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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Ohio Puts Rare Document Online: Runaway Slave's 1820 Letter

CINCINNATI (TDB) -- A three-page letter written in 1820 by a slave named "Jaki" has been placed online by the Ohio Historical Society. Jaki escaped to become a free man in Canada known as George Duncan. The rare and precious document was mailed 186 years ago to Thomas Rotch of Massillon, an active abolitionist and Quaker who aided Duncan and others on their flight to freedom.

What is truly remarkable is that Duncan was literate at a time when slaves could be punished or killed for reading and writing. How did he become so accomplished? So far, there is no information other than the letter that has been placed on the Web.

As for the slaves, there are stories elsewhere that they had their fingers chopped off for trying to learn. Many states had laws that made it a crime to educate blacks. There were some efforts to spread literacy through Bible and religious studies in the slave states, but they faded in the years leading up to the Civil War. Some slaves did learn, though, and passed their skills along by clandestine means. Duncan must have been a remarkable and brilliant man, and his life story should be far better known.

Click to view the SLAVE LETTER , a document the state historical society calls "a rare example of writing by a fugitive slave." The ink script is difficult to make out on the 8x10 pages. The few words that came through clearly seemed to say "he would not get me for I am with the Yankey brother."

The letter is owned by the Massillon library, which has a large collection of Rotch's papers. He died in 1823.

State officials have placed other documents from the slavery era online, and they can be seen HERE. Some of the material includes four letters from John Brown, the Ohio abolitionist who was hanged after leading an attack on an Army outpost at Harper's Ferry. Brown sent the letters to his father in Hudson, Ohio from Kansas.

An Indiana University Web site has a scholarly report about Frederick Douglass, the great black leader of the 1800s, who learned how to read and write as a slave, and discusses the importance of literacy. The report is HERE.

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