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East Tennessee was an early leader in fight to end slavery

Ned Jilton • Feb 5, 2020 at 7:30 PM

Many people tend to paint history with a broad brush.

For example, when it comes to slavery in Tennessee, many people say that since the state sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, everyone here supported the institution of slavery.

But they would be very wrong, especially when it comes to East Tennessee. The effort to abolish slavery here started long before anyone had heard of Abraham Lincoln, John Brown or Frederick Douglass.

There are early rumors about calls and meetings for the abolition of slavery in what would become Washington County as early as 1793. But the earliest confirmed efforts to abolish slavery that I could find dated to 1814.

According to the Rev. John Rankin, who was born Feb. 5, 1793, in Jefferson County and educated at Washington College near Jonesborough, “the sentiment of abolitionism originated in Tennessee about 1814, there being then an anti-slavery society in Jefferson County, East Tennessee.”

The first meeting of the Tennessee Manumission Society was held at the Lost Creek Meeting-house in Jefferson County on Feb. 25, 1815. The very first article of the society’s constitution stated that every member had to post prominently in their home the words, “Freedom is the natural right of all men. I therefore acknowledge myself a member of the Tennessee Society for promoting the manumission of slaves.”

Among the other articles of the society’s constitution was “That no member vote for a governor or legislator unless he believes him to be in favor of emancipation.”

In short order, other Manumission Societies formed in Greene, Sullivan and Washington Counties. In 1816 a convention of the societies was held in Greeneville.

The Rev. Rankin would become an active member of the Underground Railroad. He purchased a house on the Ohio side of the banks of the Ohio River to serve as a crossing point for slaves escaping from Kentucky. He is credited in some circles as the first Ohio conductor of the Underground Railroad.

As the anti-slavery movement spread across the region, it soon found its way into the news media of the day. In March, 1819, the abolitionist newspaper The Manumission Intelligence begin publishing weekly in Jonesborough. That publication gave way to the Emancipator, published in Jonesborough by Elihu Embree starting April 30, 1820.

In that very first edition of The Emancipator, Embree wrote, “This paper is especially designed by the editor to advocate the abolition of slavery, and to be a repository of tracts on that interesting and important subject. It will contain all the necessary information that the editor can obtain of the progress of the abolition of the slavery of the descendants of Africa; together with a concise history of their introduction into slavery collected from the best authorities.”

I want to point out that Embree published his paper in Jonesborough almost 11 years before the famous abolitionist newspaper the Liberator was published by William Lloyd Garrison in Boston. Garrison said in 1837 that his paper averaged about 1,500 and never exceeded 3,000 subscribers. Embree, who charged a dollar for a year’s subscription, reached about 2,500 by June, 1820, or two months into publication.

Embree later died of illness and his paper was taken over and became The Genius of Universal Emancipation and was published in Greeneville. While people voiced some opposition to Embree’s position on slavery, I never read about any physical threats.

It’s a different story in other parts of the country.

In Cincinnati, James G. Birney was attacked by a mob after he begin publishing his Abolitionist newspaper, the Philanthropist.

Even worse happened in the “Land of Lincoln” at the town of Alton, Illinois. It was there in 1835 that Elijah Lovejoy set up his press to print the Observer, a weekly abolitionist newspaper.

Twice Lovejoy’s press was destroyed by angry mobs and twice he was able to get the money to replace it. The third time, in 1837, Lovejoy’s press was again destroyed and this time Lovejoy was killed by the mob.

So when the issue of slavery in our history comes up, remember that there were people in the South, such as here in East Tennessee, just as passionate in their opposition to slavery as those in the North. And people in the North just as passionate in their support of slavery as those in the South.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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