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  • John Simpson: Man of Reconstruction

    Elmer Johnson

    Published Date : February-March 1989
    The author has in his possession a letter from his great- grandfather, here extracted:

    Royeville, Monrovia
    Liberia, West Coast Africa
    March 25th, 1909

    My dear, true blood Kindred,
    and other good Friends,

    ...Since, from the last few years that I have made a new do all the good I possibly can for the advancement of...native well as Americo-Liberians of this vicinity, I have had many blessings...I have become a candidate for Holy Orders in the Missionary District of Cape Palmas and Parts Adjacent of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Western Africa.  With a view of becoming a missionary and having a mission field planted in my vicinity, werein I can become the more serviceable to it, I earnestly labored for that end.  I with the assistance of two other brethren ...builded a Chapel that will accommodate about 80 persons some few years ago out of our funds.  This work has increased to a great interest both among the Native Liberians as well as the Americo-Liberians of this place, since the Bishop, the Rt. Rev. S. D. Ferguson, D.D.D.G.L., has given me License as Lay Reader and Conductor of the Services, with a special privilege of delivering Addresses, etc.  I officiating under a Rector of a Parish Church of Monrovia, the Capitol of Liberia.

    ...And out-side of the expense of the building of the said Chapel, with a view of planting me a good Mission Day School (having been the teacher of government Public Schools for over ten years) for the purpose of having in a good church nursery of youths, I went to work and increased my present dwelling large enough to accommodate about 25 boarding pupils (about half of said number I have had for some time in my own household)...and being of this a little hasty, not waiting on the Bishop to accomplish some missionary buildings he has been up to the present engaged in, I involved myself into much debt to a little over a thousand dollars with a Merchant established in Monrovia...The chief agent having returned to Hamburg ...My dealers...have given me a set time to come up; which is within the next six months.  This has given me some chance: and if I have any friends of Kindred or of religious White or black friends of those personally acquainted with any of you that will aid in the making up of $500.00, the one half of said amount, and have it sent here in that time to “the United States Minister of the Legation Monrovia, Liberia, Africa”...I will in like manner return the said amount of money or moneys to you that you make obligations to obtain for me; and further, that if I should die I will so leave my will that it will be settled.  You can, therefore, show this letter to any [or] all persons that may become interested in this particular; as my aim is honest; and, as I mean to live and die with a good reputation.

    Alpha Douglas Simpson

    Emigration to Liberia

    Due to the failed policies of the Congressional Reconstruction and the implications for the future of his family, my great-great-grandfather, John Simpson, (father of Alpha, above) decided to emigrate to Liberia June 14, 1879.  When a bloody military coup toppled the Liberian government in 1980, virtually all of John Simpson’s descendants returned to the United States to seek refuge from the resultant violence and hostility directed at family members and other Americans of Afro-American descent (called Amerigo-Liberians).  It is ironic that John Simpson’s descendants would leave Liberia and immigrate to a country that had rejected their ancestors a century earlier.  The circumstances were strikingly similar to those John Simpson and his family experienced in Amenca.

    The Iron Master of High Shoals

    Abraham Simpson, the father of John Simpson, was apparently born a slave in Maryland (perhaps Frederick County), circa 1791.  Although the evidence is not conclusive, it seems that John Fulenwider, a successful iron manufacturer, was the owner of Abraham Simpson and may also have been his natural father.  John Fulenwider, drawn to the iron ore mines of Lincoln County, North Carolina, moved, perhaps with Abram, from Rowan Count [16] to Lincoln County, North Carolina, where he built the High Shoals Ironworks.  In 1826, at 70 years old, Fulenwider departed this life and stated in his last will and testament that “a colored man named Abram” be awarded to his son Henry for three years and then given a “free pass.”  Accordingly, Abram was manumitted in 1829, and he apparently assumed the name Abraham Simpson.  This name probably bore some special meaning to him; it may have been the name of his father or his maternal grandfather.  According to Federal census descriptions, Abram was of mulatto stock, perhaps remotely African.

    The 1840 census states that Abraham Simpson had two free people of color in his household.  The census listed a free colored male under 10 who is believed to be his son John Simpson.  John Simpson was born March 15 ca. 1831.  In 1840 his father apprenticed him as a stonemason under Henry Fulenwider.  The apprentice bond decribes John as “a boy of color about 10 years old.”  The second person listed in Abraham’s household is a woman of color” between 24 and 36. She is believed to be John Simpson’s mother. John Simpson himself was born free.

    After the Nat Turner Rebellion, southern whites forced many free blacks to leave the South.  It is likely that Abraham was a victim of this pressure to move, because around 1845 he sold his 218-acre farm bought from Henry Fulenwider and migrated with John to Peru, Morrow County, Ohio.  The 1850 Peru census lists both John and Abraham as mulattoes living in the same home. The father is 58 and the son is 19, but there is no mother listed. Peru was a hotbed for abolitionist activities.  In 1850 the Simpsons were the only two blacks listed for Peru  They may have helped to operate the local underground railroad depot.

    The 1860 census showed major changes in the Simpson household. John, not living at home, had learned the gunsmith craft but instead became a seaman and joined the crew of a schooner that regularly sailed from Cleveland through the Welland Canal to England.  John’s father remarried to a white woman from Pennsylvama named Harriet.  There were six children born unto this union: Riley, Martha, Lorenzo, Sarah, Mary, and Dalphena.  Abraham’s children apparently crossed the “color line,” because the 1860 census listed them as white.

    The Civil War and Homesteading in Florida

    John Simpson, whose mother was a “woman of color,” could not cross the color line but sought to improve his status as a black American.  During the Civil War, Simpson enlisted in the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Company K (later called the 5th United States Colored Troops).  His unit was attached to the Army of the James under General Ben Butler.  At the battle of Chaffin’s farm (September 29, 1864), Simpson was wounded while assaulting the enemys earthworks.

    When the Civil War ended, Simpson moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he directed his energy to independent farming for blacks.  He became a spokesperson for a group of St. Stephens farmers who he helped to settle on the Sherman reservation.  When President Johnson returned the confiscated lands on the reservation to the former owners (ex-Confederates), public lands in Florida were made available to black farmers under the Homestead Act.  Simpson and his friends on the reservation migrated to Ocala, Marion County, Florida, where he later acquired a 155-acre homestead.  There Alpha Douglas Simpson, my great-grandfather, and his two brothers Clarence Lorenzo and John, Jr., were born.

    In 1867, when the Reconstruction Acts placed the Army in charge of monitoring the return of civil authority to the erstwhile Confederate states, blacks were permitted to vote and hold office for the first tirrie in American history.  Despite the intimidation of both black and white Republicans by ex-Confederates who opposed the Reconstruction Acts, Simpson encouraged blacks in Marion County to register and vote.  He later served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1868 to 1870.  Simpson was also chairman of the black caucus and sponsored House Bill 28, a proposed legislation to desegregate hotels and other public establishments in Florida. However, by 1878, Federal troops had been withdrawn from Florida and the Republican partys commitment to black civil rights had diminished.  The resultant terrorism against blacks convinced John Simpson that another era of oppression had arrived.  Therefore, he decided to emigrate to Liberia with his wife Julia and their three som.

    Although John Simpson died eight months after he arrived in Liberia, his descendants intermarried within Liberian tribes and prospered until the 1980 coup.  A grandson, C. Lorenzo Simpson, became Vice President in 1944, but despite his and other family member’s contributions to Liberia, the Simpsons were seen by supporters of the 1980 coup as “alien colonizers” from America and were once again driven into exile.

    Sources, among others: Clarence L. Simpson, The Symbol of Liberia (1961); Harold D. Nelson, et al, Area Handbook for Liberia (1984); the 1850 Federal census for Ohio, Maryland, and North Carolina; Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters (1974); the will of John Fulenwider, 1826, Lincoln County Wills, 1769-1926; Amanda Elizabeth Fulenwider, Torchbearers of Freedom (1960); petition of Robert H. Burton & Henry Fulenwider to emancipate a slave named Abram, Oct. Term 1829, Lincoln County Superior Court of Law & Equity, Minutes, 1828-1841; John Simpson, Letter to William Coppinger, March 31, 1879; Indenture of John Simpson to Henry Fulenwider, January 24, 1840, Lincoln County Apprentice Bonds, 1783-1903; Lincoln County, 1840 Tax List; Lincoln County Deeds, Book 40, pp. 344,495; Records of Veterans Adminisrtation in the National Archives, Civil War Pension Files, WC 896414; 1870 Census Schedules, Marion County, Florida; Welland Canal Lock Masters Records, September 1, 1863 to December 6, 1867, RG43 Vol. 2405; Morrow County, Ohio, Probate Records, Guardian File #386, Estate File #505.

    February is Black History Month in Massachusetts.  Elmer Johnson, a guest contributor, has written this article about his ancestors’ involvement in the emigration of free black Americans after 1816 to the colony of Liberia, which became an independent black nation.  Readers with additional questions or informtion about Amerigo-Liberians may write to Mr. Johnson at 79-2 Presidential Drive, Quincy, MA 02169.  See also (a) the American Colonization Societies Proceedings, and (b) a census of black emigrants to Liberia printed in an 1845 pamphlet, now at the National Archives.  For other sources for black ancestral research, see John Cerny's bibliography in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (1984), p. 594

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