Quaker Byway: Harveysburg Free Black School

A little more than a decade after its revolution and founding, the United States of America proclaimed its first major expansion, creating its first incorporated territory in 1787, to become known as the Northwest Territory. The incorporation included 300,000 bountiful square miles filled with thick forests, an abundance of rivers and lakes, and land so fertile that it would sustain and feed its inhabitants throughout countless generations. Within this vast landscape, for as long as the forests grew and the rivers flowed, there lived the five great nations of indigenous people—the Delaware, Wyandot, Ottawa, Miami (Myaamia), and the Shawnee. Those of European descent who would migrate to the new territory for its seemingly endless resources and possibilities would know this place as “Indian Territory.”

With the expansion of settlers into the territory, five new states would be added to the rapidly expanding United States: Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and in the heart of it all, Ohio, home to the Miami nation and the Shawnee nation, with the Shawnee under the leadership of the great Chief Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa. The settlers would give this area the Native American name Ohio, meaning beautiful river, recognizing the life force of the waters that formed the great river and the 45,000 square miles of uncharted land awaiting them within its boundaries.

They were the first who came to a new territory in pursuit of “the American dream,” these people of European descent, these explorers, adventurers, farmers, families. Some came for the promise that came with those dense forests, plentiful rivers, and rich farmland. Some came spurred on by faith and conviction. Some would come from places in North Carolina with names like Wilmington, wending their way into this new territory where they would build their towns and villages. They would leave behind in the places they had known as home what they could no longer tolerate—the injustices, the inhumanity of slavery. They would come to this new place where slavery would not be tolerated.

Some of these settlers were the original Wilmington Quakers, making that long journey from Wilmington, North Carolina, to places in Ohio that would take on names like Wilmington, where so many Quakers from the South bonded together in their commitment to the abolishment of slavery. They would give the name Wilmington to the city in Clinton County so that they could keep a part of their original home with them. There would come the village of Waynesville, named for “Mad” Anthony Wayne. There would come the smaller villages, one named Harveysburg, named for Quaker abolitionist and settler William Harvey.

The village of Harveysburg now includes 500 or so people and sits on 0.99 square miles in Warren County, in between Waynesville and Wilmington, near Caesar's Creek. With its narrow streets and houses with architecture in keeping with its founding in 1829, today and yesterday seem to flow seamlessly together. What seems to unite the residents of Harveysburg today is their pride in their history and heritage, so much of it intertwined with the history of Quakers.

This small little spot in what was once part of the sprawling 300,000 square miles of the Northwest Territory that became the 44,000 square miles named Ohio lays claim to its rightful place in history. There was a pork-packing plant here once, second only to the great city of Cincinnati. There was a mill to grind the grain from fertile farmland surrounding the village. There were wagon makers, saddlers, blacksmiths, tanners, and more.

Harveysburg School today, photo courtesy of Carole Barnhart

On one of Harveysburg’s narrow streets—so narrow that a van filled with modern-day Quakers on a tour of the Quaker Scenic Byway could barely make the turn—sits a small, white building on a small grassy area with an old pump that provided the water needed for those inside. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. There is a historical marker denoting the building as the Elizabeth Harvey First Free Black School. Quakers Elizabeth Harvey and her husband Jesse were both educators. Following her leading that Black and Native American children needed and deserved to be educated, the school opened in 1831, the first such school in the Northwest Territory, with support from the Harvey family and their neighbors, as well as Grove Monthly Meeting of Friends. It continued to educate children until 1909, when students of color were integrated into the public school system.

There is a lived history within the walls of this building. There is the smell of history—musty and old—when you first walk through the door, testimony to time unfolding upon itself. There is the sound of history with the creaking of the wood floor in the one-room building. For those willing to pause and let the building tell its story, let the small little desks reach out with the memories of the children who sat in them, learning what had to seem to them to be a foreign language and foreign ways in order to have a chance at being accepted—someday perhaps to be equal.

Care must be taken to not let the dates, places, and facts of history take away from what history really is: the stories, the lives of those as they lived in their own place and their own time so as to teach and remind those who come after them. In this small space in a one-room schoolhouse, there are stories. There is the story of one wealthy North Carolina plantation owner named Stephen Wall. There is no way of knowing his reasoning, whether it was his own moral conscience awakening in him, or if it might have been something he learned from Quaker neighbors about enslaving other children of God. It is not for us in the now to know what led him to his decision. What we know of the yesterday of history is that he freed eight enslaved children and paid for them to relocate and go to school in a little one-room schoolhouse in a tiny village in Ohio, more than 600 miles away. He also paid to have their mothers accompany them on their journey out of slavery.

Imagine what it was like for him to make that decision, for him to stand on the grounds of his plantation, to watch eight children and their mothers pack up and go down the road, to never again set foot on his land. Did he feel sad to see them go—happy to see them go? Did he feel a sense of relief? Was his soul unburdened by some small measure? Did he weep for the children and their mothers? Did he weep for his own soul? Did he, at that one moment and place in history, did he see that of God in them?

Imagine what it was like for those eight children, setting out on such a journey, one that would take more than nine hours today by car, not counting the stops for fuel, food, and stretching of legs. How long did it take them? How did they make the arduous trip? Were they hungry along the way? Were their mothers fearful? Were the children fearful? Did they understand why they were leaving and where they were going? Were they happy? Did they weep? Did they, in all those moments along the way, did they understand that they were of God?

Harveysburg School in the 19th century, courtesy of Ohio History Central

We know little of what happened after those eight children and their mothers found their way to Harveysburg to be educated and to be free. We can imagine them at those little desks, with the one stove to burn wood to keep them warm in the winter and that old pump outside to provide them water from the ground. We can imagine them growing into adulthood and living their lives, perhaps trying to find that same American dream that brought those first settlers into the Northwest Territory.

We do know of one of the students who sat at one of those desks and learned how to read and write and how to express himself and become himself at the tender hands of Quaker teachers. He was a boy with the overwhelming name of Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall. He was born on that plantation in 1825, his mother a slave, his father the plantation owner Stephen Wall. The son of the plantation owner and a slave made that journey to that small spot in Ohio and that one-room schoolhouse, to be taught by Quaker teachers.

Imagine how that journey must have been for him. Was he afraid? Was he happy? Was he sad? Did he get homesick? History tells us that he was hard-working, intelligent, committed. Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall left North Carolina, traveled to Harveysburg, Ohio, and then to his place in history. From his desk in that white brick building with the old stove and outdoor pump, Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall went on to study at Howard University and become a lawyer. A Conductor on the Underground Railroad, he was a shoe and boot manufacturer, a recruiter for the Union Army, and became the first Black captain in the U.S. Army, becoming a Medal of Honor recipient. Always in service to others, he served as a police magistrate, lawyer, justice of the peace in Washington, D.C., and the Provost Marshal of Charleston, South Carolina. He died in 1891 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Along his journey, did he ever think of his father and the plantation? Did he ever see his father again? Did his father know of his accomplishments? If he did, did he have a sense of pride in his son? How did those first years on that plantation form the man he was to become? Can you ever totally break that bond of family, even when they are formed by the chains of racism and slavery? How did those years in that tiny schoolhouse in that one small spot in an Ohio village form the man he was to become?

What of the mother who bore her child into slavery, who safeguarded him in that journey not only from North Carolina to Ohio, but from enslavement to freedom, from inhumanity to humanity? How strong was she for him? What sacrifices did she make for him? What prayers did she say for him? What joy she most surely found in him! We do not know her name. We do know the name of the father and the name of the son. We do not know the name of the mother, yet we must never forget that she too is a part of the history of slavery, freedom, and a small white brick schoolhouse in a village that is little more than a dot on a map.

When we take our tours, individually or in a group from a Quaker meeting, pray that we do not hastily look at the remnants of history as they are on posters and clippings on walls, in written records on shelves designed for curious tourists to browse for but a moment, to reflect on the tiny desks—even as our senses take in the odors of an old building and the creaking of an old floor. Let us pause in our hurriedness to get on to the next stop along the byway to embrace that which once was and those who once were.

History is so much more than a name on a historical marker, so much more than being listed on a National Register. History is all those years, every step along the 300,000 miles that formed the Northwest Territory, the 44,000 miles that became the great state of Ohio, named after that beautiful river so revered by those who first walked its banks. This history is about little children —Black children and Native American children. History sits there now where once little children sat at their little desks and beseeches that we in our own time and in our own place do what is necessary to assure freedom, equality, and acceptance. We have as of yet not learned from history but we are nonetheless obligated because of history to see that of God in everyone and in every moment.

This article is part of a series of pieces describing the sites along the Quaker Heritage Scenic Byway, which members of Cincinnati Friends Meeting toured in October.

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  1. Jeff Arnold | | Reply

    Good stories, Judy- and beautifully, wonderfully told. You have such a gift for words.

  2. Mary E Krisher | | Reply

    That is a beautiful yet heart wrenching story. A story that leaves me pondering and hoping that we will always support “the better good”.

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