Charles Backus Storrs stood before his audience and gave his inauguration address on February 9th, 1831 in Hudson, Ohio. At age thirty-six, he was elected the first permanent president of Western Reserve College (now Case Western Reserve). Aware of the controversy over antislavery sentiment, Storrs took a moral position during his address and described slavery “as a central concern of mankind." Most of us have not heard of this strong-willed abolitionist from Longmeadow, in part because his life was cut short by a disease that ruled his life from childhood. His life’s work as a minister and college president would take him from Western Massachusetts to South Carolina to Ohio. Along the way, he developed a clear idea of how he felt about the institution of slavery and used his platform to speak out against it.
The story of Charles Backus Storrs begins in Longmeadow, Massachusetts after slavery was effectively ended in the commonwealth in the 1780’s. He was born in 1794, the fifth child of the Reverend Richard Salter Storrs and his wife Sarah (Williston). His mother, weak with consumption (tuberculosis), died at age 32, a month and a half after delivering her seventh child. Not unexpectedly, widowed and with young children, his father remarried within the year. His father and stepmother (Sarah Williams) had three more children. While ownership of enslaved persons has not been found in the records of Richard Salter Storrs or his parents, his second wife was the granddaughter of Longmeadow's first minister, Stephen Williams, who is known to have owned at least twelve enslaved persons over his long tenure in Longmeadow.
As a child, Charles Backus Storrs was periodically sent to live with other families. It would appear that at least one reason for sending him away from home was concerns about his health. The consumption that took his mother's life, took the lives of more New Englanders than any other disease. It was not believed to be contagious at that time. Recommended prevention and treatment included fresh air, a wholesome diet, and healthy manual labor. Perhaps his parents hoped that sending him away would be good for his health. He lived with a farming family in nearby Somers, Connecticut, and also in Conway, Massachusetts -- probably at the home of his older sister Sally and her husband Charles Billings.
In 1810, Conway, like Longmeadow and Springfield, saw less than 1% of its population made up of people of color. However, the Billings house where Charles Backus Storrs was probably sent to live for a period during his youth did record one “free non-white” person on the 1810 census. It is intriguing to wonder if perhaps this was an early encounter Storrs may have had with someone who had previously been enslaved or descended from an enslaved person, in New England.
When Storrs was fourteen years old he went to Monson Academy for two years and then, at sixteen he entered the College of New Jersey (what became Princeton University). He did not graduate because he had almost certainly developed symptomatic tuberculosis. He would spend the next ten years fighting bouts of ill health and preparing for a life of ministry before heading to Charleston, South Carolina in 1821 to be ordained as an Evangelist in the Circular Church of Charleston. Here, Charles Backus Storrs would encounter the institution of slavery in a completely different way than ever before in his life.
A full 71% of Charleston’s population of 21,780 people were people of color. Nearly 14,000 of them were enslaved. In Georgia, where Storrs also worked as a missionary, 45% of the population was non-white. Of note, the Circular Church of Charleston, where Storrs was ordained, had a large congregation that included both black and white members including enslaved persons. The young Charles Backus Storrs must have been struck by the dramatic contrasts in the communities that he lived in South Carolina and Georgia in 1821 compared to his native Longmeadow. Perhaps this is where he first began to form his antislavery convictions.
Ultimately, he would remain in the south for only two years before packing up and moving on another mission of faith to the western state of Ohio. The Connecticut Courant reported that Storrs was spending about half of his time in Ravenna, Ohio as the community's minister and the remainder of his time doing missionary work “promoting the spiritual welfare of our new settlements in the west.” This meant visiting families, common schools, attending meetings for religious purposes and establishing Sabbath Schools. Storrs was stationed for six years in Ravenna, Ohio.
When a new college, Western Reserve College, opened nearby, Charles Backus Storrs was made professor of Theology. Within three years, he was appointed the first permanent college president.
Slavery was abolished in Ohio in 1802 by the state's original constitution, and by the time Storrs assumed his position at Western Reserve in the 1820’s, a large number of fugitives from slavery passed through Ohio. The region of Ohio around Western Reserve College was strong in anti-slavery sentiment in the early 1830s. Faculty, students, and trustees at the young Western Reserve College were colonizationists and abolitionists. Colonizationists advocated the gradual emancipation of enslaved people and sending them to Africa. Abolitionists advocated the immediate emancipation of enslaved people. According to past Case Western Reserve University Historian Frederick C. Waite, Storrs had originally been a colonizationist but was deeply impacted by William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator. Garrison was a staunch abolitionist.
By 1831, Storrs supported abolition and Waite contends that he was the first college president to publicly advocate for abolition. President Storrs made frequent multi-hour presentations on the evils of slavery. Storrs' presentations were memorable. A story printed in the Ohio newspaper, The Plain Dealer, in 1866 describes the recollections of an observer: "Mr. Storrs was a man of unprepossessing appearance, but of real talent...He commenced his sermons with a low tone of voice, and in an ambling style, but gradually warmed up with the glow of striking thought and the fire of true eloquence. He had a habit of frequent coughing, as he began his discourse;...But as he progressed , the coughs became less frequent, until they entirely ceased..." It would seem that Storrs would always have a hard time shaking the echoes of all of those years battling symptoms of consumption.
Along with President Storrs, two faculty members, and many students became abolitionists. The students formed the Western Reserve College Anti-Slavery Society in December 1832. Students were encouraged by abolitionist faculty to speak in the surrounding communities for the abolition cause. Some were harassed by abolition opponents.
On May 8, 1833, President Storrs gave a three-hour sermon on abolition, after which he became extremely ill. He took a leave of absence and traveled to his brother's home in Braintree, Massachusetts, where he died at age 39 from tuberculosis on September 15, 1833.
After his death, The Liberator printed a memoriam. In part this read, "For a considerable time previous to his death, his sympathies were warmly enlisted in behalf of his oppressed colored brethren; and it is to be feared that his death was hastened by his assiduous devotion to the Anti-Slavery cause. He had been addressing public audiences, for two hours at a time, with overflowing feeling,..." Charles Backus Storrs left behind a wife and six children, at least one of whom would continue the work his father had started when his own congregation fundraised so much of the money to support the building of a school for freed black children that the school bore his name. But he also left an inspiring legacy on a college community that would continue to do the work that had become so important to its first president.
-Contributed by Al McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society
Sources and Works Cited:
Boston Commercial Gazette Jan. 22, 1821
Census for 1820, 1821, United States Census Bureau
Connecticut Courant March 9, 1824
Connecticut Mirror February 3, 1823
French, David. Charles Backus Storrs, "Inaugural Address, Western Reserve College," February 9, 1831, Charles Backus Storrs Papers, CWRU cited in Elizur Wright, Jr., and the Emergence of Anti-Colonization Sentiments on the Connecticut Western Reserve, pg 55. Ohio History Journal, https://resources.ohiohistory.org/ohj/search/display.php?page=4&ipp=20&searchterm=Array&vol=85&pages=49-66
Hallowed Ground: Circular Congregational Church, Charleston in Discover South Carolina, 2023. https://discoversouthcarolina.com/articles/hallowed-ground-circular-congregational-church-charleston
Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator, William A Bohnard, F J Coghlan, H T Jeffrey, and Louis P Fisher, Waite, Carl, and Jack E Boucher, photographer. Western Reserve Academy, President's House, Hudson & College Streets, Hudson, Summit County, OH. Summit County Ohio Hudson, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/oh0308/.
The Liberator, September 21, 1833.
Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery, Mass.gov website
Ohio History Connection. Fugitives From Slavery. https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Fugitives_from_Slavery
The Plain Dealer October 13, 1866
Return of the Whole Number of Persons within the Several Districts of the United States according to "An act providing for the second Census or Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States." 1801, United States Census Bureau
Sprague, William. Annals of the American Pulpit or Commemorative Notices of Distinguished Clergymen of Various Denominations 1860 pg 487-488 which cites as sources Rev. R.S. Storrs D.D., Rev. H.M. Storrs, and Rev. George Howe, D.D.
Student Activism At CWRU Abolitionism https://case.edu/socialjustice/about/history
Swedlund, Alan C. Dutiful Daughters, Pallid Young Women in Shadows in the Valley: A Cultural History of Illness, Death, and Loss in New England, 1840-1916 pgs 84-103. 2010.
Woodward, Walter W., From the State Historian: Connecticut’s Slow Steps Toward Emancipation https://connecticuthistory.org/from-the-state-historian-connecticuts-slow-steps-toward-emancipation/