A Free Man

I was just doing some research on Abigail Hopper Gibbons, whom I knew had served as a nurse during the Civil War. I recently read that efforts were being made to protect the integrity of the house on 29th Street in Manhattan where she, her husband James Sloan Gibbons (who, during the Civil War, wrote the words to that toe-tapper, “We Are Coming, Father Abraham, 400,000 More”), and her children lived.

They were abolitionists and their home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a place where slaves, on their way to freedom in Canada, sought shelter. I also knew that their home had been sacked by the mob during the Draft Riots of July 1863, when the mob went after blacks and abolitionists. Anyway, I had found an extensive account of her nursing activities, great stuff for our biographical dictionary of those who had served during the Civil War, and it repeated what I had known–that her daughter had accompanied her to the front, and had also worked as a nurse. I checked the cemetery records for the names of all of the individuals interred in that lot, but her daughter’s name was not there.

Nevertheless, all was not lost in my search–another name had caught my attention: Scipio Franks. That sounded to me like it might have been a slave name. So I did a little poking around on the Internet. Up popped a story about a Scipio Franks in the June 3, 1846 issue of the Brooklyn Eagle: a woman, Eveline Jones, a freedwoman who had been a slave in North Carolina, was living in Scipio Franks’s home. Another item in the Brooklyn Eagle of August 13, 1845, reported that Scipio Franks, a trustee of the African Methodist Church on Navy Street, had wrested a board from Ann Corneilson, who was trying to steal it from his church. And, according to the 1850 and 1860 U.S. censuses, Scipio Franks, was a black male who had been born in North Carolina about 1808 and resided in Brooklyn with Margaret Franks, who was four or five years younger than him. And, there was Margaret, likely Scipio’s wife, in that same Green-Wood lot with the Hoppers. Given these circumstances, I think we can conclude that the the Gibbons, known abolitionists who had used their home as stop on the Underground Railroad, had offered space in their lot at Green-Wood for the burial of Scipio Franks, and ex-slave, and his wife, Margaret, also likely an ex-slave. I had know about several freedmen and women at Green-Wood–this looks like two more that we have found.

UPDATE: December 4, 2009: A very exciting update. Last week I went out to the lot at Green-Wood where these individuals are interred to check whether Scipio Franks and Margaret Franks have a gravestone. There it was, right in the front of the lot. And, interestingly, it matched several of the other gravestones in the lot–a nice touch. But I did notice that the stone on which their names were carved was a bit askew–it had separated from its base. [Update on the Update: I didn’t put a photograph of the Franks’s gravestone up in the original update because I was concerned, when it was unattached, that someone might take it. However, now that it is securely re-attached to its base, here it is]. I also noticed that two gravestones in the lot had been heaved by the roots of a large tree, and were also off kilter. And, walking to the back of the lot, I saw that the gravestones for Abigail Hopper Gibbons and James Sloan Gibbons had delaminated: the slate stone, about 4 inches thick, had come apart, and the inscribed faces of each of their gravestones, on which the carving had been done, were propped up against the stone that was still attached to the base. Now, Green-Wood Cemetery is a remarkable place. I sent an e-mail to Frank Morelli detailing these problems and asking him to see what he could do. Well, just one week later, I went back out yesterday, and Frank and his Restoration Team had already done their magic. The Franks’ gravestone has been re-attached to its base, the two stones tilted by the tree roots have been leveled, and the two gravestones that had come apart have been put back together. Here’s a view of the repair, waiting for the adhesive to dry. This kind of coordination and work makes you proud to work at Green-Wood Cemetery. Great thanks to Frank and his crew!

UPDATE: July, 2010. I just heard from Jennifer Scott over at Weeksville. The Weeksville Heritage Center, devoted to interpreting an historic 19th century African American community in Brooklyn, has been working with the Irondale Ensemble Theater and the Brooklyn Historical Society on “In Pursuit of Freedom,” a project to document Brooklyn’s abolition history. Starting from my research detailed above, they have uncovered some great information about Margaret and Scipio Franks. Margaret, it turns out, was born a slave in about 1815, and years later was “left free by a kind mistress.” She then left New Bern, North Carolina, for New York City. There she worked for Abigail and James Gibbons as the nanny to their children. Over years of employment, Margaret saved her wages, then combined her savings with Scipio’s and a contribution from James Gibbons to purchase Scipio’s freedom. Margaret and Scipio established their home in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. Every Thanksgiving, the Franks joined the Gibbons for a celebratory dinner. And, the Franks worked as abolitionists themselves. Quite a story! If you have any information about abolition and Brooklyn, please contact project researchers at research@weeksvillesociety.org

12 thoughts on “A Free Man”

  1. Hello Jeff – was her daughter Sarah Hopper Gibbons Emerson? If so she is buried at Friends Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park. Best, Cara

  2. Hi Cara,

    You are correct! I just searched online and found the Life of Abby Hopper Gibbons, edited by her daughter, Sarah Hopper Emerson, in google books. Thanks for sharing this information. A fascinating family.

  3.  Hi Cara,

    Thanks again for pointing this out. I came across your comment again now (July, 2010) and my response as I was adding the above update. I realized I had neglected to order this book on Abigail Hopper Gibbons. So, through the magic of the Internet, I just found and ordered a first edition (1897) copy for our Historic Fund library. It is mostly letters by Abby–looking forward to reading them! The book actually was recently reprinted–but always better to have a first edition.

  4. Jeff,
    I am a volunteer for the New Bern Historical Society (New Bern, NC)and have been doing research on the Underground Railroad. I am fascinated with this story about Margaret and Scipio Franks and their connection to Abigail and James Gibbons. Is there any information regarding who might have been Margaret’s owner or from where Scipio might have escaped? New Bern was occupied in March 1862 after the Battle of New Bern and became Ambrose Burnside’s headquarters. New Bern also became a haven for blacks who were treated as contraband and later freed as long as they could get to the Union lines.

    • Great to hear from you!

      Yes, the story of Margaret and Scipio Franks is a fascinating one. Unfortunately, I do not have more information about them. Also interred at Green-Wood is Vincent Colyer–an artist and founder of the United States Christian Commission who Burnside appointed his supervisor of the poor–at New Bern. We have an extensive biography of him on our website–you will find it here: http://www.green-wood.com/2015/civil-war-biographies-chinnock-corrigan/ Has the spelling of New Bern changed over time? We have it as New Berne.

      • As Newbern, the town was granted a U.S. Post Office on June 1, 1790, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Francois X. Martin. The Postal Department identified the town as Newbern until 1877, when it was changed to New Berne. It was renamed back to Newbern in 1892. It was given its current spelling – New Bern – in 1918. It has been in continuous operation ever since. Some of the old maps identified us as New Berne in the 1800’s so we answer to just about anything! Thank you for the info re Vincent Colyer-I had no idea he was buried at Greenwood. He was quite a progressive man and his treatment of “contrabands” who became free was exemplary. Thanks for your help re Margaret and Scipio. I would love to find out where she came from and by whom she was freed. If I do find out any additional information I will let you know. Thanks for all the work you do on behalf of Green-Wood Cemetery-what a fascinating place.

        • Thank you! We have many Civil War soldiers who fought at New Bern–if I recall correctly, most of whom served in the 9th or 51st New York Volunteer Infantry.

          • The 51st NY Infantry definitely fought at New Bern. One of the members of that unit was George Washington Whitman, brother of famed poet, Walt Whitman. Is there a way to find out who is buried at Green-Wood who fought in the 51st NY? We are completing a database to try and locate all the soldiers who fought here, what happened to them and where they are buried. We might have some information that we could share with you as well.

  5. Thank you for sharing the link re the Civil War soldiers. We have already found several from the 51st NY who fought and died here or were wounded and are now buried at Green-Wood. Today is the anniversary of the Battle of New Bern so it seems fitting…thank you for such a fabulous resource.

  6. To find Civil War soldiers from the 51st or the 9th who are interred at Green-Wood, go to green-wood.com, use the “About Us” pulldown menu at top left, then select “Civil War Biographies.” Now click on “Section Archives.” You can then go into each of the sections and search by 51st or “New Bern” or whatever other search term you like. Should be a lot of them!

  7. I am a historian with the Point Lookout, MD. Hammond Hospital. I have researched Abigail Gibbons for YEARS. She served there until her home was ransacked and she (and her daughter) left to go to NYC. However if you read her book you will find several references to the “underground railroad” she was running from Point Lookout. When the boats would come into dock at the Point she would arrange with the captain to take a “contraband” with them to Washington and further to NYC if possible. She also corresponded with all the great abolitionists, Greeley, Mott, etc.
    I have several other stories about her and her time here at Point Lookout.

    • Hi Susan,

      Great to hear from you on Abigail Hopper Gibbons. She is a fascinating figure! Thanks for adding this very interesting note.

      I had not heard this before about her “underground railroad” work at Point Lookout. Have you ever come across details of her Underground Railroad work in New York City?


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