Ernst, Sarah Otis

Sarah Otis Ernst (July 23, 1809-December 25, 1882), one of the most effective radical abolitionists in the West, organized the Cincinnati Anti-Slavery Sewing Circle, whose fairs were a major source of support for the Western Anti-Slavery Society (WASS). When her Garrisonian brand of abolitionism lost favor in the WASS, she organized, financed, and managed the yearly Cincinnati Anti-Slavery Conventions, 1851-1855. These conventions featured nationally known anti-slavery speakers and were nationally publicized.

Sarah Harris Otis was born in Boston. Her father, George Alexander Otis, was a writer and translator of some note; her mother Lucinda Otis Smith, a cousin of her husband, was an abolitionist who entertained William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner and other prominent radical anti-slavery advocates. The family attended King’s Chapel Unitarian Church, where Sarah was baptized as an adult in 1828. She was soon associating with radical Unitarians in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS). The four oldest Weston sisters were leaders in the organization. Sarah grew particularly close to Ann and Caroline, with whom she later corresponded from Cincinnati. Sarah’s older sister, Lucinda, was also active in the BFASS. When the organization split in 1840, Lucinda was secretary of the conservative church-oriented faction that affiliated with the American Anti-Slavery Society. Sarah joined the radicals—the Weston sisters, Lydia Maria Child, etc.—who remained affiliated with Garrison’s Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

Sarah Otis Ernst Andrew ErnstIn 1841 Sarah married Andrew H. Ernst (1796-1860) of Cincinnati at the Unitarian church in Mendon, Massachusetts (about 35 miles west of Boston), with Adin Ballou officiating. Ballou had occupied the Mendon pulpit for ten years, while still identifying himself as a Restorationist. Ernst, an admirer of Ballou, had corresponded with him since 1831 and had visited him more than once. There is little doubt that Ballou introduced Ernst to Sarah, who probably attended the Mendon church while visiting an aunt who was a long time member. Although a widower with six children, Ernst was nevertheless a good catch. Brought up by poor German immigrant parents, he had become wealthy through land speculation and was a successful horticulturist and landscape architect.

Within a few years after settling in Cincinnati, Sarah Ernst established the Cincinnati Anti-Slavery Sewing Circle for the purpose of raising funds for the Western Anti-Slavery Society (WASS). The WASS held an annual convention in Salem, Ohio, more than 200 miles northeast of Cincinnati. Sarah soon took charge of the fair held in conjunction with the convention. By the late 1840s profits from the fair were a major source of funds for the WASS convention and for its weekly paper, the Anti-Slavery Bugle. By 1850, however, the relationship between Ernst’s Sewing-Circle and the Western Anti-Slavery Society was deteriorating, largely because of its drift from the Garrisonian position to a more conservative anti-slavery stance. That year the fair was held in Cincinnati, with some of the proceeds still going to WASS. However, Ernst and her associates had decided they would organize and implement their own Cincinnati Anti-Slavery Convention and Bazaar in 1851.

The committee that signed the “call to the Convention in the City of Cincinnati to be held April 14-17, 1851” included six women and six men. Although no one was listed as chair, Sarah was the undoubted organizer and manager of the enterprise. Christian Donaldson was its spokesperson. In 1830 he, four siblings, and their mother had been six of the founders of First Congregational Church (Unitarian) of Cincinnati. He and his brother William were prominent in abolitionist circles, and their sister Mary had been Sarah’s closest associate until her death in 1849. The Committee also included already widely celebrated underground railroad activist Levi Coffin; Dr. William Brisbane, the nationally known anti-slavery physician who was a former south Carolina slaveholder; and Sarah’s husband Andrew. It is important to note that much of the success of the bazaar held in conjunction with this convention was due to the Weston sisters shifting their support from the Salem convention to the Cincinnati one at Sarah’s urging. Despite the absence on the program of the most widely known radical abolitionists, most sessions of the meeting drew overflow audiences. A lengthy report in the Anti-Slavery Bugle remarked favorably on the large role played by women in the planning and management of the Convention. Indeed, this landmark achievement would be repeated the next four years.

Featured speakers at the second annual Cincinnati Anti-Slavery Convention in 1852 included George Julian, Frederick Douglass, Henry Bibb and John M. Langston. Ernst and two other women from the Sewing Circle were deeply involved in its management. At this and the succeeding three conventions the speeches and resolutions were directed towards uniting Garrisonians and conservative church-oriented abolitionists in a single anti-slavery effort. The sizeable and enthusiastic audiences attested to the success of this program.

William Lloyd Garrison presided over the 1853 Cincinnati Convention. The public controversy that accompanied Garrison wherever he spoke resulted in extensive press coverage and large audiences in Cincinnati. Ernst, who was a vice president and on the business committee, and her Sewing Circle colleagues planned and managed this Convention. Besides Ernst, the business committee of the 1854 Convention included Frederick Douglass, Christian Donaldson, Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. Stone and Blackwell—a member of the Unitarian Church in Cincinnati—married the next year. The Cincinnati Unitarian minister, Abiel Livermore, publicly declared his support for abolitionism, which had heretofore been carefully hidden.

Although the 1855 Convention had few out-of-state speakers, it did feature Peter H. Clark, a pioneer in education for African Americans. Ernst, still a vice president, stepped down from committee work. Her letters to the Weston sisters had complained increasingly of her difficulty securing adequate help with the bazaars that financed the Conventions. The physical labor demanded of her; the stress of arranging the venues, securing speakers, and a multitude of other chores, all added to the effort of caring for five children, several step-children, and her aging husband, finally wore her down. She could not go through it again. There were no more Cincinnati Anti-Slavery Conventions.

The Ernsts attended Daniel Parker’s Restorationist Church in Cincinnati until 1849 when Parker, an outspoken follower of Adin Ballou, moved to New Richmond, Ohio (30 miles east of Cincinnati) to be near his son, who had married a sister of Christian Donaldson. By the early 1850s the Ernsts were attending First Congregational Church (Unitarian), whose new minister was Abiel Livermore, a New Englander who knew and admired Adin Ballou. There is no doubt Sarah Ernst regarded herself as a Unitarian at this point, though she did not sign the church’s membership book until 1856. Her husband never did.

In 1854 Ballou and his wife, along with Ebenezer Draper and his wife (Draper was the largest investor in Ballou’s Hopedale Community), visited and stayed with the Ernsts for eight days. Ballou renewed his acquaintanceship with Livermore and Parker and preached in Livermore’s pulpit. The visit gave Ballou an opportunity to thank Andrew Ernst in person for the 300 apple trees he had sent to Hopedale in 1844.

Starting in the late 1840s, Sarah Ernst and several other members of the Cincinnati Anti-Slavery Sewing Circle had met weekly at Levi and Katherine Coffin’s home to sew clothes for fugitive slaves. She continued with this labor of love, looked after her children, and nursed Andrew in his final illness until he died in 1860. His funeral service was held in First Congregational Church (Unitarian) with the radical abolitionist Moncure Conway presiding..

That same year Ernst and her children moved back to Boston. She settled in Jamaica Plain and joined St. John’s Episcopal Church where she was an active communicant until her death. Some years after her death, when the present St. John’s building was being erected, two of her sons donated the funds for a stained glass window to commemorate her anti-slavery work. The window features a black Madonna who improbably cradles a white Christ Child, with curly blond hair, in her right arm.

Neither Sarah Otis Ernst or her husband left any collection of papers. The Weston Sisters Papers in the Anti-Slavery Collection at the Boston Public Library contains some of the letters Ernst wrote to the sisters. Issues of the Daily Cincinnati Gazette and The Daily Times include day by day reports of each day’s sessions for all five of the Conventions. The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’ Paper published the call to each meeting and then a lengthy report following each one. The Anti-Slavery Bugle published in Salem, Ohio carried numerous articles about the Sewing Circle, Sarah Ernst, and the Fairs from 1845 through the early 1850s. The Records of First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati are in the Cincinnati Historical Society Library.

There is no published paper or article about the Ernsts in the general literature. Consequently, her story is pieced together from far more than the ordinary number of sources. Only the most important can be included here: William A. Otis, A Genealogical and Historical Memoir of the Otis Family in America (1924) includes vital records for Sarah, her parents and sister. Debra Gold Hansen, Strained Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (1993) is an excellent resource for understanding the Boston abolitionist women, organizations and individuals. Jeffrey, Julie Roy, The Great Silent Army of Abolition: Ordinary Women in the Anti-Slavery Movement (1998) has some excellent material on Sarah’s career. The only biographical article about Andrew Ernst is his obituary in the Cincinnati Commercial of February 18, 1860. Almost all subsequent references to him are based on it. The story of The Black Madonna is in the Winter 2006 issue of Glad Tidings, the newsletter of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. See also William S. Heywood, Ed., Autobiography of Adin Ballou (1896).

Article by Walter Herz
Posted July 20, 2006