Who is Charles McMicken?: And Why Should You Care?

By: McKayla Krause, Teresa Szczecinski, Logan Miller, Benjamin Kilagallon.

Picture of Charles McMicken: An older man with a white collared shirt on and a black blazer with a creme background.
Picture of Charles McMicken thanks to Cincinnati Magazine, published on their website February 10th, 2017.

The name McMicken is plastered in many areas of the University of Cincinnati, but the use of his name is highly controversial. Charles McMicken was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and first arrived in Cincinnati in 1803, where he worked as a general merchandise clerk. This prompted his work as a businessman, and he went on to travel the midwest and southern United States, including Cincinnati, Louisiana, Philadelphia, Texas, and Illinois, building a mercantile and investment trade in flour, cotton, sugar, indigo and real estate. His presence in real estate was particularly controversial, being described by his former business partner, James Ficklin, as “convoluted and suspect”. When you look at McMicken’s footprints in the real estate business, you see a multitude of shifty business transactions that ultimately led to lawsuits in order to resolve the discrepancies

Included in these shifty transactions are McMicken’s tendency to use slaves as currency for trades and purchases, but McMicken didn’t just use his slaves for currency. There is also evidence to show that he raped his slaves and forced children upon them, Charles McMicken, founder of the University of Cincinnati, had a son through one of his Louisiana slaves. It is less known that McMicken also had at least one other child, a daughter, also born to an enslaved mother. To some, the knowledge of McMicken’s cruel business affairs in real estate and his involvement in the slave trade may be enough to shape him as a grisly businessman who would do anything he could for money. But regardless of how you view him, it can be said that the bulk of Charles McMicken’s legacy and money were made out of his peculiar, yet cruel, affairs.

Picture of the front of Charles McMickens Will: a green cover with white words.
A picture of the front of the Will of Charles McMicken. The picture is thanks to Amazon, where his Will can still be bought today.

Despite the controversy surrounding his life, the more well known controversy surrounds his death. In his will, probated in 1858,Charles McMicken declared that, since he donated one million dollars worth of land in the 1800s to help develop the University of Cincinnati that it would be used exclusively “for the education of white boys and girls,” which led to the University to later face legal trouble with McMicken’s benefactors after his death when further movements were made to allow students of color to attend. The family of Charles McMicken claimed a breach of will which stated: “Excluded all persons of the African race, and all other races other than the white race, from the benefits and privileges of his said devices for such college purposes.”  Which is ironic considering that there are two known children of McMicken, John and Adeline, that he had with his slaves and allowed them to receive an education. The case was eventually dropped however, not because of the illegality, hypocrisy, or immorality of segregating the public university, but because of a technicality that left McMicken’s will with no living executor to enforce it: “They further say that there are now no executors of said last will of said Charles McMicken, all of whom are dead, and no one has been appointed or is acting in their stead.”            

On January 4th, 2017 the UC student government voted to remove McMicken’s name from the College of Arts and Sciences, which was the first step in establishing a committee to study Mcmicken’s legacy.While it doesn’t appear that the committee is finished on what the commission is currently doing to work towards solving this problem, the school has publicly announced that they have begun researching McMicken. Neville Pinto, the president of the university, released a statement saying nothing more than the fact that they have dedicated staff members to determine whether or not a name change was the right thing to do. On the University’s website there is a page dedicated to the “Commission To Study McMicken” where it provides a description of the co-chairs, their qualifications, and all the other members. They also have a page dedicated to the background on McMicken to inform the people who are unaware of the controversy surrounding Charles McMicken. While there is clear opposition to keeping his name associated with the Arts and Sciences college, the argument in favor of keeping the name is that McMicken is still part of UC’s history. Opinions vary from students saying that his legacy is something they do not want to be associated with, to indifference because without his donation the university would not be the same.

Do you have an opinion on these matters? Let the university know at the following link: https://staging9.uc.edu/mcmicken-commission/input.html