Amos brothers get their due for the founding of Lincoln University

Amos Hall on the Lincoln University campus is named for brothers James Ralston Amos and Thomas Henry Amos, who campaigned to raise money to establish the school.
Amos Hall on the Lincoln University campus is named for brothers James Ralston Amos and Thomas Henry Amos, who campaigned to raise money to establish the school. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 17, 2014

The story of Lincoln University's beginnings routinely highlights the benevolent white Presbyterian minister who founded the first degree-granting institution for African Americans.

The Rev. John Miller Dickey started the historically black university in Chester County. James Ralston Amos and his brother, Thomas Henry Amos, were students, among the first to graduate.

But in a retelling that shakes up a 160-year history, Cheryl ReneƩ Gooch, a dean at the school, elevates the Amos brothers' contribution.

"They've been basically footnotes," said Gooch, who leads the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, "In fact, they were co-founders."

The brothers, particularly Ralston Amos, helped establish the school, chartered as the Ashmun Institute in 1854, Gooch said.

Ralston Amos traveled on a speaking tour to raise awareness and money. He helped build Ashmun Hall, the school's first structure, and served as its superintendent. He went into debt to help the school gain its footing, Gooch said.

Much of the brothers' story is contained in more than 60 letters the Amoses wrote between 1859 and 1869 that are stored at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Old City.

The letters, sent by the brothers while they served as missionaries in Liberia, are part of a new book written by Gooch, On Africa's Lands: The Forgotten Stories of Two Lincoln-Educated Missionaries in Liberia.

The letters recount successes and struggles as the brothers worked to convert and educate native Africans, a mission they were trained for at Lincoln, which was founded to educate free black men to serve as missionaries in Liberia.

They help craft a picture that attributes the start of Lincoln to Dickey and the Amoses, with important contributions from the residents of Hinsonville, an antebellum community of free blacks in Chester County whose former properties make up part of Lincoln's current 422-acre campus.

The school's founding, recast as a group effort, reflects the history of many historically black colleges and universities, said Marybeth Gasman, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania who has written a series of books on African American schools.

Coalitions of community members, abolitionists, freedmen, churches, and other associations came together, but sometimes one person or group is singled out, Gasman said.

"I would say someone who put up their own money, sacrificed, and was part of the decision-making" should be written into history, Gasman said. Often African Americans are excluded from the story, she said.

Pray for a school

The Amos brothers were farmers in Hinsonville and trustees at the Hosanna African Union Methodist Protestant Church, a small congregation that was a meeting place for abolitionists and a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Ralston Amos wanted to study ministry and asked for help from Dickey, pastor of a nearby church in Oxford.

Dickey helped Amos apply to several seminaries, but Amos was rejected. So Dickey tutored Amos, who walked four miles to Oxford for his lessons.

On his way, Amos would stop at a grove and kneel at a large stone to pray for a school that would accept him, Gooch said.

Dickey soon began an effort to start the school and enlisted Amos to promote it and solicit funding. Hinsonville residents donated money and helped build the school with bricks made by Samuel Glasgow, a businessman in town.

The school was named for Jehudi Ashmun, a white minister and the first governor of Liberia, which was founded as a U.S. colony for the repatriation of free African Americans. The Amos brothers and Armistead Miller, who had lived in Liberia, were the school's first students and graduates. In 1859, the three men and their wives sailed for Liberia.

In the letters to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, the brothers recounted their lives in Liberia, and their role at what was to become Lincoln.

"I superintended the building of the Ashmun Institute," Amos to the mission board.

In another letter, he says, "In assisting to get the Ashmun Institute properly on foot, I contracted bills of considerable amount."

The brothers also pleaded for financial support of their mission while coping with dire living conditions. They were often sick, and Thomas Henry Amos' first wife and 8-year-old son died in Africa. The brothers became disillusioned, Gooch said.

Ralston Amos came home in 1864, and died shortly thereafter at 39. Henry Amos remained in Liberia, and died there in 1869 at 43.

Long overdue

Over the years, their contributions as students have been marked on campus. A hall is named for them. At the top, Ralston Amos is depicted in a frieze, the only known image of either brother. On the opposite corner, Abraham Lincoln is depicted. The school was named in honor of the 16th president after the Civil War.

The Rev. Thomas Warren, pastor of Hosanna Church, called the rewriting of history a long overdue exercise in "reexamining the role of black people in the development and maintenance of their own institutions."

For years, Ernest Levister, a great grandson of Henry Amos, heard those stories from his family.

"This [school's founding] was driven by blacks who were qualified and driven to seek education," said Levister, 78, who grew up in Harlem and now lives in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

The physician and chemical engineer was a student at Lincoln in the 1950s. Back then, Levister said, he didn't tell his classmates he was related to important people in Lincoln's history. But when he walked on campus, he said, "I felt like I was home."


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