The African-American experience in columbus blog
This blog features brief articles 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.