Over two-hundred years ago today, August 5, 1811, William Greenleaf Eliot was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, the young man arrived in St. Louis in 1834 and established the first Unitarian Church west of the Mississippi, the Church of the Messiah. In 1837, he married Abigail Adams Cranch, of the same family of the former President John Adams. Though parents of 14 children, only five would live to adulthood. When he lost his firstborn, Mary, Mary Institute would be named for her. He would work tirelessly for public education, and in 1854 establish Washington University, originally called Eliot’s Institute by his friend and co-founder Waymon Crow. Not stopping there, he would work to see St. Louis’ first Public Schools funded by tax dollars in 1850 and serve as the first President of the School Board of the City of St. Louis.
His early years in St. Louis would soon find him caught between the two forces of the rising conflict regarding the issues of enslavement. Documents show that he had purchased at least two young girls, but only in which to emancipate these young women, as only an owner could manumit an enslaved person. Inside his church, author Charlotte C. Eliot, wrote in 1904 about how on at least two occasions, he spoke to his congregation about this important issue, but only to find nearly half of his audience depart and not return. Many churches besides the Unitarian would experience fractures at this time because of this very issue. However, that would not prevent Dr. Eliot from speaking his mind, and he turned to a popular alternative at that time, and that is to write letters to the local newspapers expressing himself, under a pseudonym, a pen name, The Crisis.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he and his close friend James Yeatman would immediately work to establish the Western Sanitary Commission, which was totally funded through private donations. This commission would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, and would be responsible for hospitals, nurses with the Ladies Union Aid Society, and care for all Veterans. He helped to establish Freeman’s Bureau, and also see supplies and relief provided for Contraband camps. Considered a conservative radical, and strong abolitionist, his beliefs were tested when his wife Abby, would bring the enslaved man Archer Alexander home, risking their family’s safety by harboring a fugitive. Eliot immediately contacted Archer’s owner, Richard H. Pitmen, through an emissary of Missouri’s Supreme Court Judge Barton Bates, who was the son of President Lincoln’s Attorney General Edward Bates, asking to purchase Archer. The result was that men would visit Eliot’s private home, attack and kidnap Archer, taking what they considered their property. They would place Archer in the City Jail at 6th and Chestnut to be sold south. But once again, Eliot would rescue Archer, securing a Order of Protection from the Provost Marshall. Eliot would then secret Archer in Alton, Illinois for his protection.
Archer earned his freedom, by a military order, which was announced in the St. Louis newspapers on September 24, 1863. He had bravely informed the Union Army that his owner had worked to undermine the local railroad bridge. Risking his life, Archer fled via the underground railroad to St. Louis where Eliot befriended him. A military trial was held, and Pitman was adjudged treasonous, and imprisoned in the Gratiot Street Jail. This was the legal repercussion of the provisions of Lincoln’s Second Confiscation Act of July 1862, when an owner found treasonous, lost his enslaved property. Eliot later wrote that Archer was the “last fugitive slave” in a biography written in 1885 titled “The Story of Archer Alexander from Slavery to Freedom”. Without Eliot’s book, we would not know the story of Archer’s life.
At the close of the war, when the formerly enslaved of America wished to erect a monument to President Abraham Lincoln, Eliot would see that Archer was the one to represent slavery because of his heroism. Located in Washington, D.C. the monument was entirely paid for and dedicated by the formerly enslaved American people, freedmen and the United States Colored Troops, with a dedication of the monument held in 1876. Eliot and Archer would remain close friends during the last years of their lives, and Eliot would give a small sermon at Archer’s death on December 8, 1880, at an African Methodist Episcopal Church on Morgan, which is today’s Washington Metropolitan AME Zion Church on Garrison . William Greenleaf Eliot, the grandfather of poet T.S. Eliot, would pass away on the 23rd of January, in 1887 and is buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum in St. Louis.
All photographs are from the Missouri Historical Society of St Louis, Missouri’s Digital Archives and the numbers shown are their identifiers.