Centre College During the
Antebellum Era and the Civil War
By Laura Garrett
Centre never owned slaves, but did use slaves by hiring them from their owners. Slaves are twice mentioned in a student newspaper created in 1864, and although it is unclear whether these were slaves who worked at Centre or elsewhere, their mention demonstrates the familiarity that Centre students had with slaves while in school1. Financial ledgers from 1824 through 1853 show that Centre hired slaves from the Cowan family and Centre president Gideon Blackburn on a task-by-task basis to do chores such as chopping wood, washing, and janitorial services. Slaves were also hired from their masters to work full-time at the school. One man who did such work was Harrison Wickliffe, a Kentuckian who was born a slave but was a free man by middle age.
Harrison was born between 1812 and 1816, likely under the ownership of U.S. Representative Charles A. Wickliffe, of Lexington. He was sold to the Crittenden family at a young age, and came to be owned by Centre president John C. Young when Young married Cornelia Crittenden in 18392. Young rented Harrison to the college to work as a janitor and groundskeeper, but by 1850, Young had apparently set Harrison free as he did others of his slaves. After gaining his freedom, Harrison, his wife Casina, and their children Beatty, Joseph, and George Ann continued to live in a house that they rented from the college. Meanwhile Harrison's oldest son, Rowan, enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry as a boatman in 1863, and was eventually promoted to full corporal.
Harrison continued working as a janitor and painter at Centre for an annual salary of $150 until 1870. He then became self-employed as a house painter while his sons Beatty and Joseph worked as hotel waiters, perhaps at the Gilcher Hotel, where the Hub Coffee House now stands. In January 1893, a widower at age 81, Harrison moved to Chicago to live with Joseph and Joseph's wife, a white woman named Amelia. Harrison died in 1905.
1 The student newspaper was "Hoots from the Pine Woods Owl," written in December 1864. The two stories of African American slaves are of "Ben the Ethiope," who was attacked while delivering a basket of food at the request of Centre students, and an unnamed woman who writes about being distracted by the other servants (it is not entirely clear that she was a slave).
Centre's faculty were strong believers in gradual emancipation, a moderate view that held that while slavery was an evil institution, the immediate liberation of all African Americans would devastate the American economy on account of the overnight disappearance of thousands of unpaid laborers. Further, African Americans who had never before been free would supposedly be unable to support themselves without the aid of their masters. Gradual emancipationists usually freed their slaves once the slaves had reached a certain age, usually in their twenties or thirties.
Robert J. Breckinridge, for whom Breckinridge Hall is named, wrote that gradual emancipation was "good will towards the poor slave, and the desire, earnest and sincere, to do him good as fast and as effectively as it can be done, and he is prepared to receive and enjoy it....[Immediate abolition] seems to be, as far as charity can even judge, not so much love to the slave as hate to the slaveholder." Breckinridge and his gradualist compatriots at Centre were themselves slaveholders: Breckinridge owned more than 21 slaves who worked on his hemp plantation near Danville.
|Two Black Women Hanging Laundry on a Fence in Tuskegee, Alabama|
photograph by Clifton Johnson (1865-1940)
in Clifton Johnson Collection, Item #259
This photo shows two African American women hanging laundry in 1902. Centre never owned slaves, but did sometimes hire enslaved African American to do chores such as washing laundry, chopping wood, painting fences, and kitchen work.
|Harrison Wickliffe's Family Tree|
created May 2013 by Laura Garrett
This family tree shows the descendents of Harrison Wickliffe, an African American man who worked - both while enslaved and free - on Centre's campus as a janitor. His son Rowan and Rowan's wife Alice moved to Hutchinson, Kansas, at the end of the nineteenth century; most of Harrison's grandchildren were born in Hutchinson. Although there is a Wickliffe family living in Hutchinson presently, it is not believed that they are related to Harrison.
|Hoots from the Pine Woods Owls|
underground Centre student newspaper
This illustration of an African American woman accompanied a narrative supposedly written by the woman, in which she describes how she is distracted from writing because of the antics of other African American workers in the house (it is unclear whether they were enslaved or free servants). The illustration's caption reads "I seem to hear the everlasting jangle of my keys."
|Interior Journal (Stanford, Ky.)|
December 18, 1884
The article reads "A two story frame dwelling on Fourth Street opposite the Jail [where the Subway by the courthouse currently stands], the property of a colored man named Harrison Wickliffe, caught fire from sparks from an adjoining chimney Sunday evening about 11 o'clock. The roof was nearly burned off and the upper story badly damaged before the fire was subdued. Loss about $300. No insurance."
|Olive Branch (Danville, Ky.)|
"Excerpts and notes from the Olive Branch of 1825," in Kentucky Advocate, Danville, Ky., January 7, 1893
In January 1893 the Danville newspaper mentioned that Harrison Wickliffe had moved to Chicago - presumably shortly before the article was written. "Before our venerable colored citizen, Mr. Harrison Wickliffe (who will be long remembered as the former efficient and respected Professor of Dust and Ashes in Centre College), left us for Chicago, he placed in our hands a part of a part of 'The Olive Branch.'" It is unknown how the pages of The Olive Branch came into Harrison's possession.
For the slave-owning Centre professors, faculty, and presidents, gradual emancipation went hand in hand with the project of colonization in Liberia. The Kentucky Colonization Society began in 1828 with the goal of transporting freed African American Kentuckians to the West African colony. The spirit of the colonization project was not just of benevolence towards former slaves. In an 1833 speech given to the Society, John C. Young expressed a common fear among whites that the number of free blacks would increase greatly; colonization eased that fear by removing free blacks from America.
Several African Americans with Centre connections were present on the first Kentucky Colonization Society voyage to Liberia in 1833. A ship called the Ajax carried two freed slaves of Gideon Blackburn, former President of Centre, and two freed slaves of John C. Young. Cholera broke out onboard only days after the Ajax set sail, and the ship was forced to stop in the Caribbean Islands, where nearly forty of the emigrants died. Both of the people that Young had sent - a young woman and her son - died of cholera upon arrival in Liberia, as did one of the people that Blackburn had sent.
|The area on the map marked "Kentucky (Clay-Ashland)" denotes the forty-square mile portion of Liberia purchased by the Kentucky Colonization Society in 1846. "Kentucky in Africa" is where African Americans from Kentucky who were sent to Liberia were destined to make their new home. In the first voyage sent to Liberia from Kentucky (aboard the brig Ajax in 1834), the Kentuckians landed in Monrovia, although many of them never made it to Clay-Ashland: most died of cholera will en route or immediately after landing on the coast. Two people freed by Centre President John C. Young - Alvina Jones and her son James - died on the coast, as well as Clara Blackburn, a woman freed by Centre President Gideon Blackburn.|
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