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.
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.