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August 8, 2020

‘They stopped in Oberlin’: Freed slaves from Salisbury made a new life in progressive Ohio village

David Freeze stops at Oberlin

To read about David Freeze’s ride into Oberlin and his discoveries: http://www.salisburypost.com/2015/07/21/david-freeze-immersed-in-history-and-a-short-ride/

SALISBURY — Their names were, well, sort of beautiful — Adeline, Garrison, Marget, Adelaide, Isham, Chelsy, Sally.

They go on and on, and meld into the history of two distinctly different places: Salisbury, N.C., and Oberlin, Ohio.

In Salisbury, they had been slaves and property of well-known merchant, financier and planter Maxwell Chambers. In Ohio. they lived as human beings should, free to build lives on their own terms.

In Oberlin, they became shoemakers, wheelwrights, barbers, students, soldiers, farmers, grocers and gardeners, and over generations, they were part of the fabric of the village, while still carrying Rowan County names such as Chambers, Cowan, Haynes and Torrence.

When David Freeze, the intrepid cyclist from Rowan County stopped in Oberlin Sunday night and part of the day Monday, he brushed against these names and the places they lived and worked.

It was 161 years ago that 18 freed slaves from Salisbury also stopped in Oberlin, and most of these men, women and children went on to make the town their home. Other freed slaves from Salisbury would follow, and it all traces back to Chambers, who although he died in 1855, still casts a significant shadow over things local.

In his will written in January 1854, Chambers included a codicil — No. 32, to be exact — that arranged for the emancipation of “some of my slaves” that coming spring (which came before his death the following year, in 1855).

The key word here is “some,” because Chambers also directed elsewhere in his will that other slaves (“and their increase,” or children they would have in the future) become the property of specific friends and relatives.

In many cases through his will, Chambers was, in his mind, looking after slaves who were older and for whom he held personal sentiment. He mentioned these slaves by name. His will also made arrangements that upon his death, “the remainder of my slaves” previously “not provided for” be given the offer of freedom to go to a free state or Liberia.

If they chose freedom, Chambers directed, they also would be given the same money, clothing and transportation offered to the 18 slaves freed in 1854, as long as they didn’t leave before his plantation crop was in.

With a few additions of commas for clarity, Codicil No. 32 of Chambers’ will read as follows:

“Being desirous to emancipate some of my slaves during the ensuing spring and having concluded to send them to the State of Ohio, I hereby request and direct my executors in case of my death before effecting it, to liberate and release from slavery or involuntary servitude my woman Adeline and all her children, Marget and all her children and Garrison, her husband, also Edwin, Isham Hugh, Chesly, brother(s) of Adeline and Marget, and to furnish them with a complete and plentiful outfit of good clothing and a full supply of provisions for the journey (say three or four weeks), also to hire a sober, steady person with a wagon and a team to take them comfortably to their place of destination, and furnish all those over 12 years old with $60 each, and those under that age with $40 each in such money as will be current in Ohio, the children’s money to be given to their parents.”

Adeline Cowan had six children. Garrison and Marget Chambers (also referred to in subsequent census counts as “Margaret” and “Margrett”) had five children — Adelaide, Warren, Haynes, John Henry and David. Add in the four brothers of Adeline and Marget, who all took the last name “Haynes,” and you have the 18 people who were granted their freedom by Chambers on May 25, 1854.

They were sent on their way to Ohio under the care of a “sober, steady person” named Moses Rimer, who was a shoemaker training Garrison Chambers. In 1860, Isham Haynes took the “freedom paper” issued by Chambers and gave it to the treasurer of Oberlin College for safekeeping, in case there was ever a question.

Copies of that freedom paper ended up with many descendants of the African-American Chambers.

In writing about Maxwell Chambers in 1983, the late George Raynor says the mention of Ohio as a destination for his 18 slaves suggested “that Chambers was familiar with northern areas favorable to the resettlement of freed slaves.”

Oberlin at the time was a station on the Underground Railroad, which helped hide slaves on their way to freedom in Canada. But it also had a reputation as a tolerant community for former slaves who had been given their freedom. Its progressive college was the first American college to go coeducational, the first to graduate women and the first not to refuse black students.

In 1858, Raynor said, a band of Oberlin professors rescued a runaway slave from a U.S. marshal, and they were later imprisoned for doing so. Raynor also theorized Chambers could have been persuaded to grant many of his slaves freedom and send them to Oberlin after having corresponded with John E. Patterson, a free and literate slave in Fayetteville.

Patterson also suggested Liberia as an alternative destination for freed slaves, Raynor said.

In his 1981 book, “They Stopped in Oberlin,” William E. Bigglestone says 48 more of Chambers’ former slaves traveled to Oberlin in 1855 after Maxwell Chambers’ death in February of that year. He also noted they were assisted in the same way as the group of 18 from Salisbury the previous year.

Salisbury historian Betty Dan Spencer recently received a copy of Bigglestone’s book, which was reprinted by the college in 2002.

“The book the man wrote is absolutely fabulous,” she says. “I mean, what an amount of research it took. … It’s extremely interesting.”

Spencer combed through the book looking for all the Salisbury references and found many, tracing back to Maxwell Chambers. According to a foreword in the 2002 reprinting, many freed slaves came to Oberlin to take advantage of educational opportunities offered by the college and because the town already has racially integrated public schools.

Bigglestone, the college’s first archivist, also was the first historian to focus primarily on the town’s black population and why so many were drawn to Oberlin and stayed for protracted visits or to become full-time residents.

The book includes 300 biographical sketches of African-Americans who were born and reared during the era of slavery and who for long and short periods between 1840 and 1900 made Oberlin their home. Included are Garrison and Marget Chambers, William Sanford Chambers, Adeline Cowan, Henry and Lucy Chambers, Richard Chambers, Warren and Mary Chambers, James Cowan, Martha Jane Cowan Griffin and Scipio and Eveline Torrence.

Garrison Chambers and one of his sons, William, might be among the better known in Oberlin history.

Garrison Chambers was an Oberlin shoemaker, who died in 1904 at the age of 82. He apparently was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and well-respected throughout the community. Marget (or Margaret), his first wife, died in 1873, and Garrison married another woman named Margaret two years later.

They had three children, and their eldest, William, started out as a day laborer, then a gardener with an extensive knowledge of flowers.

“But his great love was athletes and the guiding of young men,” a newspaper said at his death in 1942. “… Over a period of a quarter century, his influence for good among the young men of the village, and among the athletes of Oberlin Academy and Oberlin College, was greater than that of any other individual, regardless of rank or position.”

From 1890s to the 1920s, Bill Chambers served as an unofficial trainer and often a coach of Oberlin high school teams. “Many great athletes, several of whom attained national fame, owe their start to his tutoring,” the newspaper said, “(while) scores of men now in high places in other professions will acknowledge their debt to him.”

Several of the Chambers men who were slaves in Salisbury went on to enlist with the U.S. Colored Infantry or Heavy Artillery. They included Richard Chambers, son of Henry and Lucy Chambers; and Warren Chambers, son of Garrison and Marget Chambers.

James M. Cowan, who was born in 1847 and definitely belonged to Maxwell Chambers as a kid, somehow made it to Oberlin with his parents in 1852, according to Bigglestone.

When he died in  1921, the Oberlin newspaper said, “For 40 years, Mr. Cowan was engaged in the wagon business and was a wheelwright of ability. He won a reputation for square dealing and was industrious in his business. He took an active interest in civic affairs and politics, always standing for those things which tended for the moral and intellectual growth of the village.”

An interesting side note: The late Rose Post wrote in August 1983 about the visit of Bonnie Banks from Cleveland, Ohio. Banks’ grandmother Cynthia was a daughter of Garrison Chambers’ second marriage to Margaret. She also was a sister to Bill Chambers, the noted coach.

Among the possessions that had passed down to Banks from her grandmother were a Carolina lily quilt that had made the trip from Salisbury to Oberlin in 1854, a copy of the freedom paper and 12 silver spoons.

For safety reasons, instead of carrying all the money Chambers had given to them in silver coins, the freed slaves made the spoons, Banks said.

During her 1983 trip, Banks visited the slaves quarters or dependency, which makes up part of today’s Hobson House. Because it once belonged to Chambers, it could have easily housed some of Banks’ ancestors. She also met a Maxwell Chambers descendant, read the Maxwell Chambers will at the library and saw the portraits of Chambers and his wife in First Presbyterian Church.

Spencer has been in contact by telephone with Banks recently in Cleveland, and Spencer reports there is some question — and a lot of digging going on — as to the location of the original copy of Chamber’s freedom paper for the 18 people who made it Oberlin in 1854. The document had been in the Oberlin College archives, but Spencer says it apparently was returned to the Maxwell Chambers family in 1934, and Maxwell Chambers III of Maryland gave it to the Rowan Public Library in 1953, during the county’s bicentennial.

Whether it’s now back at Oberlin College or still with Rowan Public Library is the latest mystery coming under the shadow of Maxwell Chambers.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

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