A recent event highlights the messiness of the town’s white-dominated abolitionist narrative

By Rebekkah Rubin

On May 31 in Hudson, Ohio, retired Army Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter delivered the keynote speech at a Memorial Day ceremony hosted by the local American Legion Post. When Kemter, who is white, began to speak about the lesser-known origins of Memorial Day—specifically, the formerly enslaved Black Americans who, after the Civil War, honored deceased Union soldiers by giving them proper burials—his microphone malfunctioned, or so he thought. In fact, it was not an audio malfunction; the mic had been cut. The event’s organizers, Cindy Suchan, president of the Hudson American Legion Auxiliary, and Jim Garrison, adjutant of American Legion Lee-Bishop Post 464, deliberately turned down Kemter’s microphone. According to Suchan, the history Kemter discussed was “not relevant to our program for the day.”

The act of intentionally censoring Black history is always despicable, but it is particularly so in Hudson, where I live. Hudson, a small city of twenty-two thousand people located fifteen miles north of Akron, prides itself on its abolitionist history. The town was settled in 1799, when white settlers occupied the land of the Indigenous Kaskaskia, Erie, and Mississauga nations. Many early settlers opposed chattel slavery, including Owen Brown, who moved his family to Hudson in 1805. Brown, an ardent abolitionist, established the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society and, in 1826, helped found Western Reserve College, which became known for abolitionist ideas. By that same year, Underground Railroad sites wove through the town. Owen Brown’s son, John Brown, who grew up in Hudson, became perhaps the most famous white abolitionist of the nineteenth century, known for his raid on Harper’s Ferry in support of an armed rebellion of enslaved people.

Summit County Ohio, 1856

Map of Summit County, Ohio, 1856. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

And yet, it is unsurprising that the events of Memorial Day transpired in Hudson. The city and local organizations dedicated to preserving the community’s history perpetuate a specific narrative about Hudson—a celebratory narrative that whitewashes the history of the city and highlights the achievements of its white inhabitants without a critical eye. But Hudson’s history is not that simple.

This kind of celebratory and whitewashed historical narrative is not unique to Hudson; it is found in cities and towns across Ohio and throughout the country. Many local historical societies sprung up in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, largely founded by amateur historians. This timing was not coincidental—the turn of the century was an era of growing nativism and nationalism among white Americans, prompted by the arrival of immigrants and the country’s sesquicentennial celebrations in 1926. Responding to these feelings, white communities sought to preserve selective histories of their hometowns. However, in order to create a celebratory narrative, local historians often excluded the histories of people of color and women.

A fuller picture of Hudson’s abolitionist history changes the narrative. The debate over whether to support colonization, sending formerly enslaved people to a colony in Africa, or abolitionism, allowing formerly enslaved people to remain in the United States, divided Hudson’s anti-slavery community. By 1854, a writer for the Anti-Slavery Bugle, an abolitionist newspaper published in Salem, Ohio, about twenty-five miles south of Youngstown, remarked upon the decision of Hudson’s Western Reserve College to sponsor a lecture by abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “It is in itself a striking fact that a man of color should be invited to speak on such an occasion, especially before a College whose management is in the hands of orthodox Calvinists, and accordingly inclined to conservatism in most respects.” Three years later, an anti-slavery lecturer visited Hudson and the only audience members were “the man who lighted the lamps and a stray Democrat who happened in, but hastened out, when he found through our conversation the sentiments we were there to teach…And this was in the very Republican and very religious town of Hudson!”

A revised narrative of Hudson’s history must also include the lives of Black Hudsonites. Although local historians claim Hudson as a site of Black history via John Brown and the Underground Railroad, hardly any attention has been paid to the actual Black people who called Hudson home. In 1870, twenty-six Black Hudsonites made up three percent of Hudson’s population. This era was the height of Hudson’s Black community—Black families owned homes, Black men worked as gardeners and barbers, and Black women headed households and supported their families by taking in washing and boarders.

It was in this era that William Branch, who had been enslaved, moved to Hudson. Although early twentieth-century histories of the town portray Branch as a respected community member known for carrying Hudsonites to and from the train in his horse-drawn wagon, newspaper accounts and a white Hudsonite’s memoir depict some of the racism that Branch experienced, although it was written off as the pranks of young white boys. We may never know the full extent of the racism William Branch had to contend with in Hudson, but it is unsurprising that the town’s Black population plummeted in the following decades.

Very few African-Americans called Hudson home in the early twentieth century, and, by 1930, almost all twenty-six Black Hudsonites were employed as domestic servants in white households. This number declined regularly until 1980, when the census recorded zero African-Americans in Hudson. It’s not clear whether Hudson was officially a sundown town, but the population changes over the middle of the twentieth century match the familiar pattern of majority-white communities hostile to Black residents. Today, only 1.3 percent of the city’s population is Black.

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Local history is driven by decisions—what to include and what to ignore, censor, or even outright ban. Highlighting white achievement at the expense of Black residents provides a less complicated narrative, but one that is misleading and harmful. If we give voice to the silences in the historical record, we can tell a more nuanced story. History may sometimes engender pride, but it is not required to. History is messy and complicated, and if we’re reading with a conscience, it should often make us uncomfortable.

In Hudson, that messiness extends to the present—as the events of Memorial Day weekend demonstrate. As of Friday, the American Legion Department of Ohio had suspended its Hudson post, pending permanent closure. As of this writing, both Jim Garrison and Cindy Suchan were asked to resign, but only Garrison has. [Editor’s note: on June 9, Suchan also resigned.] Hudson’s Mayor and City Council released a statement condemning the actions of Garrison and Suchan while reiterating Hudson’s abolitionist history.

As I wind my way through Hudson’s historic downtown, names and dates jump out at me from the historical plaques adorning most homes. An Ohio Historical Marker stands proudly at the site where “anti-slavery leader John Brown made his first public vow to destroy slavery.” Down another street, John Brown looks back at me, his face emblazoned on a yard sign poking out of a neighbor’s perfectly-manicured lawn. The narrative I encounter is a celebratory one, rooted in white virtue, which is how Black organizers and actions became “not relevant to [the] program.”

It’s time to reassess the historical narrative of the city and who controls that narrative. We can tell a different, more complicated story while still being proud of Hudson’s radical roots. And, in doing so, we can be even more frank and antiracist than the Hudsonites who came before us. Some are already doing this work. Last summer, high school students gathered at the corners of Hudson’s main intersection. They held handmade Black Lives Matter signs, week after week, in the heat and the rain. Each week, as I heard their shouts intermingling with the drone of traffic, I felt proud to live here. ■

 

 

Rebekkah Rubin is a public historian and writer. You can find her work at rebekkahrubin.com. She lives in Hudson, Ohio.

Cover image by Njaimeh Njie, based on this image (creative commons).

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