Walnut Hills / E. Walnut Hills

On The Ground in Walnut Hills: Preserving iconic abolitionist-era Harriet Beecher Stowe House


Nearly two centuries ago, a preacher's home in Walnut Hills stood at the epicenter of the national abolitionist conversation. A young writer moved in, and went on to write a novel that shook the nation. Her name was Harriet Beecher Stowe, the book was "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It became the best-selling novel of the 19th century and is widely credited with bending public opinion on the evils of slavery and the urgency of abolition. It's a conversation that's still going on 182 years later.

In 1834, Lane Seminary of Walnut Hills was the nexus of the abolitionist movement explained Chris DeSimio, who serves as the president of the Friends of Harriet Beecher Stowe House. 

“The ‘architecture of abolition,’ and the plan to abolish slavery, was designed and set into motion at the seminary," he said. "It was built there." DeSimio will help host a panel discussion at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, “The Historic Legacy of Walnut Hills” on Dec. 14.

 “To talk about the Lane Seminary is to talk about how something great came from it,” Chris DeSimio, who believes it’s important to retell the Lane Seminary and Stowe House stories to eradicate racism and prejudice.


 "This is a piece of history. It’s something people should know about," said retired librarian Barbara Furr, who has been involved as a Stowe House volunteer and board member since 2005.

After Lane Seminary closed a century later, the Stowe House became the Edgemont Inn, a boarding house popular with African American travelers seeking safe lodging in the 1930s. In 1950, it was purchased by the Ohio History Connection to help preserve it as a historic site. Today, the Harriet Beecher Stowe House is operated as a historic and cultural site by the Friends of Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Inc.

Cincinnati's historical place in the abolition movement

In the early part of the 19th century, Cincinnati arose as the “Queen City of the West.” A convenient stop for settlers traveling west, and easily accessible by railroad and river, the city produced innovations in medicine, literature and industry — particularly meatpacking and beer. The population rose from 1,000 in 1803 to nearly 10,000 in 1820. By 1890, a population of 300,000 made Cincinnati the largest city in Ohio.
 
Slavery was the political issue of the day, and Cincinnati was at the crux of the debate. By 1804, the northern states had abolished slavery and the import of new slaves into the country ended in 1808, but slavery was still legal in the South well into the middle of the century. Its proximity to the slaveholding state of Kentucky made Cincinnati both a landing place for freed slaves and a frequent stop for slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad.
 
Decades before President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, abolition had been a hot topic in cities across the country. In Cincinnati, there was strong support for abolition within academic, literary and religious circles.
 
The political energy of this era in Cincinnati history produced many icons in the abolitionist movement, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the book "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" in 1852.
 
The author’s family home is one of the few standing remnants of the abolitionist era in Cincinnati history. Located in Walnut Hills, a neighborhood with a strong heritage of African-American culture and life, the historic home is helping Cincinnati reclaim its place in America’s story of abolition and liberation.
 
Beecher family arrives in Walnut Hills
 
In 1829, the Presbyterian Church established the Lane Theological Seminary on Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills to prepare new ministers as the nation expanded westward. Lyman Beecher, a minister from New England, was recruited as the school’s president.
 
Beecher, his wife and a few of his children moved to Cincinnati and lived in a home on the northern edge of the campus. In 1832, his daughter, Harriet, would join them. She was 21 years old.
 
In 1834, Lane Seminary became the epicenter of the abolitionist movement as faculty and students hosted a series of highly controversial debates about slavery. The debates garnered national press and its trustees demanded the students lay the issue to rest. Unwilling to do so, many pro-abolition students left the school to continue their studies at Oberlin College in northern Ohio.
 
Lane Seminary’s theological department, reduced to only a handful of students, never fully recovered. After almost 100 rocky years, Lane Seminary officially merged with McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Campus buildings were demolished by 1952; the Stowe family home is all that remains of the seminary today.
“The Historic Legacy of Walnut Hills,” the evening of  Dec. 14, at  the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. A panel discussion presented by Soapbox, featuring local historians Chris DeSimio, Sue Plummer and Christopher Phillips. Walnut Hills resident Kathryne Gardette will moderate. Robert Gioelli, curator of "Rethinking Porkopolis," will also be on hand for a special last viewing of the exhibit. Click here for more information and to RSVP.



 
Harriet Beecher Stowe finds her place in the abolitionist movement
 
As a woman living in the early 19th century, Harriet Beecher was an unlikely abolitionist hero. But her upbringing afforded the luxury of an education. As a young woman, she became a teacher and writer and learned alongside other great minds of the era as a member of the literary and social Semi-Colon Club.
 
In 1836, Harriet Beecher married widower Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at Lane Seminary and an abolitionist. In 1850, the Stowes left Cincinnati for Maine. It was there that she wrote her seminal work, "Uncle Tom’s Cabin."
 
During her time in Cincinnati, Stowe’s experiences with both freed and escaped slaves shaped her commitment to the abolition of slavery. Many of her siblings also became committed to the cause. After almost two decades of living amidst a politically-charged era, Stowe was ready to write about it.
 
"Uncle Tom’s Cabin" began as a series of fictional stories in the abolitionist publication The National Era. It was published as a novel in 1852. In its first year, the book sold 300,000 copies.
 
Preserving the past and opening doors to a new generation

For the past 10 years, the Friends of Harriet Beecher Stowe House has worked to reintroduce the home as a landmark in Cincinnati and national history. In addition to regular hours of operation, the house hosts events aimed at engaging the public in the story of the home, its former inhabitants and the monumental era it represents. The Stowe House is also available to rent for private events.
 
This past September, the house opened a curated exhibit "Rethinking Porkopolis" about Cincinnati's position in the national economy of the 1800's. In 2014, the docudrama Sons and Daughters of Thunder was partially filmed at the house. It is slated for a 2017 release.

On the evening of Dec. 14, the Harriet Beecher Stowe House will host “The Historic Legacy of Walnut Hills,” a panel discussion presented by Soapbox, featuring local historians Chris DeSimio, Sue Plummer and Christopher Phillips. Walnut Hills resident Kathryne Gardette will moderate. Robert Gioelli, curator of "Rethinking Porkopolis," will also be on hand for a special last viewing of the exhibit. Click here for more information and to RSVP.

Since its purchase in 1950, much work has been done to restore the home for public use. The structure and grounds are currently undergoing significant and costly renovations that will take several years to complete. Project funds secured thus far total about $1.5 million.
 
In addition to the restoration of the building and grounds, one goal is to draw the Stowe House back into the public eye. But that begs the question: how was the house forgotten in the first place?
 
Chris DeSimio is the president of the Friends of Harriet Beecher Stowe House. He suggests that the house may have been neglected for so long because even though Cincinnati was a breeding ground for abolitionism, that identity was never universally embraced; the movement never gained enough footing locally to put the house on the map.
 
DeSimio believes there is still much work to be done to eradicate racism and prejudice, and that is exactly why it’s so important to retell the Lane Seminary and Stowe House stories.
 
“To talk about the Lane Seminary is to talk about how something great came from it,” DeSimio said.
 
“I’m not sure Cincinnati was ready for it then,” he said. “But a lot of us want to resume the work that was started in 1834 and let it happen here now. Those roots were down too deep to ever really die. So, it’s sprouting again.”
 
The Cincinnati region is still a hotbed of abolition-related history and conversation. Between the nearby Underground Railroad stops at the John P. Parker, John Rankin and Samuel and Sally Wilson houses, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the city attracts visitors far and wide seeking to learn about the issues of slavery, abolition and post-Civil War life for African Americans.
 
While the Freedom Center draws nearly 200,000 visitors a year, the Stowe House draws about 3,000. But those numbers are on the rise, and organizers are committed to keeping its doors open and expanding its programming.
 
Barbara Furr has been involved as a Stowe House volunteer and board member since 2005. A retired librarian, she lives in nearby Evanston but has worked in Walnut Hills on and off for decades. She believes the key to keeping the house operational is remaining visible and inviting “new blood” — especially Walnut Hills residents — to get involved.
 
Furr has time to dedicate to the Stowe House’s success, but she knows that the average Walnut Hills resident may not see the value in engagement. She reminds potential volunteers that there are many ways to get involved; one way is to help shape programming at the Stowe House.
 
“If we have more volunteers, especially volunteers from the neighborhood, we’ll have more neighborhood program ideas,” Furr said. “In volunteering, you meet people and you learn things that you didn’t know before. And, a lot of times, you can find ways to help yourself. You widen your horizons. This is a piece of history. It’s something people should know about. We’d like everybody to be aware of it.”
 
Furr and DeSimio agree that most Cincinnati (and Walnut Hills) residents probably don’t even know the Harriet Beecher Stowe House exists, let alone understand its significance in national history, but they remain heartened.
 
“Why don’t people know about it?” DeSimio asked. “Because we’re just getting started.”
 
The Harriet Beecher Stowe House is located at 2950 Gilbert Ave. and is open to the public from 12 to 4 pm, Friday through Sunday There are guided tours every quarter past the hour. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children ages 6-18. The Stowe House will be closed for regular admission Dec. 12 to March 2, 2017. The Stowe House is open for the Soapbox Speaker Series event on December 14. Call 513-751-0651 for group visits and other information.
 
On The Ground takes an in-depth look at Walnut Hills, one of Cincinnati’s oldest and most culturally diverse communities. Over 12 weeks, our team will offer insight into the people, places and projects that have long defined the neighborhood, as well as its plans for moving toward a bright future.

On The Ground in Walnut Hills is underwritten by Place Matters partners LISC and United Way and the neighborhood nonprofit Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation who are collectively working together for community transformation. Additional support for data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center. 
 

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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