The University of Cincinnati Founder Had Slaves—And They Had His Children

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It was rumored, even while he was alive, that Charles McMicken, founder of the University of Cincinnati, had a son through one of his Louisiana slaves. It is less known that McMicken also had at least one other child, a daughter, also born to an enslaved mother.

The son, John McMicken, was recorded as a “mulatto” in the U.S. Censuses of 1850 and 1880. He lived quite openly in Cincinnati from at least 1846 to 1890. In the 1846 City Directory, John appears immediately adjacent to his father and Andrew McMicken, his uncle. John married a woman named Dicey Butler—they are both identified as “colored” on their 1851 marriage license—and had two daughters, Adeline and Alice. John worked on the river, mostly as a steward on the riverboats. He was educated and briefly ran a school. John B. Shotwell’s 1902 A History of the Schools of Cincinnati, describes how John McMicken took over Owen T.B. Nickens’ academy for African American children: “In 1836 Mr. Nickens’ school removed to New Street, near Broadway, where he was succeeded a few years later by John McMicken, a natural son of Charles McMicken, the founder of the University of Cincinnati.”

Shotwell’s book was widely circulated in Cincinnati, so it was fairly common knowledge that lifelong bachelor Charles McMicken had a son in the area. For an African American at the time, John McMicken was relatively prosperous. According to the 1880 Census, John and Dicey had a servant in their household.

In 1881, a reporter for the Cincinnati Times-Star spent several days in the offices of the County Auditor. He was a sort of proto-investigative journalist and examined land plats looking for private citizens who lived on city-owned properties. That is how he ended up on Sixth Street, just west of Freeman in the West End, talking to Mr. Thomas Goode [Times-Star 23 April 1881].

Charles McMicken spent half of each year in Cincinnati and half in Louisiana. His Cincinnati home was perched on a steep hillside above the northern end of Elm Street.

1896 Cincinnatian yearbook; Published by the University of Cincinnati; Digitized by UC Archives & Rare Books


Mr. Goode explained that the property was, indeed, owned by the city, but occupied by arrangement with Freeman Cary, one of the executors of Charles McMicken’s will. Mr. Goode’s wife, Isabella, was the granddaughter of Mr. McMicken. His mother-in-law, Charles McMicken’s daughter, was Adeline Rollins. (John McMicken’s daughter was probably named for her.) The Times-Star reporter found Mrs. Rollins living on East Fifth Street, and asked for her story. She said: “I will start out by telling you I am sixty-nine years of age. Mr. McMicken owned a large plantation at St. Francisville, Louisiana, where I was born. He was never married. I was his daughter by one of his slaves. When I was seven years of age I was sent to Cincinnati to receive an education. About three years after this he gave my mother freedom and she came to Cincinnati.”

It’s not known whether Adeline’s mother and John’s mother is the same woman; that is, we do not know whether they are siblings or half-siblings.

Adeline’s mother asked the wealthy Cincinnati merchant for assistance and he allowed her and her daughter to live in one of the many buildings he owned. At the time they moved into the tenement on Sixth Street, the area was undeveloped, but when the city installed sidewalks, McMicken made his tenants pay the assessment. Adeline said: “But the taxes he always paid, for fear that we would pay them, and claim a right to the property after a certain number of years.”

Beyond her address, the Times-Star reporter does not describe Adeline Rollins’ living arrangements, but she was also somewhat well off. According to the 1880 Census, she lived with another daughter and her son-in-law. The son-in-law was William West, partner in a coal-dealing company, West & Clark, located on Sixth Street at Eggleston in Cincinnati’s Bucktown neighborhood.

At the time of the interview, Adeline Rollins was a widow, and told the Times-Star reporter that her first husband was named Tanner. Adeline’s story checks out in all available archival resources. She appears in the Cincinnati city directory in 1851 as Mrs. Tanner. From 1857 to 1884, she appears as Mrs. Rollins, and from 1865 onward she is listed as a widow. She appears in the 1850 and 1880 Censuses.

During his interview, the Times-Star reporter suggested to Adeline that Mr. McMicken did not treat her well.

“Oh, well, it’s all over now. He’s dead, mother’s dead and I suppose that I haven’t much longer to live, but I hope that God will forgive him for his action.”

“If God hasn’t forgiven him yet, he never will before you,” remarked Mrs. Rollins’ daughter laughingly.

According to the Cincinnati Birth and Death Records kept at the University of Cincinnati Archives, Adeline died in 1884 and was buried at Union Baptist Cemetery, the city’s African American graveyard.

Excerpts from the Times-Star story were published in the Boston Globe and Washington Post, then Adeline’s story faded into history.

Charles McMicken freed all his Louisiana slaves by a clause in his will, and offered $100 to any of them who agreed to emigrate to Africa. McMicken also provided funds to establish colleges “where white boys and girls might be taught.” He set aside endowments and annuities for his nieces, nephews, and cousins, but nothing for his own children. It was 1886 before the first African American earned a degree from McMicken’s University of Cincinnati.

John McMicken’s daughters both married and apparently raised children. Adeline’s daughters also married and at least one daughter raised two sons. It is likely that direct descendants of Charles McMicken are alive today, possibly in the Cincinnati area.

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