First Integrated School – Long before Brown vs Board of Education

Because of Covid our plans for continuing our exploration of Michigan this summer did not materialize. However, we did get in just a little adventure on a recent trip back to Illinois to visit family. During that trip my husband and I took a side tour to Otterville, Illinois.

My husband was interested in the area because many of his mother’s family had once lived there. During research on his family tree, he discovered that one of his ancestors (his tenth great grandfather) was actually a slave from Angola. From previous trips to that area we knew there was a school that had been established in Otterville for the education of black students. Intrigued by the idea that a school for black students had been established in the same area where the branch of his family descended from a slave had also resided, he wanted to check out this school.

Hidden away in this small country town is a jewel of history. The building we found there is no longer in use as a school, but has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Classes were actually held there through 1971. Beginning in 1983 the site has been open for tours and an annual Hamilton Primary School Festival is held each year in September.

This school’s claim to fame is that it was the first integrated school in the nation. Years before the Civil War and before the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1954 Brown vs Board of Education, the Hamilton Primary School opened in 1835 as a free school open to everyone regardless of financial resources or color of skin.

Named after its benefactor, Dr. Silas Hamilton, a stone schoolhouse was opened in 1836. The finances for this school came from $4,000 Dr. Hamilton left in his will for construction and operation of a building for both educational and religious purposes. Razed in 1872, rebuilt and enlarged classes were held here until 1971.

Hamilton Primary School in 1835

Dr. Hamilton, a physicial originally from Vermont established a practice in Nashville, Tennessee. Saddened by the treatment of slaves that he saw, he bought a plantation in Mississippi in 1820. His mistaken idea was that he would treat his 28 slaves humanely and that would serve as a model for his neighbors. Of course, this did not work.

Recognizing this was an unrealistic and impractical experience, he traveled to Ohio where he freed his slaves. Moving west, he settled in what became Otterville and opened a medical practice.

While still a slave owner in Mississippi and on a trip back to Vermont he found a little boy whose parents had been sold at a slave auction. He purchased the young boy whose name was George Washington. While he freed George, the young man came with him to Otterville. The residents of Otterville were supporters of abolition and it is rumored that the town may have been a stop on the Undergrand Railroad.

On his death, Dr. Hamilton provided funds for the school to be built.

“Believing in the very great importance of primary schools, and desiring that my friends and relatives in this neighborhood should receive the benefit of them, I give and bequeath $4,000. dollars for the establishment of a primary school.  $2,000 dollars to be appropriated to the erection of a building suitable for the school and a place of public worship, and $2,000 dollars to constitute a fund for the support of a teacher, said house to be erected not to exceed one mile south of this residence, nor one mile north, nor a quarter of a mile east, but at or near the point called the Four Corners, and I desire my executors to oversee the erection of such a building…”

Influenced by Dr. Hamilton, George Washington continued to live as the doctor had – caring for his neighbors. He was a successful farmer and active in the Otterville Baptist Church. An excellent singer, he often lead the singing and taught a Sunday School class also. Those who shared stories about George to their family members said that whenever a family had sickness, he would show up with wood for the fire and food for the table. He was the community “grave digger” working for free. As long as he stayed in Jersey County he was a free citizen. However, on a trip to the nearby city of Grafton (Calhoun County), he was assaulted by some men and placed in jail charged as a fugitive slave. Fortunately, a Jersey County businessman heard of his arrest and was able to procured his freedom.

On his death he left a sizeable estate to pay his debts, provide a monument to this former master and for the education of “colored persons, or Americans of African descent.”

On his death Washington was buried alongside his former master. While Southern plantation owners often buried their slaves in family plots, this is probably the only incident where the master and slave were buried side-by-side. Also, the only known instance where a former slave erected a monument for his master.

The newer school and church built in 1873 used stones from the original building. Since 1983 it has served as a museum with the halls and classrooms line with photos of past graduation classes, and photos and cermeonies remembering Hamtilton and Washinton.

Another reminder that when you get off the beaten path there is so much history hidden in small towns and unexpected places.

Whose Child Am I?

AncestryDNAPlayerCardBarbaraSechrest

 

I have always been interested in history – especially American and English history.  My library contains biographies on almost every American president, most of our founding fathers, and other men or women who have played an important part in our country political system.

Growing up I was told my grandmother was Irish.  She had red hair and so did I.  Grandma was so proud of my red hair.  When I was just a little child Grandma was losing her eyesight.  I remember how my parents would have me stand in the doorway at her house where the sun would shine on my hair and she could still see my red hair.  Guess that is why I always loved being a red hair.

Fiery Red-heads Have More Fun!

A few months ago I started doing genealogy research on my family.  It has been an interesting journey.  I found one ancestor whose story gives the impression that she was not a very happy camper.  The picture I found of her certainly appears to back that story.  However, in most of the pictures taken in that time period no one appears to be smiling.

Mary Wampler

My third great-grandmother.

I was so excited when I found what I thought was an ancestor who was the founder of the American Bible Society and president of the Continental Congress from 1782 to 1783, Elias Boudinot.  Then, I discovered he was not a direct ancestor but a brother to my direct ancestor, Elisha Boudinot .  Still, it was a thrilling moment for this history nut to find that Elisha was friends to George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.

As a little girl my mother spoke so lovingly of her grandpa and it was great to find a picture of him.

Calvin

My great grandfather, Calvin Wilson

It was from this line of ancestors that I have my Irish DNA and my red hair.

Receiving a record of my DNA and researching my ancestors has made me really stop and think.  From this wide background of people from Ireland, England, Germany, France and Switzerland is this person called Barbara.  But who am I?  Am I more than just DNA from a multitude of people from different cultures and lands?

Who is my father?  What is my true identity?

I am more than my DNA.

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! 1 John 3:1

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.  — Romans 8:15-16 

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.  John 1:12

Even if my father and mother abandon me, the LORD will hold me close.  Psalm 27:10

Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. Psalm 68:5
These verses are more than just words to me.  Throughout my life, God has been my father, my comforter.
I am more than 71% Britain or 11% Irish.  While I enjoy learning about my ancestors (the famous Frenchman, the English prince and the Irish drunk), I am so thankful that I am a child of God!
Praise to the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ
Our God and our King, to Him we will sing
In His great mercy, He has given us life
Now we can be called the children of God
Great is the Love that the Father has given us
He has delivered us
He has delivered us
Children of God, sing your song and rejoice
For the love that He has given us all
Children of God, by the blood of His Son
We have been redeemed and we can be called
Children of God
Children of God
A mystery is revealed to the universe
The Father above has proven His love
Now we are free from the judgment that we deserve
And so we are called the children of God
Great is the Love that the Father has given us
He has delivered us
He has delivered us………………………………………….Lyrics by Third Day

 

 

From Irish to French?

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Searching for the past!

When I was in junior high we had an assignment to find out our family’s background – what nationality made up our family tree.  My parents did not have a lot of information to share, but Dad said his mother’s family was Irish and his father’s family German.  Mother was not very clear about her father’s side of the family.  He was an orphan and never shared much about his family.  She never met any of his parents, siblings, aunts or uncles.  What little she knew was that there was some Indian ancestry there.  Mother said her mother’s side was English.

More Irish!

Recently I received some genealogy research from one of my mother’s cousins tracing my grandmother’s family back several generations.  I was so excited when I found that my great-great grandfather was not English, but Scot-Irish!

Of all my grandparents the only one who really showed any interest in me was my father’s mother – the Irish grandma.  She was a red-head and I am also.  She loved that I was a red-head and that I looked like her side of the family – the Tates.  Because she made me feel loved and proud of my red hair, I have always felt a connection to that Irish heritage and always loved anything Irish.

Knowing that red hair is a recessive gene and required that both my parents pass on the gene for red hair in order for me to be a red-head, I knew someone in the past on my mother’s side had red hair.  But I was so excited to find out that only a few generations back was an Irish gentleman.  So now I can thank not only my Grandma Tate but my great-great Grandpa “Paddy” Wilson for my red hair.  (Fiery Red-heads Have More Fun!)

But French?

I was excited to find that second Irish connection, but surprised to find that my ancestors were also French.  My great-great Grandpa Wilson married a French lady.  And it appears of all my ancestors I have traced so far it is the French connection that is the most interesting.

The Boudinots were Huguenots who fled France after King Louis XIV revoked the decree of Nante and began religious persecution of Protestants.  From France they immigrated to England for a short period and then on to North America, arriving just in time to be a part of our early history as a new nation.   I’m just beginning to learn more about these French ancestors but it appears they were involved closely with the birth of the USA.  Since I am a history nut and have read everything I can find on our founding fathers and mothers, it is so “neat” to find that some of my ancestors were closely involved in that history.

So who cares?

I realize that in one sense it doesn’t really matter who my great-great-great-great grandfather was – yet as I age, I find it more and more important that we do not forget our past.

What other surprises await?

I have traced enough on my Grandmother Smith’s side to feel no more surprises – it’s Irish/French.  But a mystery remains on my Grandfather Smith’s side.  The only sibling of my mother still alive told me I should not try to trace that side of the family.  He was very mysterious as to why I should not.  Research so far does appear there may be a secret there.  But what?

So – what is your heritage?  What interesting stories does your family tree have?