June 12, 2003


Photo courtesy of Antiochiana

The Grinnell Road house owned by Dunmore and Eliza Gwinn, who were considered the patriarchs of the Conway Colony.


Conway Colony honored with state historical marker

In one of the more intriguing and dramatic segments of Yellow Springs history, a group of about 30 ex-slaves found freedom here in 1863 after escaping their Virginia plantation, dodging Confederate troops and braving foul weather and angry white citizens. Escorted for most of their escape by a liberal and free-thinking minister, Moncure Daniel Conway, the group has since been called the Conway Colony.

Villagers will commemorate the Conway Colony this Sunday, June 15, at 2 p.m., on the bikepath about halfway between Grinnell Road and Allen Street. At that time, the Yellow Springs Historical Society will dedicate a state historical marker that honors the ex-slaves and the man who accompanied them.

The event is significant because the group “contributed to a large free black population in Yellow Springs, which was unusual for a town of our size at the time,” said Antiochiana historian Scott Sanders, who wrote the historical society’s application to the State Historical Marker program. Also, said Sanders, the Conway Colony episode “indicates a certain perceived character of tolerance and acceptance” regarding Yellow Springs even in the 1860s.

The event’s featured speaker will be Jean McKee, a fifth generation descendant of Conway Colony members, who grew up in Yellow Springs. McKee is the daughter of Naomi McKee and the late Jim McKee.

“It’s a source of pride,” said McKee, a Conway Colony descendent who has researched her family’s heritage for the past 30 years. “I firmly believe that knowing from whence we came can help us define who we are.”

Conway Colony descendents can look to their ancestors as people of courage, endurance and religious faith, Moncure Conway wrote in his autobiography. Conway described finding the group in a shanty shortly after they had arrived in Washington, D.C., during a fierce thunderstorm. Having escaped their plantation and dodged Confederate soldiers, the group had, upon arriving, mustered the energy to honor their God by singing hymns.

“They had just arrived, most of them in the storm,” Conway wrote. “They were crammed into two ground rooms, their children sleeping wherever they could find a place to rest their heads and several mothers had babes at their breasts. The latest comers were still wet. The elements had pursued them like bloodhounds; they were tossed by destiny but still able to raise their song to the night.”

The Conway Colony story began years earlier, when two of the group’s eldest members, Dunmore and Eliza Gwinn, served as house slaves in the home of Conway’s parents. The elder Conways were liberal and fair by Southern standards, according to their son, who wrote that his mother got in trouble with local authorities for including the slave children in the catechism classes she gave her own children. Since teaching slaves to read was against the law, and Mrs. Conway was believed to be teaching reading, she was forced to quit.

“The rod was spared in our home as well for servants as for the white children,” wrote Conway. “My parents regarded coloured people as immortal souls and we were trained to treat them with kindness.”

Self-described as a “homely boy, not spirited, a poor creature beside my handsome and dashing brother,” Moncure Conway grew up to be a fiery speaker and a fierce abolitionist, whose opposition to slavery led to his losing several positions in his work as a Methodist minister.

In the summer of 1862, Conway was leading a church in Cincinnati when he took a vacation at the Yellow Springs summer home of a parishioner. In the middle of a chess game, he received word that the Gwinns had escaped and fled to Washington, D.C., and that the rest of his father’s slaves were stuck behind Confederate lines in that area. Immediately, he decided to go find the slaves and bring them back to Yellow Springs.

Why, exactly, he chose Yellow Springs as his destination isn’t clear, McKee said, and in his writing Conway gave no clues. However, he was known to admire Antioch College’s first president, Horace Mann, for his abolitionist views, and apparently believed the village to be a safe and free-thinking place for the ex-slaves to begin a new life.Starting the night he received word of the slaves’ escape, Conway endured a “wearisome” three-day journey. In Washington he immediately found the Gwinns but had no idea how to locate the others.

That night, “After I had gone to bed I was seized by an impulse to consult an old mulatto who I had known in boyhood and who now resided in the farthest suburb of Georgetown,” Conway wrote. Reaching Georgetown by foot in a thunderstorm, Conway realized he had no way of determining where the slaves could be. However, he was drawn to the one home with a light on and when he stood outside, he heard singing coming from a house where he found the slaves.

But as Conway was well aware, his own troubles had just begun. Although he sought official help in his journey west — he met with President Lincoln, who wished him well but had no other help to offer — Conway was largely on his own. He convinced rail officials to allow his group to travel without paying a fee of $3,000 per African American, which the railroads charged at the time.

The group’s greatest challenge came in Baltimore, where the unusual sight of a white man and a large group of blacks incited the anger of other African Americans, who took Conway for a slaveowner retrieving his property. However, when the crowd realized the situation, they trailed along with the group, cheering, as it walked from one station to another. The cheers drew the attention of whites, who soon formed an angry mob that menaced Conway’s group as it waited three hours for the train to arrive. Finally, the station master gave the group its own room for the wait, and they boarded the train unharmed.

During the first part of the trip, as the train rumbled through slave states, the group was tense and sleepless, wrote Conway. However, when the train crossed into Ohio, and freedom, “every eye danced, every tongue loosed and after some singing they all dropped off to sleep.

The group arrived in Yellow Springs and was put up in a large barn owned by Moses Grinnell.

Moncure Conway was right. Yellow Springs proved a welcoming community for the ex-slaves, who chose to stay in the area, working as farmers, or laborers or domestics. While Conway left and soon moved to England, he sent small amounts of money to the group when he could, said Scott Sanders, the Antioch University archivist and a member of the Historical Society.

But the group didn’t need his money, according to Conway’s autobiography, which describes his return to Yellow Springs 10 years later, when he found the Gwinns comfortably ensconced in their own home.

The group’s only difficulties arose, wrote Conway, due “to their exceeding piety. One man had such a passion for preaching and pious meetings that he failed to give satisfaction on the farm where he was employed because of the inspiration that carried him suddenly away from the field to some prayer meeting.”

Members of the colony, including the Gwinns, founded what is now the First Baptist Church. Other villagers descended from the Gwinns include Ruth and Muriel Wright, Naomi McKee, Isabelle Newman, Charlotte Jordan, Evelyn Hill and Timmy Edwards.

Jean McKee’s research on her Conway Colony ancestors, along with research on other ancestors, has led her to a profound appreciation of her forbearers’ strengths.

“They exhibit a sense of commitment to their family, to their religion and to their community,” McKee said. “I have seen it over and over again.”

—Diane Chiddister