COLORED CONVENTION HEARTLAND: BLACK ORGANIZERS, WOMEN AND THE OHIO MOVEMENT
ELIZABETH CLARK GAINES
Abstract: Elizabeth Clark Gaines was born in 1783, in Hanover County, eastern Virginia. Called Betty in the first part of her life, Elizabeth was born into slavery and was owned by John Clarke. She gave birth to five children by Clarke (although only four reached maturity) and lived as his bondswoman in Harrison County, Kentucky. In 1814 she gained her manumission and soon after moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. She married Isom Gaines in 1819, and together they had three more sons. Elizabeth had ties with the 1858 Colored Convention because her son John Isom Gaines was the chairman of the State Central Committee, and her grandson Peter Clark and son-in-law Peter Harbison were delegates and signers to the Constitution Of The Ohio State Anti-Slavery Society which was formed in the course of the convention.
In 1797, at the age of fourteen, Elizabeth Clark Gaines gave birth to her first son, Michael, fathered by Clarke. Her two daughters, Elisa and Evalina, and her son, Elliot, were born over the following ten years. According to the law in the antebellum South, a child’s condition of servitude was determined by the status of its mother, which meant that Betty’s children were born into slavery despite their paternity.
Betty’s life is an example of the pervasiveness of sexual violence Black women faced in the antebellum period, and the resulting complexity of relationships between enslaved people and slaveholders. It was not unusual for a white man to have such relations with an enslaved woman, especially if she was “mulatto” or of mixed racial heritage (Frederickson, 28). The high number of mixed-race people in Cincinnati’s Black community gives us a glimpse of this practice. It was also widely criticized in abolitionist press and slave narratives like Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
But Betty is also an example of the ways enslaved women used whatever power was available to them in unexpected ways. In the summer of 1814, John Clarke fell ill. Betty was able to use her position to convince him to manumit herself and her children. When Clarke died, his will (amended during his illness) granted Betty and three of her children, Michael, Elisa, and Evalina, their freedom. They were the only enslaved people out of 26 in Clarke’s ownership who were manumitted upon his death. Betty’s younger son Elliot was not included.
Betty stayed on the Gaines farm for two years before leaving Kentucky for Cincinnati with her two daughters, leaving Michael and Elliot behind. Even though Michael was free, he was under the age of twenty, and in Kentucky any “colored” male under the age of twenty required a white guardian. Elliot was now under the ownership of William Clarke, their former master’s white son. In 1815 William promised in writing to manumit Elliot when he turned 21 “if he behaves himself and pleases me.” Elliot was only eight years old (Frederickson). Betty may have chosen to leave to avoid risking Elliot’s freedom.
Betty became Elizabeth Clark when she moved to Cincinnati. She adopted the name Clark from her master John Clarke but she dropped the “e,” and from 1816 she was legally known as Elizabeth Clark.
Two years after she moved to Cincinnati, Clark married Isom Gaines, and her name again changed to Elizabeth Clark Gaines. According to Elizabeth’s grandson Peter H. Clark, not much is known about his grandfather before his marriage to Elizabeth except for the fact that he was one of the few Black men to own property in Cincinnati. Elizabeth and Isom’s first son together was born in 1821. The couple had two more sons.
Her family was a close knit family who held important jobs in the Black community in Cincinnati. Her son Michael moved to Cincinnati in 1823 and opened his own business. Her eldest daughter Elisa married a carpenter named John Woodson and her youngest daughter Evalina married a man named Peter Harbison.
The Clark-Gaines family became active in the abolitionist movement in the African American community. Her son John Isom Gaines and son-in-law John Woodson were active members in the growing Underground Railroad movement in the city. Her son Elliot was still enslaved during the twelve years after she moved to Cincinnati, but in 1828 when he turned twenty one, he crossed the Ohio River and joined the rest of his family.
Once her family was all safely in free territory, Elizabeth Clark Gaines sued for the back wages she had been promised by William Clarke. The Kentucky court ordered Clarke, who did not show up for the hearing, to pay $135.50 (Frederickson). Although he never paid the sum, being recognized by the court and winning over Clarke must have felt like a huge victory to a woman who lived the first thirty years of her life in slavery.
Elizabeth’s repeated advocacy and petitioning on her own and her childrens’ behalf, with John Clarke, his son William Clarke, and the court system, must have set a strong example for the rest of her family. They carried on her legacy through participation in Conventions, establishment of a school system for African American children in Cincinnati, and abolitionist and political work. Even her great-granddaughter, Consuelo Clark Stewart (Peter H. Clark’s daughter) would become one of the earliest Black women physicians in the United States (Taylor).
Written by Ronealle Edgar, Taught by Dr Christine Anderson, Xavier University, Spring 2016.
Edited by Nancy Yerian, Independent Historian.
Frederickson, Mary E. “ A Mother’s Arithmetic.” Gendered Resistance: Women, Slavery, and the Legacy of Margaret Garner. Ed. Frederickson, Mary E., and Delores M. Walters Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013. 25-48. Print.
Taylor, Nikki M. America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013).
Convention of the Colored Men of Ohio (1858: Cincinnati, OH), “Proceedings of a Convention of the Colored Men of Ohio, Held in the City of Cincinnati, on the 23d, 24th, 25th and 26th days of November, 1858,” ColoredConventions.org, accessed October 3, 2017, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/254.