Opinion: Nebraska City needs Mayhew Cabin
The purging of the U.S. Capital of the Julius Sterling Morton statue and ensuing struggle to find a new home for the 5,500-pound effigy is evidence of something I never expected when I began working as a journalist here in 1988.
Like my assumption that the Nebraska City News-Press would never throw the bound volumes of Nebraska's oldest and most historic newspaper in the dumpster, I was wrong about the lesser legacy of Morton. I remember the smoke-filled newsroom on the loft level of the News-Press, which was under the watchful eye of a painting of J. Hyde Sweet.
One of my first assignments was to interview Arthur Kregel of the windmill fame and one of the first lessons I received from the city fathers was that Morton’s affection for the South was due to his belief that the Missouri River would be the primary link for commercial trade.
As territorial governor, Morton had formed a militia in response to reports of Jayhawker attacks in the Falls City area, but there was never a Civil War battle.
For most of my 30 years as a journalist here, that narrative was enough, but no longer.
In 2019, History Nebraska posted the question, Was Morton a Racist? A historical marker was in place at the post office talking about Stephen Nuckoll’s extraordinary efforts to capture his escaping slaves.
Pages of the Nebraska’s oldest newspaper were edited by Morton and contained his thoughts as the nation slogged toward Civil War and in the confusion of the aftermath.
Morton fought to keep slavery legal in Nebraska and after the succession of Southern states he wrote that slavery should be legalized everywhere to lure the state’s back into the union.
History Nebraska notes that in 1863, Morton expressed partial support for a northwestern confederacy, in which Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois would secede and ally themselves with the South.
Morton attacked President Lincoln in print throughout the war. Afterwards he opposed allowing black men to vote.
I don’t know where all of the hard copies of these historical newspapers are. I hope someone from the sentimental public has saved them. But, as the historical society points out, the digital copies are still available and inescapable.
Nebraska City’s historical narrative is not told entirely by one man or the naming of one park, however.
In a time of great national turmoil, there were people in Nebraska City who risked their lives to help slaves escape. Mayhew Cabin is a certified Underground Railroad site and is among the 695 locations of the national Network to Freedom.
The statue of J. Sterling Morton is soon to go up at the Morton-James Public Library and I plan to be among the proud observers at its unveiling. I am told that the story of J. Sterling Morton will not be like the story I told for 30 years. Sure, it will be about how Morton shaped the state with ideas like Arbor Day and agriculture, but it will also be about how a culture of racism shaped him.
I fear, if Nebraska City loses Mayhew Cabin, it will lose its ability to tell a better narrative about its culture and its people.
In 1962, an Outdoor Nebraska article described John Brown’s Cave as a 10x12-foot cellar, where the mourning singing of slaves can still be heard. The cabin was described as one of the oldest buildings still standing in Nebraska and the museum called a tourism attraction.
Glenn Noble began taking notes about the Underground Railroad at Nebraska City in 1961 and published his book “Historically Eventful Nebraska City in 1981.”
It contained the type of historical perspective the city fathers helped me acquire 30 years ago. It did not say that slaves had escaped from 514 N. 14th St. and from the Nuckolls residence on corner of Fifth Street and Central.
Despite harsh criticisms of escaping slaves in the pages of the local paper and powerful men breathing threats against any "n --" lovers, by 1860, all of Stephen Nuckolls’ slaves had successfully escaped.
Something more than the empty, blinded inducements that were being printed in the papers was happening in Nebraska City. I believe, it is still happening.
The story of Barbara Mayhew, a female settler, was later told by Dr. Sara Crook in “Nebraska’s Winding Road to Statehood."
Still later, Bill Hayes’ application for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom helped Nebraska City learn about $1,000 rewards for escaping slaves, and the escape of Celia and Eliza , who were led across the Missouri River with Nebraska City helpers.
Sterling Morton’s writings are not the final statement on the culture of early Nebraska City.
We need to worry less about whether there were racists in the time of the U.S. Civil War, and more about whether our values have changed.
I fear it will be harder and harder to tell the true narrative of Nebraska City and defend the roots of its culture, if zeal to protect the places and pages of its history has been lost.