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Sun, 12.13.2020

Lewis Woodson, Minister, and Abolitionist born

*The birth of Lewis Woodson is celebrated on this date in 1806.  He was a Black minister and abolitionist

Born free in Greenbrier County, Va. (now West Virginia).  Woodson was the oldest of eleven children born to Thomas and Jemima Woodson, both mulatto slaves who had gained their freedom.  Woodson family oral history, dating to the early nineteenth century, has claimed that Thomas Woodson was the eldest child of Sally Hemings and her master, President Thomas Jefferson.  Jeffersonian historians have disputed that account. Birth certificates were not common until 100 years after Thomas Woodson was born, and they were never issued for the birth of slave children. There is no surviving record of Sally Hemings having given birth to a surviving child before 1795.  

The results of a 1998 Jefferson DNA study conclusively showed that there was no genetic link between the Jefferson male line and the Woodson male line. The study's major findings were that the Y chromosome of the Jefferson male line matched that of Sally Hemings' son Eston's descendant. The Woodson Y chromosome did show northern European ancestry. The body of the 3rd President, Thomas Jefferson, was not exhumed. Thus, his DNA (sample) was not tested.   In 1820, his family moved to Chillicothe, Ohio, where Woodson joined Ohio’s abolitionist movement when he was 17.

Woodson viewed education as the key to Black self-reliance. He taught in Black schools in Chillicothe, Columbus, and Gainesville, Ohio, and founded the African Education and Benevolent Society.   They provided education to black children denied access to public schools.  Woodson moved to Pittsburgh in 1831 to work as a barber, educator, and minister of Pittsburgh’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which he founded. In 1832, he partnered with Black businessman John B. Vashon to create the Pittsburgh African Education Society.

A 19-year-old Martin Delany traveled by foot to Pittsburgh from Chambersburg, Pa., to attend the school and eventually befriended Vashon and Woodson. The three worked closely together to advance Black rights. Woodson also joined Vashon and other Black and white businessmen as a member of Pittsburgh’s Vigilance Committee, an organization that spirited runaway slaves through the city.  For five years beginning in 1837, Woodson honed and regularly expressed his Black separatist views in letters published in the abolitionist newspaper The Colored American. Woodson would remain an important figure in Black social and religious life in Pittsburgh until his death in January 1878. Still, his letters represent his most distinct contribution to Black political thought. 

Published under the pseudonym “Augustine,” Woodson called for total Black independence, political, economic, and social. He envisioned Blacks living in rural farming communities away from white society and encouraged his fellow abolitionists to help prepare the massive framework needed to create these zones once the slaves were free. His writings addressed White and Black abolitionists, but, at the same time, Woodson remained wary of white involvement in the Black community.  

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