Updated: Apr 3
For about three years, I've had somewhat of a love affair with a man who has been dead nearly 140 years. And yes, my husband knows all about it. In fact, he has encouraged this relationship from the start.
Robert Jefferson and I met when I first became involved with Historic Eleutherian College Inc., a nonprofit in Madison, Indiana, whose purpose is the preservation of a three-story stone building on a hill in nearby Lancaster. Built in the mid-1850s, the building consisted of a chapel on the first floor and classrooms on the upper floors.
The college itself was established in 1848 by members of the Neill's Creek Anti-Slavery Society and others interested in educating not just boys, but girls and people of color. Located across the Ohio River from Kentucky – a slave-holding state – Jefferson County, Indiana, of which Madison is the county seat, played a huge role in the Underground Railroad. While there was a large part of the population that wasn't necessarily against slavery – rather, they just didn't want "free negroes" living anywhere near them – there was a strong, dedicated and indefatigable group working hard to bring enslaved people across the river and north to freedom in Michigan and Ontario, Canada.
Robert Jefferson wasn't a runaway. Trained as a carpenter, and apparently a very talented one, he was allowed by the last man who owned him to spend a year working on his own account to pay for his freedom and for that of his wife, Celia, and their two young daughters, Lucy and Georgianna. The money earned that year, combined with other savings he had secreted away, enabled him to pay the agreed-upon total of $4,264 to the owner and secure his freedom papers in 1852. According to an inflation calculator at westegg.com, that translates to about $130,000 in 2020's economy.
After spending some time in Canada, Robert returned to Canton, Mississippi, to retrieve his family and bring them north. They first came to Madison, where Robert enrolled his daughters at Eleutherian College. Eventually the family moved to Indianapolis, where Robert built them a house at 185 Minerva Street. It was in this house that he entertained a reporter from the Indianapolis Journal, which published his story in April 1879.
While his journey to freedom is amazing, it wasn't particularly unusual. But, what made his story newsworthy was his claim to be a son of the third President, Thomas Jefferson. He made this claim long before the world became aware of Jefferson's relationship with his enslaved concubine, Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered at least six children. Rather, Robert said his mother was Millie Reddiford (as spelled in the 1879 article; I believe her surname was Rutherford. More on that later), an enslaved housekeeper for a man named Edward Christian, who was a prominent attorney in Charles Town, West Virginia. In 1803, when Robert said he was born, Charles Town was the seat of a brand-new county named for the third President – Jefferson County, Virginia. It became a county in West Virginia in 1863, during the Civil War, when the new state separated from Virginia over the issue of slavery and sessession.
The Journal article was reprinted in numerous newspapers across the country, including the Rochester . Digitized collections show that it appeared in at least six papers; because so many issues of newspapers from that time no longer exist, it's impossible to know how many actually carried the story. But it caused such a stir that it is referred to in a rant against liberal politics published in 1884, five years after the original story ran and two years after Robert had died.
The research I have done over the past few years has included getting living descendants of Robert and Celia's daughters to test at AncestryDNA.com. I will talk further about this process and where it's led me over the course of this new series of blog posts. It's a fascinating detective story that could rival anything ever written about Sherlock Holmes. But, just to tease you into staying with this series, I have not found anything in my research that would prove Robert's claim to be untrue.
So, prepare for an exciting and unusual ride as I tell about the research I have done to examine closely all the characters and facts reported in the original article about my dear friend Robert.
Until next time, check out this terrific article published March 4, 2021, in the Indianapolis Recorder, an award-winning publication focusing on African American community and issues.
And click here to read a transcript of the 1879 article.
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