After 163 years, church reinstates abolitionist
The basis for a character in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' was excommunicated for freeing slaves.
CINCINNATI (AP) -- Telling the story was never enough for Joyce Coleman. For more than 20 years, the self-taught historian has conducted private Underground Railroad tours in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
For nearly that long, Coleman has been telling the fascinating story of abolitionist John Van Zandt -- a wealthy, white Boone County, Ky., farmer who, overcome with conscience, freed his slaves decades before the Civil War, moved to what is now suburban Evendale and began helping slaves escape.
On her tours, Coleman tells how Van Zandt was the basis for a character in the anti-slavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin," how he was excommunicated from the Methodist Church for his beliefs, how he was stopped between Cincinnati and Lebanon in 1842 for transporting fugitive slaves and how his case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost.
Each time, Coleman ends the tale with the sad footnote that Van Zandt died destitute in 1847 at age 56, his family shattered and 11 children scattered. It's always been important for her to recount the story of this brave, principled man, but that's never been enough.
Righting a wrong
"I wanted to do more," said Coleman, 64, of Cincinnati, retired from Internal Revenue Service.
So she did.
With the help of ministers, community leaders and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Coleman organized an unprecedented reconciliation service in Sharonville in Van Zandt's honor this weekend. She also convinced descendants of the Van Zandt family to come to Cincinnati to witness the events.
(Most legal documents spell his name "Van Zandt," but descendants have spelled the name several ways, including "VanSandt," and some have taken the name "Van Sandt" themselves.)
"I'm looking to feeling pretty proud about this," said Bill Van Zandt, a distant cousin in Seligman, Mo., who is flying to Cincinnati for the weekend events. "Like a wrong has been righted."
Community leaders planned today to dedicate a historical marker near the site of Van Zandt's home, once called the Eliza House, in Evendale. Sunday, the United Methodist Church of the Ohio West Area will issue an apology and posthumously reinstate Van Zandt as a member of Sharonville United Methodist Church. It's the church Van Zandt helped found (Sharon Methodist Episcopal Church) and from where he was excommunicated 163 years ago.
"I think the bishop [of the Ohio West Area in suburban Columbus] was kind of flummoxed at first when he received our request," says the Rev. Jim Stauffer of the predominantly white Sharonville United Methodist.
Evidently, the Methodist church has no precedent or guidelines for reinstating a member posthumously. After consulting legal counsel, Bishop Bruce Ough approved Van Zandt's reinstatement in April and issued a formal apology to his family.
"There has to be an institutional repentance, that as a church, we have to admit what we did was wrong," the Rev. Mr. Stauffer said.
"This is a sad case of history," said the Rev. Morris Hudgins of Northern Hills Fellowship Church in Springfield Township, who helped organize the reconciliation events. "All we can do is try to bring some justice to what was an injustice."
A literary figure
Although Coleman told many stories of the Underground Railroad over the years, she became interested in Van Zandt when she learned that he was the inspiration for the fictional character, John Van Trompe, in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
In the book, by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852, Van Trompe harbored runaway slave Eliza Harris until she escaped to Canada. Many think that the story was based on an actual incident involving a young slave who walked across the frozen Ohio River and was rescued by Van Zandt.
Imagine Coleman's excitement when she discovered that Van Zandt's house was still standing and serves as the parsonage for Landmark Baptist Temple in Evendale.
"It blew my mind," Coleman said. "There was this huge plaque there. This was the Eliza House. This was his home."
Coleman did more historical sleuthing to find Van Zandt's grave, which had been moved to Wesleyan Memorial Cemetery in Cincinnati. When she located his gravestone in 2000, the burial site was overrun with weeds and poison ivy. Coleman brought out her husband's weed whacker and gently scrubbed the monument with a toothbrush.
The process of healing
Meanwhile, she found a Van Zandt family Web site. She sent photos of the grave headstone to the family, trying to convince them to come to Cincinnati for a reunion.
It took her a couple of years, but in October, about 40 members of the family came to town for their annual celebration.
For the first time, Coleman took them to see their ancestor's grave and the Eliza House. Then, on a visit to the Freedom Center, Coleman and the family bumped into Carl Westmoreland, a senior adviser at the center.
"You could see they were looking for some healing," said Westmoreland, who grew up in Lincoln Heights hearing the Van Zandt legend.
He and Coleman assembled a committee to explore the possibility of hosting a reconciliation service. Sharonville United Methodist agreed to reinstate Van Zandt, and the bishop approved. The weekend promises to be memorable -- much more than a mere ceremony for descendants.
Harry Van Sandt, 82, is a great-grandson in Vancouver, Wash., who grew up hearing the stories and passing them on to his children and grandchildren. His father, Harry Sr., refused to set foot in a Methodist church because he had heard how the Ohio Methodists mistreated his ancestor.
"I would say he [Van Zandt] would be very happy about this," said Harry, who was flying to Cincinnati for the services. "He would be convinced his abolitionist beliefs were correct."
Example for the future
Other white abolitionists were shunned and mistreated by their churches and communities, said Westmoreland, who predicts that the Van Zandt reconciliation may serve as a model.
"It makes us come to terms with the fact that abolitionists as well as the enslaved suffered financial losses and lost their families," Westmoreland said.
After telling the Van Zandt story for so long, Coleman is pleased she decided to do more.
"I hope what happens will be a pattern for the future," she said. "It should show people you can reconcile. You can make a difference. You can change."