Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Edmond Kelley to Abraham Lincoln

It is unfathomable how many people probably wrote to Abraham Lincoln during his presidency. I seriously doubt that he had the time to read every letter that came his way, but I wouldn't be surprised if he tried. That just seems to be the type of person he was.

One of the multitudes of letters that has survived was written by an African American preacher named Edmond Kelley. Kelley was born a slave in 1817 in Columbia, Tennessee. He was baptized after he "got religion" in 1838. He was licensed to preach by his local church in 1842, and was formally ordained as a Baptist minister in 1843. In 1846 his owner, Ann White, went into debt and encouraged Kelley to escape before he would have to be sold. Instead of fleeing Kelley was provided by White with a pass to travel anywhere he wished in order to preach. In 1847 he became the minister of the Second Baptist Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Over the next several years he worked with antislavery advocates to raise money to purchase the freedom of his wife and family, still enslaved in Tennessee. In 1851 the family was finally reunited.

The letter Kelley wrote to Lincoln was penned on August 21, 1863, a full eight months after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. And, while Kelley's letter to Lincoln covers a number of interesting points, I found the following paragraph especially telling:

"For one, I sincerely trust the colored people will never wait to be drafted, but volunteer to a man. First, because slaveholders and the proslavery party have long since argued, and still argue, that the colored people are an inferior, cowardly, docile race, only fit to be slaves. Second, because the colored people have more at stake than the white people; for while the whites hazard their civil and political rights, the colored people lose both, and their freedom besides. Third, because the colored people generally proffered their services to the government, to aid in putting down the rebellion, shortly after the war broke out in 1861, when the indications were much less favorable for us than they are now. But this was specifically true of the colored people of this State [Massachusetts], and more especially for this city [New Bedford]; for it will be remembered by all that several large meetings were called, at which meetings resolutions were presented and passed by the colored people of this city, expressive of their willingness to enlist in the Government or State service. These resolutions were transmitted to the Governor and Council of this State, who without hesitancy expressed a willingness to have the colored people bear their part, but informed our friends of some of the legal difficulties in the way then, but encouraged the colored people to organize themselves into companies, and hold themselves in readiness. Let it be borne in mind that when the Governor's reply was received, another large meeting was called, and the recommendations of the governor were overwhelmingly adopted by our colored citizens. And since their prayer is answered, and the requisition has come, let none hold back, or wait to be drafted."

By the time this letter was written African Americans had already rushed to Union service. Massachusetts produced the 54th and 55th infantry regiments, as well as the 5th cavalry regiment; although these units were recruited free blacks from across the northern states, not just the Bay State. Slaves came too. Louisiana produced the most African American soldiers and Kentucky was second.

Especially during black history month, let's not forget the service of these African American soldiers and their efforts to keep our country united. Their service helped offer freedom to those who had never known it.


  1. Revd Dr Paul WalkerMarch 23, 2010 at 1:03 PM

    My research area is African Americans who came to Britain during the 18th & 19th Cent in the cause of anti-slavery. I have been researching Revd Edmond Kelley for some time, as he spent some time in Dublin, Ireland, during April 1853 where he gave at least two anti-slavery lectures. Thanks for sharing this very interesting discovery about him.

  2. Wow, thank you for the recognition of my 5th great grandfather. His contributions to the African American baptist community during his time are remarkable, and as we continue in our own research his amazing story continues to unfold....as his legacy continues.

    Leah Kelly