I have a dream...a dream spanning the next 150 years
Editor’s note: As part of the nation’s 150-year anniversary of the Civil War, the Henry County Civil War Sesquicentennial Task Force will be publishing a monthly column, written by Henry County historians. The research for the articles comes from Henry County newspapers published between 1861-1865, as well as diaries, journals and letters written by Henry County Civil War soldiers and their families.
By Joy Lynn Conwell
“I have a dream.” These words have become famous over the past 50 years. On Wednesday, August 28, 2013, President Barack Obama stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., and declared of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech given 50 years prior, on the same steps of the Memorial, “His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.”
King’s address given on August 28, 1963, as part of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom before 250,000 supporters, has become a “moment in history,” never to be forgotten. But his speech was not a beginning point in civil rights….it was and is a step along the way. King’s speech in 1963 corresponded to the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. Most importantly on August 16, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln as an executive order on January 1, 1863, it was not signed by Lincoln and made law until August 16, 1863. It is remembered by many African-Americans as their beginning of “I have a dream”.
Even in Mt. Pleasant in 1863, there were those who came because they themselves or their families “had a dream.” A young male slave seeking hope and freedom and a two-year old baby girl slave carried by her mother and father as they sought the places of their dream would leave an indelible mark on the memory of the local citizens as they sought their freedom.
In early 1863, the local press mentioned that “a young colored boy” had come to Mt. Pleasant and was being mentored by members of the local Peace Society. The Mt. Pleasant Journal’s reporting of the event of Senator James Harlan’s academic examining of “the colored boy” and his admittance to Iowa Wesleyan University as well as him receiving a scholarship sponsored by R. M. Pickel, assessor of the First District of Iowa, brought a unique response from the community. Reporting on the young man brought the Mt. Pleasant Journal to state, “Displays of rowdyism are not calculated to change our mind or frighten us in the least.”
The name of the young man, who became the first African-American to attend Iowa Wesleyan, eluded researchers until recently when a letter published in the April-May 1869 issue of the “Bond of Peace,” a publication of the Universal Peace Union edited by Alfred H. Love, noted abolitionist, was discovered.
Under the title, “Once a Slave”, Samuel H. Johnson wrote of arriving in Mt. Pleasant at age 19, “sick, destitute, his ears, toes, and fingers frozen begging for protection. He was received by some of the members of the Peace Society and placed in school…..Since my emancipation from the bonds of slavery, I have had the advantages of nine months of schooling and hope by integrity, economy, and perseverance in all good and God-like ways, to finish my education, that I may be a good and useful man to myself and community at large. My prayers shall ever ascend to Heaven that thus my good resolve may be accomplished.”
There is no account of Johnson completing his education at Iowa Wesleyan or of him remaining in the Mt. Pleasant area….but it was here that his dream began. Helping him were members of the local Peace Society in 1863 — Rev. Joseph Dugdale, Arabella Babb Mansfield, and Sen. James Harlan among others.
It would not be until 1885 that an African-American would graduate from Iowa Wesleyan University, but she would be an exceptional example of the schools of Mt. Pleasant.
Susan Mosely arrived with her parents in 1863 in Mt. Pleasant as a two-year old. She would graduate from Mt. Pleasant High School and attending her graduation was Frederick Douglass, noted African-American abolitionist and friend of Rev. and Mrs. Joseph Dugdale, local Quaker abolitionists. Mosely entered IWU in the fall of 1881 and was the speaker at her 1885 IWU Commencement. In 1888, she would be the first African-American to receive her master’s degree from Iowa Wesleyan.
By 1889, now Susan Mosely Grandison, and her husband, Rev. C. N. Grandison, were recognized nationally for their impact on education of “freedman” when Rev. Grandison became the president of Bennett College.
Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., was founded in 1873 is one of the over 100 Historical Black Colleges and Universities in America, and one of only two that specifically educate women. Rev. Grandison was the first African-American president of any of the institutions founded by the Freedman’s Aid Society.
Susan Mosely Grandison not only served as the president’s wife at every college her husband served as president but she also taught at everyone…one of the first African-American female collegiate professors in the United States. Little Susan Mosely’s family had a dream in 1863….and they came to Mt. Pleasant.
When Dr. Martin Luther King concluded his speech in 1963, a quarter of million people…of all ethnic and economic backgrounds…broke into song…an African spiritual, which wasn’t even written down until 1940…”Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, Free at Last”.
To remember the whole of history is important…not just 2013 or even 1963….let us remember 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation, the movement of slaves from south to north, the toll of the prolonged war was beginning to show. But the future was brighter because there were those who had a dream and the shout of “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, Free at last” was beginning to be sung throughout the nation.