25 May 2010

Tombstone Tuesday: The Grave of James Burr on the Grounds of Wheaton College (IL)

 I know this is not directly related to the surnames I am researching, but Wheaton College of Wheaton, Illinois is my alma mater, and the following is a neat little story I thought you might find interesting.

Wheaton, Illinois and the Illinois Institute (now Wheaton College) were founded in 1853 by strict Wesleyan Methodists who were strong abolitionists.  It is said that the school's first President Jonathan Blanchard's home was a part of the Underground Railroad, hiding runaway slaves in a room on the top floor of his home.

Well one of the first bits of trivia that "Wheaties" first learn when they come to the school is that the grounds of the college hosts the actual grave of an abolitionist!  His name was James Burr, and he was an anti-slavery activist.  In 1841 he was ambushed in Illinois by slave owners, and taken to Missouri where he was tried and imprisoned for "stealing slaves."

From the article "Good Soil" by David Malone, November 5, 2008 --
The Illinois Institute had been founded in 1853 by Wesleyan Methodists who had split from the main body of the Methodist Church over the question of slavery. Early in 1859, two months before his death from consumption, which he probably contracted while in prison, he prepared a will leaving $300 of his $4000 estate to the Illinois Institute in Wheaton. This money was “to be used for the educating of indigent fatherless young men who were wholly devoted to the cause of Christ wishing a preparation for such a calling and wishing to preach said gospel to all irrespective of color and who are opposed to slavery and sin of every grade and in favor of the reformers of the present day.”
The question of how Burr’s grave came to campus remains an unsolved mystery. According to a brief letter in the Christian Cynosure of February 20, 1879, by George Thompson, Burr was buried there “by special request.” He wished his grave to be on grounds untrampled by slavery. There were many other ties between the tiny school and the city where Burr lived. In 1860 two of the trustees of the institution, Rufus Lumry and Owen Lovejoy, (another zealous abolitionist), list Princeton, Illinois, as their home address. In addition, John Cross, who taught in the school, was also from Princeton. Undoubtedly, Burr was well acquainted with the sympathies of these men and knew of their efforts to aid runaway slaves. Given tuition costs of $24 per year for the college by 1860, his legacy endowed a full scholarship. When forced to reorganize in 1859-60, the administration naturally looked for a man who felt as deeply as they did about the issue of abolition. Consequently, they invited Jonathan Blanchard to become the president of the struggling school and he arrived in January, 1860, almost a year after Burr’s burial. No one knows whether these two men were acquainted, but it is almost certain that they knew of each other and their joint sympathy for the abolitionist cause.
For years Burr rested quietly, his grave officially decorated once each year by students. Then the damage done by pranksters to the tombstone caused campus officials to remove the seven-foot high marker and replace it with one flush with the ground. In April of 1959, there was a special commemorative service in his memory, focusing attention on his life. Although speculation about Burr waxed and waned following that occasion, he didn’t return to prominence until 1987 when the new James E. Burr Scholarship for first-year minority students was announced.
Another good article on the abolitionist history of Wheaton, Illinois can be found here -- "Abolitionists in Wheaton" by Alberta Adamson.

Copyright © 2010 by Kevin W. Walker

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