James Bradley arrived in Walnut Hills in 1834 as a former slave who bought his own freedom. In the peculiar institution of slavery, African Americans found ways to shape their own destinies. Bradley seized upon many of the opportunities available to enslaved people in a story of entrepreneurial genius.
On a plantation in Arkansas he worked several hours each day before sunrise weaving horse collars, earning about a dollar a week. He used the proceeds to buy a pig – the foundation of many a Cincinnati fortune. “There was a good deal of wild land in the neighborhood,” he said, “that belonged to Congress.” He used a bit of that land in his overnight work to grow his own corn and tobacco; the tobacco he traded for more corn which he fed to his pigs, earning $13 the first year and accumulating $160 over five years. Slave owners sometimes rented out the labor of their slaves for cash. Bradley used his capital to rent his own time from his master, and over the next 4 years increased his wealth enough to purchase his own freedom for $700 in 1833.
Bradley, with $200 in his pocket, made his way north to Cincinnati. Walnut Hills enjoyed a shining moment as an abolitionist center in 1834, when the new Lane Theological Seminary held a long series of debates on the subject. James Bradley, a formerly enslaved man who bought his own freedom, was in Walnut Hills and participated in the debates. He specifically addressed the frequent claim of advocates for slavery that freed Blacks would not be able to take care of themselves. Bradley, who of course was taking perfectly good care of himself, pointed out that his enslaved brothers and sisters not only supported themselves, but also supported the extravagant lives of their enslavers.
Bradley also sheds light on a little-known aspect of the origins of Lane Seminary. While he was invited to speak at the debates arranged by the Seminary students, Bradley in fact was enrolled in another branch of the new educational institution. The plan had been to create a Seminary, what we would now call a college, and a preparatory school on Kemper lands in Walnut Hills. Bradley had taught himself to read before he purchased his freedom, but he acknowledged that he was not ready for the academic rigor of the white adult students at the Seminary. Rather, he joined the preparatory class.
The first thing to remark is that Bradley found his way to Lane. White students from the Seminary have often been praised for finding their ways downtown to teach Free Blacks. Their act of Christian charity began only after the debates and the Seminary students’ organization of an abolition society. To be sure the students missionary work as teachers of the free Black community represented a bold and radical departure from white norms, as the debates on abortion had been. Yet it’s important to keep in mind Bradley’s Black agency in both his own education and his participation in the debates. Perhaps he, at least as much as Theodore Weld, woke the Seminary to the abilities of the Freemen who arrived in Cincinnati.
A second lesson from Bradley’s enrolling in the Preparatory School on Walnut Hills is the role that institution might have played in in the abolitionist movement in Cincinnati. The quiet acceptance of a self-purchased Black man into a primarily white institution represented a nearly unprecedented act of mutual acceptance. Indeed, after the Seminary students were expelled for their public abolitionism, they invited Bradley with them to a short-lived cooperative school outside Cincinnati, and then to Oberlin in Northeastern Ohio. Bradley again participated in the manual-labor school – as at Lane, all students put in some time in the fields or workshops.
Bradley did not, however, graduate from Oberlin College. After a few years of study, he dropped out; at least to the historians of the Lane Rebels in Oberlin, he dropped completely from sight.
A statue in Covington memorializes James Bradley.