Every community has its heroes and sometimes those in the past just need a little help being brought back to light.
The John Gee Black Historical Center has long been enlightening others about African America history and telling people in the Ohio Valley about the exploits of local entrepreneur, philanthropist and contractor John Gee. The Ariel-Ann Carson Dater Performing Arts Centre will be holding a presentation telling his tale Feb. 12 at 2 p.m., open and free to the public. Area historian Elaine Armstrong will share Gee's story with assistance from The Ohio Valley Symphony Woodwind Quintet.
According to oral histories of Gallia County, in 1798 Gee was born in Cincinnati, his mother was a slave, his father was rumored to be William Henry Harrison (later to become a president of the United States of America). Gallipolis reporter Pinckney T. Wall recorded as much in his working notes. Harrison had 10 children with his wife and six with a slave (despite the fact slavery was outlawed by the Northwest Ordnance). John Gee was given to a Gen. James Findlay, a friend of Harrison, who took him north to the town of Findlay. It was during this period that he possibly learned the horse handling skills he later became well known for and possibly the construction skills he later parlayed into a successful business.
Oral history puts Gee in Gallipolis by 1818 although he did not appear in the Gallipolis census until 1822. Gallipolis is on the Ohio River and bordered what was then Virginia, a slave state. The western half of Virginia did not split off into a separate state until 1863 and Gee died in 1865 a month after the end of the Civil War. Most of his adult life he lived on the edge of a slave state with all the uncertainty that went with that.
Ohio had specific laws on the books concerning African Americans. If you raised chickens, you could not sell the eggs. African Americans were not allowed to have medicine in their houses as it was feared they would poison the whites. It was necessary to raise your own herbs to take care of ailments. It was against the law to congregate anywhere and in any numbers unless a white man was present. It was an oppressive time to be a person of color.
Yet, Gee managed to thrive during this time due to his skill, ingenuity and work ethic. It was in Gallipolis where his fame as a builder came about. He built houses, sturdy and strong houses of brick, some of which are still standing to this day. He began to buy up land and became the largest landowner in Gallipolis. His property started at the Ohio River and stretched westward out Pine Street and north on Second Ave. He bought land farther north of town and built a racetrack. He went farther west and started a farm. Besides houses, Gee laid the brick for the streets of Gallipolis and later built brick sidewalks.
Gee’s first wife was Barbara Stowers, herself a member of a "First Family of Gallipolis" and together they had 6 children. Their first, John Randolph Gee, went on to become a lawyer. It was stated in his obituary that William Henry Harrison was his grandfather. Barbara died in 1842 giving birth to their sixth child. African Americans could not be buried in the “white cemetery” on Pine Street. Gee had donated four acres of land across the street which became known as the “Colored Cemetery” and Barbara was buried there. This was one of his earliest known acts of charity. There are tombstones there that date back to the 1820s.
In the 1830 census he was listed as a “free person of color” and in the 1850 census he was listed as a “mulatto.”
Gee was committed to the church and named one of the first trustees of Bethel church in 1822. As the wooden building became dilapidated, Gee later donated the land across the street and began work on a fine new brick church in 1895 in Gallipolis on what is Pine Street. Gee died before he saw its completion. Several years after his death, it was renamed the John Gee African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in his honor. By 1998, membership had dwindled to only 2 members and the church was renamed the John Gee Black Historical Center.
Along with his business acumen, his building skills and his entrepreneurship, historians say Gee was a known conductor of the Underground Railroad. A successful businessman and family man during the day, at night he went above and beyond the requirements of a being a good citizen, he risked his own welfare and that of his family by helping fugitive African Americans escape bondage while dodging slave trackers. The Story of John Gee: Hero of Gallipolis shares with the audience the reality of what potentially could have happened to Gee had he been caught as a conductor. He risked his life, business and family so that untold numbers of strangers might find freedom.