Saturday, May 14, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist History May 15

Martin McHenry Arranges for Fowler to Take Enslaved Woman to Texas, May 16, 1845

A poignant letter in the Littleton Fowler Collection at Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology is a letter of May 16 from Martin McHenry to Littleton Fowler in which McHenry confirms arrangements for Fowler’s taking a slave woman from Kentucky to Texas.

At the MEC General Conference of 1844 the issue of slavery proved to be too contentious to resolve. Delegates from the slave states agreed to meet the following year, May 1-19, 1845, in Louisville, Kentucky, to plan their next steps. Fowler had been a delegate in 1844, and the Texas Conference chose him again for the 1845 convention. The other Texas Conference delegate in 1844 was John Clark, who was the only southern delegate to vote with the northern delegates. He did not return to Texas. The Texas Conference then elected Robert Alexander to go to Louisville.

Martin D. McHenry, an attorney living in Shelbyville, Kentucky, had two sisters living in Texas, Lydia McHenry and Maria Kenney (Mrs. John Wesley Kenney). On at least one occasion, Lydia McHenry wrote to Kentucky asking her brother John to send her a slave child 8 or 10 years old. (Lydia McHenry to John McHenry, May 7, 1837, in Hardin Collection, Chicago Historical Society) In May, 1845, Martin McHenry asked Robert Alexander to take a slave woman from Louisville to his sister Maria in Texas. Alexander lived about five miles from the Kenney household.

Alexander demurred, not because he objected to slavery or transporting slaves across international boundaries (the USA and the Republic of Texas), but because he intended to return to Texas after the convention in a leisurely manner through Tennessee to visit relatives. Alexander then asked Fowler to accommodate Martin McHenry’s request. Fowler agreed, and arrangements were made to deliver the woman to Fowler’s custody in Louisville. Fowler agreed to take the woman as far as San Augustine. John and Maria Kenney would then arrange transportation from San Augustine to their home in Austin County.

One can only imagine the thoughts the unnamed woman must have had. She was being torn from family and familiar surrounding in Kentucky and being taken all the way to Texas. She would have had no prospect of ever seeing her family again. What made the situation even more poignant was the location. Louisville was a river port on the Ohio River. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 excluded slavery from the territories north of the Ohio River. As she boarded a steamboat in Louisville, she could have looked north to Indiana and seen a land without slavery. As she proceeded down the Ohio River, there was always slavery on one river bank and free land on the other. When the Ohio reached Cairo, Illinois, and met the Mississippi River, every turn of the paddlewheel took the unfortunate woman deeper into an unknown world and further from everything she knew.

It may be uncomfortable for us to remember that Texas Methodist founders were enmeshed with slavery. A hired slave worked Fowler’s farm while he travelled on church business. Robert and Eliza Alexander at one point kept sixteen slaves. David Ayres regularly advertised in the newspapers that he traded land, livestock, and slaves. Homer Thrall and Chauncey Richardson, who were both born in Vermont, wrote a great deal to advance pro-slavery arguments.

One of the evils of the system is that most of the enslaved people were rendered anonymous and voiceless. I would dearly love to know the name of the woman who came to Texas from Kentucky in May 1845. I would love even more to have a record of the event from her point of view. When the church is at its best, it gives voice to people silenced by oppressive systems. Giving voice to the oppressed often runs counter to the prevailing culture, but it is central in the church’s proclamation that every person is created in the image of God.


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