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Abolitionist Literature and Black Education

Abolitionist literature, art, and poetry depicted the life of the slave and became a political tool which the moral suasionists used effectively to sway sentiment toward their position. Nationally, men like John Greenleaf Whittier, who became the poet of the abolitionist movement, and Ezekiel Bigelow, a satirist, used their literary skill to bring the slavery issue to national attention. Slave narratives also inspired change in the attitudes of northern whites. These autobiographies described and vividly detailed their experience in thralldom, their daily lives, their feelings toward their family, their disappointments, their moments of happiness, and their pain. "It is," an article in The Liberator observed, "a new thing in this country for a slave to become an author.''1

The slave narrative served as a testament to black life under the "peculiar institution." As John Little, a fugitive who successfully escaped to Canada, maintained, no one could tell the story of slavery better than a slave. "Tisn't he who has stood and looked on," Little asserted, "that can tell you what slavery is--'tis he who has endured.''2 Many slaves who passed through Indiana on their journey to freedom--Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, Josiah Henson, and Lewis and Milton Clarke are but a few--later wrote autobiographies.

In his autobiography, Henry Bibb made perfectly clear his perception of slavery. "The term slave," Bibb maintained, "to this day sounds with terror to my soul, --a word too obnoxious to speak--a system too intolerable to be endured.''3 William Wells Brown remembered the deep ache he felt when separated from his mother. "As I thought of my mother," the future novelist and poet remembered, "I could but feel that I had lost: the glory of my life, / My blessing and my Pride! / I half forgot the name of slave, / When she was by my side.''4 Josiah Henson explained the peculiarities of slaveholder's and the slave experience, and Lewis and Milton Clarke, both of whom appeared as white as their slaveholder's, described their unique situation.5

Uncle Tom's Cabin
Courtesy Indiana Division, Indiana State Library

Perhaps the single most widely read work of literary protest, however, was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was published in March, 1852. One commentator has written that "the appearance of the novel gave anti-slavery a moral weapon and pro-slavery a visible enemy." He further claimed that Uncle Tom's Cabin provided both the North and the South with the symbols and arguments they needed. That this book had a serious effect upon the nation is not debatable. One southern newspaper called the publication "a criminal prostitution of the high function of the imagination," and said that Stowe was a woman "eaten up with fanaticism, festering with the malignant virus of abolitionism, self-sanctified by the virtues of a Pharisee religion."6

Nearly all the slave states suppressed the book by the early summer of 1852, and Stowe received abusive mail from southerners. About thirty "anti- Tom" literary protests appeared within the next few years, including The Planter's Daughter: A Tale of Louisiana, written by Eliza Ann Dupuy. It told the tale of a northern woman who married a southern gentleman and converted to the South's attitude toward slavery and blacks.

A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Courtesy Indiana Division, Indiana State Library

Hoosiers, however, reacted in a more positive manner. "The really great effect of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' " Jacob Piatt Dunn noted, "was impressing on the readers that the negro was a man in his feelings, who could suffer as deeply as other men." Some less astute northerners, however, missed a most significant point about the book. "Nobody," Dunn contended, "understood that it presented events that ordinarily happened to slaves.''7 Jane Ketcham, a prominent Hoosier, later recalled that the year Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared "hundreds and hundreds sat up all night to finish it. In every family there were those waiting to pick the book up the moment it was laid down." Indeed, Ketcham remembered, "It was in every mind and on every tongue."8

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" first appeared as a serial in the National Era, an antislavery organ published in Washington, D.C. Henry Charles, a Wayne County Quaker, was one who apparently subscribed to the publication. After Charles read the articles in 1851, he wrote his friend, Tamar Thorn, and asked if he had read the story. "If thee has not read it, by all means turn out & hunt the paper up & read it forth with. The perusal will make thee a better abolitionist and christian.''9

Uncle Tom's Cabin so polarized American sentiment that some states made it a crime to even have a copy. Any attempted suppression, however, was in vain; reportedly, five thousand copies of the first edition sold out within forty-eight hours. Over the next ten months 450,000 copies were sold in the United States and England. When skeptics accused the author of exaggerating her condemnation of the "peculiar institution," Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin in Boston in 1853 and gave true life parallels to her fictional account.

In addition to their antislavery tracts, abolitionists combated the argument that blacks were intellectually inferior by establishing schools. "Does it not," Moses Swain asserted," beho[o]ve the benevolent and the good to make one effort to extend to this people the means to counteract, or at least modify, the force of a prejudice which has borne upon them." The women of the Henry County Female Anti-Slavery Society sent a letter to the editor of the Greensboro (North Carolina) Patriot containing an address to the slaveholders of the South, which maintained that there was no evidence that blacks were inferior in intellect. But if it were true, these women maintained, then Negroes should be allowed to acquire knowledge.10

As a result of abolitionists' efforts, several schools were established in the state which allowed blacks to attend. In 1845 Benjamin Thomas, a resident of Randolph County, donated 150 acres of land on which the Union Literary Institute was built. Although generally known as a school for blacks, white students also attended. The abolitionist William Beard was appointed as General Agent to collect money and solicit donations for the school. A fugitive slave, Louis Talbert, was among the first blacks to attend.11

Hanover College was another school which allowed blacks to attend. Benjamin Templeton, probably Hanover's first black student, entered the preparatory school there in 1832. He continued his studies until 1837, when he completed his seminary course, and went on to serve at the Second African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Thomas Craven, of Jefferson County, established the Eleutherian Institute in Lancaster where blacks also attended. One of that school's most prominent students was the Reverend Moses Broyles, who became pastor of the Second African Baptist Church in Indiana. 12

Blacks clearly recognized the need for education. During the 1830s a number of free blacks migrated to Indiana from the South and established several nearly autonomous rural communities. In these settlements blacks, like white settlers, farmed and built their own homes, churches, and schools. In Ripley Township, Rush County, there were several schools for black children, some with black teachers, which were mostly located in churches. Some of the free blacks who taught in these schools were Joshua and Pleasant Keen and Jordan Hays. Even those who had once been enslaved knew what slavery did to the mind. Aby Jones exclaimed, slavery is "ruinous to the mind of man, in that it keeps the key of knowledge from him: it is stupefying to man.” 13

Eleutherian Institute, Lancaster, Jefferson County, also served as a station on the Underground Railroad.

The Eleutherian College historical marker was dedicated June 19, 2004.


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