Charles McMicken's Legacy

David Stradling, Professor of History and Director of the School of Environment and Sustainability, discusses the relationship between the College of Arts and Sciences and UC’s primary benefactor Charles McMicken—and why it evolved.

Charles McMicken

Charles McMicken

From: The University of Cincinnati

by Kevin Grace & Greg Hand, 1995

Charles McMicken was a paradoxical man, to say the least. Beneath that grim, tight-lipped Presbyterian visage was a man who followed the Methodist denomination, sold property at a discount to a Louisiana Roman Catholic diocese and at his death in 1858 owned a pew in Cincinnati's Ninth Street Baptist Church.

He was a slaveowner, yet provided land to free people of color. He also donated money for the resettlement of African-Americans in Liberia. McMicken was known for his fair-mindedness in his Cincinnati business dealings, yet was constantly in litigation in Louisiana courts for shady business activities. He lived simply and unpretentiously, yet commissioned the sculpting of two grand busts of himself. And although he had little formal schooling, he recognized the value of a university education. This is the man whose bequest led to the establishment of the University of Cincinnati.

Of Scottish and French ancestry, Charles McMicken was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to Charles and Mary Fusil McMicken on November 23, 1782. McMicken arrived in Cincinnati in 1803 and clerked in the general merchandise store of one John Smith, a former United States senator, who had some trials and tribulations of his own, most of them dealing with treason and fraud. For the next several years, McMicken journeyed from Cincinnati to New Orleans to Philadelphia to Texas and Illinois, building a mercantile and investment trade in flour, cotton, sugar, indigo and real estate.

His travels and places of residence are confusing: he was in Louisiana at least by 1808 and held a Spanish land grant. While he may have been involved in the West Florida Rebellion of 1810, he definitely served in the Louisiana state militia in 1813, and in 1814 was a member of the Feliciana Blues, the military intelligence branch which aided Andrew Jackson in defending New Orleans against the British. He cut an imposing soldierly figure, standing over six feet tall with a brawny build.

During this time and for two decades afterward, McMicken steadfastly denied being a Louisiana citizen, refusing to vote or to serve on a jury. He claimed residence in Pennsylvania and apparently never said anything of his Cincinnati home. McMicken spent his winter months in West Feliciana Parish and the warmer months in both Pennsylvania and Cincinnati, traveling by steamboat up and down the rivers. In 1840, he purchased property from Cincinnatian Lyman Watson on what was originally called the Hamilton Road and is now McMicken Avenue, just south of the big bend on Clifton Avenue. Whenever he was in Cincinnati, McMicken lived there in a house with his brother's son, also named Andrew, and his nephew's wife.

McMicken never married.

As it was, his life in commerce was both convoluted and suspect, as shown in probate proceedings from West Feliciana when James Ficklin, a former business partner, testified:

“'Would you not say that McMicken is said to be a cunning, shrewd, artful man, full of schemes, projects, and managements in his affairs?    Is it not a common phrase to say of anything he does that it is one of Charlie's Tricks?'

The witness, friendly but on his oath, reluctantly agreed.”

Throughout his life, McMicken exhibited a generosity of both spirit and substance in matters of culture and education. Before he died of pneumonia on March 30, 1858, he had long given to such causes as Cincinnati's Ladies Academy of Fine Arts, which solicited funds from him to create a gallery of sculpture and paintings in order to promote the design arts.

And a few years before he died, McMicken donated $10,000 to College Hill's Farmer's College to found a chair in agricultural chemistry. McMicken's will bequeathed nearly $1million in real estate to the City of Cincinnati to found a university.

Even after death, however, McMicken courted controversy. Lawsuits delayed the implementation of the will for many years. Though he provided for his many nieces and nephews with outright legacies and annuities, several of them brought suit to break the will, especially in regard to property held in Louisiana, stating among other reasons that as a "foreign corporation," the City of Cincinnati could not own property in the state. The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in Cincinnati's favor in 1861, clearing the way for a university to be established.

But the McMicken controversy did not end there. To this day, Charles McMicken is sometimes labeled a racist because his gift specified a university formed for "white boys and girls."  A later court ruling stated that since people of color were not specifically excluded, the university was open to all.

You can find McMicken’s will in its entirety on the UC Archives and Rare Bookspage.

Charles McMicken’s Secret: His African American Children

By Greg Hand

It was rumored, even while he was alive, that Charles McMicken, founder of the University of Cincinnati, had a son through one of his Louisiana slaves. It is less known that McMicken also had at least one other child, a daughter, also born to an enslaved mother.

The son, John McMicken, was recorded as a mulatto in the U.S. Censuses of 1850 and 1880. He lived quite openly in Cincinnati from at least 1846 to 1890. In the 1846 City Directory, John appears immediately adjacent to his father and Andrew McMicken, his uncle. John married a woman named Dicey Butler –they are both identified as colored on their 1851 marriage license – and had two daughters, Adeline and Alice. John worked on the river, mostly as a steward on the riverboats. He was educated and briefly ran a school. John B. Shotwell’s 1902 A History of the Schools of Cincinnati describes how John McMicken took over Owen T.B. Nickens’ academy for African American children:

In 1836 Mr. Nickens' school removed to New Street, near Broadway, where he was succeeded a few years later by John McMicken, a natural son of Charles McMicken, the founder of the University of Cincinnati.

Shotwell’s book was widely circulated in Cincinnati, so it was fairly common knowledge that lifelong bachelor Charles McMicken had a son in the area. For an African American at the time, John McMicken was relatively prosperous. According to the 1880 Census, John and Dicey had a servant in their household.

In 1881, a reporter for the Cincinnati Times-Star spent several days in the offices of the County Auditor. He was a sort of proto-investigative journalist and examined land plats looking for private citizens who lived on city-owned properties. That is how he ended up on Sixth Street, just west of Freeman in the West End, talking to Mr. Thomas Goode [Times-Star, April 23, 1881].

Mr. Goode explained that the property was, indeed, owned by the city, but occupied by arrangement with Freeman Cary, one of the executors of Charles McMicken’s will. Mr. Goode’s wife, Isabella, was the granddaughter of Mr. McMicken. His mother-in-law, Charles McMicken’s daughter, was Adeline Rollins. (John McMicken’s daughter was probably named for her.) The Times-Star reporter found Mrs. Rollins living on East Fifth Street, and asked for her story. She said:

I will start out by telling you I am sixty-nine years of age. Mr. McMicken owned a large plantation at St. Francisville, Louisiana, where I was born. He was never married. I was his daughter by one of his slaves. When I was seven years of age I was sent to Cincinnati to receive an education. About three years after this he gave my mother freedom and she came to Cincinnati.

It’s not known whether Adeline’s mother and John’s mother is the same woman; that is, we do not know whether they are siblings or half-siblings.

Adeline’s mother asked the wealthy Cincinnati merchant for assistance and he allowed her and her daughter to live in one of the many buildings he owned. At the time they moved into the tenement on Sixth Street, the area was undeveloped, but when the city installed sidewalks, McMicken made his tenants pay the assessment. Adeline said:

But the taxes he always paid, for fear that we would pay them, and claim a right to the property after a certain number of years.

Beyond her address, the Times-Star reporter does not describe Adeline Rollins’ living arrangements, but she was also somewhat well off. According to the 1880 Census, she lived with another daughter and her son-in-law. The son-in-law was William West, partner in a coal-dealing company, West & Clark, located on Sixth Street at Eggleston in Cincinnati’s Bucktown neighborhood.

At the time of the interview, Adeline Rollins was a widow, and told the Times-Star reporter that her first husband was named Tanner. Adeline’s story checks out in all available archival resources. She appears in the Cincinnati city directory in 1851 as Mrs. Tanner. From 1857 to 1884, she appears as Mrs. Rollins, and from 1865 onward she is listed as a widow.

She appears in the 1850 and 1880 Censuses.

During his interview, the Times-Star reporter suggested to Adeline that Mr. McMicken did not treat her well.

Oh, well, it’s all over now. He’s dead, mother’s dead and I suppose that I haven’t much longer to live, but I hope that God will forgive him for his action. " "If God hasn’t forgiven him yet, he never will before you,” remarked Mrs. Rollins’ daughter laughingly.

According to the Cincinnati Birth and Death Records kept at the University of Cincinnati Archives, Adeline died in 1884 and was buried at Union Baptist Cemetery, the city’s African American graveyard.

Excerpts from the Times-Star story were published in the Boston Globe and Washington Post, then Adeline’s story faded into history.

Charles McMicken freed all his Louisiana slaves by a clause in his will, and offered $100 to any of them who agreed to emigrate to Africa. McMicken also provided funds to establish colleges “where white boys and girls might be taught.” He set aside endowments and annuities for his nieces, nephews and cousins, but nothing for his own children. It was 1886 before the first African American earned a degree from McMicken’s University of Cincinnati.

John McMicken’s daughters both married and apparently raised children. Adeline’s daughters also married and at least one daughter raised two sons. It is likely that direct descendants of Charles McMicken are alive today, possibly in the Cincinnati area.