To try to get outside my own bubble, I look for places to sit that stir questions and shift perspectives. One place I like to go is a park bench on Riverside Drive in Covington to sit next to the bronze statue of James Bradley.
The Bradley statue looks north on the Ohio River, the dividing line in American history that separated the states where slavery was legal from those that banned slavery. In his hands he holds a Bible, as a reminder that during his brief stay in Cincinnati he studied for the ministry.
James Bradley was born in Africa, enslaved at about 3 and brought to Charleston, S.C., the largest slave port in the United States. Over the next several decades, he was sold to a series of masters. Beginning at age 14, he began to dream of freedom, “my heart’s desire; I could not keep it out of my mind.” On his personal time he worked to earn money, first making and selling horse collars from cornhusks, then raising hogs and fattening them with corn he tended at night.
Over an eight-year period, Bradley earned enough to buy himself out of slavery in 1833. He immediately headed for the freedom promised north of the Ohio River. Long hoping for an opportunity for an education so “that my dark mind might see the light of knowledge,” Bradley enrolled in Lane Seminary located at the top of Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills.
Bradley arrived at Lane at a critical moment when the seminary would briefly find itself at the center of a new phase in the discussion of what to do about slavery. Until that time, most whites believed that the only way to end slavery was through “Colonization.” Whites could not imagine the two races could ever live together and that any slave who was manumitted would have to be repatriated to Africa. American colonizationists created Liberia in West Africa to repatriate freed slaves.
By the mid 1820s an increasing number of Americans recognized that colonization was impractical—too costly, too slow—and would never end slavery. Abolition emerged as the alternative. Abolitionists declared slavery was a moral evil that had to be abolished immediately. Colonization and Abolition reflected a deepening cultural divide among white Americans.
In February 1834, the students of Lane Seminary resolved to “debate” the merits of colonization and abolition. That debate, which stretched for almost 18 days, was more an antislavery revival than a modern debate, but its progress was widely reported in newspapers across the nation.
With one exception, everyone who spoke over the period of 45 hours was white. Many were Southerners, some were from slave-holding families. The exception was James Bradley. During his two-hour presentation (which he summarized and published after the debate), he spoke with an authority no one else could claim.
In addition to telling his own story, Bradley refuted the view actively promoted by Southern slave owners that slaves were happy and content. “I was never acquainted with a slave, however well he was treated, who did not long to be free.”
These debates also helped reveal that the real issue was not slavery, but racism. The south clung to slavery as an economic and social system, but on the north shore that Bradley can see from his bench in Covington, Ohioans were creating a system of de jure segregation through the adoption of a web of state and local Black Codes. Abolitionists may have hated slavery, but very few of them embraced the ideal that “all men are created equal.”
What was critically important about Bradley’s testimony during the Lane Seminary Debates was the simple fact that his voice was heard at all. None of the Southern students, a few of whom had even brought slaves with them, asked one of the people they “owned” to share their perspective. And no one invited any local free Blacks, whether born free, manumitted or runaways, to speak at the debate.
Bradley’s participation transformed the dynamics of the debate and stands as a challenge to us today to make sure a variety of voices are included in our public policy discourse. Too often those with power, whether because of education, wealth or office, think we have the insights and the ability to “fix” social problems experienced by others without systematically incorporating those who are living with the challenges in the discussion.
Before the 1920s, women were told they deserved no voice. Before 1964, African Americans were told to be thankful slavery was ended, but not to expect a seat at tables of influence. Before the last 15 years, openly gay and lesbian Americans were excluded from shaping the agenda.
It was easier to run a place like Cincinnati, much less America, “back then,” but by excluding voices today, we are simply more impoverished, not greater.