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Antiochiana – Songs from the Stacks: Excerpts from the Diary of William S. Johnson

Stacks sings a song of William S. Johnson, one of the very first students of Antioch College. Of course, that’s only partially correct; to be precise, Johnson was only ever a member of the Antioch Preparatory Department, and therefore a high school student with aspirations of entering the College. He only appears in Antioch College records during its first academic year, 1853-54. Due to a series of family misfortunes, especially the untimely deaths of three of his siblings within weeks of each other, he was never able to resume his studies. Though he was not an Antioch student for long, William Johnson left a remarkable record of that rather brief period in his life.

Johnson’s diary was donated to Antiochiana by his descendant, Frances Wooledge, in 2000. The following excerpt covers his decision to attend Antioch, which was in some ways an expression of his devotion to the founding denomination It also includes his first day on campus and his first month or so as a student.

Image of a historic course catalog

Excerpted from the Diary of William S. Johnson

I suppose I was put to work very young; as I cannot remember when I could not and did not work.  But I can remember very vividly the first day I ever went to school, which was (with the exception of three days, when I was three years old, but that I remember very well) a few weeks after we moved to Warren Co. (I will hereafter say Franklin; for the sake of brevity)  I remember those scenes, almost as though it was yesterday; and in fact at most every step taken in my progress of study which was slow, because so little opportunity for going to school; but rapid for the chance.  I continued to go more or less every winter- seldom at any other time untill I was of age.

Untill about the age of sixteen or seventeen I thought and cared for little about an Education.  About this time my oldest brother had a share in the Springboro Library and was reading books obtained there.

By his reading taking to me for that purpose, there was an interest excited, and I went to reading. [This sentence is as written in journal]

I think I might in justice make one remark here; that is this, that I believe now, the first thing that caused me to commence reading was the perusal of that romance “Alonzo and Malissa” [Melissa].  This was the first book I ever read through.  There are some persons who are very hard, yes down, on the reading of such “trash” as they call it; and as a general thing I don’t know but that they are right; but I think there are some that may be read with impunity, and with profit.

(2) Speaking of these Library Books, I was going on to say when an interest was once excited, I sought every opportunity to read that I could.  When ever my brother was not reading I was sure to have the book.  It so happened one day that he sent me to take the book we had, home and get another.  In selecting, I accidentally got hold of one of O. S. Fowler’s works, I think it was “Heridtary Decent(sic)”.  I took it and perused it carefully and with profit.  From the time that my “mind was waked up” I had a great desire to know something about the human constitution; both physically and mentally.  This book then just suited my taste as well as many others, that is books of his publication have since that time.  I also had a great desire to be a teacher; and desired my parents to let me go to school for that purpose; but they thought I was not calculated for that; and, in fact, for anything, but to work.

As I could not get to school, I embraced every opportunity for reading that I could get, reading in summer at noon, while the horses rested and the boys were playing marbles, pitching horse shoes, or sleeping.

Monroe June 20th, 1853

There has been quite a change in affairs within a few days.  During the preceeding(sic) week, Mr. and Mrs. King, the persons with whom I was boarding, both took sick so that they had to break up their Boarding House.  Mr. King was also Principal of the Presbyterian Academy, and in consequence of this sickness his school was broke up six weeks before it was to have been out.  I have four weeks to teach yet.  I wish it was out now.  I am getting tired.  I don’t know just what I shall do yet; but without I should get to likeing(sic) it better than I do just now, I think I will hardly teach anymore.

It has been my intention to go to Antioch College, at Yellow Springs, as soon as it was opened.  Sometimes I thought of taking a regular course; at other times, only a partial one.  But within the last few days I have been turning my thoughts in a new direction; in compliance with a request of my father, to go to a Commercial School or College and study Book keeping.  (14) I have gone back to town again, the same place where I boarded the first quarter I taught.

Antioch College campus 1860

Antioch College
Oct. 9th 1853
First day in Antioch.

This College was dedicated Oct 5th, 1853 the examination of students commenced the next day after dedication; but in consequence of some business not necessary to mention, I had to return home; made preparations; and came back on saturday Oct 8th, on the nine o’clock train.  Sunday, today, is my first day in Antioch.  We had breakfast at 7 1/2 o’clock.  At ten o’clock, we all, that is all the students, together with many other friends assembled in the Chapel for public worship.

Professor Mann, Doherty, Holmes, Pennell and McKinney were present together with many others I did not know.  We were addressed by Prof. Doherty in an able and an applicable manner.

Dined at 1 1/2 o’clock.  I then visited several of the student’s rooms.  During the afternoon, we took a walk to the yellow(16) Springs and also to the village by that name.

Nov 4th, 1853

After this long interval I will write a few lines more.  There are something over two hundred students present now.  All except a few who compose the Freshman class, were separated into four classes, after an examination, according to the ability of each.  I was put in the second division, But did not remain there long till I was promoted to the first, in which I am at present.  I am studying Reading, including composition and declamation, arithmetic, English and Latin.  I have been here now near a month which time has passed off like lightning almost, seemingly.  The Profs are all kind and good, and the students all sociable and friendly.  Under these circumstances, how could any one help being satisfied; indeed this seems to me, to be the most pleasant period in all my life.

Nov 5th

Another anniversary of the day on which I first opened my eyes to life, in this beautiful world, has come.  Another year has flown and I still find myself on this side of eternity; enjoying the gracious blessings and mercies of the Great Father of our Spirits.  Oh! How merciful art thou O God! to us.  We deserve nothing from thy hand, yet thou art continually pouring out blessing upon blessing upon us.  O God grant that our souls may thirst after rightiousness(sic), for we know that they will be filled, if we thirst a right.  O! Animate our souls with the spirit that animated the blessed Christ.

This evening, by and through my influence a meeting of several of the students, was held in my room, for the purpose of organizing a Students prayer meeting in Antioch College.  We appointed a meeting for (17) tomorrow evening coming, to be held somewhere in the main college building.  I was annominated(sic) to confer with the Faculty about it and to solicit a room for that purpose.  Nov 7th  I spoke to the President Hon. Horace Mann yesterday morning and obtained the privilege of holding our meetings in the Lecture room.  Last evening we met according to appointment, at 7 1/4 o’clock .  Profs Holmes and McKinney were present and opened the meeting by leading in prayer, followed with some appropriate remarks.

Nov 18th 

Another week has flown, on the rapid wings of time.  All goes on smoothe(sic) and nice.  After this I design writing in this book, all or nearly the sentences we write, for future reference.  We have to write almost daily, sentences on our English grammar lesson, Prof McKinney Teacher.

The following are some on yesterday’s lesson viz:

No.1 “The pure minded man will look upon all the works of the Creator with feelings of sublimity and adoration, because of the goodness of God.”

1. “The True Christian loves God and keeps his commandments.”

2. “For we are commanded to love and pray for our enemies.”

3. “The man who professes true greatness of mind will never stoop to do a mean act.”

4. “Our Teacher is kind and affectionate toward his pupils.”

5. “The slave works hard, toils and sweats for the benifit(sic) of his master.”

Sentences continued .                   Antioch College Dec 3, 1853

7. The tones of the flute are sweet and melodious.

The same tree may produce both sweet, and sour apples; so, in like manner, the same person may manifest good and bad qualities.

(18) 9. The industrious husbandman toils early and late.

10. The good and bad alike, are helped with rain.

11. We see the goodness and mercy of the Creator, manifested in all His works; in the material, as well as immaterial works.

Antiochiana – Songs from the Stacks: Mann Library 1853-60 by Pat Aldred

Once again “Stacks” sings a song of the Antioch College Library, featuring vocals by Patricia Aldred, class of 1952. Her brief history of the early College Library originally ran in the November 1952 Antioch Alumni Bulletin when Horace Mann Library (The Music Dept. for some and Weston Hall to other, later vintages of Antiochians) had exceeded its capacity and was about to be replaced with Olive Kettering Library. Pat married George Mrazek and together they established The Communications Co., Inc. in Chicago.




Mann Library: 1853-60

The College Library when it was on the second floor of Main Building, c.1890.

The College Library when it was on the second floor of Main Building, c.1890.


Partricia Aldred, class of 1952, as a first year student at Antioch College.

Partricia Aldred, class of 1952, as a first year student at Antioch College.

Launching a Library 

As might be expected by anyone who has steeped himself in the Antioch of the 1850’s—at least to the extent of taking a good look at the century old Main Building with its tall towers the “Library Apparatus” created by the college founders was by no means commonplace. 


To be sure, the library’s unusual qualities were probably due to the intellect of President Horace Mann as well as to the glorious dreams of the Christian Connexion—it was the Christians who had envisioned Ohio towers so lofty that the Gulf of Mexico might be visible from their heights. But it was in the selfsame conviction of future greatness that the Christian founders of the College dared summon Mann, the foremost educator of the country, to be the first president of their poorly endowed and unfinished frontier enterprise. Neither the Christians who were organizing the College and writing about it in their newspaper, the Christian Palladium, nor Horace Mann, who gave up home and friends and civilization to come west, intended, to build just another small church school. The story of the library may help to prove that what they built was indeed something more. 


The need for funds to buy library books is first mentioned in the Palladium early in 1851, two years before the College opened. More definite arrangements were made a year later when the provisional trustees of the College appointed a committee of twenty Christians, many of them ministers, to solicit “Books and Funds.” The committee launched its campaign with a burst of eloquence cannily directed to every Palladium reader. 

Friends of the College were to give for the sake of their sons, daughters, and friends, who would peruse the books. Publishers were reminded of the increased sales their benevolence would naturally bring them, for would not each of the five hundred to a thousand students anticipated need, on graduating, a library? And would they not choose such books as they had learned the value of in the college library? “Hence…the gift of a single copy to the College library might be the means of subsequently selling a thousand of each to the students, graduates, and friends of the institution.”


The appeal to authors was similar. But to benevolent, philanthropic friends of a free and liberal education, it was pledged simply that the books would be used “as may best promote the interests of humanity and the cause of God.”


Collecting in Person 

The committee did more than write high-powered advertising, however: they went collecting in person. The man who excelled at this task was the Elder Isaac Walter, or so his admiring biographer, the Rev. A. L. McKinney, tells us. Walter collected 210 books in Baltimore in one day. Moreover, he made up a special bookplate, headed by “Antioch College” and the name of the donor, with “Elder Walter” in one corner. Volumes with this bookplate are still to be seen in the “old library,” a part of the original Antioch library which is kept in the Antiochiana collection of the present library. 


The ministers did not limit themselves to collecting “religious” works: among the volumes which bear Walter’s bookplate are Horace Greeley’s Hints Toward Reforms, presented by the author; a book on the slave colony of Jamaica after sixteen years of freedom; and a variety of other titles. It is true, though, that the library finally assembled did include a good many lives of ministers, books of sermons, tracts, and an impressive work entitled The Genealogies Recorded in the Sacred Scriptures According to Every Family and Tribe with the Line of Our Saviour Jesus Christ Observed from Adam to the Virgin Mary. Of this nature may have been a good many of the 1500 to 2000 volumes reported collected by October, 1852. 


Possibly the ministers themselves were dissatisfied with the results of their canvassing or possibly Horace Mann had a premonition he would be. Anyway, a member of the committee wrote Mann that the new president was expected to select other titles later. 


Mann’s Efforts 


One long sunny room on the second floor of “Antioch Hall” was set aside for the library (Partitioned now, the room is occupied by the English Department). When Mann arrived in September, 1853, however, the room had neither books nor shelves. “In vain for that,” he complained a year later, “had the art of printing been discovered.” 

Mann proceeded to write to various authors and poets of his acquaintance, asking that they donate copies of their works. Still in the “old library” are the phrenological works Mann purchased with a gift of $100 from a friend, the phrenologist George Combe. 


He then set about selecting books to be purchased. By November, 1853, he had spent $835.01 of the thousand dollars allotted him. With funds available limited he had to select books with care. 


Fortunately, a list of suggested titles has been preserved along with bills and other library material, in the Antiochiana collection, which sheds light on some of the considerations involved. Perhaps this is a list of needs submitted for Mann’s .consideration by a colleague, for the titles are often supplemented by capsule critiques. And what stands out in these critiques is the nonsectarian spirit, the liberal faith in man’s reason, in which the College was founded—so strange a faith for a college of that day in the backwoods of Ohio! One historical volume is included in the list because it gives the “Catholic view.” Others are praised as “liberal,” “ample,” or “accurate.” Archibald Alison’s Europe from the French Revolution, a best-seller of the period which was even translated into Arabic, is disparaged as having “too much of the War Spirit,” though a “glowing and elaborate account.” Herodotus is recommended as “a specimen of the manner of ancient historians,” Hume for his graces of style. Just about every historical period is covered. 


The compiler does not seem to have been much interested in fiction, except Sir Walter Scott (five titles’ worth) to “give an idea of Scott” and “please.” And Mr. Tennyson’s In Memoriam is plugged as “just published—an exquisit tribute to friendship.” 


Judge of Books 

Mann himself judged literature chiefly in terms of its moral effectiveness. He liked biography of the great and good, whose tendency was to “reproduce the exellence it records.”


He infuriated Richard Henry Dana by suggesting that he rewrite Two Years Before the Mast so that it might contain “more valuable information which would be useful to young persons.” Mann said that “a narrative, a description, had no value except as it conveyed some moral lesson or some useful fact.” (Dana was still pretty mad when he wrote about the. incident in his diary. “He had but one idea in his head, and that was the idea of a schoolmaster gone crazy, that direct instruction on matters of fact was the only worthy object of all books…In fact, I never saw such an exhibition of gaucheness and want of tact in my life.”) 


The books Mann selected for Antioch, however, indicate he was a man who interpreted his own principles pretty broadly. The sheets of paper on which he listed the titles he wanted are now a part of the Antiochiana collection. 


The range of titles includes Pascal’s Thoughts on Religion; biographies of Luther and Mohammed; Use and Abuse or Right and Wrong in Relation to Labor of Capital, Machinery and Land; books on China, Norway, India, the culture of the North American Indians, and Russian sovereigns; the works of Lady Mary Montagu and Mme. de Stael; the Privy Purse Expenditures of Henry VIII find Edward IV; Bibliomania, or Bookmadness; a history of Negro slavery; Diet With Its Influence on Man; a volume on aeronautics; and many others. A translation of Confucius·from the German was also requested, but was not available. The list also included Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana. 


From other bills, we find Mann spent $150 for lawbooks, and sent $100 to an agent in Europe for unnamed books. He also spent $9.00 for magazines, likewise unnamed. 


In contrast to these expenditures, a history of Ohio colleges tells us that Denison, for instance, twenty-one years old in 1853, valued its whole library in that year at only $400. 


Old Uses 


Still, the contents of a library are not everything. Its use is perhaps even more important. And it is in the way its books were used that the true uniqueness of the first Antioch library lay. It was related, of course, to the academic program.


The usual college course before 1850 was “classical”; it consisted mainly of Greek, Latin, and higher mathematics. It did not require much use of a library. In the early fifties Yale and Harvard, and a few others, offered a B.S. degree, but in most institutions the classical emphasis remained heavy and electives were rare. The latter did not appear at Oberlin until 1875. 


Antioch offered in its first catalog not only the customary classical .studies but also political economy, a variety of sciences, didactics, and physiology and hygiene; it also allowed several electives. 


The 1859-60 Antioch catalog carries this note: :All the students connected with this institution have free access to a Library of about 4000 volumes, which has been carefully selected with especial reference to their wants.”

This liberal attitude toward the way a library should be used is not generally reflected in the colleges of the time. 

At Columbia only such members of the freshman class as were specially designated by the president were permitted access to the books; at Antioch, even the preparatory (high school) students were given free use of the library. 


New Uses 


As early as the [eighteen] sixties, Antioch kept its library open three hours a day, from two to five, every afternoon except Wednesday and Sunday, and permitted students to thumb through its books in person. Usually the literature professor was in charge, or a student, and he or the borrower wrote down the date and the title of the book, or its “shelf number,” in a big ledger marked off with each student’s name. (The Dewey Decimal System and card catalogs were yet to come.) 


Why was Antioch so liberal? Perhaps freedom was easier at a small college than at a large university, as may be the case today. Mann’s whole educational philosophy was based upon an identity of interest between instructors and instructed, with sympathy and mutual affection between them. And according to an account by the Rev. Henry Clay Badger, one of Mann’s former pupils, Mann’s own teaching methods encouraged independent investigation of assigned topics (and, presumably, use of the library), “not so holding his flock to the dusty, travelworn path as to forbid their free access to every inviting meadow or spring by the way.” 


Built on the site of his home, the present Antioch Library bears Horace Mann’s name. It is overcrowded, with little more study space than was available in the room in “Antioch Hall.” Mann might disapprove. But if his ghost is hovering about the building, browsing and savoring new volumes, it surely enjoys watching today’s Antiochians as they personally search the stacks and depart with books they have honorably charged themselves.


Inside Weston Hall when it was Horace Mann Library, c1940.

Inside Weston Hall when it was Horace Mann Library, c1940.


Inside Weston Hall when it was Horace Mann Library, c1940

Inside Weston Hall when it was Horace Mann Library, c1940.


Antiochiana: Songs From the Stacks

Sarah Hawley to Adelaide Hardy 21 May 1872

Sarah Hawley to Adelaide Hardy 21 May 1872. Photo by Scott Sanders.


By Scott Sanders, Antioch College Archivist.


Sarah Hawley to Adelaide Hardy 21 May 1872


Sarah Hawley (class of 1874), known to her classmates as “Sadie,” enrolled at Antioch College in 1869. She came from Milan, Ohio, known as the hometown of Thomas Edison and as one of the state’s more enjoyably mispronounced place names (as in MY-lən), as did her brother Kent (1869-1872) and her sister Ruth (1872-1874). After graduation, she married a man named Somers and moved to California. Antiochiana has several letters Sadie wrote to Pauline Adelaide Hardy (class of 1877), known as “Addie,” one of which is reprinted below.


Sadie greets Addie as her “dearest ‘Micawber,’” a character from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. In the novel, Wilkins Micawber is a kindhearted, incurable optimist who despite crushing indebtedness lives by the maxim: “something will turn up.” It’s also the name of one of Keith Richards’ guitars, but that isn’t very relevant to this story. Micawber was played memorably on screen first by the inimitable WC Fields, but also by the great Ralph Richardson, the great Bob Hoskins, and most recently by Peter Capaldi, best known as the twelfth Doctor Who. This is not, however, a story about Wilkins Micawber except to say that Hardy’s friends seem to have known her for her incurable optimism.


Sadie says she has her “tongue hung in the middle,” a rather old saying to describe someone who talks too much. She does just that in this rather newsy letter, which includes a barrage of Antiochians’ names that took no small effort to identify. In paragraph three, she recounts a visit to the nearby village of Clifton, calling the trip “going Maying,” possibly a reference to the May Day Walks once led by first president of the College Horace Mann. The paper mill where she and “Minnie” get on a boat, likely the old Nixon-Hagar Mill at the bottom of Clifton Gorge, was already a ruin by the 1870s, a relic of Clifton’s bygone era as a center of water-powered industry.


Identifying the many people Sadie mentions required multiple sources, including the College Catalog and early directories of alumni and faculty. “Miss Reid,” likely Zella Reid, Oberlin College class of 1867, taught in the Antioch Preparatory Department and later became principal of San Diego Public Schools; Irene most certainly refers to Adelaide Hardy’s sister, a student in the 1860s who became a teacher in California; “Minnie,” most commonly a diminutive for Mary, might have been Mary Beals, class of 1874; Sadie’s “gallant,” Edmund Van Tuyl, attended 1871-1872; “Dudie” Mills might have been Julia Mills, 1864-1871; Francis McGarry was class of 1872; Fanny Tucker Beal was also class of 1872; The identity of “Mrs. L” remains a mystery; Hannah Schenck attended 1870-1871 and married S. Augustus Forbush, 1867-1871; Jeanette “Jennie” Jones, 1866-1871, married Everett Bailey, 1866-1871; “Nettie” was likely Jeanette M. Marsh, 1867-1869; Mr. Samuel Derby taught Literature and would go on to be president of Antioch College and later president of The Ohio State University; Eunice Ransom was a student 1870-72; Of the many Chamberlains who went to Antioch, Sadie probably refers to Morton or William, 1869-78 and1867-78, respectively; Augustus Studybaker attended 1866-71; Without the Faculty Meeting minutes of the 1870s, which did not survive, the reasons for the expulsions  of Ai J. Clemons (1869-1872), James Speed, (1867-72), and the unidentifiable “Budd” cannot be determined; William H. Scudder attended 1866-70; Holden was possibly George Holden, 1869-72; Mr. Murphy, who “sports a plug hat,” was John P. Murphy, 1867-71, who became a judge in Cincinnati; Anna “Annie” Bickford was enrolled 1869-75. 




Antioch May 21st 1872


My dearest “Micawber”,

Here I am settled in my rocking chair for a lengthy talk with you by pen, pity a woman has to resort to anything else when her tongue is “hung in the middle” for the special purpose of talking, isn’t it? Perhaps you’ll think my pen goes at both ends before I get through however. You are a bad girl to say what you did about Miss Reid – she wrote two letters to Irene and got no answer so concluded she had not the right address. I did not tell her what you said to find this out, so don’t mind.


Minnie said the other day that she meant to write to you but she did not get time. You don’t know Addie how worn out she is. The first of last week she could not go into school at all and she isn’t well at all. She is thin and has lost a good deal of her old love for fun. Don’t let her know that I wrote this, but I do feel so sorry to see her so. She is going East and her sewing alone is enough to worry her let alone her studies. I hope she will get finely recruited up this summer. She spoke about your piece for her paper last night and I hope you’ll surely write it, my dear. How I wish that you could be here next Commencement! Wouldn’t we have some good talks though, but I’ll try to be patient till next Fall when the “good time is coming.”


You and Minnie and I will be together just as we used to be – and my sister Ruth is coming too, you will like her I know. I shall have to go way back to find any news. The great event of the term was the 3rd as a holiday to go Maying in. We went to Clifton, did just as we always do. While we were eating dinner a shower came up and after that we went home stopping at the paper mill on our way and getting the boat for a sail up the river; we arrived safe and sound at six oclock. My gallant on this gay and festive transfer was no less a personage than “Frosty” , (Mr. Van Tuyl).


I didn’t know him much so to start a conversation asked him if he knew you:

He replied – not very well but——-that he liked you!!!!! How is that? He was right sensible and smart and of course I enjoyed the walk. The next day Minnie and I went to Springfield. I got a white dress – Victoria lawn, a green tie and garters to boot. Minnie got shoes, hat and had her teeth filled. We got some cream cakes for our dinner, walked out into the country and sat down in a ditch to eat them. Wasn’t that dreadful? Dudie Mills was up here not long ago – she looks real well and expects a place in the Xenia high school next year. Mr. McGarry was down also, he is in a bookstore in Springfield, had made up all his senior year except the fall term in vacation so of course graduates.


Fannie Tucker grows prettier every day. She has a lovely white organdie being made for Commencement. Mrs. L- takes the same Interest in us interesting lambs that she always did.  Did you know that Hannah Schenck and Mr. Forbush are engaged? He has left me!  Yea Verily!!!


They say too that Jennie Jones is engaged to Mr. Bailey. Nettie Marsh is married. Mr. Derby and Ransome seem to like single blessedness pretty well; at least they aren’t married yet. Mr. Chamberlin has dropped out of the course, is devoting his talents to science I believe. Mr. Studybaker is at home, was here the last term but has greatly changed. He has been sick and almost crazy so that he seemed so much weaker than he used to. Mr. Clemons, Mr. Speed and “Budd” were the boys expelled. Holden was very devoted to Fannie. Mr. Scudder was here Sunday – I guess Jennie does not go out much. Mr. Murphy has been around too, sports a plug hat and makes quite a dash, is studying law in Cincinnati. I haven’t heard from Mattie for a long time. Annie Bickford writes often and is having a pleasant time at home. We have been having some nice experiments in Physics this week. Only four weeks more and won’t I rejoice! How does your school prosper and when is it out? Tell me all about your sisters. My essay for the Crescent anniversary weighs on my mind and I suppose I’ll have to let it weigh. I forgot to tell you, we had such a good debate last Friday on a reform in Woman’s dress. The boys were not admitted and it was thorough & earnest. I wish you had been here. Next week for variety, we are to read “As you like it.”  The Adelphs have adjourned till Fall and the stars ad infinitum. I guess. Lazy creature! Addie my Darling Ich muss zum Bette gehen.


Good night. With oceans of love – Sadie


Write soon


Songs from the Stacks: Letter to the Central Committee of the Ohio Convention of Colored Freemen

 by Scott Sanders, Antiochiana.

State and National Colored Conventions were held from the 1840s to the 1890s. This illustration from Harper's Weekly depicts the National Colored Convention in Session at Washington, D.C, 1869.

State and National Colored Conventions were held from the 1840s to the 1890s. This illustration from Harper’s Weekly depicts the National Colored Convention in Session at Washington, D.C, 1869.


In January 1852, an organization called the Colored Freemen of Ohio met at a convention in Cincinnati to decide the question posed most notably by Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” It was just the latest in a series of Colored Conventions going back to 1830, in which black civic leaders discussed a whole host of issues relating to the future prospects of African Americans, and how to deal with them. Chief among a host of issues was the burgeoning “Colonization Movement,” an effort to “repatriate” free blacks to Africa, behind which there were many motivations. Led by the American Colonization Society, some of its adherents were abolitionists who felt that freemen would never gain real equality in the US, while others came from a distinctly proslavery perspective, seeing free blacks as fuel for their greatest fear: slave rebellion.


The Colored Conventions almost unanimously opposed colonization. The Cincinnati meeting, held at Union Baptist Church (the oldest black congregation in the city), roundly condemned it a “wicked system” and resolved their opposition “soul and body to the African Colonization scheme.” Number 26 of over thirty resolutions passed at the convention states that opposition most emphatically: “That we claim our rights at the hands of this government, not only because we are native born American citizens, but because our ancestors and ourselves have contributed to the wealth, honor, liberty, prosperity and independence.” Many present and their ancestors had undoubtedly made those contributions as slaves as well as citizens, and they weren’t about to give up their stake a nation they’d helped to build.


Letters solicited from prominent men of an antislavery outlook were read at the Convention, including one from Horace Mann, Whig representative to Congress of Massachusetts and not yet the first president of Antioch College. They were asked to share their views on the future of African Americans as Americans, and true to his most verbose form, Mann’s was the longest one contributed, described in the minutes as “able, argumentative, and full of advice.” 


The minutes also say that the letter, which was read aloud to the delegates, was “received with a round of applause.” Nonetheless, Mann took some heat for it. Drawing no doubt upon his own classical education, not to mention the latest scientific inquiry, much of what he says would now be characterized as scientific racism. Based on a host of social evolution theories more anthropological than biological, practically any of the works Mann might have read on race would have been thoroughly Eurocentric, and pseudoscientific at best  by modern standards. To learn more about the history of the Colored Conventions, visit the Colored Conventions Project online at


Cover page to the published minutes of the convention held in Cincinnati in 1852.

Cover page to the published minutes of the convention held in Cincinnati in 1852.


Mann to Theodore Parker: The enclosed correspondence explains itself, as they say; only that my letter is so misprinted, from the middle onwards, as to make worse nonsense than I did. You will see the New Bedford people are in a rage. I have allowed the colored race superiority of the affections and sentiments—the upper part of man’s nature; but they want the intellect, too. As for their “demon” of colonization, I did not hint at it.


Letter to the Central Committee of the Ohio Convention of Colored Freemen, 21 Dec 1851

You are pleased to ask my views ‘as regards the present position and future prospects of the colored race in this country.’

You submit to me a great problem. Its terms include the colored population alone. But I presume you would not exclude from contemplation the welfare of the white race, so far as that can be promoted by a full regard for the rights of the blacks. Fortunately, however, I believe there is no real conflict of interest between the races. The eternal laws of justice and right would promote the welfare of both. If either resists these laws, it will deserve, and must ultimately receive, an avenging retribution. 

In the first place, I think it neither probably nor desirable that the African race should die out and leave that part of the earth to which they are native and indigenous to the Caucasian or any of the other existing races. There are vegetable and animal races which we may lawfully desire to see supplanted by other kinds of vegetable and animal growths; nay, there are tribes of the human family whose existence we may not wish to see continued, provided always that they dwindle and retire in a natural way, and without exercise of violence or injustice to expel them from the earth. But writers on the characteristics of different races of men ascribe to the African many of the most desirable qualities belonging to human nature. As compared with the Caucasian race, they are indeed supposed to be less inventive, to have less power for mathematical analysis, and less adaptation for abstruse investigation generally, are less enterprising, less vigorous, and are less defiant of obstacles. But, on the other hand, there is great unanimity in according to them a more cheerful, joyous and companionable nature, greater fondness and capacity for music, a keener relish for whatever, in their present state of development, may be regarded as beauty, and a more quick, enduring and exalted religious affection. The blacks, as a race, I believe to be less aggressive and predatory than the whites, more forgiving, and generally not capable of the white man’s tenacity and terribleness of revenge. In fine, I suppose the almost universal opinion to be, that in intellect the blacks are inferior to the whites; while in sentiment and affection, the whites are inferior to the blacks. 

Under these natural conditions, may not the blacks develop as high a state of civilization as the whites? Or, what is perhaps the better question, may not independent nations of each race be greatly improved by the existing independent nations of the other? I believe so.

I believe there is a band of territory around the earth on each side of the equator, which belongs to the African race. Their Creator adapted their organizations to its climate. The commotions of the earth have jostled many of them out of place; but they will be restored to it when reason and justice shall succeed to the terrible guilt and passions that displaced them.

Do not these considerations bear directly and strongly upon the great question, as your letter expresses it, ‘of future prospects of the colored race in this country’—that is, as I understand you, the colored race, both bond and free? I think they do. While therefore, it is our duty to do whatever we can to ameliorate the condition of the colored people among us, and especially to resist the pro-slavery action of ambitious politicians and of the General Government, it is your duty to project some broad and comprehensive plan, and devote all your energies to its execution, which shall look to the ultimate redemption and elevation, within the shortest practical period, of your brethren in bondage, ‘in this country,’ and throughout the globe. Gird yourselves for this work. Seek for wealth as a means of education, advancement and influence; build yourselves up as far as possible into a condition of independence; let your hearts be penetrated with the moral and religious fervor which belongs to a good and holy cause, and may God bless your endeavors.

Very truly yours,

Horace Mann


Horace Mann, who was invited to address the convention on the present position and future prospects of the colored race in this country.

Horace Mann, who was invited to address the convention on the present position and future prospects of the colored race in this country.

Honor Code

Antioch College is a community dedicated to the search for truth, the development of individual potential, and the pursuit of social justice. In order to fulfill our objectives, freedom must be matched by responsibility.

As a member of the Antioch College Community, I affirm that I will be honest and respectful in all my relationships, and I will advance these standards of behavior in others.

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