Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Kaboo the African Missionary

 (“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – May 2015, No. 124)

Kaboo the African Missionary

One of the most remarkable persons to grace the Fort Wayne region was an African male student born in 1873 who took the name Samuel Morris when he came to the United States in 1892.  Here he entered the Fort Wayne Methodist College to study to become a missionary.  Born in Liberia, he was known as Prince Kaboo from the tribe of Kru and had become a Methodist convert. He was known to have a charming personality and a zealous religious vocation that endeared him to his classmates quickly making him one of the best-liked students at the college.  However, Samuel Morris became ill in 1893 and died. Prince Kaboo was so loved and respected that his touching story of conversion, his enthusiasm for education and his untimely death was widely told and attracted many new students who enrolled in the Methodist College.

His life’s journey was a difficult one as well as one filled with discovery, great faith and charity.  As the son of the tribal chief, Kaboo’s father had lost a battle with an opposing village. Following some ancient custom, the victorious chief demanded the defeated chief’s son to hold as a hostage until certain tributes were paid. The demands were unreasonable and virtually impossible to pay.  Kaboo remained a prisoner and suffered difficult torturers including beatings with poisonous vines. He nearly lost his life even refusing to lessen his plight when the cruel master offered to exchange him for his sister.

One night after being severely beaten and passed out, he awoke to a bright light and heard a voice say, “rise and flee.”  Confused and probably in pain and dazed, he ran off into the jungle.  For days he moved through a vast and dangerous country, with no conception of where he might be but guided by a light. Lindley Baldwin writing Morris’ biography wrote, “Whether it was an external light or mental illumination that guided Kaboo, his pathway was made clear.” After experiencing one hazard after another, he stumbled onto a missionary camp the only important stronghold of civilized law.

Here he found refuge. Also, he was taught the English language and gradually learned he wanted to become a missionary.  Subsequently, Kaboo’s name was changed when he was baptized as “Samuel Morris” a name chosen for him honoring a benefactor banker from Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Sammy was told he must go to America to receive an education and was told to seek out Rev. Stephen Merritt in New York.

Without funds Sammy somehow managed to reach the United States.  After an arduous ocean crossing, he found Merritt, a wealthy soul, who took Sammy in, fed him and clothed him. Sammy repaid Merritt by surprising him with his convictions and according to author Baldwin, Sammy’s ability to communicate in a matter of fact tone never using “oratorical tricks of professional revivalist.”  Shortly thereafter, Sammy was sent by train to Fort Wayne to enroll at the Methodist College.  President Thaddeus C. Reade was hesitant to accept this poor, black boy, whose academic training had been sadly neglected.  The school was in severe financial trouble facing closure, yet Dr. Reade enrolled Sammy. On the following Sunday he told about Sammy who had arrived with no money and how he had accepted him on faith. Although only a little was first collected it spawned the idea of creating a “Samuel Morris Faith Fund” that continued to grow. It is that fund with the infectious faith of Samuel Morris that made it possible to move the school to Upland, Indiana.

Although Sammy dreamed of returning to his homeland as a missionary, in January 1893, he caught a severe cold and later developed symptoms that could not be overcome. He told his friends “I am so happy. I have seen the angels. They are coming for me soon.” Admitted to St. Joseph Hospital, On May 12, 1893, a nun of the Poor Handmaid of Jesus Christ, Sister Helen summoned Dr. Stemen who found Sammy had died in his chair.

When Fort Wayne Methodist College closed in 1894 and moved to Upland to begin a new life as Taylor University, one of its first two buildings was named Samuel Morris Hall and nearby a reflecting pool with lifelike statues all commemorate the spirit of Prince Kaboo.

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio. Ft. Wayne 106.3 FM and South Bend 95.7 FM.  Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.


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