The Day They Caught Black Ben


 

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, October 11, 1931

 

The Day They Caught “Black Ben”

By Howard Burba

 

A couple of weeks ago there tramped along S. Main st. in Dayton a parade of colored citizens.  At the head of the parade floated the stars and stripes; in the bands of happy, smiling colored children forming one division of the pageant other, but smaller, flags of a similar design were prominently displayed.

            Everyone in line knew why he was on parade.  He knew the line of march, and he knew that when the last ranks had filtered through the big gate at the fairground there would be music and speeches and laughter and song.  None were in ignorance of the fact that it was Emancipation Day.  None had to be told that it marked an anniversary closest of all anniversaries to the hearts of the Negro race.

            But probably not one in the entire assemblage did know that over that self-same thoroughfare on a day far more memorable in Dayton than this one just celebrated, one of their number fled from the wrath of an angered owner.  There was a price on his head.  Yet his only offense had been that of seeking the liberty today enjoyed by those who retraced his footsteps down s. Main st. only a couple of weeks ago.

            Possibly not one in that entire procession the other day knew that for 40 years before the Emancipation.  Proclamation had become a reality there was posted along the selfsame line of march crude posters emblazoned with a wood-cut of a Negro carrying his few belongings in a bandana handkerchief swung from a stick across his shoulder, while just below in bold, black letters the words, “Fifty Dollar Reward,” fairly shouted at those who passed along the dusty stage road we now know as s. Main st.

            That’s why I’m going to tell you, and those who marched in that parade the other day, the story of “Black Ben.”  Simply because so few of you have heard it.

            To make the story of “Black Ben.” Atkinson complete, it is necessary to take you back for the moment to the year 1832.  No whispers of a civil war had been heard up to that time, though slavery had long been frowned upon to the point where it was arousing the fighting blood of a good many citizens.  Being but 50 miles removed from the boundary line which actually divided the slave and anti-slave states, it was but natural that Dayton should heard a great deal of both sides of the question.

            The daily papers were not, at that time, engaged in a bitter controversy over whether or not a nation could exist part-free and part in slavery.  But in 1832, the thrilling escapade in which  “Black Ben” was the central figure served to start just such a controversy over whether or not a until the last shot had been fired in the Civil War, until Lee had passed his sword into the waiting hand of Grant.  Every day there appeared in the local papers small announcements of the disappearance of slaves from their masters in Kentucky and Virginia.  Usually these announcements were embellished with a tiny wood-cut such as we have described above a Negro carrying his few belongings in a bandana handkerchief on a stick swung from his shoulder.  In appearance, these announcements were identical.  IN wording they were almost the same.  In meaning there was but one interpretation.  So a lot of Dayton readers found no unusual interest in one which read:

            FIFTY DOLLARS REWARD.  A reward of $50 will be paid for the arrest and return of BLACK BEN, five feet, six inches in height; weight about 145; color, very dark.  Hold said fugitive and notify his legal owner J. C. Atkinson, Richmond, KY.”

 

            For almost, two years before the announcement appeared, “Black Ben” had been breathing the air of freedom while doing odd jobs about the homes ands stores of Dayton citizens.  No one had given any attention to his arrival in the neighborhood.  It was pretty generally understood that this town was on a branch of the “Underground Railroad,” and that the line led from across the river by a devious route to Xenia, and then through hazel patches and high grass to the door of Dr. Jewett’s home on Jefferson st. Second and Third.  But Dr. Jewett went about his daily practice, ministering to the needs of suffering humanity who placed their hope and faith in him while shunning those who, in sympathy with slavery, openly denounced him as a “Negro lover.”

            Maybe “Black Ben” came to Dayton through the doorway of Dr. Jewett’s home.  No matter if he did.  There had been no reward offered for him so he went about his menial tasks, eked out an existence and earned the respect of many through his inoffensive bearing and faithfulness to any duty to which he was assigned.  Then someone saw the announcement that so faithfully described “Black Ben,” and above it the reward of $50 for his return.  In those days fifty dollars was a sizeable sum.  The freedom of one ordinary colored man counted for little.

            As he crossed Main st.  near Fourth one bright morning in 1832, en route on a chore for a white acquaintance, an officer of the law accosted him.  With a formidable weapon in hand in the shape of a legal document, and a silver star of authority shining on his lapel, it was not difficult to procure a confession from the thoroughly frightened colored man “Black Ben” admitted he had escaped from his master in Kentucky two years before.

            Hearing of his detention, Dr. Jewett sought out a number of friends, and they interested themselves in “Black Ben’s” behalf.  They offered to go into their own pockets for whatever sum his owner might place upon the slave.  But when this information was forwarded to Atkinson he stubbornly refused to lend an ear.  He wanted his “property”’ he had the $50 reward ready to pay over at a moment’s notice; he had come for “Black Ben” and under the Fugitive Slave law he was within his rights in taking “Black Ben” back into bondage.

            Then came the march along the selfsame street over which that parade passed a few days ago.  Placed astride a horse, after his hands had been securely handcuffed behind him, “Black Ben” rode out S. Main st. at the head of a little procession of man-hunters, headed by Atkinson.  They made their way to Cincinnati, at which point they proposed to remain over night before proceeding on their long journey south through Lexington to the Atkinson plantation near Richmond.  “Black Ben” was quartered in a hotel room, and the handcuffs removed for a few moments that he might partake of his evening meal.  Then they were replaced.

            Sometime during the night “Black Ben” made his way to a shaft of light that fell aslant his improvised prison.  He investigated, and found that the rays of light came through a window.  Outside that window was liberty, the liberty of which he had but recently had a taste.  With his feet “Black Ben” smashed the glass.  With his hands cuffed behind him he plunged headlong through the window.

            Under the gas lights in the street below pedestrians, some of them narrowly escaping the falling body, paused to help him to his feet.  Out of the hotel streamed others who had heard the crash of glass, followed by the screams of excited women on the walks outside.  Gentle hands began tugging at the prostrate, bleeding form, trying to lend such aid and comfort as can be administered on such occasions.  But “Black Ben” was beyond human aid.  He had gained his liberty, but at the cost of his life.  He had passed on to face a new Master: a Master who long before had denounced slavery and human bondage.

            Cincinnati and Dayton were not knitted together in those days with a network of wires.  And yet it was surprising how quickly an event of this nature could be put into words and broadcast.  Before another day had waned Dayton had heard of the tragic fate of “Black Ben..”

            And that day the spirit of abolitionism was born in Dayton.

            From that moment on Dayton was a hotbed of activity and the abolitionists no longer made apology for their belief.  They spoke out openly; they defied the supporters of the Fugitive Slave law; they openly and vehemently declared for war, if necessary, to wipe slavery from the western continent.  The local Whig paper took heart.  It began a bitter tirade against slavery that never ceased, but instead grew in intensity until the day Lee surrendered.  It was, as one who cares to trace the files of local papers back to 1832 will find, the direct result of later outbreaks that ended only when mob violence had reduced a Dayton newspaper plant to ashes and brought about the assassination of a Dayton editor.

            But don’t understand that everyone in town became an abolitionist as a result of this affair.  Dayton was still the home of many who were in direct sympathy with slavery.  So when the spirit of abolitionism developed into an open issue, and the challenge was sounded, they met the challenge.  The home of Dr. Jewett offered the anti-abolitionists a means for venting their anger and satisfying the craving of the more radical ones for violence.  They stoned the house, broke windows and made life generally miserable for its occupants.

            Good old Dr. Jewett went on his way, practicing medicine and preaching anti-slavery.  He could not, naturally openly defy the law which made of slavery a legal institution.  But he could and did deliver many telling blows secretly and under cover of an honest conscience against the institution he hated and despised with all his heart and soul.  It is not secret now; that the Dayton station of the “Underground Railway” was in the home of Dr. Jewett.

            The outbreaks on the Jewett home were not, at first, the result of organized effort.  It would happen that a radical, passing the house, would recall the fact that within resided a man who had dared to befriend fugitive slaves who chanced to escape their owners and make their way this far across the line.  It was easy to located a paying brick or cobblestone, and just as easy to cast it through a window without detection.  Such sniping was kept up about the Jewett home for a long time.

            Into politics crept the Fugitive Slave law, and with it all the venom for and against that had been stored up over the years.  Those were the days, too, when people took their politics a good deal more seriously than they do today, so it was no unusual thing to witness a fist fight and to learn, when the combatants had been separated, that they had tangled over the question of slavery.  It was the opportunity of a lifetime for the political spellbinder, and the stump and soap boxer that escape figuring in an oratorical tirade on the subject was an exception to the rule.

            One of these speakers, more emphatic than the rest in his denunciation of slavery, came into Dayton for an address.  He made it, and a lot of slavery sympathizers heard it.  Someone passed the word that the orator was being entertained during his stay in Dayton at the home of Dr. Jewett.  And then, and only then, was there an organized movement against the Jewett home.

            That night a motley crowd of slave law sympathizers gathered on Jefferson st. between Second and Third.  Before they could be dispersed by the town marshal and his deputies they had thrown stones and mud, decayed vegetables and decomposed eggs at the house; some had boldly entered, in the absence of the owner, and wrecked furniture and smashed pictures and glassware.  It was the price Dr. Jewett paid for helping to make impossible another such tragic event as that which attended the removal from the city of “Black Ben.”

           

            The agitation mounted.  The tirade against slavery swept live wildfire.  From south of the Ohio came threats against those in this section who dared to harbor a fugitive slave.  And back went word that there were not shotguns enough in the entire south to protect the next slave owner who came into this part of the state seeking to remove a bondsman.  The “Underground Railway” became more than a name; it became a beaten path over which terrified slaves scuddled to safety and the assurance of sympathy at the hands of their sympathizers.

            Ripley was the favorite crossing on the Ohio river.  Then Georgetown, West Union, Hillsboro, Xenia, Springfield and Dayton became stations of refuge and constantly increasing hotbeds of anti-slavery sentiment.

           

            So it continued for another quarter of a century.  And then just 25 years after “Black Ben” had hurled himself from the window of a Cincinnati hotel there occurred in this immediate territory the most famous slave chase in American history; the most memorable man-hunt residents of this section witnessed during all the days that led up to the final clash with the firing on Fort Sumpter.

            The Exact date of it was May, 1857.  Involved in it were citizens of Montgomery and Clark and Greene cos.  “Black Ben” wrote a bloody but an heroic chapter in anti-slavery history.  But far more celebrated, far more spectacular, was the famous “Rescue Case of 1857.”   And I am going to tell you every detail of that on this page next Sunday.