The Story of Lewis G. Clarke
By Carver Gayton
From Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island, to the recent killing of Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin: it is clear that the nation remains divided on race and bloodlines. In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP, predicted that the problem of the 20th century would be the color line. If he were alive today I doubt he would be surprised that his prediction remains relevant in the 21st century.
The story of Lewis G. Clarke, my great-grandfather, a fugitive slave who became an abolitionist, helps illustrate the complexity of the color line problem.
Clarke was born into slavery in Kentucky as the son of a Scottish weaver and a quadroon mother, and was separated from his family at the age of six. He became the slave of his wicked white aunt and half-sister of his mother. For over 10 years for the slightest offense she would torture young Clarke daily with an oak club, a chair, shears, tongs, raw hide, or anything else that was close at hand. According to Clarke, his aunt was typical among slave-holding women in that she seemed to hate and abuse him all the more because he had the blood of her father in his veins.
Clarke was subsequently sold to two other slave masters, where his treatment somewhat improved. At the age of 25 he decided to escape from bondage after being informed that he was to be sold to a slave owner in Louisiana. In planning his departure Clarke intended to connect with his brother Milton, rumored to have escaped to Essex County, Canada, and to free his youngest brother, Cyrus, in Lexington, Kentucky. He began a long, surreptitious sojourn all the way to Canada and back to Oberlin, Ohio, and Lexington. His modes of travel were by foot, river barge, horseback, ferry, steamship and stagecoach. During the trek he suffered emotionally and physically, and avoided near capture by slave catchers unleashed by slave owners in Kentucky. After rescuing Cyrus and reconnecting with Milton in Oberlin, Ohio, word of Clarke’s suffering and dramatic escape spread among abolitionist leaders in Western Ohio as well as New York City and the Boston area.
Clarke was recruited to come North by Lewis Tappan, a wealthy founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Under the auspices of the Society, Clarke established his residence at the home of Aaron and Mary Safford in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived for most of the 1840’s. While there, he encountered Mary’s stepsister Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. Clarke’s experiences are evident in the great novel (Stowe later identified him as the prototype of the book’s rebellious octoroon slave, George Harris).
While living in the Northeast, Clarke delivered over 500 speeches to audiences numbering in the thousands. His most significant speech, from a historical perspective, was probably his first in the North, delivered in Brooklyn beginning on October 20, 1842. Clarke spoke for three days. Lydia Maria Child, editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, captured the speech in an article, “Leaves from a Slave’s Journal of Life.”
While addressing the crowd, Clarke made this profound query: “My grandmother was her slave master’s daughter, and my mother was her master’s daughter and I was my slave master’s son, so you see I haven’t got but oneeighth of the [black] blood. Now admitting it is right to make a slave of a full black nigger, I want to ask gentlemen acquainted with the business whether because I owe a shilling [approximately 25 cents], I ought to be made pay a dollar?”
Clarke was never ashamed of his black blood. Nevertheless, his riveting question made abundantly clear the irrational, greedy, and racist basis of the “one drop rule,” which meant anyone with a known black ancestor was considered black. One aspect of the rule certainly increased the number of available slaves and bolstered the burgeoning cotton economy to the benefit of slave owners.
Clarke’s question continues to be debated today among blacks and whites as to what constitutes race. Biologists unequivocally agree that racial categories have no scientific basis. Clarke was of the opinion, however, that the one drop rule, though fashioned out of ignorance and greed, united peoples having their origins from three continents, who could be proud of their customs and heritage as well as fight against slavery and racial injustice. I agree with Clarke’s perspective.
Editor’s note: This is Part I of an article by Carver Gayton. Part II will appear in next month’s Retiree Advocate. Carver Clark Gayton is the author of “When Owing a Shilling Costs a Dollar: The Saga of Lewis G. Clarke, Born a White Slave” (2014) and a PSARA member.