Celebrating Black History Month
Honoring the Citizens of Nineteenth Century Monroe
The dynamic diversity of Monroe’s African American citizens shows the strength and range of talent of the black citizens who lived in the county. Dr. Jim DeVries book Race and Kinship in a Midwestern Town suggests that the history of blacks went back to the early Frenchtown settlement. As the population grew through the nineteenth century, these residents left a unique imprint on the past.
Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape Artist
(1821 – 1872)
Robert S. Duncanson’s father, John Dean Duncanson, was a carpenter, housepainter and handyman. Originally from the state of New York, the elder Duncanson brought his family to Monroe after 1828. John taught his five sons the family trade of house painting. Robert, like his brothers, spent his teenage years learning this skill in Monroe. In 1838, he formed a partnership with John Gamblin and advertised in the Monroe Gazette Newspaper for painting and glazing.
A New Firm - John Gamblin and R. Duncanson, Painters and Glaziers, beg leave to acquaint their friends and the citizens of Monroe and its vicinity, that they have established themselves in the above business, and respectfully solicit patronage. They pledge themselves to do work in the most superior style, and to use the best and genuine materials for the same on the lowest terms,-lower than ever executed in this city.
Monroe, April 16, 1838
Around 1840, Robert set out to Cincinnati to pursue his ambition of being an artist. In 1853, he traveled to Europe to study the great masters of art. Duncanson would become one of the few African-American landscape artists to achieve international recognition. Alfred Lord Tennyson, upon viewing his painting, Land of the Lotus Eaters, would proclaim, “Your Landscape is a land in which one loves to wander and linger.” (Smithsonian.com)
During his time in Cincinnati, Duncanson participated in the abolitionist movement by membership in abolitionist societies and by donating his work to support the effort made to end slavery. Lucinda Moore, from the Smithsonian Institute, suggests that the images used in the anti-slavery panorama, Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States was Duncanson’s own work.
Duncanson died in 1872 in Detroit. His obituary, published in the Monroe Commercial on December 16, 1872, noted the recognition he received as an artist in his lifetime:
Robert S. Duncanson. Artist, long a resident of Monroe, and we believe born here, died in Detroit on the 21st inst. His remains were brought to Monroe for burial. Mr. Duncanson was an artist of considerable distinction, and painted many pictures of rare merit and beauty.
He is buried in Monroe’s Woodland Cemetery.
You can read more about his life and work in the book The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872 by Joseph D. Ketner.
Rebecca Harris, Delegate National Emigration Convention 1854
Beverly and Rebecca Harris moved from Buffalo, New York, through Perrysburg, Ohio, to purchase land in Monroe sometime after 1838. They owned land north of the city but lived within the city limits. Beverly was employed as a cook by Erasmus Boyd, who operated the Boyd Seminary for Young Ladies. It is believed, through family oral tradition, that Rebecca was a teacher. Together, they would raise three girls and two boys into adulthood. In 1854, Rebecca represented Monroe at the National Emigration Convention of Colored People in Cleveland, Ohio. The Convention discussed the merits of emigration of African Americans to the West Indies, or Central or South America in search of personal freedom. The convention protested fugitive slave laws and was one of the roots of the Black Nationalist Movement. Dr. James DeVries, believes that if Monroe had a connection to the Underground Railroad it was through the Harris family. Three years later the Harris family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, so their three daughters could attend college. According to historian Eleanor Shelton, in her doctoral study, Biographical and Social Study of the Harris Sisters, 1863 – 1933, Rebecca’s daughters followed in their mother’s social justice footsteps. During the Civil War, daughter Blanch went south to a Union held fort to teach escaped slaves. She also became one of the few black women to graduate from Leonard Medical College. Daughter Frankie and her husband, James O’Hara became active members in the Republican Party. They worked diligently to promote the use of federal money for public education.
You can read about the Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad in Michigan in these books:
William Wells Brown, Novelist
Born into slavery on a plantation near Lexington, Kentucky, William Wells Brown became the first African American to publish a novel. He began his life as a free man on New Year’s Day in 1834 when he made his escape to freedom. To support himself, he found work on a Lake Erie steamboat. During this time on the steamboat, he led several escaped slaves to freedom. In 1835, after being cheated out of his pay from his service on a steamboat, Brown attempted to establish himself as a barber in Monroe. He writes about his experience in “Three Years in Europe”:
In the autumn of 1835, having been cheated out of the previous summer's earnings by the captain of the steamer in which I had been employed running away with the money, I was, like the rest of the men, left without any means of support during the winter, and therefore had to seek employment in the neighboring towns. I went to the town of Monroe in the state of Michigan, and while going through the principal streets looking for work, I passed the door of the only barber in the town, whose shop appeared to be filled with persons waiting to be shaved. As there was but one man at work, and as I had, while employed in the steamer, occasionally shaved a gentleman who could not perform that office himself, it occurred to me that I might get employment here as a journeyman barber. I therefore made immediate application for work, but the barber told me he did not need a hand. But I was not to be put off so easily, and after making several offers to work cheap. I frankly told him, that if he would not employ me, I would get a room near him, and set up an opposition establishment. This threat, however, made no impression on the barber; and as I was leaving, one of the men, who were waiting to be shaved, said, 'If you want a room in which to commence business, I have one on the opposite side of the street.' This man followed me out; we went over, and I looked at the room. He strongly urged me to set up, at the same time promising to give me his influence. I took the room, purchased an old table, two chairs, got a pole with a red stripe painted around it, and the next day opened, with a sign over the door, 'Fashionable Hair–dresser from New York, Emperor of the West.
He soon became a lecturer on the circuit of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. Famous for his novel, Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter, it is only one part of his literary legacy. He is also the author of a drama, travel and military history books and his own autobiography.
The electronic version of Clotel can be checked out from our Hoopla Collection.
Aaron Bromley, Civil War Soldier
(1823 – 1906)
Like William Wells Brown, Aaron Bromley, was an escaped slave who at the age of thirty-two, fled from the plantation of his owner near Florence, Alabama. Dr. Jim DeVries suggests that Bromley learned about Monroe through its own Mulligan Regiment (part of the 15th Michigan) during the Battle of Shiloh. In August of 1864, Bromley enlisted as a substitute for John L. C. Godfroy. He joined the 1st Michigan Colored Infantry in Detroit and was assigned to Company C of the 102nd U.S. Colored Troops. He met his unit at Beaufort, South Carolina. Bromley, like many soldiers during the Civil War, contracted a disease while in the field. In May of 1865, he was discharged due to erysipelas, an acute skin disease, and rheumatism. Bromley returned to Monroe to marry and raise a family. The illness he contracted during the Civil War affected him the rest of his life.
Bromley served with other family members including Joseph H. Wickliffe and George Fox. Information about their military records are included in the book Civil War Veterans of Monroe County, Michigan. Bromley died on March 14, 1823, and is buried in Woodland Cemetery.
You can read more about the lives of Black Civil War Soldiers in these books: