Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project investigates Clay County history

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History of William Jewell College, Liberty, Clay County, Missouri. From University of Missouri Digital Library Production Services, William Jewell College Histories.

Since August of 2020, a group of dedicated student researchers, under the guidance of Dr. Christopher Wilkins, associate professor and chair of the department of history at William Jewell College, has been researching the history of slavery in relationship to Jewell. The research group that the students and Wilkins created, the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project (SJMP), had its origins in an introductory history seminar last fall. This semester, Project members mainly convene during the HIS 204: Slavery, Memory, and Justice course that Wilkins teaches. They plan to conduct research for as long as it takes to bring the truth about the College’s relationship with slavery to light. This will ultimately conclude with the group publishing their research – writing a more accurate account of Jewell’s history in the hopes of creating a more inclusive college community. 

As the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project compiles and verifies their research, The Hilltop Monitor will publish their findings. This is the final installment in a series of investigations into the history of slavery at William Jewell College. 


Over the past month, The Hilltop Monitor has detailed the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project’s investigation into the founders and early trustees’ ties to slavery more broadly, and introduced their research on Dr. Jewell and Alexander Doniphan. In this final installment of the investigation, the Monitor reviews the society these figures were embedded in and where the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project endeavors to go next. 

Alexander Doniphan, James T.V. Thompson and other founders and trustees from Clay County were rooted in the society of early Liberty and Clay County. To gain a more comprehensive picture of Jewell’s founding, the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project continues to investigate Liberty and Clay County’s historical ties to slavery.

Over the course of this research, the SMJP began assembling evidence that reveals the terrible irony in the name of Liberty. Despite a name proclaiming freedom, both Liberty and Clay County broadly supported slavery and economically depended upon it. 

Founded in the 1820s, most of Clay County’s early white settlers originated from the slave states of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. When they traveled westward, they brought the enslaved people they owned with them. According to census records, 10,337 people lived in Clay County by 1850. Roughly 27% of this total population, or 2,742 people, was enslaved. 

Although Missouri was a slave state, Clay County was far above the norm for Missouri in its embrace of slavery. Overall 13% of Missouri’s population was enslaved in 1850 – or 87,442 enslaved people out of a total population of 682,044. Clay County more than doubled the percentage of the enslaved compared to that of the state as a whole. 

Out of 100 total Missouri counties in 1850, only four other counties had a higher percentage of enslaved people relative to the total population than Clay County.

According to the Project, critical to understanding the role of slave labor in Clay County is acknowledging the differences between how the slave system worked in the Deep South relative to Missouri. Geography and climate made the large-scale plantations of the Deep South ill-suited for Missouri. Slavery in Missouri tended to be more diversified and smaller in scale

Few Missouri slave owners owned more than twenty enslaved people. For many slaveholding farmers with smaller operations, the slaveholders worked in the fields alongside the people they enslaved. Sometimes these slaveholders supplemented their income by renting out enslaved people to perform domestic labor and construction. 

However, as scholars of slavery note, a difference in the organizational structure of slavery does not mean it was any less central to the economic system of Missouri and Clay County. By the end of the 1850s, Missouri was one of the largest hemp-producing states in the nation, and Clay County was among the foremost hemp-producing counties in the state. Since the cultivation of hemp demanded backbreaking labor, slaveholders almost always assigned this task to enslaved people.  

The wealth the citizens of Clay County received from this forced labor would be pivotal to their ability to persuade the Baptists to locate their college in Liberty, as recounted in the first installment in this series

As part of its research, the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project interrogated one of the common justifications used to excuse slaveholders – that they were products of their time and did not have significant access to opposing viewpoints. 

The researchers on the SMJP uncovered evidence to the contrary of this argument. 

At the state level, hostility by a large majority of white Missourians towards abolitionist arguments clearly illustrated their awareness of these arguments. The General Assembly approved an act in 1837 that prohibited the promulgation of abolitionist doctrines. Violators of the law faced two years in state prison and a potential maximum $1,000 fine. Repeat offenders faced sharply escalating sentences: 20 years in prison for a second offense, and a life sentence for a third offense. One of western Missouri’s most prominent citizens, Clay County’s Alexander Doniphan, advocated publicly for the bill’s passage.

Though no prominent Missouri politician supported the immediate abolition of slavery during the Antebellum period, not all were favorably disposed towards the institution on moral grounds. In the early 1850s, the legendary Senator Thomas Hart Benton – one of Missouri’s most powerful politicians for three decades – criticized slavery. Although he was himself a slaveholder, Benton castigated slavery as an incurable evil. 

Given Benton’s prominence, his moral condemnation received wide coverage across the state. Benton’s public opposition stands in contrast to Dr. Jewell, who is similarly often portrayed as a slaveholder with antislavery sentiments. However, there is no evidence that Jewell ever publicly spoke out against slavery. 

In Clay County, two revealing incidents from the 1840s and 1850s demonstrate that citizens had exposure to alternative views. 

According to T.J. Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, in the 1840s, two evangelists identified only by their last names Chandler and Love dared to criticize slaveholders in Liberty. Jane Gill, the sister of early Jewell trustee Waltus Watkins,  described Clay Countians as sufficiently “enraged” against this anti-slavery preaching that they “threatened” Love “so that he could not preach there.” Swiftly after this threat, Chandler and Love “fled to a northern state.” 

Clay Countians’ feelings towards abolitionism hardened as the decade progressed. At a public meeting in Liberty concerning the Compromise of 1850, prominent figures and Jewell founders – including Doniphan, James T.V. Thompson and E.M. Samuel – all angrily denounced abolitionists. 

Finally, if there could be any doubt about Clay County’s awareness of abolitionist arguments and pro-slavery tilt, the conflict that became known as Bleeding Kansas silences it.

In 1854, after the Kansas-Nebraska Act determined that the slaveholding status of Kansas would be decided by popular sovereignty, Clay County slaveholders became concerned that a free Kansas would be a disaster for their economic interests and inspire the people they enslaved to attempt more frequent escapes. To prevent that outcome, Clay Countians played a significant role in broader Missourian efforts to ensure Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state. 

Clay Countians, led in part by Doniphan, organized a Pro-Slavery Aid Association dedicated to this outcome. Clay Countians formed part of the wave of Missourians who flooded across the border during voting for the territorial legislature, committing egregious voter fraud in the process. 

At times, the Clay Countians went beyond aid and voter fraud into violence. In December 1855, 100 pro-slavery men from Clay County seized weapons – including a cannon – from the Federal arsenal in Liberty, helped equip a large pro-slavery military force with those weapons and then rode into Kansas to besiege the free-state stronghold of Lawrence. This ‘Wakarusa War’ ended in a negotiated peace arranged by the territorial governor, and Clay Countians returned home, having contributed to efforts to make Kansas a slave state. 

If their actions left any ambiguity regarding the dominant view of white Clay Countians towards slavery, the citizens explicitly articulated their opinion in 1855. Following a mob attack on the Industrial Luminary, an anti-slavery newspaper, by citizens of neighboring Platte County, Clay Countians met to endorse the mob’s actions. At this meeting, an endorsed resolution went so far as to call those holding anti-slavery views traitors that needed to be punished

This initial research gathered by the SMJP paints a more complicated narrative regarding the citizens of Clay County than is often presented. It also reveals that William Jewell College was constituted in an environment characterized by staunchly pro-slavery sentiments, even beyond the founders and early trustees. 

For Wilkins and the student researchers of the SMJP, there remains considerably more research to uncover and assemble on the founders and early trustees, faculty and students, and Liberty and Clay County. The parts covered in this investigation only begin to scratch the surface of their ambitions. 

And they don’t plan to stop anytime soon. 

Over the past academic year, the SMJP researchers have invested time into learning best practices from how other colleges and universities have explored their historical ties to slavery. 

One of the best resources established for collaborative knowledge-and-technique sharing is the Universities Studying Slavery consortium established as part of the University of Virginia’s investigation into its historical ties to slavery. Over 70 colleges and universities have joined the consortium. Currently, William Jewell College is not one of them. 

This summer, Wilkins will guide more than a dozen student interns as they contribute to this research by fanning out throughout Missouri to visit county historical societies and archives, as well as continue online research. Several alumni with backgrounds in historical research have also volunteered to join the Project’s work.

Wilkins will continue this research over the next several years, including while on sabbatical this fall. He also plans to offer his HIS 204: Slavery, Memory, and Justice class every spring semester.  

One of the original student researchers, junior political science and history major Hayley Michael, will continue this research through her honors project. Michael will be focusing on Jewell students, faculty and staff between the Antebellum and Reconstruction periods and their ties to slavery. She will defend her honors project in the spring of 2022. 

“In my decade at Jewell, I have never worked with a more dedicated, passionate, idealistic, and impressive group of students,” said Wilkins. 

Wilkins emphasized that the crucial importance of students trained in rigorous historical inquiry is the animating force in this research and generating positive cultural change at Jewell. 

“Since last August, I have focused on helping to create and guide the independent Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project, and recently declined to serve on the administration-created Racial Reconciliation Commission, for two reasons,” said Wilkins. “The first is how the nature of who is doing the work influences whose voices are being heard on how to address this history. The SMJP is student-centered, community-based, and advised by faculty specializing in historical research.  We have done a tremendous amount of work over the past academic year, will collectively decide on when we believe our research is ready to be published and how it should be presented, and work together to advocate for policies that we believe in.”

Wilkins continued to speak on the timeline of the research.

“The second is the timeline of the SMJP’s work: to truly recover the history of slavery’s influence on Jewell will take time, and I expect the research and writing of the 100+ page report on slavery and Jewell will take until mid-2023,” said Wilkins. “That amount of time will be necessary to identify the names of as many of the enslaved people held in bondage by the founders and early trustees as possible, describe the conditions of those enslaved peoples’ lives and investigate the actions of the Jewell community during the Civil War era.”

Wilkins closed the interview by expressing his belief that there is a moral imperative to use our knowledge of slavery’s influence on Jewell’s history to help build a more inclusive college community in the future – a belief that serves as the foundation for all the work done by the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project.

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