African American Experience in Ohio, Digital Collection

While many states have developed digital collections related to African American experience, the Ohio History Collection curated by the Ohio Historical Society in cooperation with the Library of Congress offers a variety of documents that inform the study of the transition from a slave to a free society.

“Slavery is a great drawback on republican institutions.”

Jacob Bruner, 1st. Lt. 9th Louisiana, African Descent

The transition was enabled by various aid societies including the Freedmen’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which founded numerous educational institutions, twenty normal, academic, or industrial colleges, along with several Home Mission Societies for women. Like the anti-slavery activism that preceded this and other Freedmen’s Aid Societies, that of the Methodist Episcopal Church had important Ohio associations. These include Corresponding Secretary Richard Sutton Rust of Cincinnati and Rev. John M. Walden also of Cincinnati, the former being associated with historically black Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss. and the latter with Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. One can read about the many institutions, on the OHS website and in the pamphlet–Twelve Wise Men and What They Did for a Race.

Other pamphlets that have been digitized by the site include commentary on Black Soldiers in the Civil War, prewar Colored Conventions in the state, addresses by such notable figures as John Mercer Langston and Charles Sumner, slave narratives, and a report of the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission. The 1864 Report concerns the first year of the Commission, organized in January of 1863. Its officers included Walden, then Corresponding Secretary, and Levi Coffin of Cincinnati, General Agent and a major figure in the Underground Railroad movement. Walden and Coffin, along with Charles Brandon Boynton (who also served as an officer) sat on the Commission’s Board of Directors.

The Report is introduced by a Commission history, the agency having been the collaborative work of men of multiple denominations rather than the exclusive work of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The organizers were previously involved in the Contraband Relief Commission and withdrew from it due to a difference of vision and course to be pursued relative to the emancipation of blacks. The chief goal of the late organization seems to have been to develop self-supporting individuals and communities–through temporary provision of housing, clothing, and education–rather than long-term reliance on the federal government. The Commission expressed in its Report that while Christian instruction was important, it would leave the sending of missionaries into the South to the church itself. At the same time, the Commission committed to hiring only Christian teachers to instruct freedpeople within wartime camps for fugitives.

The OHS site also offers a number of digitized manuscripts–a plantation account book, The John Rankin Collection, along with the Ripley Anti-Slavery Society Minute Book, and The Jacob Bruner Letters, 1861-1863. Bruner was 1st Lt. in the 9th Louisiana A.D., reorganized as the 63rd United States Colored Troops, commanded by John Eaton, Jr., Superintendent of Freedmen in the Mississippi Valley. Although Bruner was killed at Milliken’s Bend, La. in June of 1863, in the winter and spring of ’63, he wrote many letters to his wife in Paulding Co, Ohio.

Bruner’s letters, as the editor of them expresses in an introduction to them, reveal a measure of growth concerning his view of blacks in general and, in particular, with serving with them. His “colorful language,” which includes references to darkies and wooly heads are explained by his concern that his friends and neighbors will judge him for serving in a black regiment. At the same time, Bruner seems inspired by Lorenzo Thomas’s leadership in the recruitment of blacks and writes his wife about expeditions down the Mississippi River for this purpose. In his April 21st correspondence, he writes, “Slavery is a great drawback on republican institutions.”

Lastly, the OHS site includes Photographs and Prints (Civil War Stereoviews Collection, Ohio House of Representatives Photograph Collection, and African American Small Picture Collection) and a Serials Collection focused on the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Taken together, the Ohio Historical Society’s digital collections may help users to achieve a depth of understanding concerning the role of the Methodist Episcopal Church and related agencies and associated figures in the earliest years of African American emancipation.

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