In 1810, Cassius Marcellus Clay was born into one of the wealthiest slave-owning families in Kentucky. However, while studying at Yale, he heard the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison speak. That powerful experience seriously affected the young Cassius, and the beliefs he was raised with. It began a journey that set him on the path to embracing abolition. This prominent son of wealthy slave owners later served three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives, where his anti-slavery views led to attacks and assassination attempts. The stories of Cassius Clay fighting off assailants became legendary. During a heated public debate, for example, a hired killer fired a bullet at Cassius just as he unsheathed his bowie knife. The knife took the hit and saved Clay’s life. When six men wielding knives and clubs stabbed Clay in the back at a public meeting, he was still able to end the fight by gutting one of them and causing the rest to flee.
In 1845, Cassius Clay began publishing an anti-slavery newspaper called True American, which despite the precautions, didn’t stop a mob of nearly sixty men from storming the building and forcing the relocation of the press. A decade and a half later, Cassius Clay would organize a unit that protected Lincoln and the White House when the Civil War erupted. Like most abolitionists prior to the Civil War, Cassius Clay called for the gradual, rather than the immediate end to slavery. He had his own aspirations for the White House. And even as Clay freed those people whom he personally held enslaved on his estate at a loss of $50,000, he ‘retained in slavery a number of Negroes who were attached to the family estate without being his personal property”.
Herman Heaton Clay whose parents named Jon Henry and Sally were born enslaved by the Clay family. Nine years after the enslaver Cassius Clay’s death in 1903, Herman Heaton Clay, and his wife Edith Greathouse would have a son whom they would name Cassius Clay. Herman Heaton Clay’s wife Edith Greathouse was the daughter of James Montgomery Greathouse and Betsy Alexander. Betsy was the granddaughter of Wesley Alexander and his wife Patsy Fry. Wesley Alexander is the son of Archer Alexander and his wife Louisa. That same Cassius Clay born in 1912, whose family had once been enslaved by the Clay family, would also name his son Cassius Clay, making him a junior, and who is much better known to the world today as Muhammad Ali, making him the great-great-great-grandson of Archer Alexander.
After the Civil War ended, the enslaver Cassius Clay did not align himself with the Radical Republicans, who during Reconstruction called for greater systemic overhauls to create a more equitable society for formerly enslaved people. And while the white Cassius Clay was willing to put his body on the line and make economic sacrifices for the cause, he was still imperfect. It is difficult sometimes, but also very important to dig deep, to be exhaustively accurate in our research, and to tell the entire story. Muhammad Ali’s great-great-great grandfather Archer Alexander can be seen today on the controversial Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C., that was dedicated to Lincoln by the formerly enslaved in 1876. Why? Well that’s another story…
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