George Gavin Ritchie: Student abolitionist

By Marilyn Hernandez-Stopp ’14 and Rebecca Downing

The founder of our first student newspaper took a strong stand against slavery.

A framed portrait of George Gavin Ritchie
A framed portrait of George Gavin Ritchie

Portrait of George Gavin Ritchie, Class of 1849

We regard slavery, as one of the most burning sins that man ever committed against high Heaven, an outrage upon humanity…”

“The Change,” Hamilton Student and Christian Reformer, Vol. 1. Number 10 April 7, 1847

Although his time as a student here was brief, abolitionist George Gavin Ritchie’s impact was nothing short of remarkable. Born in 1820, Ritchie entered the Collegiate Department of Madison University (the forerunner to Colgate) as a member of the Class of 1849.

As a sophomore, he gained the somewhat reluctant approval of the faculty to create the school’s first student newspaper, the Hamilton Student, with the subtitle “A Semi-Monthly Mirror of Religion, Literature, Science and Art.”

The faculty insisted that he form an editorial board of four students chosen by the school’s two literary societies. After publishing only a few issues, Ritchie, a staunch abolitionist, proposed to publish an editorial, “Equal Suffrage and the Religious Press,” in which he chastised voters and the churches of New York State for not supporting equal suffrage for black men in the election of 1846.

According to the “Records of the Doings of the Faculty, 1840–1851,” the other editors rejected the article, and the faculty warned Ritchie that he would be expelled should he insist on publishing it. Undeterred, Ritchie did just that.

The faculty not only expelled Ritchie — preventing him from earning his degree toward becoming a Baptist minister — but also made efforts to ensure that he would be denied entrance to any other seminary. Nevertheless, consumed with the cause of abolition, Ritchie continued the publication — twice renamed, to the Hamilton Student and Christian Reformer, and then the Christian Reformer. It became the voice of abolition and other reform in central New York.

The faculty placed a notice in the Baptist Register disavowing any connection between Madison University and Ritchie’s paper, and passed a resolution stating that other students who wrote for or aided the paper would face expulsion.

Ritchie scraped by for a while through subscription income and support from fellow abolitionists, but severe financial difficulties forced him to shut down his publication by September 1847. Regardless, Ritchie joined the antislavery Baptists and participated in several organizations. He used his pulpit to advocate for peace, temperance, and abolition, and distributed antislavery literature.

Most of his work centered in and around Oneida, Vernon, Litchfield, Richfield, West Exeter, and Clinton, N.Y. He died in 1853, at the age of 33, leaving his wife and five children. Acknowledgment and recognition of Ritchie’s accomplishments — and a reversal of his treatment by the university — would not take place until a century and a half later.

In 1998, Colgate posthumously granted Ritchie the degree he had never received. His great-grandson, Daniel Ritchie, accepted it in his name during the annual commencement ceremony. On a national level, in fall 2013, Ritchie was inducted into the National Abolition Hall of Fame, following nomination by retired Colgate professor William Edmonston and his wife, Nellie. In 2012, Colgate’s Special Collections department mounted an exhibition about Ritchie at Case Library.

Notes & Sources

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Colgate Scene, Winter 2012, pg. 13.