslaved to the Sullivant family before coming with them to the free territory in Ohio. Joseph Sullivant identifies Arthur Boke as the father. Boke was a frontiersman who worked as a scout for Lucas Sullivant during his surveying trips. Historical accounts differ as to whether Arthur Boke was the father of Boke, Jr. or whether he was simply named after Boke by Sarah Sullivant.
Arthur Boke, Jr. continued to live with the Sullivant family and learned the skill of surveying from Lucas Sullivant. Sarah Sullivant died in 1814 while nursing soldiers stationed in Franklinton during the War of 1812. Boke died in 1841.
Boke was one of only 300 African Americans living in Ohio in 1803, when Ohio achieved statehood status. A year later, Ohio passed its first Black Laws designed to discourage African-American migration to Ohio. To enter the state, African Americans had to provide a $500 bond signed by two white men within twenty days of arrival. African Americans could not give evidence in a court case in which a white man was a party, could not serve on juries, and were not counted when determining the number of seats in the Ohio General Assembly. By 1810, there were 1,890 African Americans in Ohio, with 43 living in Franklin County (about 1 percent of the county population).
Local historian Bea Murphy rediscovered Boke’s tombstone in 1996 and it was restored in 1997. She also persuaded Alfred Tibor, a Holocaust survivor and noted sculptor, to create the Boke/Sullivant “Celebration of Life” statue.
Teaching Columbus began in 2012 under the direction of Columbus educators Matt Doran, Karen Fiedler, and Doreen Uhas Sauer.