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Caesar Blackwell (1769-1845): the work and times of central Alabama's nineteenth-century slave-evangelist.

Caesar Blackwell lived as a slave and died as a slave. No one, however, was as influential within the slave population in central Alabama as Caesar.

Although he lived and died in slavery, his ownership changed from John B. Blackwell to the Alabama Baptist Association (ABA). Caesar's early creative attempt at missions was quite impressive. The effectiveness of the slave-evangelist, Caesar, indicated by the surviving references to the high demand for his preaching and related services, is a powerful confirmation to his skill as a communicator. His itinerant ministry was widespread within the association and sometimes beyond. Despite his fame, most historical treatments of Caesar's ministry have been expressed in one or two paragraphs.

Caesar and Early Connections

When the ABA, located in the central part of the state, met at the Mt. Gilead Church in Lowndes County on October 12, 1829, the association approved a report from the trustees that called for the purchase of Caesar Blackwell for the price of $624. This slave, who had been owned by John B. Blackwell, was given some degree of freedom to preach and minister within the slave population, and he was managed by a small group of trustees.

The association's receipt for the sale of Caesar stated: "Received, Montgomery county, Alabama, of Francis Baker, James McLemore and William Bonnell, agents for the Alabama Baptist Association, $625.00 in full, for a negro man slave, named Caesar, formerly the property of John B. Blackwell, deceased. The property of said negro we forever warrant and defend against the claims of all and every person whatever. In witness whereof, we have hereunto set our hands and seals, this 15th day of December, 1828." (1)

While records are unavailable, the trustees apparently had been charged with the task of acquiring Caesar the previous year. The Last Will and Testament of John B. Blackwell was probated on May 5, 1828. That document contained this instruction: "I give to my well beloved daughters, Anabella Hay(n)es, Henrietta Menase, and Lucy Thomason and to the issue of their bodyes (sic) the following property Viz: One Negro man Ned and Cesar, Phillis, Betty, Jane, Martin, Amos, Dave, Jim, Silves, Naral, and Ana and their increase forever." (2)

Apparently the transaction to purchase Caesar was accomplished after Blackwell's death and transacted by his sons-in-law, John Thomason and Thomas Haynes, executors of the estate.

By the time the trustees made their report to the association in the fall of 1829, subscriptions from local churches had already been solicited. Bethel Baptist Church in Pintlala (southwest Montgomery County) may have been the first to give money, having voted to contribute during the May conference. New Bethel Church of Lowndes County followed suit in September. Surely other churches joined the cause of purchasing Caesar too.

Caesar's Popularity

Various letters and publications of the 1830s confirm Caesar's popularity and reveal why the ABA desired his purchase. One such letter was written on July 2, 1831, by Robert Rives to Green Rives II, from Church Hill/Trickem, Lowndes County. After describing the difficulties of growing cotton, Rives described the cotton crop and also noted that his militia had wreaked havoc in a confrontation leaving several killed and wounded. While it is difficult to ascertain the identity of the enemy, Rives most likely was using a war metaphor to describe his dealings with the weeds growing in rows of cotton. Rives further conveyed that such incidents were expected parts of life, along with hunting opportunities and plans for the upcoming Fourth of July. Then he commented on the religious life in his area of Alabama:
 We have plenty of preachers here. Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian
 and houses for all three denominations but methinks you would not
 like to draw off your shoes and sox and have your feet washed in
 church. Neither do I think you would wash anothers feet in church.
 I have been to church once since I came here and the preacher was a
 size over Berry Harris in his prime. He introduced his subject by
 saying he was going to take an off hand shot. Before he ended I
 thought his mark was on the wing after he shot. And [an] other one
 got up and gave out some appointments and amongst the rest was our
 dear and well beloved Scezar [Caesar] and dismissed a congregation
 of about 300 and I understand it was but a common congregation. I
 wished to know who Scezar was and upon inquiry I found he was a
 cole black Negro. He is here permitted to ascend the pulpit and
 preach an introductory sermon at the association. As to myself I
 would not let my family go to hear him. I need not say anything
 about my religious principles as you are aware of them already.
 Amelia is pretty much after the old sort. (3)

Amelia, Rives's wife, was a regular churchgoer, although he was not.

A second document confirming Caesar's popularity was written by B. F. Riley, who in his History of Alabama Baptists provided this commentary:
 A Negro slave, named Caesar, a bright, smart, robust fellow was
 ordained to preach. His ability was so marked, and the confidence
 which he enjoyed was so profound, that Rev. James McLemore would
 frequently have Caesar attend him upon his preaching tours. He was
 sometimes taken by Mr. McLemore into the pulpit, and never failed
 of commanding the most rapt and respectful attention....

 To the credit of the Alabama Association, it is written that they
 bought this man and gave him his liberty that he might preach among
 them the gospel of Christ, and it is said, that though he was as
 black as a crow, he traveled alone and unharmed on the mission of
 life. (4)

The South Western Baptist provided this summary of Caesar's life and work:
 In 1821, Caesar, a servant of John Blackwell, joined the Antioch
 church by experience and baptism. Two years after he was licensed
 by the church to preach the Gospel, and in 1827, he was solemnly
 ordained to the ministry by a Presbytery consisting of elders
 Harris, Davis, McLemore and Harrod. ... After he became the property
 of the Association, he made his home at Rev. Jas. McLemore's, who
 owned his wife and only child. He was furnished with a horse to
 ride--and had an extensive library of books, and as he had been
 taught in early life to read and write, he spent his time, when not
 otherwise employed, in reading and study. 'Uncle Caesar' was an
 excellent mechanic, and before his strength failed, he devoted a
 part of his time working for the neighbors, who rewarded him
 liberally for his services. While thus engaged with his hands, he
 was in the habit of having his Bible, or some other good book
 before him, and occasionally reading a paragraph for study and
 meditation, and in this way he acquired much of that knowledge
 which elevated him above others of his race. As a preacher of the
 Gospel, 'Uncle Caesar' had few superiors in his day and generation.
 His theology was Calvinistic school, and he loved to discourse upon
 the doctrines of grace,--election, effectual calling, the
 perseverance of the saints in grace, &c, were the themes he
 delighted to dwell upon. ... He had a tall figure, a clear, musical
 voice, and graceful elocution. He never became boisterous, and was
 remarkably fastidious in regard to preserving order during
 religious services. (5)

Caesar in Context: The Anxiety of Slaveholders

The 1830s introduced several years of fear and uncertainty among Alabama slave owners. Three events within a national context triggered the anxiety on many plantations and certainly affected the relationship between Caesar and the Baptists of Alabama. These events were (1) Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831, (2) William Lloyd Garrison's publication of The Liberator in 1831, and (3) the celebrated Amistad case (1839-1841).

The slave rebellion of Nat Turner took place in 1831. While insurrections among slaves had occurred in the past, the year 1831 served to reinforce the smoldering fears of everyone in the South. Born on a Virginia farm on October 2, 1800, Turner taught himself to read, and because of his reading ability, he most certainly had knowledge of other slave revolts. He also taught himself other skills and soon became proficient in the manufacture of gun powder, paper, and sand-cast moldings.

Turner began plans for a revolt and took his cue from portents, such as an eclipse of the sun on August 13. He had entrusted his plans to four confidants who, several days later, entered the house of Joseph Travis at 10 p.m. Travis, Turner's owner, became the first victim of the uprising. Turner struck the first blow with the hatchet, and a broadax wielded by the hand of a raiding party member finished the deed. In the end, the rebels stabbed, shot, and clubbed at least fifty-five white people to death. Eventually, Turner was apprehended and tried in the Southampton County Court and sentenced to execution. He was hung and then skinned on November 11, 1831. What ensued was a climate of hysteria and paranoia permeating the South.

By 1830, tobacco farming had exhausted the Virginia soil. Plantations went bankrupt, and many planters saw the potential for recovery and prosperity in Alabama. Huge tracts of Alabama land had been wrested from the Creek Indians. The migration of Virginians into Georgia and Alabama brought communication as well as commerce, and the news of the Turner rebellion traveled quickly to Alabama. Slaveowners believed that their entrenched way of life was threatened. The fact that Turner was a devout Christian and a sometime Baptist preacher was enough to make the Baptists of central Alabama extremely ambivalent about the persuasive preaching of Caesar Blackwell.

Also in 1831, William Lloyd Garrison first published The Liberator, a staunchly abolitionist magazine. Garrison was morally repulsed at the thought of slavery and rejected any gradual approach to ending the institution. The initial funding for The Liberator came from a network of black activists concentrated in the Boston, Massachusetts, area. Garrison felt that all political parties had hopelessly compromised themselves on the issue of slavery, so no one was surprised at the now-famous lines of his first editorial on January 1, 1831: "I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--and I will be heard." With the movement for abolition gaining strength in the North, plantation owners in the South were edgy when The Liberator, smuggled into the hands of sympathizers, sounded its printed message.

The final event that affected the relationship between Caesar and the Baptists of Alabama was the Amistad Case (1839-1841). When the Cuban schooner, La Amistad, was discovered off the coast of Long Island, New York, in 1837, an unusual set of circumstances surely renewed the fears of southern slaveholders. The schooner was a slave trading ship with fifty-three Africans on board. The slaves had revolted to secure their freedom while being transported from one Cuban port to another. They had been kidnapped mostly from the colony of Sierra Leone and sold to Spanish slave traders. The slave who led the revolt was Joseph Cinque.

At the time of their discovery, the Africans were seeking to turn the vessel back to their home in Africa. Instead, they were taken into American custody. Over the next two years, the Africans were kept in internment in the United States while litigation ensued over the issue of their deportation on freedom. National interests were captivated by the case, which was eventually adjudicated before the Supreme Court.

Abolitionists convinced former president John Quincy Adams to lead the defense. At the age of seventy-two and thirty years removed from legal practice, the former president was reluctant to accept the case but eventually did so. An entry in his diary noted:
 The world, the flesh, and all the devils in hell are arrayed
 against any man who now in this North American Union shall dare to
 join the standard of Almighty God to put down the African slave
 trade; and what can I, upon the verge of my 74th birthday, with a
 shaken hand, a darkening eye, a drowsy brain, and with my faculties
 drooping from me one by one as the teeth are dropping from my
 head--what can I do for the cause of God and man, for the progress
 of human emancipation, for the suppression of the African
 slave-trade? Yet my conscience presses me on; let me but die upon
 the breach. (6)

On February 24, 1841, the aging Adams addressed the court for four-and-a-half hours. On March 9, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its verdict. All captives were free. In light of such influences, one can easily understand the ebb and flow of restrictions placed on the travel and preaching of Caesar Blackwell. Like Nat Turner, Caesar was a convincing and charismatic Baptist preacher. While records indicate nothing but compliance on the part of Caesar with directives issued by his associational trustees, Baptist slaveholders were nonetheless nervous.

Nervous Reactions and Cautious Restrictions

Although Caesar had been purchased from the estate of John Blackwell by the ABA in 1829, Caesar was not a free man. This fact was stressed emphatically during the 1835 associational meeting, which also confirmed that the subject of the emancipation of slaves had preoccupied the conversations of many Southerners. So what did the Baptists in central Alabama do with Caesar during this decade of unrest? A series of resolutions was presented to the annual meeting that required that Caesar be silenced during the next year. One resolution stated that because "he is the property of this association," any monies, after expenses, be placed in the common treasury, certainly not to be used by Caesar. (7)

The ABA had granted Caesar much latitude and freedom, but by 1835 the world had changed. Baptists in central Alabama were affected by three main currents of change. First, anti-missionary sentiment had picked up steam. Within the next two years a major division in the Baptist family would occur over this issue. Second, emancipation and abolition were also gaining in popularity even in the South. Third, James McLemore, Caesar's primary trustee, died. As long as McLemore was Caesar's guardian, Caesar found a high degree of acceptance. McLemore gave him a sense of legitimacy. Whether McLemore opened doors of opportunity for Caesar or whether Caesar opened doors for his guardian is difficult to determine. But with McLemore gone, the screws were turned tightly on Caesar.

Caesar's Death and Posthumous Recollections

The year 1846 brought about a strong alliance between the ABA and the newly created Southern Baptist Convention. It was also the first year without the legendary harbinger of the gospel, Caesar Blackwell. The ABA trustees reported on "our late colored brother, Caesar." The report was referred to the Committee on Documents, which encouraged the trustees to finalize Caesar's affairs by the next year and to expend the necessary money for a tombstone. The status quo prevailed the next year. Caesar's affairs were not resolved, and the tombstone had not even been ordered. Once again the trustees were encouraged to bring the matter to closure.

When Caesar died in 1845, the ABA took note of his death and did so with profound appreciation. His trustees were authorized to sell his house and real estate in Montgomery. The proceeds were used to furnish his grave with a marble slab inscribed:
 Sacred to the Memory of
 Who departed this life Oct. 10, 1845.
 in the 76th year of his age.
 He was a colored man, and a slave;
 But he rose above his condition, and
 was for 40 years a faithful and acceptable
 preacher of the Gospel.
 The stone is reared as a tribute of respect to his memory,
 by his brethren of The Alabama Baptist Association.

The marble slab today is obscured by shrubs only a few feet outside the fence that encloses the McLemore-Taylor Cemetery located in the posh neighborhood of Greystone in East Montgomery.

In remembering Caesar, one person wrote with much fondness:
 When I used to see old Caesar coming down the lane to my father's
 house, Saturday evenings, that he might preach at the log church
 not far away the next day, I used to run with all my might to meet
 him. He would lift me from the ground and place me near the mule's
 wet ears and ! would embrace and kiss old Caesar. I was only a
 child, but with the frosts of many winters on my head, whiter now
 than was old Caesar's then, I still love the memory and cherish it
 as did my father and mother, till they, as I am, grew old and with
 old Caesar joined.., angels, whose melody doubtless provoked the
 celestial conflict of which I was dreaming. (8)

The Spiritual Legacy of Caesar Blackwell

Hundreds of persons, both black and white, were touched by the preaching and ministry of Caesar. Nathan Ashby, a convert of Caesar, became president in 1868 of the newly organized Colored Baptist State Convention. Ten years later, Ashby helped organize the National Baptist Convention, which became the largest African American denomination in the United States. (9)

(1.) Benjamin F. Riley, History of the Baptists of Alabama: ... 1808, until 1894 (Birmingham: Roberts & Son, 1895), 80.

(2.) Montgomery County Will Book, 2:66.

(3.) Robert Rives to Green Rives, II, July 2, 1831, private collection of Michael V. Sims.

(4.) Riley, History of the Baptists of Alabama, 80.

(5.) South Western Baptist (October 13, 1859): 1.

(6.) John Quincy Adams, Personal Diary, March 29, 1841 (Adams Family Papers. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA).

(7.) Minutes, Alabama Baptist Association, 1835, 5.

(8.) "Rev. Jas. McLemore and Caesar Blackwell," Alabama Baptist (September 7, 1882): 1.

(9.) Wayne Flynt, Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie (Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1998), 46.

Gary Burton is the pastor of Pintlala Baptist Church, Hope Hull, Alabama.
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Author:Burton, Gary
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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