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Lessons Learned

September/October 2001

"God Be With You"
                
By C. Walker Gollar, Associate Professor,                   Department of Theology

Pastor Yates promised that God would be with me.  I was counting on that.  Everything and everyone seemed to warn me against going through with it.  Especially in downtown Cincinnati, I had to have something extra to help me get through what stood before me that Sunday morning.   

Maybe that something extra actually had been with me for some time.  Years of research on the Underground Railroad led me to an old Cincinnati church.  On a Wednesday afternoon in the Fall 2000 semester, I drove downtown to Seventh and Central Avenue.  I parked behind a large but simple square brick building. I thought I was at the wrong place until I saw written across the marquee, “Union Baptist Church, Pastor Orlando Yates.”  I went inside where I was introduced to the members of Union Baptist’s Historic Preservation Committee, all of whom were black.  Though I had made arrangements to meet with this group, as a white guy I still felt a little out of place.     

The Committee thanked me for my willingness to talk so openly about the past, and then showed me some most interesting documents.  Union Baptist has preserved five bound volumes, over a thousand pages in all, of handwritten church minutes that begin with the church’s founding in 1831 and extend up to and just beyond the Civil War.  I caressed these precious volumes with great care.  More than just depicting early African American history, these books also might contain, I hoped, glimpses into the inner workings of the Underground Railroad.  Much of black history seems to have been lost, while the legendary Underground Railroad all too often has been based on erroneous oral tradition.  Perhaps Union Baptist Church records might help to recreate a more accurate picture of the past.  After spending the rest of that afternoon trying to decipher the handwriting on the first volume, I concluded that I would need many younger eyes to make sense of all this material.

In the Spring 2001 semester I offered two sections of a new theology course entitled “God on the Underground Railroad.”  Sixty-three students, all with young eyes, enrolled.  In addition to various other assignments for the course, I determined that each student would transcribe a select number of handwritten pages from the Union Baptist Records.  With help from an Ohio Humanities Grant, the Cincinnati Public Library, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, all the records were professionally Xeroxed. 

I then spent one class explaining a series of guidelines that I had designed for the transcription process.  In short, students were to type out the handwritten records exactly as they appeared in the original books, maintaining, for example, all original spelling and punctuation.  I told the students that I did not know what they would find, and even admitted that we might discover nothing particularly interesting.  I then gave them only a few weeks to complete the project.

Each student transcribed at least five pages, while some completed as many as seventy pages.  Using a sheet designed specifically for this work, students kept track of their time.  I used this time sheet for grading.  Assuming the student followed my guidelines, twenty hours generally merited an “A”.  Several especially enthusiastic students documented more than fifty hours.

Within a short time exciting discoveries began to trickle in.  Several students had discovered sections that dealt with marital difficulties.  Many church members were runaway slaves who had left spouses in slavery, and then found a new partner on free soil.  This new couple often approached Union Baptist asking for permission to marry.  After struggling for over a decade with such circumstances, the Church concluded that if a man or woman had left a spouse in slavery and, after a sufficient period of time, determined that they could never be reunited, the freed spouse could remarry another person.

Numerous other similarly fascinating details also emerged.  Several persons had so quickly left slavery that they were unable to secure proper documentation, a so-called letter of dismission, from their church back in slavery.  Other persons made provisions that upon their death all proceeds from the sale of their property should be used to help purchase their children still in slavery.  If such purchase was impossible, the money should be given to the church.

One student discovered that Cincinnati’s most intriguing black antebellum figure, Eliza Potter, was a member of Union Baptist.  In her 1852 memoirs, A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life, Eliza Potter described her service to the wealthy white families of Cincinnati.  Past research on Potter contended that she belonged to the white church of her employees.  Potter’s more certain membership in Union Baptist might help to explain her undisputed aid of runaway slaves.

Long before introducing the Union Baptist Church project, I had shared with my class stories about John Hatfield, a black Cincinnatian who was involved in the Underground Railroad.  Several well known antebellum sources describe the time he hid twenty-two runaways in a mock funeral procession that marched right through Cincinnati.  But little else was known about Hatfield’s personal life, that is, until my students stumbled across his name in the Union Baptist Church records.  Hatfield was a prominent deacon at Union Baptist, and, because of my students’ effort, much about his private life is now known.

Some students complained that their hours of transcription uncovered nothing interesting.  In some cases, that seemed to be true.  But more often than not, an apparently insignificant text contained clues that unlocked another passage.  Since I read all the transcriptions, I was often able to make such connections.

After completing the transcriptions, my work increased.  I began to scrutinize the work of the students, correcting numerous mistakes that only my trained eye could detect.  At this point I have finished checking three of the five antebellum books, and plan to have the entire collection ready for publication by the end of this school year.  Several university presses have expressed interest.

Students overwhelmingly praised the project.  They said it helped them better appreciate the amount and the type of work done by the historian.  Many students felt the excitement of historical sleuthing.  And all were proud to contribute to what I believe will become an invaluable source of information on early Cincinnati history, black life in America, and the Underground Railroad.  Throughout the summer several students emailed me asking if our book was yet available in print.

The Union Baptist Church’s Historic Preservation Committee also invited me to share the fruits of our research at the church’s one hundred and seventy year anniversary celebration scheduled for June 23, 2001.  About two hours of singing and prayer preceded the half hour that I was allotted for my presentation.  As I climbed the podium, I remembered that Pastor Yates had told me about God being with me.  At the same time, however, I also felt about five hundred pairs of eyes (along with extensive media coverage) staring at me asking, “What’s a white guy doing telling us about our history?”  I pulled out my typed speech from my coat pocket, and began with the story of my slaveholding ancestors. 

My openness about this subject seemed to win the congregation over.  After my ancestors I spoke about what the students and I had discovered concerning the courageous role Union Baptist Church had played in the Underground Railroad.  As the “Amen’s” and “Hallelujah’s” began to pour in, I abandoned my text and let the Spirit take over.  Forty-five minutes later I was drenched in sweat, yet showered with praise and thanksgiving from the people of Union Baptist Church.  They gave me a beautiful plaque with all my students’ names on it.  It will serve as a reminder that up on that podium that Sunday morning in June standing with me, indeed, had been God manifested through the wonderful work of some sixty-three Xavier students.

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C. Walker Gollar is an associate professor in the theology department.

Contributors to the Lesson Learned series have been selected by their deans to share their experiences in the classroom, describing a teaching technique or exercise that they have found to be effective.


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