Pioneer days in Kansas

Chapter 8

The Contrabands

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LAWRENCE was settled as a Free State town and soon became recognized as the headquarters of the Free State movement. As a result it was the center of proslavery hate, and at the same time the center of hope to the slaves across the border. The colored people of Missouri looked to it as a sort of "city of refuge," and when any of them made a "dash for freedom," they usually made Lawrence their first point. It was on the direct line to the north pole, even if it did lie to the west of them. When the war broke out in 1861, the slaves on the border took advantage of it to make sure of their freedom, whatever might be the result of the conflict. They did not wait for any proclamation, nor did they ask whether their liberation was a war measure or a civil process. The simple question was whether they could reach the Kansas line without being overtaken. They took Paul's advice "If thou mayst be free, choose it rather." They


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"chose it rather." Those within reach of the border lost no time in crossing it. A large number found their way to Lawrence. They did not know much of geography, but they had three points fixed in their minds- Lawrence, Canada, and the north pole. As Lawrence was the nearest of the three, they came there first. They were not so fortunate as the Israelites when they fled from Egypt, and were not able to "borrow" of their masters to any large extent. They were most of them very destitute, and had little idea what they should do beyond escaping from bondage. They came by scores and hundreds, and for a time it seemed as if they would overwhelm us with their numbers and their needs. But they were strong and industrious, and by a little effort work was found for them, and very few, if any of them, became objects of charity. They were willing to work and they were able to live on little, and the whole community of freed slaves was soon able to take care of itself.

But it was soon evident that they needed help in other directions than that of securing a livelihood. They were mostly ignorant, only now and then one being able to read. In slavery no one was permitted to learn# it being a crime to


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teach a slave to read. We could not think of having this multitude with us, and not do something to teach and elevate them. They were very anxious to learn. They had got the impression that there was a connection between liberty and learning. Our public schools would soon provide for the children. But the grown people had no time to attend the public schools, and there was no provision for them in these schools if they had been able to attend them. Mr. S. N. Simpson, who started the first Sunday-school in Lawrence in 1855, and was an enthusiast on Sunday-schools, conceived the idea of applying the Sunday school methods to this problem. He proposed a night school where these people could have free instruction. There was no money to pay teachers, and he proposed that citizens volunteer to teach each evening for a couple of hours. He secured a room and organized a corps of volunteer teachers, mostly ladies, and commenced the school. About a hundred men and women, eager to learn, came to it. They were divided into classes of six or eight, and a teacher placed over each class. The form was that of a Sunday school, but the alphabet and the primer were to be principal things taught. The school


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was a great blessing in every way. The teachers were naturally from among the best people of the town. They were men and women of culture and character and consecration. It brought them in contact with these newcomers, and the interest did not cease with the closing of the session. Many of the colored people got a start in this school which enabled them to learn to read. It gave the teachers also a grand opportunity to furnish their scholars with some intelligent notions of the new life of freedom which they had entered. Besides teaching the lesson, lectures were given on their new duties and their new relations to society.

The general conduct of the school, as well as the method of teaching was on the model of the Sunday school. There was a short devotional service at the opening, and some general exercises at the close. They sang a good deal, and answered certain Bible questions in concert. They sang the old Sunday-school songs, and did so with great zest and unction. A favorite song with them was that quaint old hymn:

"Where, oh, where, is the good old Moses, who led Israel ont of Egypt?"


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The editor of the Lawrence State Journal visited the school one evening,and published an account of it which was very accurate and appreciative. This was in January,1862. The article says:

"Contrabands are becoming one of the institutions of Lawrence. As they break their fetters they very naturally strike out for the center of abolitionism. For some months they have been thickening on our streets, filling and even crowding our few vacant houses and rooms. The question, What shall we do with them? so perplexing in theoretical discussions, has become with us a practical one and must be met at once. General Lane's "Ocean" is not at hand to be let in between the races, and the mingling is inevitable. While many were speculating as to what course to pursue, and insisting that something must be done, several benevolent ladies and gentlemen suggested and carried out the idea of a night school, which should educate these refugees from slavery, and fit them for the freedom they have acquired.

"The school was started on the same principle as our Sabbath schools -one or more taking the general oversight and preserving order, and then


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having the scholars divided into classes large enough to occupy the time of one teacher during the evening. At first the school was held in a small room with only four scholars; but it rapidly increased until the room was full, and then it was moved into the court-house. Our citizens have been very liberal in fitting up the court-house in proper shape, and volunteer teachers have been sufficient to supply the demand. The school is held every night in the week except Saturday. Last Friday evening we visited the school, and it is not often we have seen a more interesting sight. There were present that evening eighty-three scholars and twenty-seven teachers. The court-house was crowded, but we have seldom seen a more orderly school of any kind. Most of these people came among us entirely ignorant even of their letters. They had to begin, like little children, with the alphabet. But the earnestness with which they learn is exceedingly interesting. They seem to be straining forward with all their might, as if they could not learn fast enough. One young man who had been to the school only five nights, and began with the alphabet, now spells in words of two syllables. Another, in the same time,


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had progressed so that he could read, quite rapidly, the simple lessons given in the spelling-book. The scholars were of all ages. Here is a class of little girls, eager and restless; there is a class of grown men, solemn and earnest. A class of maidens in their teens contrasts with another of elderly women. But all alike showed the same intentness of application. We were especially pleased with the courteous frankness with which they all answered any questions in reference to their progress. Some who began when the school opened, can now read with some fluency, and were ready to commence with figures.

"The school commences at seven o'clock. After the lessons are finished a short time is spent in singing. Their wild, untutored voices produced a strange but pleasing impression. One of their songs, altered from a familiar Sunday school hymn, seemed peculiarly fitted for the occasion, and they sang it as though they meant it:

"Where, oh, where is the Captain Moses, 
Who led Israel out of Egypt ? 
Safe now in the promised land.' 
"It is worth an evening to see such a sight. Eighty-three scholars just out of bondage, giving themselves intently to study, after working hard


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all day to earn their bread and twenty-seven teachers, some of them our most cultivated and refined ladies and gentlemen, laboring night after night, voluntarily and without compensation, is a sight not often seen."

This long extract, written at the time, will give a more vivid view than any later recollections could give. The editor of the State Journal was Josiah Trask, son of Dr. Trask of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the well-known anti-tobacco apostle. He took a great interest in the school and in the colored people. A little over a year later he became one of the victims of the Quantrill raid. This editorial was written early in January, 1862. The school had then been in operation several weeks.

Work in religious lines was commenced about the same time. A Sunday school was carried on among these people every Sunday; and Sunday services were conducted for them whenever it was possible. The evening services soon outgrew the room in which they were held, and moved over into the Congregational church. Evening after evening that house was filled with an earnest congregation. They seemed to be all of one mind, and no sectarian


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name was mentioned. They had been members of different churches, but all seemed to go together. We began to think that the sectarian divisions which so hinder Christian work among white people did not exist among these colored brethren. We afterward learned our mistake, and found to our sorrow that the millennium was not as near as it seemed. Before the year had passed several of their own ministers appeared, and they divided into various ecclesiastical camps. Most of their preachers were very ignorant, some of them not able to read. But the less they knew the more confident they were, and the more bigoted. We felt that our work was not done, so we kept on with our Sunday school and Sunday evening services. Quite a number of earnest souls clave to us, and after a time desired to be formed into a church. The following account of the forming of the church is found in the Congregational Record, April, 1862:

"On Sabbath evening, March 16, a church was organized among the "Contrabands ' at Lawrence. Only one of those composing the church brought a letter from the church from which he came. His letter was for himself and wife. We


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asked him where his wife was. He said they had sold his wife and children down south before he got away, but he got a letter for both hoping he might find her sometime. All the rest united on profession, although they had been members of churches before. They came away in too much of a hurry to get letters. Their experiences were distinct and very satisfactory. They seemed to understand very clearly the grounds of their hope. One of them said he always thought that if he ever experienced religion he should keep it to himself; he would not go around telling about it. But when he was converted he went right in among the white folks praising God; he could not keep it to himself. They said he was drunk; but he thanked God for such drunkenness as that. His story reminded us of what was said of the apostles on the day of Pentecost: 'These men are full of new wine.'

"This is the only church in Kansas that has a commercial value. The men are fine looking fellows, and in good time would bring fifteen hundred dollars a piece; for piety has a value in the slave market as well as muscle. This Second Congregational Church of Lawrence has a mar-


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et value, therefore, of some twenty thousand dollars." Only one of the sixteen members could read. This was Troy Strode, who was chosen deacon. He was consumptive in his youth and not able to work much. To relieve his loneliness his master allowed him to learn to read, and he made the best of the privilege. He was of great service to the little church, being a good reader, and a good singer, and a man of superior ability. Though his skin was dark he had as finely chiseled features as one often sees. His mind was as fine as his features and in the prayer meeting often he spoke with a poetic touch that was thrilling. He was the main reliance of the church for many years. He was a hard working man, having entirely recovered from the debility of his youth. He was a blacksmith and a good workman, and secured him a home and a good property. Another marked character was Anthony Oldham. He was the one who brought the letter for himself and wife. His wife and family he never found. One daughter came with him and she kept house for him. He could not read, but was well versed in Scripture and had a large


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stock of hard sense. He had been a sort of a preacher among his people and was ready to conduct services for the new church when no other arrangement could be made. Everybody believed in him, and they all listened to him with respect. He was one of the sturdy kind whose convictions were as firm as a rock. He might have been of Puritan stock judging from his character. It was a great loss to the church when he fell a victim to the Quantrill raid.

One of the newspapers of the time gave an account of the dedication of the house of worship erected for these people:

"The 'Freedmen's Church ' of Lawrence was dedicated Sabbath evening, September 28th, 1862. The house was filled with an attentive congregation of 'freedmen' - all lately from bondage, and all neatly dressed as a result of their short experience of free labor. Rev J. W. Fox, of Ridgeway, preached from the text, 'They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat.' The most eloquent passage of the sermon was where the preacher drew a parallel between that old Dutch ship coming up the James River, two hundred and forty years ago, freighted with


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twenty slaves, and the moving of the vast armies of the time up that same river, washing out in blood the crime then inaugurated. That old Dutch ship brought in the first instalment of the accumulating curse that has at last brought our nation to the verge of ruin."

At the conclusion Mr. Fox presented the church with a pulpit Bible which had been sent by a lady in Worcester, Massachusetts, for the " first Freedmen's Church."

The word " contrabands," as used in these extracts, may need a word of explanation, as it has entirely passed out of use in that sense. As soon as the war commenced, slaves began to escape into the free states and into the Union camps. On what ground to hold them was a perplexing question. There had been no declaration of freedom, and the slave laws were still in force. Yet no one could think of sending these slaves back to their masters. General Butler, in whose camp a large number were found, said they were "contraband of war," and set them to work on the Union fortifications. The term at least furnished a convenient name for a class of people whose exact status was not easy to define. For many months they went by the name of "contra-


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bands." After the proclamation of freedom they were very properly called "freedmen."

What occurred at Lawrence was only a specimen of what was happening all along the border. In all the border communities and in all the Union camps the freed slaves made their appearance. The question of their education and of their Christian training became at once a grave one, and has been a serious one ever since. All denominations have entered into the work heartily and it has become recognized as a distinct department of missionary operations. The question can hardly be made too prominent - what we do for these, people, we do for ourselves. They are a part of the nation, and no wish or will of ours can separate them from us; or separate their destiny from ours. We may restrict immigration as we will, but these people are already here. It is of no use to shut the door. They are already in. Dr. Talmage begins one of his lectures with something like this: "The evolutionist has disposed of the question as to where we came from. The restorationist has disposed of the question as to where we are going. It only remains for us to consider that we are here." The negroes are not coming.


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They are here. They will stay here. They are American born. They have been here for more than two hundred and fifty years. They are not going back to Africa. They are not going to South America. They are not going to other parts of our own land. They are going to stay where they are. They are not able to emigrate if they would. We are not able to send them away if we wished. Even if we would and they would, the thing is not possible. It is not possible for eight millions of people to be transported from the land in which they were born, to some land across the seas, or some continent far away. They are to remain; and they are to increase. They are with us and with us to stay. They are to be our neighbors, whatever we may think about it, whatever we may do about it. It is not for us to say whether they shall be our neighbors or not. That has been settled by the providence that has placed them among us. It is only for us to say what sort of neighbors they shall be, and whether we will fulfil our neighborly obligations.