A two-story, white house, the only building left of what had been the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, is dedicated to telling the story of the seminary president’s daughter – Harriet Beecher Stowe. It seems out of place now with a gas station across the street and a highway overpass just a stone’s throw away. Still, it provides a sense of a story that grew to encompass much more than a small corner of this city on the Ohio River.
Four years after moving to Cincinnati, Harriet started her married life. Eventually she moved back to New England with her husband and children. However, the experience of living on the edge of the North/South divide remained with her. Around the seminary and in her home she heard about and likely participated in the growing abolitionist movement. Down the river in Washington, Kentucky she saw a slave auction and in Ripley, Ohio she heard first-hand accounts of escapes. She learned from friends and acquaintances how the Underground Railroad kept running.
However, this city inspired more than her stance against slavery, it provided her a place to practice writing. During her time here she was part of a literary society – the Semi-Colon Club. Within this group she and others shared their writing projects and found encouragement. She honed her skills and early in her marriage published articles and stories to supplement the family’s income. At some level this group likely planted and helped nurture the seeds that would grow into Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a novel that moved a nation to read and to act. She wrote this novel after the family returned to New England, but it certainly had some roots in Cincinnati.
Who would have thought that the buildings of the seminary would be torn down, yet one house remains because of a book written by a woman? Some of its views may appear dated and sentimental 150 years later, but it continues to draw readers into the story of slavery and its effects on the human spirit and larger community. This is the story that the volunteers at the house tell – of a family, a woman, a book – engaged with the world around them as they struggle to live out their deep belief that God created all humans to be free.
Together the abolitionist activity and the literary society created just the place Stowe needed to conceive and write this book. I wonder what writing groups in Cincinnati are even now providing encouragement for the next Harriet. What areas of town are housing young men and women that are stirred to tell a story?