Lewis Woodson (January 1806 – January 1878) was an educator, minister, writer, and abolitionist. He was an early leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Woodson started and helped to build other institutions within the free African-American communities in Ohio and western Pennsylvania prior to the American Civil War.
Woodson was among the original 24 trustees to found Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1856, in a collaboration between the AME and the Cincinnati Methodist Council. When the college faced financial difficulties during the American Civil War, the AME Church bought it from the Methodist Church in 1863, making it the first historically black college to be owned and operated by African Americans.
Early life and education
Lewis Woodson was the oldest of eleven children born to Thomas C. and Jemima Woodson, both mixed-race slaves who had gained their freedom. He was born in January 1806 in Greenbrier County, Virginia (now part of West Virginia).
Woodson family oral history, dating to the early nineteenth century, has claimed that Thomas Woodson was the eldest child of Sally Hemings and her master President Thomas Jefferson. That account has been disputed by Jeffersonian historians; there is no surviving record of Sally Hemings' having given birth to a surviving child before 1795, except for accounts written by the newsman James Callender.
In addition, results of a 1998 Jefferson DNA study conclusively showed that there was no genetic link between the Jefferson male line and the Woodson male line. The study's major findings were that the Y chromosome of the Jefferson male line matched that of Sally Hemings' son Eston's descendant. The Woodson Y chromosome did show northern European ancestry.
Move to Ohio
The Woodson family moved from Virginia to Chillicothe, Ohio about 1821. Chillicothe had a strong community of numerous free blacks, a center of abolitionist activity, and a station on the Underground Railroad. Soon the Woodsons helped establish a black Methodist Episcopal congregation there, the first west of the Allegheny Mountains.
Lewis and two brothers, Thomas and John, became ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), a new, independent, African-American denomination started in Philadelphia in 1816. The Woodsons helped establish new congregations in what was then thought of as the western United States.
Marriage and family
In Chillicothe, Lewis Woodson married Caroline Robinson, also born in Virginia. The Woodsons had ten surviving children, many of whom followed their models in gaining education and contributing to their communities.
Their grandson George Frederick Woodson earned degrees from Drew University and Morris Brown University. He served as Dean of the Payne Theological Seminary at Wilberforce for over three decades, ending in 1937. Their grandson Howard D. Woodson earned a degree in civil engineering from what is now the University of Pittsburgh in 1899. He contributed to the design of Union Station in Washington, D.C. and also became a civic activist. A high school in the capital is named in his honor.
In 1829 Woodson began an active life of writing to influence public policy, with a letter published by Freedom's Journal, an early African-American newspaper. He denounced proposals for expatriation or colonization of black Americans to Africa, as supported by the American Colonization Society. He advocated separate black communities in the United States.
Reverend Lewis Woodson served as secretary for an AME Conference in Hillsborough, Ohio (near Cincinnati) while Bishop Morris Brown presided. The riots of 1829 in Cincinnati had driven out much of the African-American population. Labor competition had led to whites' attacking blacks, who had been establishing a thriving free black community. Nearly 1200 blacks left Cincinnati for Canada as a result.
In Pittsburgh, Woodson joined with John B. Vashon to establish the African Education Society. One of the students in Woodson's school was George Vashon, who was taught by Woodson until black students were allowed to attend publicly financed schools. George Vashon was the first African American to graduate from Oberlin College. Oberlin graduated 23 blacks before the Civil War, making a significant contribution to the uplift of the Antebellum African American community. Martin Delany was also one of Woodson's students. Woodsn's one teacher school was one of the first to be operated by an African American. As Secretary to the AME Ohio Conference of 1833, Woodson advanced a resolution urging the AME to establish or assist "...common schools, Sunday Schools and temperance societies..." It was the first such resolution to urge the AME denomination to support education. Lewis Woodson filled a key role in the establishment of the Third, or Ohio District, of the AME denomination. The AME Church founded Union Seminary near Columbus, Ohio in 1847.
A few years after arriving in Pittsburgh, Lewis Woodson opened a barbershop. He operated the business at the same time he pursued his ministry and major civic interests. Vashon and Woodson befriended the young Martin Delany, and acted as his teachers and mentors. Delany became a spokesman for blacks during the Civil War and helped them to be accepted as soldiers on the Union side.
In 1837 Lewis Woodson served as secretary for a group of African Americans who created the "Pittsburgh Memorial", a document asserting that free blacks should retain the voting right in Pennsylvania. Following the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia and the growth of the free population in Pennsylvania, fears contributed to support among whites to restrict the rights of free blacks. While the legislature deprived free blacks of the right to vote in the Commonwealth for some years, Woodson was instrumental in securing public funding for black education. He joined the Western District of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and worked for abolition.
"Augustine" and the father of Black nationalism
The historian Floyd Miller documented that Woodson wrote under the pen name "Augustine" (the name of an early Christian bishop and theologian from north Africa, who is honored as a saint in the Catholic Church). Miller suggested that in this role, Woodson could be called the "Father of Black Nationalism". From 1837 to 1841, Woodson published numerous letters as "Augustine" in the Colored American newspaper. He advocated black initiatives to create institutions independent of whites, including churches, newspapers, and schools. Woodson advocated preparing for when the multitudes of American slaves would gain freedom, and require social, organizational, and financial assistance. Unlike some other abolitionists, Woodson never advocated emigration to Africa or a slave uprising.
Establishing Wilberforce University
Along with Bishop Daniel Payne, Woodson served as one of four ministers representing the AME Church; he was among the 24-member founding Board of Trustees of Wilberforce College in Ohio. They created a collaborative venture with white representatives of the Cincinnati Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which provided the first major funding. The university was opened in 1856 to provide collegiate education to African Americans. Among the trustees was Salmon P. Chase, a strong supporter of abolition and then Governor of Ohio. The AME representatives were the first African Americans to participate in establishing a historically black college. (The first college for black students, now Lincoln University, was established by Quakers in Pennsylvania in 1854. No African Americans participated in its founding.)
In 1858 Woodson's youngest sister, Sarah Jane Woodson, a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, was hired as the first woman to teach at Wilberforce. She became the first African-American woman to teach at any college.
The outbreak of the American Civil War cut off paying students from the South, who had comprised a majority of the 200 students at Wilberforce. Most were mixed race; their tuition was paid by their wealthy white planter fathers. The war also diverted Methodist Church resources, and it was unable to fully fund the school. In 1862 the Board of Trustees temporarily closed Wilberforce University because of financial problems.
In 1863 the AME Church purchased the university and assumed full responsibility for it. They selected Bishop Daniel Payne as president, the first African-American college president in the United States. To help raise money for the purchase, the AME Church sold the property used by Union Seminary to put its resources into Wilberforce University.
Legacy and honors
Lewis Woodson died in 1878. One of his obituaries reported his work on the Underground Railroad. His legacy also included Wilberforce University and its graduates.
- Byron W. Woodson, Sr., A President in The Family, (Westport CT, Praeger, 2001), 61
- "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account", Plantation & Slvery, Monticello, Quote: "The DNA study found no link between the descendants of Field Jefferson [tested because Thomas Jefferson had no direct male descendants] and Thomas C. Woodson... But there is no indication in Jefferson's records of a child born to Hemings before 1795, and there are no known documents to support that Thomas Woodson was Hemings' first child.", accessed 6 March 2011
- Foster, EA; Jobling MA, Taylor PG, Donnelly P, de Knijff P, Mieremet R, Zerjal T, Tyler-Smith C (1998). "Jefferson fathered slave’s last child" (PDF). Nature 396 (6706): 27–28. doi:10.1038/23835. PMID 9817200.
- Foner, Phillip and Branham, Robert (eds.), Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787–1900 Univ. of Alabama Press, 1997, pp. 384-385
- Carter G. Woodson, Charles Harris Wesley, The Negro in Our History, Associated Publishers, 1922, p. 140 (digitized from original at University of Michigan Library), accessed 13 Jan 2009
- Eric Ledell Smith, "The Pittsburgh Memorial", Pittsburgh History, vol. 80, no. 3 (Fall 1997), 106-7
- Floyd Miller, "The Father of Black Nationalism", Civil War History, vol. 17, no. 4 (December 1971)
- Daniel A. Payne, Recollections of Seventy Years, Salem, NH: Ayer Co. Publishers Inc., 1991), 226
- Horace Talbert, The Sons of Allen: Together with a Sketch of the Rise and Progress of Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, Ohio', 1906, p.264-265, Documenting the American South, 2000, University of North Carolina, accessed 25 Jul 2008
- James T. Campbell, Songs of Zion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 259-260, accessed 13 Jan 2009
- Floyd Miller, The Search for Black Nationality, (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1975)
- Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969
- C. Peter Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers: The United States, 1830–1846, (Univ. North Carolina Press, 1991)
- Eric Ledell Smith, "The Pittsburgh Memorial", Pittsburgh History, vol. 80, no. 3, Fall 1997)
- Byron W. Woodson Sr., A President in the Family, New York: Praeger, 2001