New York History: “A White Man Imprisoned 17 Years for Helping Enslaved People Escape to Freedom”
Reprinted with permission by the editorial staff of the New York Almanack.
Rev. Calvin Cornelius Fairbank was born November 3, 1816 in Pike, Wyoming County, NY. He began his academic studies at a seminary in Lima, Livingston County, NY, and became a licensed preacher in 1840. In 1842 he was ordained an elder in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and he graduated Oberlin College in Ohio two years later. At Oberlin he met John Mifflin Brown (1817-1893), a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and an Underground Railroad activist.
Fairbank was a radical abolitionist who not only spoke out against slavery, but actively worked to free as many enslaved people as he could. “Forty-seven slaves I guided toward the North Star, in violation of the state codes of Kentucky and Virginia,” he wrote. “I piloted them through the forests, mostly by night, – girls fair and white, dressed as ladies; men and boys, as gentlemen or servants – men in women’s clothes, and women in men’s clothes; on horseback, in buggies, in carriages, common wagons, in and under loads of hay, straw, old furniture, boxes and bags; crossed the Jordan of the slave, swimming, or wading chin deep, or in boats, or skiffs, on rafts, and often on a pine log. And I never allowed one to be recaptured. For aiding these slaves to escape from their bondage, I was twice imprisoned, – in all seventeen years and four months; and received… thirty-five thousand, one hundred and five stripes from a leather strap…”
Fairbank helped free an enslaved person for the first time in 1837. While piloting a lumber raft down the Ohio River he ferried a slave across the river into free territory. He often guided escaped slaves to Levi Coffin who helped arrange further transportation north for thousands of people.
Fairbank was arrested for helping to transport Lewis Hayden, his wife Harriet and Harriet’s son Joseph by carriage to freedom in Ohio. He was tried in 1845 and sentenced to 15 years, five years for each of the slaves he helped free. Serving his sentence in the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, he was pardoned in 1849 using money raised by Hayden from his new neighbors in Boston. Two years later he was arrested again for helping an enslaved man named Tamar escape Kentucky to Indiana. In November 1851, marshals from Kentucky, with the help of the sheriff of Clark County, Indiana and Indiana Governor Joseph A. Wright, abducted Fairbank and took him back to Kentucky. In 1852, he was again sentenced to 15 years. While imprisoned in the Frankfort Penitentiary he was the victim of harsh treatment, including being frequently whipped (he believed he had received some 35,000 lashes while imprisoned). From 1844 to 1870, Kentucky imprisoned at least 44 people for helping to free enslaved people. The last man was released in 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War. Eight of those imprisoned died prisoners.
Late in the Civil War, in 1864, Fairbank was pardoned by Acting Kentucky Governor Richard T. Jacob. He later wrote a memoir, published in 1890, Rev. Calvin Fairbank During Slavery Times: How He “Fought the Good Fight” to Prepare “the Way.” He died in near-poverty in Angelica, Allegany County, NY. Rev. Calvin Cornelius Fairbank was inducted to the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum in Peterboro, New York in October 2022.
Rev. Calvin Fairbank During Slavery Times (1890) (Excerpts)
- “I took license to preach in 1840, and in 1842 was ordained an elder in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and closed my course of study, graduating in 1844. One incident, more than anything else outside of my organization, controlled and intensified my sentiments on the slavery question. It was this: I went with my father and mother to Rushford to quarterly meeting when a boy, and we were assigned to the good, clean home of a pair of escaped slaves. One night after service I sat on the hearthstone before the fire, and listened to the woman’s story of sorrow. It covered the history of thirty years. She had been sold from home, separated from her husband and family, and all ties of affection broken. My heart wept, my anger was kindled, and antagonism to slavery was fixed upon me. “Father,” I said, on going to our room, “when I get bigger they shall not do that;” and the resolve waxed stronger with my growth.”
- I grew to manhood with a positive, innate sense of impartial liberty and equality, of inalienable right, without regard to race, color, descent, sex or position. I never trained with the strong party simply because it was strong. From the time I heard that woman’s story I felt the most intense hatred and contempt for slavery, as the vilest evil that ever existed; and yet I supposed the institution provided for and protected by the United States Constitution, and legally established by every slave state; and when, previous to investigation, I repeatedly aided the slaves to escape in violation of law, I did it earnestly, honestly, in all good conscience toward God and man.
- Coming within the influence of active anti-slavery men at Oberlin, Ohio, I was led to examine the subject in the light of law and justice, and soon found the United States Constitution anti-slavery, and the institution existing in violation of law. My conclusion in regard to the anti-slavery character of the Constitution of the United States was based on common law, on its interpretation by the whole civilized world, and the recognition of self-evident truth as the basis of that interpretation, viz.: “Where rights are infringed, where fundamental principles are overthrown, where the general system of the law is departed from, the legislative intention must be expressed with irresistible clearness, in order to induce a court of justice to suppose a design to effect such object.”
- This conclusion enabled me to act without misgiving, as to my obligation to the General Government. I was no longer under obligation to respect the evil institution as protected by the Government, but was free to condemn slavery and the slave code, — free to follow the promptings of duty.
- Finding, then, the diabolical institution unprovided for — finding it positively prohibited—finding it to be a conceded fact by our best statesmen, North and South, that not a state in the Union had slavery established by law, I concluded, upon the highest authority in the universe, that slavery was chronic rebellion, and that I was not only justified, but bound by the “higher law,” to oppose it in defense of an oppressed people. From that time I never allowed an opportunity to aid the fugitives to pass unimproved; but when men and women came to me, pleading the “Fatherhood of God,” and the brotherhood of man, I did all in my power to set them free, subjecting myself to imprisonment and the deepest suffering.
- Forty-seven slaves I guided toward the North Star, in violation of the state codes of Virginia and Kentucky. I piloted them through the forests, mostly by night, — girls, fair and white, dressed as ladies; men and boys, as gentlemen, or servants, — men in women’s clothes, and women in men’s clothes; boys dressed as girls, and girls as boys; on foot or on horseback, in buggies, carriages, common wagons, in and under loads of hay, straw, old furniture, boxes, and bags; crossed the Jordan of the slave, swimming, or wading chin deep, or in boats, or skiffs, on rafts, and often on a pine log. And I never suffered one to be recaptured. None of them, so far as I have learned, have ever come to poverty, or to disgrace. I have visited a score of those families, finding them all industrious, frugal, prosperous, respectable citizens.
- For aiding those slaves to escape from their bondage, I was twice imprisoned — in all seventeen years and four months; and received, during the eight years from March first, 1854, to March first, 1862, thirty-five thousand, one hundred and five stripes from a leather strap fifteen to eighteen inches long, one and a half inches wide, and from one-quarter to three-eighths of an inch thick. It was of half-tanned leather, and frequently well soaked, so that it might burn the flesh more intensely. These floggings were not with a rawhide or cowhide, but with a strap of leather attached to a handle of convenient size and length to inflict as much pain as possible, with as little real damage as possible to the working capacity.
- In what decade did Calvin Fairbank become a member of the clergy?
- What “incident’ convinced Rev. Fairbank to organize his life to oppose slavery?
- Rev. Fairbank believed in a “positive, innate sense of impartial liberty and equality, of inalienable right, without regard to race, color, descent, sex or position.” In which foundational American document(s) do those ideas appear?
- What was his initial view of the United States Constitution?
- How did his view of the Constitution and the government change?
- How many freedom seekers did Fairbank assist on the Underground Railroad?
- What happened to Fairbank as a result of his activity on the Underground Railroad?
- Rev. Calvin Fairbank was recently inducted into the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum in Peterboro, New York. In your opinion, did he merit this honor? Explain.