Sunday, April 1, 2012

Rev. James Poindexter, Conductor on Underground Railway

The Rev. James Poindexter, pastor of Columbus’ largest black church from 1858 to 1898, brooked no compromise in the pursuit of freedom, violating state and federal laws for decades to protect his own unalienable rights and those of the city’s black residents and escaping slaves.

Poindexter was born on Sept. 25, 1819, in Virginia. His father was white; his mother was black and Cherokee. He trained as a barber and moved to Columbus in 1838. His shop at 61 S. High St., across from the Statehouse, was popular with city leaders and state politicians.

Though Ohio prohibited blacks from voting before 1870, Poindexter did anyway, reportedly claiming his Native American heritage. In 1847, he was a preacher at the Second Baptist Church when an event split the congregation in two and Poindexter emerged as a champion of freedom.

A Black family that Poindexter knew from Virginia joined the congregation. The family had owned slaves in the South and sold them before moving to Columbus. Some churchgoers demanded that the family use the proceeds from the sale to buy their former slaves from bondage. The family refused and Poindexter led forty dissenting brethren to form the Anti-Slavery Baptist Church.

That church, which met in a brick building at Town and 6th streets, grew to 104 members before it merged with its parent church in 1858. Poindexter was named pastor of the combined church, a post he held for the next forty years.

Poindexter also served secretly as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves escape to Canada. Risking imprisonment and fines, Poindexter and a handful of both black and white Columbus residents gave sanctuary to escaped slaves and passed them, often disguised as cargo in freight wagons, north to the next stop.

In 1881, largely through Poindexter’s influence, Columbus classrooms and faculties were integrated after he successfully fought to close two decrepit “colored youth” schools. Poindexter won election to a seat on the Columbus City Council in 1880, becoming the first black to hold that position.

He replaced Dr. Loving Starling on the Columbus School Board. Through his efforts, Black and White teachers taught together in nine Columbus schools. In his advancing years, Rev Poindexter received many honors, including an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the State University at Louisville, Kentucky.

The man who pioneered change for black residents of Columbus and was instrumental in helping slaves escape died on Feb. 7, 1907. Rev. Poindexter contracted pneumonia in late January and succumbed to it, surrounded by family. His last words: “I have served God, my country and mankind to the best of my ability.”

Thousands of people from Central Ohio, including Ohio Governor Andrew Harris and Rev. Washington Gladden, as well as a host of prominent Ohio men, honored Rev. Poindexter.

Gerald Tebbins,
The Columbus Dispatch

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