August 2009 Issue
Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, remembers Benjamin Lundy, a pioneer of the abolitionist movement.
Most Ohioans who know a little about our state’s rich history are probably aware of the Underground Railroad and abolition movement here, along with the locales well-known for playing a prominent part: Oberlin, Ripley, Wilberforce, Cincinnati and so on.
Most of those same well-educated folks have probably never heard, however, of Mt. Pleasant.
Nor do they likely know about its most prominent, important resident, one Benjamin Lundy.
Lundy, however, is one of those remarkable figures who make digging deeper into history well worth the trouble, one of those men and women who have a major impact on their time, but who end up lost to the memory of later generations. Benjamin Lundy’s claim to fame? He was one of the earliest true pioneers of the American abolition movement. He edited and published the first newspaper in America that was devoted entirely to the anti-slavery cause, and is the man who drafted others to the cause who became much better known than he. Lundy may be little known today, compared to such luminaries as Douglass, Garrison, Tubman and Stowe, because he died long before the Civil War, and never lived to see, or receive credit for, the results of his efforts.
But they remember him in Mt. Pleasant.
“Many [towns] had a home, or a church, or a place that was used by the escaping slaves,” says Sherry Sawchuk, president of the Mt. Pleasant Historical Society, whose village of 525 has tried hard to preserve itself in a way that Lundy would have recognized. What sets Mt. Pleasant apart, she says, is that the entire town participated in the Underground Railroad. “This whole area was thick with Quakers, and unless the marshal or the slave catcher was here, the slaves who were here could be happily outdoors.
“We’re real proud of all this.”
At the heart of it all was Lundy, who was born in New Jersey in 1789 and, after working his family’s farm, ended up following westward opportunities and moving as a young man to Wheeling, West Virginia (then Virginia) — a slave territory just across the Ohio River from the anti-slavery sentiments of Ohio. He was 19 when he arrived, and was horrified by what he saw of the slave trade as it flourished in the key port city. “His shock at seeing Negro men, women and children chained together for sale in the Wheeling slave market — walking barefoot in mud and snow under the force of men with bullwhips” changed his life forever, according to biographer Thomas Earle. So moved was the young man from New Jersey that he resolved to devote his life to doing something to change the awful conditions he had seen.
He moved in 1811 to Mt. Pleasant, a fairly new Jefferson County village about 15 miles from the Ohio River that had been settled by North Carolina Quakers. There, he set up a trade as a saddle-maker with his brother-in-law, and in 1815 married Esther Lewis, a Quaker woman from the village.
Over the next few years, Lundy moved back and forth between Mt. Pleasant and St. Clairsville, about 10 miles south in Belmont County, where he set up his own saddler business. Between 1815 and 1820, Lundy’s abolitionist thinking sharpened — especially when he moved for a while to St. Louis, where the debate was heavy over whether Missouri should join the Union as a Slave state, or a Free one. When the Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed slavery in the new state, Lundy was among those who were angry and disappointed.
He moved back to Mt. Pleasant and grew close to Charles Osborn, a Quaker minister from Tennessee who published his anti-slavery views in a weekly paper, The Philanthropist. It was one of the first in the country to start beating the drum that would in a few years become a clamor.
The Philanthropist, however, was about a lot of things — Osborn wrote about and weighed in rather broadly on many of the progressive issues of the day, from rights for Native Americans to women’s suffrage.
The man who gets credit for publishing the first newspaper in the United States that devoted itself exclusively to fighting the evils of slavery is Lundy. In 1821, he drew upon all his experiences and strong beliefs with a paper whose name, today, sounds both extravagant and strange: The Genius of Universal Emancipation.
But think about the words in the title: To live in a world in which everyone was free would be brilliant. Genius. At that time, nearly unimaginable. Lundy’s paper, initially a monthly and soon a weekly, was so ahead of the national conversation on slavery that it drew few subscribers even in the abolitionist hotbed of southern Ohio. He started traveling around the nation publishing and lecturing, visiting Tennessee, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois, Canada and Haiti.
Lundy spent the rest of his life agitating and speaking against slavery and slaveholders, and looking for ways in which blacks might reclaim the dignity that slavery had taken from them.
He achieved great results, especially after recruiting William Lloyd Garrison, who helped Lundy edit the paper in Maryland beginning in 1829, and went on to become one of the nation’s greatest, fieriest abolitionists. Lundy also met serious personal difficulties: He was beaten and badly injured by a slave owner in Baltimore, and his property was burned by a pro-slavery mob in Philadelphia.
Lundy died of a fever in Illinois in 1839 — 22 years before the start of the conflict that would settle the great matter to which he devoted his life. Horace Greeley, the most influential newspaper editor of the mid-19th century, called Lundy “the first of our countrymen who devoted his life and all his powers to the cause of the slaves.” That countless others followed in his steps speaks to his lasting impact on our nation.
Today, the town in which he began his work still remembers him, and tries to preserve a sense of the place he knew.
Sawchuk, the historical society president, is a big part of that effort. When Lundy lived there, Mt. Pleasant was a bustling, striving little town that saw itself on the way up and even boasted John Gills’ thriving silk mill, which Sawchuk says was the first in the United States. Over time, however, the village’s distance from the Ohio River, to which it was connected by a plank road, limited its fortunes.
But the lack of growth, Sawchuk says, “worked in our favor on the preservation end of it,” by which she means that today, the village boasts a small central historic district that remains much as Lundy and his friends would have remembered.
The main thoroughfare of Union Street and all the buildings along it, dating before 1860, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2005. The Yearly Friends Meeting House, which holds 2,000 people and was built in 1814, is right off Union at 298 Market St. An older Quaker church is nearby. There are the Tin Shop, from 1848, a log cabin, the Burriss general store and numerous Underground Railroad hiding-place homes. The Historical Center, managed by Sawchuk and her volunteers, is at 346 Union and tells the village’s story.
“Our town’s not perfect, believe me,” she says, “but most people keep their places up. And we’re not rebuilt, not Disney. We’re the real deal. We do get publicity for being historic, and people really are surprised when they visit.”
The house where Lundy lived dates to 1813, a two-story brick row house that’s now painted gray. There’s a historical marker out front that speaks to the famous occupant and mentions that from 1848 to 1857, the house was also the site of one of America’s first Free Stores, in which only goods made with non-slave labor were sold. Sadly, despite its landmark status, the house is in serious disrepair and isn’t open to the public. Sawchuk hopes it will be bought by someone with the means to restore it.
Meanwhile, she does what she can to keep Lundy’s spirit and story alive. “We don’t have something like the Rankin House,” she says of the famous Underground Railroad beacon on the Ohio River in Ripley, “and our town is overlooked because we’re so small and out of the way. But we’ve been telling our story since 1948, and we’re real proud of our history.”
Lundy, she adds, “was truly a giant among anti-slavery activists, and he lived in Mt. Pleasant twice.
“Unfortunately, since he died so long before Emancipation, he tends to get overlooked.”