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Dr. Ellison's family secret is free at last

Published Oct. 4, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

People here know Dr. Henry S. Ellison III as the giving doctor. He has volunteered for so many boards, done so much to help so many people, they sometimes wonder how he found time for doctoring.

The first black doctor in Youngstown, black people admire him for opening doors for so many others.

What none of them know is Dr. Ellison's secret. Something he kept to himself, something he did not want to be identified with.

But now, at age 71 and with lung cancer spreading to his brain, Dr. Ellison says it's time. Time to talk about his great-grandfather.

The slave owner.

William Ellison is believed to have been the wealthiest black slave master in the antebellum South, owning more slaves than all but the richest white planters.

Memoirs from the time suggest he did not treat his slaves well. William Ellison's slaves were said to be the most over-worked, underfed and ill-clothed in the district.

No, this is not something Dr. Ellison has wanted to talk about.

A time and a place

Growing up in North Carolina during the Great Depression, Dr. Ellison wondered why his family's lifestyle was better than other black families in Greensboro. But his questions about his family went unanswered.

"My mother used to protect me from that since I was the youngest," he said.

As he grew older, he learned that several members of his family made money buying and selling other black people, using them as slaves.

"This came into my life about the time Civil Rights came about, and I know nobody would be wanting to brag about blacks owning other blacks," he said. "About the time I found out was when everybody was looking into their heritage and how blacks had been mistreated.

"You know where I found out most of my family's history?" he said. "When I got married, my mother told my wife. My father never talked at all about his family. If it was up to him, I would never have even known I was born."

He does not conceal his resentment that so much about his great-grandfather was kept secret from him. Had he known about his great-grandfather earlier, he said he might have modeled his life after him. "By the time I found out everything, I was a man and my life's pattern was already set."

Ellison's 70-year-old wife, Etina, also has cancer. His own forced him to close his obstetrics practice five years ago. This day, he says he's in the worst pain he's felt in weeks. But he doesn't cancel his appointment with a reporter. It's important to get this out.

"The main thing I'd like for people to know is you can't take something that happened years ago and equate it to what's happening now," he said. "You have to take everything according to the time in which it was done. The whites were doing the same thing.

"Anything my great-grandfather may have done, he did because he conformed to the ways and norms of that particular era. He was probably a pretty nice individual."

Born a slave

William Ellison was born April Ellison, a slave. His mother was a black slave, his father probably a white planter. Instead of working in the South Carolina fields, April Ellison learned how to build cotton gins. He became the best gin-maker in the district.

That made him rich, and he bought his freedom. He even bought the home of the former governor of South Carolina.

He went to court to legally change his name from April, a slave name, to William. He bought himself a pew on the main floor of his church. It was behind the pews of white people, and beneath the gallery where the black people sat. He was a man between races.

A light-skinned black man, he drew a line between himself and his slaves. He had only dark slaves on his plantation. He could never give the impression that he was uniting families or organizing them against white people.

At the start of the Civil War, William Ellison owned 63 slaves and an 800-acre plantation. He hired slave-catchers to hunt down those who ran away. He even sold his slaves' female children, apparently because they were no use to his cotton-gin business. He died in 1861, but his descendants continued to live in the house in Stateburg, S.C., until 1923.

Twelve years after the house was sold, three little girls playing outside stumbled across a wooden crate hidden beneath the porch. Inside was a collection of molding letters written by Ellison family members. The letters talked of politics, gossip and, of course, the management of the family's slaves.

Descendants of this family had guarded their past and, one by one, carried it to their graves. But now, thanks to the letters, the secret was out.

In a tough spot

Two historians used the Ellison family letters as a basis for a book called Black Masters. James Roark, of Emory University, and Michael Johnson, of Johns Hopkins University, used the letters to reconstruct the family history.

During the early 1980s, the historians tracked down one surviving member of the Ellison family: a doctor who lived in Youngstown, Ohio.

"I talked to the receptionist in his office on several occasions, but the doctor would never respond," Roark said.

"Family history is always dangerous business. We were poking around in people's private lives, and there are some things people don't want told. We encountered a great deal of sensitivity.

"This family is complex because of their history. Is William Ellison a man to be celebrated or ashamed of? It's an amazing story of achievement under the most difficult circumstances. But then, he knew what slavery was all about and he was willing to implicate others. Some would say his crime is greater than that of the whites."

The Ellisons were hardly the only black masters in the antebellum South. Census records in 1860 show there were 122 free blacks in Charleston who owned slaves. Most of them owned only one or two slaves; none owned as many as William Ellison.

Black Masters was published 10 years ago. Johnson said even today, most people don't realize black people owned black people.

"For whites in contemporary society, the notion of black masters is a message of relief because now we know that whites weren't the only ones," Johnson said. "It removes a little of the sense of guilt.

"History puts humans in tough spots, and William Ellison was in a very tough spot. It's easier for us to judge him than be in his shoes. He had a lot of admirable qualities.

"He kept his family together and was their source of strength and inspiration for three generations. That's pretty impressive to me.

"The thing that makes this story so powerful is that it seems more wrong for there to be black masters," Johnson said. "In my own view it's understandable for both _ not acceptable, but understandable."

"I feel some pride mixed in there"

The president of the Youngstown NAACP never knew anything about the Ellison family history. All he knew was the man who dedicated himself to improving the quality of life in the black community.

"The general impression in this community is that Dr. Ellison is a good man who succeeded in doing many things in the community as far as breaking down doors in the black community that hadn't been open," said Willie Oliver.

"I know that he laid the foundation, paved the way for a lot of people to find inroads to the main things that were going on, especially in the areas of mental and physical health. He was very quiet, but when he had something to say, people listened."

It's no surprise he didn't know Dr. Ellison's past. In more than 40 years in Youngstown, Dr. Ellison said, he only told one person his secret _ his oldest and closest friend, who is now dead.

He says he wasn't afraid it would ruin his practice or his image. It was just something he didn't want to be identified with.

Years ago, Dr. Ellison changed his given middle name from Shrewsburry to Steven. After he changed his name he discovered he had unwittingly severed his link with his ancestors: All the Ellison men bore the middle name Shrewsburry.

His son, Henry Steven Ellison IV, 32, is adopted, as are his two daughters, Pam, 33, and Alicia, 27. Dr. Ellison's death will end the Ellison family bloodline.

"I think my great-grandfather did very well for the time he lived," Dr. Ellison said, "but if he lived now and had the same attitude he had then, he'd be called an Uncle Tom.

"If you just look at it, he was an Uncle Tom, but he had to do what he did to survive because he lived in South Carolina and he ran a gin mill and everybody he dealt with was white. He had to be very particular and careful in how he dealt with them.

"By working and working hard, he purchased his own freedom and didn't nobody give him anything. His wife was a slave, and he purchased her freedom, too.

"I feel some pride mixed in there because he had the mental capacity to run a mill and was a very important member of his particular community, and it did mean something."

_ Information from Black Masters was used in this report. Investigators from International Services Unlimited were used to locate Dr. Ellison.


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