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Major James Wilkerson
Wilkerson's History of His Travels & Labors, in the United States, As a Missionary, in Particular, That of the Union Seminary, Located in Franklin Co., Ohio, Since He Purchased His Liberty in New Orleans, La. &c.
Columbus, OH: s. n., 1861.


Little is known about Major James Wilkerson outside of his own autobiography. Wilkerson was born in Virginia (date unknown) and purchased his freedom in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1835. He also purchased his mother's freedom in Petersburg, Virginia. Wilkerson writes that he is "of the Bengal of Africa, Anglo-Saxon of Europe, [and] Powhatton of America" (pp. 33-34) and that he is the grandson of Colonel Wilkerson, who fought at the Battle of Saratoga (1777). Wilkerson mentions his wife (who is not named) and two children, Julia and Joseph, but provides few details about them. He alludes repeatedly to his work The Midnight Cry, pointing out when a detail provided in his History also appears there. Wilkerson was a minister for the Methodist Episcopal Church until 1838, when he joined the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Ohio. He was appointed as a missionary and was active in establishing churches and schools. The bulk of his History details the more than six years during which he endeavored to fund and establish a school in Ohio to serve as an orphanage and a training center for ministers. It should be noted that although Wilkerson's text is autobiographical, he refers to himself in third person and as "the writer."

The focus of Wilkerson's History is his work for the A.M.E. Church. After working as a missionary throughout the West and South, Wilkerson is called upon to help "solicit aid of public" to save an Indianapolis church and school (p. 5). Upon completing his mission, Wilkerson determines to move his family to Baltimore, Maryland. His plans are interrupted, however, when members of his conference convince him to help establish "a School upon a Manual Labor plan" that will serve as "a Home for the poor wornout Ministers of said Conference, as well as an Orphan Institute, yea, and besides these, where young men who might feel themselves called to the Ministry should have an opportunity of working out their board and education" (pp. 5-6).

Upon accepting the position, Wilkerson is dismayed to learn "that there had not been the first cent appropriated by said Conference" and thus he is left "as it were, to create a mountain solely with his ten finger nails" (pp. 7-8). He first selects a "suitable tract of land of about 180 acres, located on the waters of Darby, Franklin County, Ohio" (p. 8). He pays much of the expense "out of his own pocket, trusting solely to a future day for his pay" (p. 9). Wilkerson sets out to find subscribers in the "Colored community" to support the project (p. 9). He then turns his attention to his "white friends" (p. 10). He travels east to Washington, D.C., and other locations, securing the funds necessary to "lift the fifth and last note due upon said property" while also paying "all the back tax that was due" (p. 12).

Wilkerson then determines to secure books, materials, and funds for the project. He compares his project, which takes him "six long years" to accomplish, to the work of George Washington in "battling six years for the inexpressible liberties of this highly favored land and nation" (pp. 12-13). Wilkerson is forced to travel great distances in search of sponsors and donors, and he travels almost entirely by foot, totaling "from five to six thousand miles per year" (p. 15). During his travels he has almost no contact with his family, since his wife could not read and he did not want to have his private thoughts read to her. Traveling to New York, Canada, Massachusetts, and other states, he would "sometimes have to go almost barefooted in the snow, about knee deep" (p. 17).

Wilkerson often sees his task as a test of his faith. He writes of being treated like Job and tested by demons, who demand that he take care of his own family's needs first. While traveling, he does indeed learn that his "little ones were about to be taken to the poor house for protection, if not otherwise provided for" (p. 20). Undeterred, he continues on his mission, remembering that his children "would be well provided for by his loving friends, the Quakers" (p. 21).

While traveling in Massachusetts, Wilkerson is seemingly beset by illness, which he perceives as an event between "the writer and satan" (p. 22). He alleges he is twice "smitten to the ground, by an invisible stroke" (p. 22). Later that evening, he experiences "a sudden crash or explosion in his head, yea, and so dreadful and terrific was the shock that he truly thought that his skull was split wide open, and that his very brain was all out upon the neat snow white pillow case" (pp. 23-24). Wilkerson believes he is being tested by God—and he believes he succeeds in pleasing God with his faith.

Upon delivering all the funds he is able to raise in six years, Wilkerson determines to travel to Havana, Cuba, and Kingston, Jamaica, to "improve his health" (p. 34). He realizes, upon reaching Cuba, that he lacks sufficient funds to continue traveling. He returns to New Orleans, Louisiana, and has to work odd jobs to obtain the funds necessary to travel to Louisville, Kentucky. He then travels to nearby states to visit friends and is eventually told by a physician that he should retire to "some remote place on the sea coast" due to the "disordered state of his brain" (p. 38). Wilkerson concludes his narrative by detailing his remaining sources of personal funds and outlining a few remaining pieces of business the new school should attend to. Wilkinson does not say whether or not he ever rejoins his family.

Meredith Malburne

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