The first African-American student to attend Bates College may have been a president’s son.

John Dunjee, the first African-American student to attend Bates College in Lewiston. William Still’s 1886 Underground Railroad Records

John William Dunjee, who escaped from slavery just before the Civil War, began taking classes in Lewiston in 1866 because it cost less than Oberlin College in Ohio, where he had started his studies.

Bates at the time had just barely become a college, operating under the constant vigilance of Oren Cheney, its abolitionist founder and first president. It was one of the few institutions of higher learning that welcomed African Americans into its classrooms.

At a time when Bates is under fire for doing too little to advance racial justice and equity, it may be a useful reminder of its historic role in racial relations to remember Dunjee, who showed up in Lewiston after the Civil War eager to learn. The college calls him its “first verifiable African American student to enroll.”

Dunjee stayed at Bates for a couple of years before heading to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, to help found Storer Normal School with the financial backing of a wealthy Mainer who knew Cheney.

The school ultimately became Storer College, a historically Black college that hosted speakers from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. Du Bois before it closed its doors in 1955.

Dunjee also helped found Baptist churches throughout the land before his death in 1903.

Not much is known for certain about Dunjee’s time in Lewiston, merely that he studied for the ministry and lived in Parker Hall, the only Bates dormitory at the time.

How he came to be at Bates has been largely a mystery.

But it turns out that abolitionist William Still knew Dunjee and included a chapter on him in his 1886 book, “The Underground Railroad Records,” that offers vivid details.

A PRESIDENT’S SECRET SON?

John Tyler by George Healy, 1859. White House Historical Association photo

First, though, let’s consider an allegation with deep roots but no solid evidence: that President John Tyler, who had 15 children with two wives, may have had at least one more off the books.

Tyler was, no doubt, a brutish man.

An African American who escaped from slavery, James Hambleton Christian, told Still about serving Tyler, whom he waited on both in Virginia and in the White House.

“On the plantation, Tyler was a very cross man and treated the servants very cruelly, but the house servants were treated much better” because his wife protected them, Christian said.

Rumors have floated through the decades that Tyler, abusing one of the many women he enslaved, fathered Dunjee in 1833 at his plantation in Charles City County in Eastern Virginia.

It appears the tale began circulating during the presidential campaign of 1840, when Tyler, a U.S. senator, was on the Whig Party ticket with William Henry Harrison.

Joshua Leavitt’s emancipator published the following year that Tyler had sired several children with women he purported to own and had sold some of them. Leavitt alleged that Tyler supported his family in part by selling his own children.

Dunjee’s son, Roscoe, editor of the Oklahoma Black Dispatch a century ago, said his father told him that Tyler was his grandfather, according to David Dary’s “Stories of Old-Time Oklahoma.”

Nobody ever proved it, though, and there doesn’t seem to have been any real effort in modern times to try to corroborate the talk with DNA testing, perhaps because so few even remember Tyler these days.

Tyler became the nation’s 10th president when Harrison died after only a month in office. In a mostly undistinguished administration, Tyler’s chief achievement was signing a bill annexing Texas just before he left the White House. Years later, back in Virginia, he won election to the rebellious Confederate Congress.

When Tyler died before he could take office in Richmond, the U.S. government understandably opted not to take note of his passing, the only president whose death received no official mourning in the nation’s capital.

Dunjee, by then, lived in Canada, where, he wrote to Still that he hoped secession would prove “a death blow to slavery.”

LIVING IN SLAVERY

Criss-Cross Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia.  Library of Congress photo

Dunjee grew up on the Criss-Cross Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, owned according to the law by the Ferrell family, or perhaps their last name was Terrill, as another source has it.

He must have been treated far better than most held in bondage because he knew how to read and write by 1860, a rarity among African Americans in the South.

In the winter of 1859, he learned that the five heirs to the plantation intended soon to move him and all of those they considered their slaves to Alabama, a prospect Dunjee clearly loathed.

“Every Ferrell that lives is down on slaves. They are very severe,” Dunjee told Still.

Dunjee, however, said he had not suffered as most of them had because he had been a dining room servant, a more respectable position in the plantation hierarchy.

Benjamin Watkins Leigh House in Richmond, where Judge John Gregory lived. Virginia Department of Historic Resources photo

But, looking north to states that had banned slavery, he wanted more from his life.

Dunjee told a committee of abolitionists later that he’d saved every penny he could earn for five years so that he could potentially buy passage on a boat to Philadelphia — and freedom.

Before he could quite collect enough, the family hired him out to John Gregory in nearby Richmond, a former governor of Virginia who served as a judge.

Dunjee liked Gregory and his wife, who were kind to him.

He didn’t tell them his plan, but asked instead if they’d let him spend a week with his mother out in the country. He requested a pass and some money.

The judge agreed, writing out a pass and handing him $5, adding that he was sorry he didn’t have more money on him.

With that, Dunjee had $68.15.

The cost of taking the boat north? $68.

A steamship on the James River near Richmond, Virginia, in 1865. Library of Congress photo

ESCAPE TO FREEDOM

In February 1860, a year before the Civil War, Dunjee bought passage on the steamer Pennsylvania in Richmond.

The crew stowed him in a storeroom “containing a lot of rubbish and furniture,” he told Still, and off they went.

At nearby City Point, the steamer took aboard a family of “very dirty” Irish immigrants who were assigned to the same quarters where Dunjee had been secreted.

The crew managed to shuffle him off to a closet used for kettles and pots, a room “exceedingly limited, but he stood it bravely.”

When the steamer reached Philadelphia, Dunjee could not even stand up. He needed help to depart the boat with his meager possessions.

“No sooner had he stepped on shore, however, than he began to cry aloud for joy,” Still recalled. “’Thank God!’ rang out sonorously from his overflowing soul.”

His allies on the dock quickly shut him up because he was “far from safe” in Philadelphia, where slave catchers roamed freely even though slavery itself was banned.

The so-called Underground Railroad stepped in to send him to Ontario on trains.

Dunjee wrote to Gregory from Rochester, New York, to tell him “that he need put himself to no trouble in hunting him up, as he had made up his mind to visit Canada.”

He arrived in Hamilton, Ontario, at 9 p.m. on Feb. 15, 1860, on a dreary, cold night, then left for Toronto, where it snowed and he wandered around the city seeing the sights, including elephants.

But perhaps the most noteworthy of Dunjee’s observations in a March letter to Still is the one that resonates across the years with something stirringly simple: “Canada yet cries, Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”

DUNJEE GOES HOME

During the Civil War, Dunjee stayed put in Brantford, Ontario, but with the war’s end in 1865, the fugitive decided to go home.

John Munford Gregory

He headed back to Virginia by rail, where he happened to wind up on the same car as Anna Brown, one of the daughters of Harper’s Ferry raider John Brown. She was going to Norfolk to teach newly freed slaves.

Dunjee wanted to see “his brethren together with their old oppressors” looking face-to-face as free men.

When he visited Gregory’s home, he found the old governor and his wife were not there, but two of their daughters were on hand. They were, Still said, happy to see Dunjee at the door.

The younger one told him she was glad he had escaped and that she had prayed for him.

The older one remarked that she had thought him too good a Christian to run away. She also told him he was “naughty” to have written her papa from Rochester.

Dunjee “found Richmond, which so long had held him in chains, fully humbled and her slave power utterly cast down,” Still said. “His wondering eyes gazed until he was perfectly satisfied that it was the Lord’s doings, and it was marvelous in his eyes.”

He resolved then to get an education and come back permanently to Virginia to help teach others who had been held in bondage and “so long denied the privilege” of schooling, Still said.

According to Still, “not long after” going home, Dunjee headed to Oberlin College in Ohio, where he was a faithful student “commanding the highest respect from all the faculty for his good deportment and studious habits.”

Dunjee did well there, Still said, but saw a way to more fully pursue his studies “with greater facilities and less expense at a college in one of the Eastern States.”

That college was Bates.

“He accepted the favors of friends who offered him assistance, with a view of preparing him for a mission among the freedmen, believing that he possessed in high degree the elements for a useful worker, preacher, organizer and teacher,” Still said.

Before he graduated, Still said, Dunjee was needed urgently to serve as an agent for Storer, just getting started in Harper’s Ferry as a place to educate African Americans.

An early photograph of Bates College in Lewiston. Library of Congress

ONE STORY FROM BATES

There is a story that Bates President George Colby Chase, who attended the college from 1862-68, told that may refer to Dunjee.

But even if the “colored student from Virginia” mentioned by Chase is someone other than Dunjee, the tale says something about the spirit of the times at Bates.

Chase said that the student encountered “a gentleman from old Kentucky” who pushed him violently off the sidewalk and into a ditch.

“In scarcely more time than is required for the story, he was arrested by a policeman, hauled into municipal court and, in the presence of 50 Bates boys, was sharply fined for his cowardly and insolent assault upon one of their number,” Chase recalled.

No doubt African American students didn’t always find that level of support.

But it says something about the college and its roots that it had an African American student and that his classmates, and the community, looked out for him on at least one occasion.

DUNJEE’S CAREER

In addition to serving Storer as its agent, Dunjee started a monthly journal called the Harper’s Ferry Messenger.

“The colored race cannot gain and hold a true position in the civilized world independent of the press,” Dunjee noted in its inaugural edition.

Dunjee also began working with the Free-Will Baptists to organize rural Black churches, Still said.

He married the former Lydia Ann Taylor, who had grown up free in Winchester, Virginia, and they eventually had three sons and seven daughters, some of whom went on to solid careers of their own.

Together, the couple created 10 churches in northern and eastern cities before moving in 1892 to the Oklahoma Territory, where Dunjee was appointed a general missionary.

The family moved to a farm east of Oklahoma City, where Dunjee stayed until his death in 1903. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Oklahoma City’s Fairlawn Cemetery.

One of his children became a much-honored newspaper editor. Another became a journalist distinguished for her writings about Africa. A third became a social worker in Harlem.

In short, born in a slave society, Dunjee and his wife, who died in 1928, helped build a better America, boosted at least a little by Bates College.


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