In my previous essay, I wrote about the connections Robert Jefferson had to other prominent Black men in Indianapolis, as well as his connections to wealthy white enslavers who, also, were very connected to each other.
But wait (as the Ronco ads of yesteryear would say)! There’s more!
Let’s not forget the connections between Prince Hall Masonic lodges; religious groups, including sects of the Presbyterian, Quaker, African Methodist Episcopal (AME), and Baptist denominations, along with their circuit-riding preachers; their absolute dedication to educating Black Americans, whether born free or self-emancipated; and, of course, the white anti-slavery activists who worked alongside them.
All of these groups are connected to each other, and to the machinations of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) itself.
Researcher Marvin Mason* of Columbus, Ohio, firmly believes that the Prince Hall Masons worked together with the circuit-riding preachers; his third-great-grandfather, John Wesley Harrison (1818-1892), was both. Marvin tells me, however, that he has not yet found documentation to show the denomination with which his ancestor was affiliated. Marvin and I became friends after I found some of his research at Ancestry.com and reached out to see what more he might know about the Prince Hall Masons. We've traded messages, emails, and have met in person once so far, and I think have only just scratched the surface of his research in our various forums of discussion.
Marvin will be giving a presentation this Saturday, April 22, on his research during the Spring Open House at Historic Eleuetherian College in Jefferson County, Indiana, about 10 miles northwest of Madison.
In a tribute to his ancestor on a memorial page at FindAGrave.com, Marvin writes that Harrison “was the first grand master of Prince Hall Masonry in Michigan.” Harrison founded the Harrison Lodge in Niles, Michigan, where he moved following his term as the third grand master of the Indiana Lodge in Indianapolis. He was granted the authority to do so by John G. Britton and James Sidney Hinton, the first and second grand masters of the Indiana Lodge, which grew out of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Lodge of Ohio. It is likely that his move across the Indiana state line to Michigan was intentional so that he could continue whatever work he did with the UGRR.
Harrison, Marvin writes, became a Prince Hall Mason in Philadelphia in 1848, which at that time was one of the main hotbeds of anti-slavery activity in the North, probably because of its proximity to slave states such as Maryland and Delaware. To be honest, I was surprised to learn Delaware had been an active slave state up until Emancipation; according to The History Channel, about 1,800 of the state’s Black population of 20,000 were enslaved; most of them were in the state’s southernmost county, Sussex. With a Unionist governor and majority Unionist legislature, Delaware voted Jan. 3, 1861, not to secede from the Union with South Carolina and the other secessionist southern states. Kentucky and Maryland, the two states caught directly in the cross-hairs of the conflict, remained neutral on the issue.
Philadelphia was where Harriet Tubman lived after her heroic escape from slavery in Maryland in 1849. Could it be that Harrison may have met Harriet? It’s likely, if Harrison was still in Philadelphia that year.
Marvin says that, over time, his ancestor became friends with many abolitionist leaders, both Black and white, through his connections to Masonry: Richard Howell Gleaves, a grand master of the Ohio PHM Lodge who, after the Civil War, served as lieutenant governor of South Carolina; the Rev. Joshua Woodlin, who published a history of the colored Masons in 1855; Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, a publisher, Union officer, and the second African American to serve as governor of a state after the war (Louisiana); Hiram Rhodes Revels, a minister of the AME Church and a post-war senator representing the state of Mississippi; and Revels’ brother, the Rev. Dr. Willis Revels, a pastor of the Indianapolis Bethel AME Church.
I had never heard of any of these men, so I’m thrilled to be learning more.
It’s easy to see how a circuit-riding preacher could be an integral part of the UGRR. Being Prince Hall Masons, too, they would have access to all sorts of information about covert anti-slavery and abolitionist activity in the North and in the South. And, under the guise of their religious occupation, they would be able to deliver that information anywhere it might be needed.
The fact that Robert Jefferson is mentioned, even just in passing, in the 1880 Indianapolis Journal article about prominent Blacks, means to me that he knew all of the men who were profiled. And it’s likely he was at least acquainted with John Wesley Harrison. Having been a talented carpenter, Robert probably was able to glean information from circuit riders while still enslaved in the South, because he was allowed to work on his own account to earn enough money for his emancipation. He would not have been constantly under the watchful eye of his enslavers or their overseers.
Being mulatto, Robert easily would have been accepted into the Indiana Lodge in Indianapolis. This would have given him access to so many more people in the abolitionist movement. The fact that he had spent some time in Canada after he brought his wife and daughters to Lancaster, Indiana, in 1852 confirms for me that he was, indeed, somehow connected to the UGRR. I don't yet know why he was in Canada, but that is certainly a thread I am anxious to pull.
He most certainly had been acquainted with Black abolitionists and UGRR officials that were based in Madison, Ind., including George DeBaptiste, even though DeBaptiste would have been living in Detroit, Michigan, by that time. His connection to William Clinton Thompson, M.D., too, would have allowed him the opportunity to know white abolitionists like John B. New, Thompson’s father-in-law, and New’s abolitionist associate, Levi Coffin, who is regarded by some to have been the president of the UGRR.
Sadly, I may never know just how much work Robert may have done with the UGRR, or what his relationships with the leaders of that organization may have been. But certainly, these connections were very likely quite solid. Otherwise, why would he have moved his newly freed family to Jefferson County, Indiana, in 1852, where his daughters could be educated at Eleutherian College (a.k.a. Eleutherian Institute) in Lancaster Township?
Knowing that the college was established by white Baptists involved in the Neil’s Creek Anti-Slavery Society, it seems there is no other way to explain his decision to move there with his family. Somehow, he had already learned of this organization and the work they were trying to do. In fact, I am pretty sure that he may have volunteered his carpentry skills to build the college building that still exists, which was completed in 1854. That may be how he was able to pay for his daughters’ tuition there. The institution did not offer any kind of scholarships, as far as we can tell from the documentation today. So, lending his skills to the building project only makes sense.
All of this, indeed, required … Everyone. Everywhere. All at once.**
* Breaking with journalistic tradition, in this post I am using Marvin’s first name in later references to avoid confusion between his surname and the focus of his research, the Prince Hall Masons.
** If you haven’t seen the Oscar-winning film “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,” from which I have finagled the title of these two posts, please do. It is amazing.