“As free as ever”: The Letters of Irene Ball

 Project Group: Ruby Dienstag, Athena Pult, Juliet Vincente

Student Editor: Joanna Wiley

This collection consists of letters written by Irene Ball to her mother, Lucinda Ballard Ball, between 1836 and 1842. They follow Irene from her time at Oberlin College to her life as the wife of an abolitionist minister in Illinois. These letters provide mere sporadic glimpses of her formative years. For instance, one letter describes her rejection of her eventual husband’s proposal, while in the next, they have been married for four years. Unfortunately, few records of or about Irene exist, limiting knowledge of her activities and mind. Irene died at only twenty-nine under unknown circumstances in Geneseo, Illinois. Nevertheless, even the few documents of her brief life illuminate the challenges to women abolitionists in the historical moment she inhabited.

       Irene Ball (1816-1845) and her siblings Caroline, Alonzo, John, Archibald and Silas were born in Lowville, New York. Her parents were Lucinda Ballard (1786-1856) and Jonathan Ball (1783-1833). She followed the Ladies’ Course at Oberlin College from 1836 to 1837 during a politically and historically significant time for both the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements. Robert Fletcher, in A History of Oberlin College From Its Foundation Through The Civil War, quotes a founder, J. J. Shipherd, who believed that one of the school’s goals was “the elevation of female character.”1 In addition to acting on this then-revolutionary concept, Oberlin decided to experiment with the education of women and men in the same setting because “The mutual influence of the sexes upon each other is decidedly happy in the cultivation of both mind & manners.”2 During Irene’s academic career at Oberlin, the Board of Trustees met with Alice Welch Cowles and Marianne Parker Dascomb, heads of the Female Department, to discuss the pros and cons of co-education at Oberlin and decide whether they should award women the same college degrees as men. The school ended up doing so, thanks to pressure on the part of women like Ball herself.3

       Her eventual husband, William T. Allan (1810-1882), was the son of an Alabama slaveholder. A radical abolitionist and leader of the Underground Railroad to Oberlin, he began his career at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was president of the school’s Anti-Slavery Society. The organization aimed to establish a lyceum in Cincinnati to “elevate the Negroes of Cincinnati.” The community found this shockingly radical. In an effort to preserve peace at Lane, a gag rule was instituted to stop agitation for the abolitionist cause. William T. Allan and his collaborators, including Theodore Dwight Weld, were expelled. After that, the “Lane Rebels” did not return to the seminary the next year, but enrolled at Oberlin.4 Many of them attended Oberlin College at the same time as Ball.5 While Allan and Ball became acquainted, he gave anti-slavery lectures in Ohio, New York City, upstate New York, and for the Michigan Anti-Slavery Society.6 Allan’s activism began in 1832, when Theodore Dwight Weld travelled to his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, to promote the model of manual labor and education. Both William and his younger brother James were swayed by Weld and decided to attend Lane Theological Seminary. William was quickly converted to the doctrine of immediate abolitionism.7 The direction of Allan’s professional life was clear: he would be an abolitionist, which entailed constant publicity and travel.

Ball disliked the prospect of constant travel as an abolitionist, initially choosing to stay at Oberlin rather than marry Allan. She was privileged to be educated alongside her male peers, to benefit from the guidance of female educators like Mrs. Cowles and Mrs. Dascomb, and to enjoy such rare independence. Around this time, several writers were proposing that God created men and women as equally free agents bound only to God’s judgement.8 Sarah Grimké, for example, opposed the idea of marriage as the one purpose of women’s existence. This kind of rhetoric clearly influenced Irene’s identity. In her first letter, she believed that her decision to decline William’s proposal made her “free as ever.”9

       However, she married Allan anyway in 1837.10 She didn’t end up graduating, but William received a degree from the Theological Seminary in 1836. Irene might have begun to feel a greater sense of duty to abolition, seeing marriage to William as a way to use her education to exert her own political influence. After marriage, Irene’s life became marked by frequent travel and devotion to abolitionism. Allan’s desire to get married did not interfere with his political life. Theodore Dwight Weld enlisted Allan and many other young radicals to form a group known as “the Seventy”. Inspired by God’s employment of seventy apostles to send his righteous message around the world, the Seventy sought to disperse abolitionist agents throughout the country. This marked the beginning of William and Irene’s travels through Illinois.11

Living as an abolitionist was difficult and dangerous. Anti-slavery societies faced frequent threats of violence. In Oberlin, they faced “[w]hipping, egging, [and] tarring and feathering.”12 Irene herself feared for both their lives.

The Allans moved to Peoria, Illinois, in 1842, later living in Galesburg, Illinois. The women of these towns founded the Illinois Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1843.13 It was the most prominent women’s organization in the state at the time. Like many abolitionist women in the 1830s and 1840s, Irene educated Black children in Galesburg, and was also involved in the Canada Mission. She published an announcement in the local newspaper Western Citizen that read: “The Galesburg school is open for the education of colored youth, and we wish to get a number of youth of both sexes under the influences of that institution as soon as may be.”14 Ball became able to reach out to the community through public platforms. This sort of endeavor was only appreciated in certain spheres. Teaching children was considered an acceptable life choice for women, whereas petitioning to change laws was not. The Female Anti-Slavery Society faced backlash when they drafted a petition against the state-sanctioned Black Code.15 Moreover, the abolition movement relegated female members to dealing with issues pertaining to morality alone16.

       This edition is based on typewritten transcriptions completed by Irene and William’s descendants in the 1960s. It illustrates some of the triumphs and struggles experienced by women engaging in public life at this time. While expressing passion for her work, Ball also described the fear and anxiety of abolitionists in a highly resistant society.

1 Robert S. Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College From Its Foundation Through The Civil War (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College, 1943), 373.

2 Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, 377.

3 Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, 373.

4 Huntington Lyman (one of the Lane Rebels), The Oberlin Jubilee, ed. W. G. Ballantine (1883), 65.

5 Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, 163.

6 Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, 242.

7 As opposed to laws that would set a future date for emancipation, possibly state by state.

8 Sarah Grimké, Letters On The Equality of The Sexes And The Condition of Woman (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838), 8.

9 Irene Ball to Lucinda Ball, September 1836, A. M. Ball – Sarah A. Curtis Genealogy (Index and vols. 1-12), Other Individuals, 23 – 30/6, Box 1, O. C. A.

10 After Irene’s death, Allan remarried in 1848.

11 Hermann R. Muelder, Fighters for Freedom: The History of Anti-Slavery Activities of Men and Women Associated with Knox College (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1959, 60-61).

12 Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, 243.

13 Muelder, Fighters for Freedom, 177-181.

14 Western Citizen, 8 August 1844, 181.

15 Muelder, Fighters for Freedom, 183.

16 Carol Lasser and Stacey M. Robertson. Antebellum Women: Private, Public, Partisan (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013, 77).