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Stafford County

From 1850s Virginia, an Abolitionist Hero Emerges

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page C05

Not long before Norman Schools bought the historic Moncure Conway House in 1998, the retired restoration expert had never heard of the Stafford County-born abolitionist. Now look at Schools, grinning as he describes the sheer joy he experienced when he unsealed a long-closed fireplace in the basement of the 197-year-old brick Georgian home. "It was as if when I opened it up, I could hear the house say, 'Thank you!' "

Schools's own words say it all: "I've never been into hero worship before."

Jean McKee visits the home where her ancestors were slaves. Moncure Conway led about 30 of them to freedom in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1862. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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His glee is part of a rising enthusiasm for Conway, mostly ignored by his native Virginia even though some historians consider him among the most prominent southern abolitionists. Only in the last year did Conway's stately family home along the Rappahannock River become a designated state and national landmark as well as a site on the National Underground Railroad network.

"He was the most radical white male who grew up in the antebellum South," said John d'Entremont, a history professor at Randolph Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va., and author of an award-winning 1987 biography of Conway.

Conway -- the black sheep of his prominent, slaveholding family after he became a Unitarian minister, radical feminist and abolitionist -- also was honored last summer with a state historical marker in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he led 30 or more of his family's slaves to freedom. The labors of Schools and his wife, Lenetta, both 57, whose home answering machine says "Moncure Conway House," are a further tribute: They are working to put the house into public hands when they're older.

Historians say the renewed interest in Conway comes as bitterness over the Civil War and slavery recede. At James Madison's Montpelier in Orange County, the homes of freed slaves are being restored. At Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate, the first excavation of the slave quarters was finished in the late 1980s.

"When I came in 1980, people talked about 'servants' -- they didn't use the word 'slave,' " said Mary Thompson, a Mount Vernon historian. The slave burial ground wasn't marked, and people weren't encouraged to visit it, she said. But since 1995, she said, there has been a special tour about slave life that runs four times a day and is very popular.

"The historical profession discovered [Conway] a while back, but the mainstream establishment in the South is now embracing the civil rights movement and the people who led it," d'Entremont said. "I think it was a conscious choice to forget him. He was such a heretic in terms of his time and place."

Communities with historic sites also are realizing that "there is money in it," he said. "It's not crass to say that. African Americans never went to Monticello, and it's understandable."

Officials in the Fredericksburg area have been very open about the money they hope will come with a national slavery museum, which is being planned for a site between the viny, undeveloped Rappahannock and a shopping mall and golf course complex. Museum officials, including former governor L. Douglas Wilder, the project's initiator, say they hope to open in 2007.

Conway's beliefs took him away from not only Virginia, but also the United States.

He came from one of the region's more prominent families, which owned about 50 slaves, compared with the average southern family, which had about five, d'Entremont said. His mother's father, Thomas Stone, signed the Declaration of Independence, and her uncle served on the U.S. Supreme Court. After attending Dickinson College, Conway became a Methodist minister but soon left the fold for Harvard Divinity School and the Unitarian Church.

He was hired in 1854 by First Unitarian Church of Washington, which later became All Souls Church in Northwest, but he was removed from the pulpit for preaching his abolitionist views two years later. He moved on to a church in Cincinnati, returning east in 1862 when he heard that the Fredericksburg area was ablaze, scarred by fighting, with tens of thousands of soldiers dead on both sides.

Conway intended to free his family's slaves and tracked down about 30 of them in Washington, where they were hiding, and negotiated with rail officials in Baltimore to take them to the free state of Ohio. Although those slaves' descendants knew the story and called the initial settlement Conway's Colony, the connection between people in Stafford and those in Yellow Springs was made only in the last couple of years.

Last week, for the first time, a descendant from Conway's Colony came to Stafford.

Jean McKee, 53, a consultant at a call center, grew up in Yellow Springs and has been studying her ancestors for three decades. She now lives about an hour and a half away from the colony, whose homes are mostly overgrown.

"Doing African American research, you can only go back so far because of the great wall of slavery," she said. "And there are a lot of issues of relationships. You have to deal with some things you may not want to. Who were the fathers? Were they the slave owners? You're dealing with rape. Part of families were sold off, and how do you find them? Were mothers and fathers married, and under what definition?"

Conway grew disillusioned with the United States and left in 1863 for England, where he worked for British support for the North in the Civil War.

Now he is getting some recognition for his efforts against slavery. A proclamation issued this year by Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said he was "the only descendant of one of our nation's Founding Fathers to actively lead escaping slaves to freedom."

Schools said he thinks it was impossible until recently for Americans to understand someone so far ahead of his time. Conway thought that Lincoln should have freed all slaves before the war and that the Emancipation Proclamation was a poor ethical compromise, because it freed slaves only in some states and failed to address the sweeping issue of equal rights. "What will we do in 1962?" Conway wrote.

"That was right at the civil rights movement!" Schools marveled. "I don't think people could digest and comprehend him. It just wasn't his time yet."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company