James Madison Bell around 1900
Listed within the 1870 Census post was James Madison BELL who after more newspaper digging, I discovered was a well known abolitionist and poet who moved to the city of Toledo in 1865. Mr. BELL is considered one of the most well known black poets of the 19th century and primarily focused his pieces on the abolitionist cause.
In 1870, Mr. BELL was living in Ward 8 in the City of Toledo. He was called Madison BELL and was listed with his wife Louisa and his 7 children, the youngest named George BELL was born in July of 1870.
James Madison BELL was purportedly born in Gallipolis, Ohio in 1826 which was the location of a large concentration of free people of color in Ohio. However, on the 1850 Census, Mr. BELL indicated that he was born in Virginia. A review of a previously mentioned site freeafricanamericans.com lists a free “BELL” family in Virginia and James Madison BELL may have been a descendant of this family and may have come to Ohio as a child. As was shared in my VINEY-VIRES post many free Virginia blacks moved out of the state in the 1820s and 1830s. BELL may also have been the child of escaped slaves. Other than the 1850 Census every other document I located, stated that he was born in Ohio.
Mr. BELL moved from Gallipolis when he was a teenager to Cincinnati, Ohio where he trained as a “plasterer.” Plasterers created the old lathe and plaster walls that are still standing in many old Toledo homes and elsewhere across the country. He also attended the Cincinnati High School for Colored People at night, which then was associated with Oberlin College.
James later married Louisana SANDERLIN in Cinncinnati. In the 1850s he moved to the Chatham-Kent area of Ontario, similar to many of my own ancestors who eventually ended up in Toledo. The emigrationist to Canada are the subject of a lot of my research of late. There are many theories about why free blacks in the US moved to Canada but the most logical one that many historians agree upon is the fact that the 1840s and 1850s were very hostile to free black people in regards to many laws that were created that placed burdens on black families or that stripped them of their right to vote. Another reason for the movement of many of these African Americans is that they may have been run away slaves from long before the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed. This law required free states to assist in the capture of runaway slaves and many blacks who had run away and started new lived in “free states” feared they may be re-enslaved so went to Canada in order to be assured of their and their children’s freedom.
For those who were not runaways and whose family was either emancipated via Gradual Emancipation that took place in many northern states, or those who were descendants of indentured servants who were never enslaved, they still faced highly oppressive conditions in the US that contributed to their decision to leave this country. Many states made free blacks pay a tax just to live in those states, yet would not allow them to sit on a jury, to file a complaint against a white man, or even own a weapon. In some states, educating black children was against the law as a result of these discriminatory laws even if they were free born. States even passed laws stating that free blacks who left the state for 90 days could be legally enslaved upon re-entering the state, which caused a loud outcry from black activist during that era since many of them had family in other states and would face enslavement if they ever moved then needed to come back to visit or take care of relatives. Many free people of color became fed up with the discriminatory laws and instead left the states that were most hostile, including Indiana, Pennsylvania (due to the threat of kidnapping primarily), Maryland, and Delaware. I’ve discovered that a large amount of free people of color moved to the Chatham-Kent area, called “Canada West” in order to be assured that their rights as free men would be protected. Much of the historical research I attempt on the community of blacks in SE Ontario primarily leads me to sources that focus on escaped slaves and rarely mentions the issues that free blacks faced in the US and what drove them to resettle in Canada, but I’ve discovered that a large amount of the families in the Chatham-Kent area actually were free people prior to moving to that area and not recently escaped slaves.
James Madison BELL and his family were amongst those who chose to leave Ohio and immigrate to SE Ontario. During his time in Canada, he hosted John BROWN the famous abolitionist who, today is well know for his failed insurrection attempt at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859. Prior to instigating the raid, John BROWN stayed at the home of James Madison BELL in Chatham while planning the attack on Harper’s Ferry. Mr. BELL gave an interview to a journalist in 1889, thirty years after the failed raid occurred. As is referenced in the article, Mr. BELL lived on Indiana Avenue, in the Pinewood District, currently called “Central City.” Further information obtained from Census records show he lived at 559 Indiana, which is near the corner of Indiana and City Park Avenues. He lived across the street from the site of the current Warren AME Church, of which he was a member. A link to the entire interview is in the reference section of this post, but a snippet of the interview is below. It was interesting to me to note that prior to beginning the interview, the journalist commented about how well Mr. BELL spoke, something that alluded to the past and continued stereotyping of black Americans via media.
JOHN BROWN’S RAID.
THE DELIBERATIONS AND PLANS LAID AT CHATHAM, ONT
An Interesting Reminiscence of the First Break Toward Freeing the American Slaves.
A correspondent of the St. Louis Globe Democrat, writing from Toledo, Ohio, says: Among the forty-five persons who attended the secret Convention, at which John Brown presented his famous Provisional Constitution and Ordinances, at Chatham. Ontario, May 8, 1859, was James Madison Bell, a colored man, and at that time a resident of Chatham. Mr. Bell was then a bright, energetic man of about 32 years, and was intimately connected with John Brown during his stay in Ontario, and, in daily intercourse with him, became quite familiar with all of his plans. Mr. Bell is now a resident of this city, and one of its most respected citizens. He resides on Indiana avenue, and conducts a large plastering business. A Globe-Democrat representative called upon Mr. Bell at his home, and found him ready and willing to tell nearly all he knew about John Brown. He is a good scholar, and an easy and interesting conversationalist, using the most correct language, of which he seems to have a perfect control
Only a few questions were needed to start Mr. Bell, and, his memory working as he went along, he seemed to take as much delight in telling as the reporter did in listening.
“I first saw Mr. Brown in the spring of 1859,” commenced Mr. Bell, leaning back in his large arm chair and closing his eves, as if to stimulate thought. “He came to my house at Chatham, Ont. — Canada West we called it then — and presented a letter from Wm. Howard Day, colored, a friend of mine, a graduate of Oberlin, and afterward for some years a member of the Pennsylvania Legislature. “The letter was dated at Toronto, a few days previous, and simply introduced the bearer as John Brown, asking me to do what I could for him during his stay in Canada.
After Brown’s raid, BELL moved to California and lived there until after the war concluded. He then moved to Toledo and made Toledo his home for the remainder of his life.
After the Civil War, Mr. BELL was active in fighting for the Civil Rights of black Americans. Contrary to what many people today believe, the “Civil Rights Movement” started immediately after the Civil War, not in the 20th century. Those who were ardent abolitionists prior to the war, became heavily active in the fight for civil rights of newly freedmen and women. Mr. BELL was active at Warren AME Church here in Toledo. He was the Sunday School Superintendent between 1870 and 1873. He also traveled the country in the winter “off season” of his construction and plastering work. He was known as a great orator and often read his poems while delivering speeches about the need for the acknowledgement of the rights of black people in America. His wife is believed to have passed away in 1874 and Mr. BELL was listed as a widower by the 1880 Census. I have yet to find his wife’s death record but will continue to search.
The early pastor of Warren AME Church and subsequent Bishop – BW Arnett convinced Mr BELL to write down his poems and publish a collection of 27 poems, which was published in 1901, titled “The Poetical Works of James Madison Bell.” Mr. Bell died in 1902. He was considered one of the main voices of black America during his lifetime and was one of the most well known black poets in the country. He was called the “Bard of Maumee” due to his residence being in Toledo.
Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 60, Number 126, 16 Jan 1889 accessed via California Digital Newspaper Connection on January 20, 2017
Life of James Madison Bell www.encyclopedia.com accessed on January 20, 2017
The Poetical Works of James Madison Bell www.archive.org accessed on January 20, 2017
1850 Census – Household of James Bell – Cincinnati, Ohio Ward 11