Is Knox Actually Abolitionist?: Questioning the Validity of Knox's Anti-Slavery Legacy Through Knox Publications

Is Knox Actually Abolitionist?

Today, we know Knox College as a former abolitionist institution founded by abolitionists because that narrative has been preserved. It’s possible that Knox’s reputation may be hyperbole, but that’s the exact kind of thing I intended to uncover during my six weeks with Finding the Founders. I wondered if Galesburg’s abolitionist history were separated from Knox’s, would Knox still be considered an abolitionist college? So, questioning Knox’s status as a former abolitionist institution, I took a close look at any abolitionist efforts in Galesburg and at Knox from the time Knox was founded in 1837, through the Civil War and its conclusion in 1865, and all the way to the late 1880s. I used several early Knox publications—The Oak Leaf, The Gale, and The Pantheon—as well as yearbooks, maps, and several secondary sources to conclude that, yes, Knox was founded by abolitionists, but it was not necessarily an abolitionist institution. The students and faculty supported abolition, but separate from them, Knox as an institution did not promote abolition. Furthermore, Knox’s reputation as an abolitionist college could be credited to the reputation of Galesburg as an abolitionist stronghold and as a stop on the Underground Railroad. However, since Knox has upheld its status as an abolitionist institution since the early-to-mid-20th century, this brings into question not only the validity of Knox’s legacy but what it actually meant to identify as an abolitionist.

Galesburg: The Abolitionist Stronghold of Western Illinois

Galesburg was founded by abolitionists, therefore ingraining abolitionist sentiments into the foundation of Knox College. Founded in 1837, George Washington Gale planned Galesburg around Knox College so that it would be central, with the town literally built around the college. Not long after Knox’s founding, Galesburg gained a reputation as an abolitionist stronghold. Knox County was a part of something called the Illinois Military Tract, a section of counties in western Illinois selected for numerous traits that made it safer and easier to run the Underground Railroad.[1] What separated Galesburg from the other towns in the Illinois Military Tract was that there was “No other town in Illinois had more escape routes converge at one point than did” Galesburg, along with “a remarkable concentration of people who, to one degree or another, associated themselves with fighting” slavery.[2] In fact, there were so many people in Galesburg that were anti-slavery that the town “functioned as a kind of sanctuary for runaways,” as there are no records of any slaves ever being caught in the town.[3]

Many of the Knox founders and faculty unabashedly supported the Underground Railroad and abolition, including George Washington Gale, who was once indicted and brought before the Knox County court for helping runaway slaves.[4]

Other faculty and founders involved include:

 “George Avery, the Reverend Edward Beecher, A.S. Bergen, President Blanchard, Mary Blanchard, George Davis, R.C. Dunn, R.C. Edgerton, Willian Mead and Mary Ferris Mead, Charles Gilbert, Samuel and Catharine Hitchcock, William Holyoke, Charlie Love, Abram and Charlotte Neely, Lucious Parker, Hiram Revels, Susan Van Allen Richardson, John Waters, Julia Wells, John West, Mary Allen West, Nehemiah and Catherine West, and Sherman Williams.”[5] 

Two Knox trustees, Samuel G. Wright and William J. Phelps, worked as “agents” of the Underground Railroad.[6] And, in Elijah P. Lovejoy’s Alton Observer Extra from Sept. 26, 1837, he lists ten Knox College trustees among those calling for the first State Anti-Slavery Convention that was held in Alton a month later, where Lovejoy would be murdered by a pro-slavery mob.[7]


Abolitionist Sentiments at Knox College: The Oak Leaf, Curriculum, and Barnabus Root

Published in October 1856, the first edition of The Oak Leaf literary magazine begins with a six-page essay denouncing bigotry and intolerance. The essay is well-crafted and evocative, especially the final two paragraphs in which the author states: 

The spirit of bigotry still exists even in our own country. At times it shows itself by violence; presses have been destroyed; tar, feathers and stale eggs have been employed, and even murders committed, to stifle the voice. Let all who would be wise hear the warning of the past. What ever their doctrines, let others advocate their belief—be content to hear without anger the contradiction of our own—respect the individuality of others, as we would wish our own to be respected—strive to put down everything which has the shadow of intolerance, whether among the advocates of our own doctrines, or among our opponents. Guard the freedom of thought and speech as we would guard our country’s liberty with our lives.[8]

This passage functions as the baseline representation of the beliefs held by many students at Knox at the time it was published. They proudly stuck to their anti-slavery beliefs, and Knox was an institution where “the freedom of thought and speech” of the students and faculty was not only encouraged but protected.[9]

It's interesting, then, that with a student body made up of impressionable youths in support of equality at a college run and founded by abolitionists, Knox supplied its students with a classical education. A possible explanation could be that by keeping abolition and education separate, Knox didn’t have to actually do anything for abolition. Since abolition was ingrained into the culture at Knox, they didn’t have to educate students on it, which allowed Knox to fulfill the requirements of being an abolitionist college basically by reputation alone. 


The first page of Barnabus Root's letter to George Whipple

The first curriculum at Knox for the men was rooted in the study of “languages, mathematics, and natural sciences,” with “philosophy, ancient languages, natural sciences, and modern languages” not added until after 1858.[10] In 1861, the “music” and “military training” departments were added, and the women were “placed on equal footing as the men.”[11] And, there was no American history or government taught, with nothing pertaining to the impending Civil War in any of the Knox College catalogs from 1846-1865. The abolitionist sentiments of the students and faculty were just that—the sentiments of the students and faculty, not of Knox as an institution. The Oak Leaf was student-run and student-published; the opinions voiced in that magazine were the opinions of the students, not of the college itself. 

Even further, although Knox was open to both black and white students since its founding, the first black man to graduate from the college—Barnabus Root—graduated five years after the conclusion of the Civil War and thirty-three years after Knox’s founding in 1870.[12] Revealed through a letter to George Whipple in 1868, Root felt a “prevailing feeling [of] prejudice” during his first few years at Knox.[13] He tells Mr. Whipple that he has “asked God to show me my duty in this matter and to keep me a humble Christian from the blighting degrading feeling of self-abasement which I see in almost every one of my race I see in this country—the legitimate effect of this feeling.”[14] However, Root believed that the experiences he had at Knox were a result of “unacquaintance,” as the people of Knox had never had “daily and familiar contact with the blacks on the part of the whites.”[15] On another, more hopeful note, Root did say that “those who entertained much of [that] feeling” when he arrived at Knox “lost at least much of it,” which he claims was “the natural result of better acquaintance.”[16] I digress—just because the students and faculty of Knox held abolitionist sentiments does not mean they were not also capable of prejudice. It’s one thing to claim to be anti-slavery and another to, as Barnabus Root put it, have “daily and familiar contact with the blacks on the part of the whites.”[17]

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The section titled "Knox 'Boys in Blue'" from The Gale

Knox's Abolitionist Reputation: The Gale and the Centennial Map of Galesburg

The first edition of The Gale, published in 1888 by the fraternities of Knox College, contains two especially interesting entries. The first is a reflection on the founding of Knox College, and the second is a tribute to the many students and graduates of Knox who fought for the Union in the Civil War.[18] The section reflecting on Knox’s founding claims that the founders “were moved by pure Christian principles…the unselfish desire to found a city and a college in this great West that should stand for truth and righteousness…”[19] So, the founders were brought to the Illinois prairie not by a desire for equality, but instead by God—or, more appropriately—manifest destiny. As I previously mentioned, there’s a difference between the people at an institution supporting abolition and the institution itself supporting abolition. For example, the section on the Knox College “Boys in Blue” claims that Knox was “founded and nurtured in an atmosphere of uncompromising hatred of slavery and the slave power.”[20] When placed adjacent to descriptions of how students “threw down their books without waiting to finish their course,” “flushed with commencement honors, exchanged the sheepskin for the musket, and the quiet of student life for the stirring scenes of war,” Knox proudly claims its abolitionist past.[21] In the Knox Centennial Yearbook from 1937, George Washington Gale’s reasons for founding Knox are not elaborated on, merely explained as wanting to found “another manual labor college in the Middle West…”[22] In the next few pages reflecting on Knox’s 100 years of history, there is no mention of abolition or slavery.[23]

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The centennial map of Galesburg, made in honor of the 100th anniversary of the town's founding

Also in 1937, a centennial map of Galesburg was made for the 100th anniversary of Knox. The map successfully commemorates and mocks Knox’s history with its stylized, almost cartoonish, drawings that feature a not-so-accurate layout of Galesburg centered on the Knox campus with the remains of Log City to the north.[24] Around the map are detailed drawings of landmarks and events from the past century in Galesburg, like the Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, Lombard College, and Whitesboro, New York, where the idea for Knox was formed.[25] The bottom left corner references Galesburg’s history with the Underground Railroad, citing the home of Nehemiah West, a founder, as a stop on the Railroad.[26] Also credited as being a stop on the Underground Railroad is the First Church Tower, a common hiding spot for slaves on the run, which the viewer is informed of through racial caricatures of slaves looking out from the Church Tower asking: “Is dey comin’ to git us?”[27] Besides the obvious racial ramifications of the illustrations on this map, it serves as an example of how in the early-to-mid-20th century, Knox began to mythologize its history with abolition and the Underground Railroad. The slaves hiding in the First Church Tower are depicted as stupid and bumbling, unable to hide themselves without the help of the white people of Galesburg. If I’m totally honest, I don’t know how audiences in 1937 were supposed to react to these depictions of slaves on this map. I don’t know if they were meant to laugh or sympathize or have an earnest reflection on the history of their town and school. All I do know is that seeing these racial caricatures ingrained in the history of Galesburg and Knox in the present day is equally repulsive and eye-opening. For the 100-year anniversary of Knox, it was deemed appropriate to both commemorate and mock Galesburg’s involvement in the Underground Railroad. 

Unfortunately, I feel that this map is an accurate representation of Knox’s history with abolition. Proudly claiming an abolitionist past when beneficial, and as a result, both commemorating and mocking its own history. Making a caricature not only of escaped slaves but of the school's reputation as an abolitionist institution, reflecting on a past that never really existed.

What Did It Actually Mean to be Abolitionist?

If there's one thing I learned from my research, it's that the further you dig, the more racism and activism you uncover; in fact, they often go hand in hand. Abolition was an organized effort of the 1830s-1870s to end transatlantic slavery. There was a strong religious undercurrent within the movement, mostly among branches of Christianity such as Presbyterians or Quakers, and Christianity was often used to prove anti-slavery arguments. Anti-and-Pro-Slavery altercations were generally violent, as seen with the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy. However, you could be in support of abolition and still be actively prejudiced, or do absolutely nothing in support of it. Of course, the converse is also true—you could be in support of abolition and risk your life to help slaves escape to freedom, or fight for the Union in the Civil War, or protest and make your voice be heard. 

This eerily mirrors the present day with the rise of performative activism, a term for when activism is done in order to gain reputation or benefit socially, rather than from an actual commitment to a cause. For some reason, before my research, performative activism was a modern idea in my mind. I didn’t consider that it could be done without social media when really, all you have to do is look at how information was spread and reputation was made before technology—newspapers, magazines, catalogs, advertisements, yearbooks, maps—anything that was used to spread or preserve information, including word of mouth.

With that in mind, consider this passage from the current Knox College mission statement: “The commitment to put learning to use to accomplish both personal and social goals dates back to the founding of the College in 1837. We take particular pride in the College's early commitment to increase access to all qualified students of varied backgrounds, races and conditions, regardless of financial means.”[28] So, is it true? Or is Knox once again reflecting on a past that doesn’t exist, making a caricature of its own history?

Is Knox Actually Abolitionist?