"God Be With You"
By C. Walker Gollar, Associate Professor,
Department of Theology
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.
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.
Committee thanked me for my willingness to talk so openly about the
past, and then showed me some most interesting documents. Union Baptist
preserved five bound volumes, over a thousand pages in all, of
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Walker Gollar is an associate professor in the theology department.
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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