Sarah Cooper

Journalist, Local Historian

Princeton is proud to call Rev. Owen Lovejoy, fervent abolitionist, fiery orator, and U.S. Congressman, its favorite adopted son. And rightly proud that the home where he lived from the time he came to Princeton in 1838 until his death in 1864 was an important station on the Underground Railroad. Normally each year hundreds of local school children and visitors from afar visit the Lovejoy Homestead, which was made a National Historic Landmark in 1997. 

How much the radicalism of Owen Lovejoy registers with townspeople and other Homestead visitors is another matter. It’s not unlike how Martin Luther King is often treated  — he’s famous as a civil rights leader and martyr, but not always recognized for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War and his fight for economic justice.  Similarly with Lovejoy. It’s often the captivating Underground Railroad story – his family’s hiding fugitive slaves in a crawlspace in their house – that predominates. We don’t always recognize how far from the mainstream his radical anti-slavery sentiments were in the1840s and 1850s and how much he was involved in electoral politics. 

Lovejoy was not just about making small changes in a society based on racial inequality but being bold and brave and outspoken in bringing about systemic change. In his era it meant fighting to end slavery. To be like Lovejoy today means, first of all, using your voice in support of racial and economic justice, from ending police violence again unarmed black Americans to fighting for a living wage for everyone to insisting universal health care be considered a basic human right. 

To be like Lovejoy is also to be willing to risk sacrificing your own comfort and security for a greater good. Lovejoy openly proclaimed that fugitive slaves were welcome at his home. In 1843, he was indicted for harboring two fugitive slave women, Agnes and Nancy, but acquitted after the judge ruled that Nancy, traveling with her Kentucky slaveowner through the free state of Illinois, had become free once she entered the state. 

To be like Lovejoy means to act locally, despite resistance from many in the community and sometimes in one’s own church. Remarkably, Lovejoy remained minister at Hampshire Colony Congregational Church for 17 years. He was not alone in Bureau County or in Princeton in being an anti-slavery activist. He had many local collaborators, most notably John Howard Bryant, whose home was also a station on the Underground Railroad.

To be like Lovejoy is also to be willing to risk sacrificing your own comfort and security for a greater good. 

To be like Lovejoy means joining hands with a diversity of other people to sustain a larger movement for social justice. Nationally and regionally, Lovejoy regularly collaborated with other ministers, black and white, political activists, and female anti-slavery societies. He worked to create the first of several anti-slavery political parties, beginning with the Liberty Party in 1840. Later, he was involved in organizing the New Democratic Party and to that end, he hosted Frederick Douglass, the famed black abolitionist, in Princeton in 1853. He was a strategic organizer. Though Abraham Lincoln had initially kept his distance from the radical Lovejoy, after Lovejoy went to Congress and Lincoln became President, they became close political allies. 

Lovejoy died in 1864, so he did not live long enough to know that a small black community formed in Princeton at the close of the Civil War.  Lovejoy had helped many African Americans make their way through on the Underground Railroad. Now newly freed black Americans who settled here established an African Methodist Episcopal Church and for many years organized large annual Emancipation Day celebrations. Lovejoy had played an important role in the movement leading to emancipation. The struggle for full racial equality, of course, was just beginning. 

To be like Lovejoy is to realize that if you care about liberty and justice for all, it’s worth speaking out and organizing to bring that closer to reality. More than a century and a half ago, Lovejoy did his part. In 2020, it’s up to us.

– Sarah Cooper, September 2020