Macon Bolling Allen, an early member of the Church of the Advent, is primarily remembered for being the first African-American to practice law in the United States. A closer look at his life as a husband, father, and Christian adds depth to his portrait, and reveals links to the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction, and beyond.
On August 4, 1816, Allen Macon Bolling (as he was then called) was born free in Indiana. By the year of Macon’s birth, Indiana was a free state, but it was not a state friendly to black people. As late as the 1820 census, there were Hoosiers still listed as “slave.” In 1831, the state Legislature required blacks to register with the county and post a bond stating they would not cause trouble.
A self-educated young man, Bolling moved to Portland, Maine, where he studied law and clerked for General Samuel Fessenden, attorney, abolitionist and politician. He changed his name to Macon Bolling Allen in January 1844, prior to his admission to the bar in Maine. He passed the bar July 3, and was licensed to practice law in Maine. Not long after, hoping for better business, Allen moved to Boston; he was licensed in Massachusetts on May 5, 1845; it is reported that he had to walk fifty miles to the bar exam test site in Worcester. Three years later he passed the examination for Justice of the Peace in Middlesex County and practiced from his office in Charlestown, near the Main Street home he made with his wife, Emma Levy (the place and date of their marriage is unknown).
The earliest documented connection between the Allen family and the Church of the Advent appears in the parish’s first Register of Communicants, which includes Macon Bolling Allen’s name, number 333 on the list. (Although a date is lacking, it appears to have been recorded circa 1851.)
Macon and Emma’s first son, born September 28, 1847, was named after his father. In 1852 a second son, John Levy Allen, was born: followed by a third, George Bolling Allen, in January 1854.
George was just 11 months old when he was baptized on December 29, 1854, “privately on account of illness” by the Rev. Andrew Mackie, an assisting priest at the Church of the Advent during the rectorate of Bishop Horatio Southgate. Macon and Emma’s youngest child was not to survive; within days, Mackie was summoned back to the house to say the burial rite for George, and to baptize his older brothers, Macon, age 8, and John, age 3, also “private on account of illness.” The Parish Register contains this entry: “Burial. January 3, 1855. George Bolling, son of Macon B. And Emma L. Allen. Born Jan. 22, 1854. Died Jan. 2, 1855 of brain fever. Buried in the Neck. Service at the house by Andrew Mackie.” (George’s death must have had a particular resonance for Mackie: Almost exactly a year earlier, he and his wife, Sarah Dwight Cowell Mackie, had lost a son, Andrew, four and a half months old. And a month after George’s death, Sarah would die in childbirth, leaving the 32-year-old cleric with their five-year-old daughter, Olivia.)
The 1860 census shows that Macon, 43, and Emma, 32, with their children — Macon, 13; John, 8, Edward, 4, and baby Emma, 3 months — were now living in Mill Village, Dedham, the only black family in the neighborhood. He continued to practice law in Boston, first on Exchange Street, then Congress.
The year 1865 was tumultuous for the nation and for the family: A second daughter, Mary G., was born to Macon and Emma in January; the Civil War ended on April 6; Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14; in September, Mary, just seven months 15 days old, died of dysentery at the family home on High Street. Some time after this, Macon and the family moved to Charleston, South Carolina.
The search for historical documents and records about Macon Bolling Allen provides not only some of the milestones by which a life is measured; it also reveals the shifting understandings and social constructs that shape the idea of race in this county. For example, the Church of the Advent baptismal record includes the notation “colored” by the names of the three sons baptized by Andrew Mackie, while the census records in Massachusetts and South Carolina sometimes use the abbreviations “B” (black) and, more frequently, “M” (mulatto) to describe the race of members of the Allen family. In the Charlestown, Massachusetts, directories published from 1872 to 1883, Macon’s name is followed by c, indicating colored.
The first post-Civil War census in Charleston, taken in 1870, carries a summary on each page of the neighborhood surveyed. Thus we find this sketch of the Allen family’s block:
Number of dwellings – 5 Number of white females – 9 Number of males, foreign born – 1
Number of families – 7 Number of colored males – 14 Number of females, foreign born – 1
Number of white males – 9 Number of colored females – 8 Number of blind – 0
The occupations of the black residents are recorded as butler, cook, carpenter, domestic servant (3), labour [sic] (2), police, and two “at school.” The mulatto residents are attorney (Macon Bolling Allen), cook, drayman, seamstress, with four “at school” — three of them Macon and Emma’s children. The occupations of the white residents are domestic servant, grocer, grocery clerk, physician (2), and four “at school.”
The move to South Carolina, which we can only imagine was filled with hope, was to be marked with another family tragedy: Macon’s wife Emma, 41, and their daughter, also Emma, 12, died of meningitis in February 1870.
Macon, now 53 years old, was left with five surviving children: Macon (Junior), 21; John, 18; Edward, 14; Charles, 9; and Arthur, 2 — Macon and Emma’s only child born in South Carolina. The household included Phoebe Singleton, 40, a domestic servant, and a 14-year-old girl, Malsey Morrison, at school.
In 1870, Macon’s eldest child Macon, 22, is shown living in Beaufort, South Carolina, with his younger brother, Charles, 12, in the household of Landon (or Loudon) S. Langley (1838-1881), a free black native of Vermont who had served in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and the 33rd US Colored Troops. Langley was one of the thousand black men who served in public offices during Reconstruction. A member of the school board, he was a proponent of equal, free, compulsory education for all; it is likely that this passion led the younger Macon, a school teacher, and Charles, to live with him and his family.
A Glimpse of Daily Life, 1873
Journalism has been called “the first rough draft of history” and the variety of topics covered in a single edition of The Missionary Record, published in Charleston, South Carolina, reveals some of the hopes and concerns of that city’s African American residents during Reconstruction.
We find Macon Bolling Allen’s name included in a list of “Literary Contributors to the Record.” The names of the 38 men in the list are peppered with honorifics — Hon., Rev., Prof., Col., Dr., Esq. while the 15 women on the list are identified simply by their marital status: either Miss or Mrs.
A front-page story entitled “American Morals” is reprinted from Scribner’s; a brief item admonishes the reader to “be punctual to the minute. That is the way to make other people so, and to make them trust us.” On the same page, “The Anthony Verdict” reports on the outcome of the suffragist’s trial: “Judge Hunt in his decision against Miss [Susan B.] Anthony’s right to vote, has set at rest the foolish claim of these crazy women who claim the right to vote under the 14th Amendment.”
“Notice to Colored Soddiers [sic]” declares that “Under the Act of Congress passed March 3, 1873, Colored soldiers who serve in the United States Army during the late war, and who were denied Bounty Money on the ground that they were slaves, are now entitled to Bounty Money from the Government…” followed by instructions on how to apply.
“An Advancing Danger” warns that “a disease resembling malignant cholera has been for some time steadily spreading northward and eastward from New Orleans.”
A notice headlined “History of the African Race in America” announces “I am now writing for a Southern Publishing house a complete History of the African Race in America, from their first importation by the Spaniards, 1502, till the passage of the 15th Amendment of the American Constitution. This History is to be carefully prepared, and made a Standard work of reference. All persons in any place, having anything in Books, Pamphlets, Official acts, Town meetings, proceedings of Convention, or anything else truthfully in
Martin Robinson Delany relation to this race…will please forward them through the Post Office…” The notice is signed “M. R. Delany, Charlestown, S. C., May 1st, 1873.”
Martin Robison Delany (1812-1885) was born a free person of color in Charles Town, Virginia, raised in Pennsylvania, and trained as a physician’s assistant. In 1850, he was one of the first three black men admitted to Harvard Medical School; after widespread protests by white students, all three were dismissed after a few weeks.
During the Civil War, Delany was a recruiter for the United States Colored Troops and was Commissioned as a major, becoming the first African-American field grade officer in the United States Army. After the War, he settled in South Carolina, worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau, and ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor as a Republican 1874 — as did Macon Bolling Allen, who in 1874 ran for the same office on Delany’s fusion ticket. Delany has several published works, but apparently his “History of the African Race in America” was never published. He died January 24, 1885, of tuberculosis; a few months after his death, all his papers were destroyed in a fire at Wilberforce University in Ohio.
Macon Bolling Allen and Hannah Weston
The 1880 census shows that Macon, 65, had married a South Carolina woman, Hannah Weston, 42 years old. The marriage connected Macon and his sons with a large local family: Hannah was one of seven children of Samuel Weston and Hannah (Clark) Weston. Although Hannah’s father is listed as a tailor in most census documents, he is remembered as a beloved pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. From his obituary: “He was converted to God when nineteen years of age, and immediately joined the Methodist Episcopal Church; he gave promise of great usefulness, which his subsequent life fully realized.” He served at Camden and at the Wesley Chapel, until “he sweetly fell asleep in Jesus” in 1882, at the age of 77 years.
An additional glimpse into life in South Carolina at the time is provided by surviving bank books from the Freedman’s Bank, founded during Reconstruction. In January 1870, Hannah, opened an account for Arthur, just four years old at the time. The record carries a notation “deposited by his mother Hannah G. Allen and not to be taken out until he is 21 yrs. old.” It is signed by Hannah, with an “X” as young Arthur’s mark. In March Edward, 14, and Charles, 10, each opened an account; each boy’s signature appears on the record. Another signature record exists for Macon Bolling Allen, only partially filled out.
In 1884, Macon Bolling Allen is listed in the Washington, DC, directory, where he served as attorney, Treasury Department auditor, and probate judge. After his death on October 15, 1894, his body was transported to Charlestown for burial. A memorial service was held in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, organized as an independent parish in 1865 by a group of prominent black Episcopalians who were without a place to worship — since most of the white Episcopal churches were evacuated in Charleston as a result of the city’s occupation by Union Army. He was interred in the Friendly Union Cemetery in that city.
“At his death, Allen left a legacy as a pioneer in African American legal history that transcended time, space, and the tenor of the nation and placed him in the forefront of the black struggle. His accomplishments in New England and South Carolina paved the way for the generations of black activists who followed.”
— Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates. Oxford University Press, 2005.
And what of Macon and Emma’s surviving children?
Macon (Jr.), born 1848, who was baptized by Andrew Mackie the day his brother George died, was a printer in Beaufort, South Carolina. He died age 75 (although his death certificate says 82, based on an incorrect year of birth) of valvular heart disease.
John, born 1852, baptized the same day as Macon, became a teacher. No records have been found after 1881.
Edward, born in 1856, never married; in the 1920 census, he is listed as a baker residing at 108 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina. He died in Savannah, Georgia, at age 73 of parenchymatous nephritis at Savannah Charity Hospital.
Charles, born 1860, was a school teacher. No records have been found after 1880.
Arthur, born 1867, died age 29 of tuberculosis at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, DC (which in 1868 became the teaching hospital for Howard University). His body was returned to South Carolina for burial.
Macon’s second wife, Hannah, lived at 7 Mazyck Street in Charleston. She died May 12, 1906. Her death was attributed to “chronic diarrhea…due to influences of the season.” She was 68 years old.
Give rest, O Christ, to thy servants with thy saints,
Where sorrow and pain are no more,
Neither sighing, but life everlasting.