Teaching Cleveland

Lesson 6

Abolitionism in Cleveland

Two factors contributed to the strong abolitionist bent in Cleveland: the legacy of anti-slavery Puritan New England and the close proximity of the city to the shore of Canada across Lake Erie. In the early days of abolitionism the policy most popular was that of colonization. This belief in the inability of African-Americans and white Europeans to exist side by side in the same society, supported the emancipation and subsequent relocation of slaves to Africa. Some local abolitionists supported the immediate emancipation of slaves, but did not openly advocate colonization. Using mailed political tracts and itinerant lecture agents, the local colonization societies sought to stir up an angry mob against the evils of slavery. Clevelanders met these actions, for the most part, with indifference.

In 1837 the first chapter of the American-Anti-Slavery Society was established in Cleveland. The society had little impact and quickly disappeared. The abolitionist movement among the students and professors of Oberlin College had far greater impact and the college became the center for abolitionism and other reform movements in the Western Reserve.

Perhaps of more importance were the reactions of Clevelanders to fugitive slaves and the laws which demanded their return to the South. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 galvanized the community to action. Several incidents in which Clevelanders attempted to "save" fugitive slaves from being returned to the South occurred prior to the Civil War. The most famous of these were the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue in 1859 and the trial of Lucy Bagby in 1860.

Several African-Americans in the Cleveland community were active in the abolitionist movement. John Malvin, an Ohio Canal boatman and African-American civic leader, supported efforts to move fugitive slaves to freedom in Canada. But he was in the minority. Most Africa-Americans in Cleveland, while they supported the abolition of slavery, also supported the policy of emigration. This policy was a form of black nationalism reinforced by a new awareness of African culture and civil and social discrimination in the North. This policy quickly gained favor among African-Americans.

Cleveland had a relatively peaceful record of racial harmony, due in large part to the actions of its African-American citizens, who stressed the importance of aiding those fugitives who found themselves in the Western Reserve on their way to Canada.

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