Africatown, Ohio: The Building of a Black Community
The total population of Dayton, Ohio in 1829 was approximately 2,356 people. Eighty-six were Black residents that included the Davis’, Broady’s and other brave souls. Black residents were tolerated, in small numbers, to provide services. Viewed as necessary laborers, many engineered canals that ushered in a population explosion, growing the city’s Black populace as well.
The oppressed created and built a community called Africatown, a place to seek refuge and to temporarily insulate, where they acquiesced to voluntarily segregate, to live! Africatown was located in Seely’s Ditch, the city’s wasteland.
Land in a once discarded part of the city had made a startling come back. An area that had been a basin, a ditch for the city’s runoff of sewage and other filthy things. An area that was deemed a wasteland, unlivable had blossomed into a
community for many of the city’s Black residents.
Africatown had been transformed by the same inventive Black men responsible for building the canals that caused the city’s population to more than double in just over ten years. The city’s prominent white men now coveted this rehabilitated land and were lurking, poised to take it.
Pro-Slavery Sentiment or Jealousy?
The redevelopment of Africatown spawned a devilish series of attacks by what was called, “the city’s pro slavery element.” The Dayton community was haunted by a series of pro slavery mob attacks which produced a real atmosphere of distrust among the city’s Black citizenry.
This sporadic terrorism was sometimes precipitated by well intentioned prominent abolitionist speakers like Rev. Alexander Rankin. His brother, John Rankin operated the famed Underground Railroad in Ripley, Ohio. And James Birney, editor and publisher of the antislavery newspaper, The Philanthropist. Printing presses were twice smashed, still the paper published from 1836 to 1843.
From Log Homes to Brick Buildings
From log homes to brick and mortar, Charity Davis Ceaser, watched the village become a city. The child-bride of Randolph Ceaser was widowed early in her young life and years of struggle ensued. She worked as a washerwoman to support herself and her young sons John Davis and Charles Ceasar while also assisting Dr. Hibbard Jewitt.
After the death of her first husband, she became the wife of a prominent Dayton barber, John Broady whose brothers operated a carriage line. And as Black women did and do, Charity continued to work while also participating in her civic, Underground Railroad activities, sometimes crossing paths with Isabella Bomfree.
Angry mobs attack abolitionists
In the late 1830’s, abolitionists gatherings were often held at the Union Meetinghouse and speakers were hosted by Dr. Jewitt. In 1837, Birney was in the city to debate the merits of African repatriation of America’s enslaved. Finding themselves locked out of the scheduled Baptist church, there was a hasty change of venue to the Union Meetinghouse.
The space quickly drew a large crowd eager to hear the merits of recolonization dispelled and exposed as racist in its intent by someone who once promoted the concept of a return to Africa as a means of eventual emancipation.
The Meetinghouse began to fill to capacity but was interspersed with terrorists. A pro slavery mob mingled with the enlightened and began pelting rotten eggs and assaulting the crowd. Birney was shielded, rushed out a back exit and smuggled through the night streets to the home of Dr. Jewitt.
Jewitt, a Dartmouth graduate, settled in Dayton in 1828. He was an outspoken man of small stature who quickly became known for his open hostility towards slavery. The hostility was reciprocated. The doctor wrote a Montgomery county official in January 1837 to report attacks on his house guest Birney, the Jewett family, and their home (see below).
You probably have heard how Mr. Bernie and those assembled, a few weeks sense, to hear him were treated, and that for the sin of lodging him, had my house assailed, the windows broken, and my furniture and family bespattered with rotten eggs, and my life threatened in case I should ever shelter him or any other abolition lecturer. I confess that as much as I love property and my family, I love the right of free discussion more and will no sooner yield my life or see my country deluged in blood than relinquish it.
Dr. Hibbard Jewitt
Threatened, But Not Deterred
The city’s loosely organized abolitionist were not deterred. A month later another anti-slavery speaker was invited. Rev. Alexander Rankin was set to give two speeches in Dayton at the Union Meetinghouse. The topic on Sunday, February 12, 1837 was,“The Bible argument on the subject of Slavery.” Monday’s topic: “The Remedy for Slavery.”
Rev. Rankin arrived in the city and was hosted in the home of Dr. Jewitt. They dined on ivory tablecloths washed and pressed by Charity in preparation for the special visit. The Sunday dinner table talk was celebratory. The success of the day’s speech was not just that it was well attended but that it was uneventful in the wake of the previous week’s event. However, Monday’s topic, “The remedy for Slavery” could be incendiary.
Rev. Rankin retired that evening hopeful. He wiped his furrowed brow with a cotton towel, then laid his head to rest on crisp white linen all washed, fluffed, pressed and prepared by Charity’s hands.
Abolitionist Met With Hostility in Dayton
But Monday was not Sunday.
Rev. Rankin stopped by John Broady's barbershop for a cut, shave and to test more or less test the waters as they
say. Through the window he saw some of the city’s more prominent white citizens who Birney had sarcastically once described as, “Gentlemen of property and standing.” The same men who organized Dayton’s pro slavery mobs.
Rev. Rankin entered the shop offering a rugged, pastoral, “Good Morning to all,” but was greeted with silence with Broady returning the only salutation.
The Rankin family were well known allies committed to ending slavery. The homestead of John Rankin, brother of Alexander, was situated high a top a hill in the city of Ripley, Ohio over looking the Ohio River. A light would be placed in a window of the home at night to signal safe passage to those escaping the horrors of the American slave trade.
Rankin worked with John Parker, himself formerly enslaved, and who became an inventor and businessman. Parker was responsible for heroic night rescues through the Hocking Hills and valleys to lead the enslaved toward freedom.
The Rankin’s and the courageous John Parker worked together to guide over two thousand to freedom. The Firewatchers
So, when Rev. Rankin entered the Union Meetinghouse that Monday, his reputation preceded him. Rankin approached the lectern, his pulpit of the day, hesitant but determined. He had been assured by his sponsors that these rabble-rousers were more talk than action. The mob inside the meetinghouse attempted to shout Rankin down, hurling threats and insults to which he responded with fiery admonitions. Slowly the agitators began to leave but curiously continued to congregate in front of the meetinghouse, eliciting no sense of security.
In an instant the mob burst back into the Union Meetinghouse throwing rotten eggs, breaking windows, benches and chairs. Rankin was snatched from the stage, dragged through the riotous crowd and beaten. Somehow he was rescued then secretly taken to Dr. Jewett.
The Union Meetinghouse was overrun-trashed!
The mob then turned their anger directly on the Black community. Several homes of Black residents were looted and burned. The homesteads that neighbored the Broady’s were those of European immigrants who were unsettled and frightened at what might happen next. Throughout the night, the families of sons and brothers watched their roofs. The businesses, barns, stables and homes of the Broady brothers Abraham, Issac, Jacob, John and Ason.
It was that night the “Firewatchers” were loosely formed lest they be burned while they slept. A group of Black women united, pooled their resources to provide aid, to rescue their neighbors victimized by rage. It would take a week for Rev. Rankin to recover from injuries sustained at the hands of a pro slavery mob while speaking at the Union Meetinghouse on February 13, 1837, in Dayton Ohio.
Hidden and covertly cared for by Dr. Jewett, his reluctant associate Dr. John Steele, and likely a trusted and very pregnant nurse, Charity Broady. When he was healthy enough for travel, Rankin was secreted from the area like the escaped
enslaved he and his family often aided. 1841: The Prelude
January 3, and February 13, 1837, were two of nearly eighteen pro slavery mob attacks throughout Ohio in the 1830’s.
Then came January 1841 where three days of meetings of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention were held in Columbus. Dayton area abolitionists who attended were motivated, galvanized. The city had been relatively quite some four years since the attacks on Rankin led to the burning of several homes of Dayton’s hard working Black citizens.
Aside from the customary, intimidating discrimination and isolated incidents of neighborly terrorism, things seemed quiet to these allies. They were inspired to invite Thomas Morris to speak at the courthouse. Unaware or apathetic to what had been brewing in the Black community, the invitation was extended to this controversial speaker poised to lecture on the volatile subject of "The effects of slavery above the morals, the policy and finances of the country."
On the next episode of The Legacy of Charity's Children...
A mysterious guest blows into Africatown around New Years, 1841, and stays at the Paul Pry Resort causing tongues to wag all over town....
Stayed tuned for Episode 5, "The Legacy of Charity’s Children: Africatown!" Drops February 23 available wherever you get your podcast.