Benjamin Hanby and His Anti-Slavery Song, Darling Nelly Gray

Did you know that one of the most important songs against slavery was composed by a Westerville resident? This song was based on the Hanby family’s sad encounter with Joseph Selby, a runaway slave, and the story he told of lost love. Benjamin Hanby shared Joseph’s story by composing the famous ballad, Darling Nelly Gray, at the age of 22 while a student at Otterbein University.

In the spring of 1856, Ben travelled with his father, William, to Kentucky. Ben’s sister described what happened during the visit to the state south of Ohio, “When brother Ben left that summer, he was a happy singing boy. When he came back, he was a sober and saddened man. What he had seen had broken his heart.” The sight of slaves being sold at an auction in Kentucky produced the change in Ben.

Watching humans sell other humans, disturbed Ben Hanby and made him remember a man named Joseph Selby, a runaway slave, who died in the Hanby family home in Rushville, Ohio. Ben was nine years old when Joseph arrived in Rushville, fleeing his master and trying to make his way to Canada to live and work. Joseph was very sick when he arrived at the station on the Underground Railroad and realized that he was going to die among strangers. He wanted the Hanby family to know his story and why he ran away.

Joseph Selby was in love with a young woman named Nelly Gray. Nelly Gray was a slave like Joseph and like him had no control over her life. Her master sold her to a home far away from where Nelly and Joseph grew up as young slaves. Joseph missed her and determined that he wanted them to be married and live together. The only way he could accomplish that was to run away into Ohio and hide with welcoming people who would help him make his journey to Canada. Upon arrival there he could be free, get a job, earn his own money, and purchase the freedom of his beloved Nelly.

But that did not happen. Because of his illness, Joseph could not finish his journey on the Underground Railroad and died in Rushville. The experience of seeing the slaves auctioned and families separated made Ben remember Joseph and his lost love.

The story of the sad separated couple was made famous in Ben’s song. Darling Nelly Gray made people think about how slavery cruelly separated people from family and friends. The song was very popular and was sung across the country and even in England and Scotland. The company that printed it and sold the copies only gave Benjamin Hanby twelve copies of his song and when he sued them he received only $50. for this very important piece of music.

Ben not only wrote music, he also assisted his father in hiding and transporting slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.

Last updated: 2/15/2018

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