Celebrating Freedom

Eleutherian College group
to present annual ‘Gathering’

Program to feature speakers, tours,
dramatic performance

(October 2019) – Of course we know that Jefferson County, Ind., was named after the third president, Thomas Jefferson. But is it true that one of his ex-slave’s sons settled there for educational opportunities?

Photo by Ben Newell

Eleutherian College is located north of Madison, Ind., on Hwy. 250 in Lancaster.

If that thought strikes you as interesting, then you need to take a trip to Lancaster, Ind., only 10 miles from Madison. GPS can give you directions, and if the detour signs are still up, ignore them. The bridge work is further up the road.
On Saturday, Oct. 5, the Eleutherian College will be once again celebrating its annual “Gathering” event in Lancaster. Tours of the college will begin at 10 a.m., with three presentations starting at 1 p.m. According to Jan Vetrhus, president of Historic Eleutherian College Inc., “The Eleutherian Institute began in 1848 as a school that would not only educate males but also women and freed slaves.”
Its name was changed when it began to offer college classes in 1854. The word Eleutherian derives its name from a Greek word meaning “freedom and equality.” It reached its peak population of 150 students in the late 1850s. It was the first college in Indiana to have an inclusive admission policy and attracted students from all over the Midwest.
There were a number of people living in the Lancaster area who were anti-slavery, one of those being The Rev. Thomas Craven. Craven was a Baptist preacher from Ohio who donated the land where the college stands today. His son, John, became the school’s first headmaster. Originally, there were two buildings – a dorm for the students that has since disappeared and the existing three-story stone building that included classrooms and a chapel. Also on the property was the Cravens’ home.
The college experienced a sharp decline with the outbreak of the Civil War. When Indiana army companies began to use the grounds for training, many of the white male students joined the army, and a number of them were killed in the conflict.
After the war, the school continued its decline, and it was eventually sold to Lancaster Township that used it for a public school for about 50 years.

Photo by Ben Newell

Phyllis McLaughlin (below) is among the speakers at The Gathering on Oct. 5.

The area around Lancaster was a hot bed for people who were against slavery. While there is no record of the college participating in the Underground Railroad, many of the nearby residents and officials of the college did. The fugitive slaves did not stay in the region long, since they wanted to get as far north from the slave catchers that roamed the area, most heading north to Indianapolis and Canada.
At the upcoming “Gathering,” the first presentation will be led by a Milton, Ky., resident, Phyllis McLaughlin. She is Genetic Genealogist, specializing in the use of DNA to help people fill out their family tree. McLaughlin believes that “everyone has the right to know who and where they came from.” She has helped many of her clients to do just that.
The main emphasis of McLaughlin’s presentation will be on the research she has done on a couple of  black students who were Eleutherian students in the l850s – Lucy and Emily Jefferson. Claims had been made for many years that they were direct descendants of President Thomas Jefferson.
To pursue this idea, the Eleutherian historic organization  received a grant to be used for DNA testing of potential Jefferson family members.
McLaughlin has tracked down many of the African American Jefferson relatives, and they have given samples of DNA material to be tested.  While there is still much work to be done, McLaughlin said she is encouraged by the results so far. She noted that it took a long time for the people at Monticello, Va., to recognize the relationship that Jefferson had with his slave, Sally Heming, that produced six children.
The father of the two girls who went to Eleutherian was named Robert, and he was not related to Heming. “In my work with African American families, I have discovered that the relationship between Heming and Jefferson was not that unusual,” McLaughlin said. “Since slaves were considered property, one way to increase your property was to have children with them. So the hypothesis that Jefferson had other slave children who were not from Heming is not out of the realm of possibility.”
After McLaughlin’s presentation, Danille Foulks will be giving a talk on Thomas Craven, the founding father of the college. And the last event of the day will be a short one-person play about the college, performed by Charlotte Battin.
In 1997 the college was declared a National Historic landmark. According to McLaughlin, “We owe a great debt to (the late) Jay Brietweiser and (the late) Dottie Reindollar who were the driving forces in saving the building and creating the  historic organization that will care for the college in the future.”

• For more information, visit the Internet website www.EleutherianCollege.org.

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