Sampson, John Patterson

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John Patterson Sampson

Abolitionist, journalist, lawyer, judge, minister

John Patterson Sampson was born free in Wilmington, North Carolina on August 13, 1837. His parents, James Drawhorn Sampson and Fannie Kellogg, were of Scottish, Indian, and African extraction. His father, a clergyman and carpenter, was financially able to send his children north for their education. Sampson was educated in Massachusetts, graduating with his B.A. from Comer's College in Boston in 1856.

After college, Sampson traveled around New England for about two years lecturing on various topics and particularly against slavery. In 1859, he joined the New York Public School system and was assigned to teach in Jamaica, Long Island.

After a year of teaching, Sampson began publishing a paper advocating an end to slavery. He left New York for Cincinnati, Ohio, where he found employment with the Adams Express Company. During the evening hours, he worked on his paper which he titled the Colored Citizen. Sampson wrote editorials supporting emancipation and eventually recommended black enlistment in Union military. Initially he wrote under an assumed name to protect his job, as his employer at the express company was sympathetic to the South. The paper, formatted in the style of a daily journal, became known as the National Negro War; it disseminated war policy. Sampson officiated as the Washington war correspondent and reported the latest war news and stories of interest to colored soldiers. Thousands of copies were circulated to black soldiers by the Sanitary Commission in Washington and with the assistance of northern sympathizers. As the only black paper published during the war, it brought notoriety to its editor since many of its editorials were referred to in the local newspapers.

It seems that Sampson initially opposed the entry of black troops in the Civil War. In a letter written in 1862 to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the leading Democratic paper, Sampson argued that black enlistment in the Union Army would not be advantageous for the country. In his view, it would engender more sympathy from the Europeans for the confederate cause and would also sway the surrounding states to support the South. Many blacks disagreed with Sampson; in any event, Sampson apparently changed his opinion. Subsequently, his paper recommended black enlistment in the Union forces to fight alongside whites.

Instructor and Political Activist

Leaving Ohio and the publishing business behind, Sampson returned to Wilmington, North Carolina, after the Civil War. He engaged in reconstruction efforts on behalf of the newly manumitted colored citizens. He held several posts in Wilmington aimed at providing educational assistance for blacks. Beginning in 1865, he was commissioned as superintendent of the Freedmen's schools in the third district. He was also elected treasurer and assessor of. Wilmington.

In 1867, he made his official entry into the political arena when he was nominated by the Republicans to run for Congress. After several unsuccessful bids for a seat in Congress and as a representative in the state legislature, he moved on to other pursuits. His political associations proved beneficial in securing him a post as head clerk in the mailing bureau of the Treasury Department. He was one of the first blacks to hold such an appointment. He held this position for fifteen years. During this time he was also appointed as a member of the North Carolina Constitutional Convention.

At the time he was working in Washington, D.C, Sampson became interested in studying law. In 1868 he attended National University Law School in D.C. He also felt a calling to gospel ministry, and sometime between 1868 and 1870 he pursued theological studies at the Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Sources indicate that he was admitted to the D.C. bar in 1873 and thereafter entered into private law practice. That same year, President Rutherford Hayes appointed him to the D.C. District Court. He served as a magistrate in the civil courts for five years. He was the first African American lawyer to hold such a post.


Born in Wilmington, North Carolina on August 13
Receives B.A. from Comer's College, Boston
Teaches for New York Public Schools system in Jamaica, Long Island
Joins Adams Express Company in Cincinnati; begins Colored Citizen
Commissioned as superintendent of the Freedmen's Schools, Wilmington, North Carolina
Serves as head clerk in the mailing bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department
Attends National University Law School in D.C.; pursues theological studies at Western Theological Seminary, Allegheny, Pennsylvania
Admitted to bar in D.C.; appointed to D.C. district court as judge, where he remains for five years
Retires from law practice; enters ministry of AME Church
Ordained a minister
Receives D.D. from Wilberforce University
Marries Marianne Cole on September 10
Serves as presiding elder and superintendent, Boston District, New England Conference
Retires from ministry

Ministerial Career

The appeal that politics and law held for Sampson was soon lost. He retired from law practice around 1882 to enter the ministry of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was ordained as a minister in 1883. Sampson was forty-six years old when he was assigned to his first church in Bordertown, New Jersey. The church appointment required that Sampson also teach in a colored public school. Sampson pastured several AME congregations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. In 1888 during his residence in Trenton, he was made a presiding elder over Bordertown and officiated as chaplain of the New Jersey state senate. In Bordertown, he met Marianna Cole who became his wife on September 10, 1889. John Patterson Jr., their only child, trained for medicine at Howard University.

Sampson was awarded the doctor of divinity degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1888. He was regarded with high esteem in AME church circles and served in several key positions. He was appointed as a delegate to the 1888 General Assembly and to the Committee of Preachers at the New Brunswick Preachers' Meeting. From 1903 through 1910, he was presiding elder and superintendent of the Boston District, New England Conference. Sampson retired from active ministry in 1917.

Sampson was a prolific writer and thinker, one of a small number of black authors to have had works published and distributed in the United States. He wrote and lectured on a variety of religious, social, and scientific topics. His books, plays, and other works were published in the 1880s after he became a clergyman. His best-known work was a comprehensive study on the history, psychology, and phrenology of the black race. It was the first such study published by a black man. Awarded a gold medal prize at the Mount Holly Fair in 1885, it was highly praised by venerable black leaders of the day. Frederick Douglass declared the book a careful study and scholarly contribution to mental science and philosophy.

Sampson was a popular speaker. His views as a clergyman were moderate and, therefore, quite widely accepted. His lecture topics pertained to the unity of the races and on the integration of blacks into white society. He was an organizer of the Ironside Industrial School in New Jersey and one of the founders of the Frederick Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia in 1895. He served as president of the board of managers of the hospital and training school until 1900. Sampson was a black pioneer in journalism, law, and politics. His writings include a piece on how to live to be a hundred, but he died in 1928 nine years short of the century mark.



Johnson, Rossiter, ed. The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans. Vol. 9. Boston: The Biographical Society, 1904.

Ripley, C. Peter, and Jeffrey S. Rossbach, eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers. Vol. 5. The United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Weinstein, Randy F. Against the Tide: Commentaries on a Collection of African Americans, 1711–1987. New York: Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, 1996.

―――――. "John Patterson Sampson." In Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Supplement. Ed. Jack Saltzman. New York: Macmillan, 1996.

Wilson, James Grant, and John Fiske, eds. Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography. Vol. 5. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1888–1889.


Papers of John Patterson Sampson are housed in the Schomburg Center, General Research Collection, of the New York Public Library.

                                        Janette Prescod

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