Ezra Abel Huntington was the man who did the most to revive the Auburn Theological Seminary after its closure in 1854-55, and its diminished enrollments during the Civil War.
Born in 1813, Huntington was 42 years old when he took his position as professor of Old and New testament criticism. He had served 19 years as pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church at Albany.
Besides Huntington, the new seminary faculty at the reopening in the fall of 1855 included the veterans Samuel Miles Hopkins and Henry Mills, and newcomers Edwin Hall and Jonathan Condit. “Under this faculty the work of the Seminary took on a new life ... and there came financial growth and increase in numbers and facilities,” according to Huntington’s 1901 obituary.
Huntington was at the heart of this recovery. The school had no official chief executive and only a part-time treasurer. Huntington took charge of most of the school’s finances, and “was for many years the wise man of the institution, the caretaker, who kept watch of everything, and without whose counsel nothing could be undertaken,” the article continued. In effect, Huntington was the seminary’s president.
Huntington’s course on Hebrew was especially popular with students. He and his wife often had them over to his house to talk and socialize. But Huntington was not just another good teacher, and more than an inspiring one. At the end of one class, students were so awestruck that they felt like singing the doxology. This they did, and Huntington gave the Benediction following it.
The scene in the photo with this column is the front of the seminary’s original building, completed in 1820 and demolished in 1892. The earliest it could have been taken is 1861, since the different halls of the building received their names that year. A group of seminarians occupies the steps of the central section, Willard Hall. (The other halls were Case, Dodge and Douglas; previously, they had been referred to as Centre, East Wing, West Wing and new edifice.)
The inscription underneath the framed photo reads, “Gathering on front steps of 'Old' Seminary Building. Rev. E.A. Huntington present in this photo. C. 1855-1892 Donated by Edith Gilchrist Johnson.” There is no specific indication of which figure is meant, but Huntington is probably the older man, the top-hatted figure in the doorway on the left.
The man in a top hat in front of the door’s right sidelight might be Edwin Hall. With their top hats, frock coats and canes, the group suggests a club that has just come out of the building after a meeting inside.
Despite their garb, there is an interesting informality about the group. Some men stare straight ahead, others off to the side, others seem to be listening to a dialogue between a Lincoln-esque figure — probably a student — on the lowest step and a man, who might be a professor, in light-colored trousers. There are defiant looks, and one man stands with his arms akimbo. They look like Young Turks, ready to take on the world. The photo might be dated circa 1865.
In 1861, Huntington built his residence on seminary square, literally a stone’s throw from the main school building. Historian Judith Wellman, in her "Uncovering the Freedom Trail," described the house in detail, and noted, “The house does contain two intriguing hidden rooms with a cistern in the attic,” and asked, “Could these have been as possible hiding places” (for escaped slaves)? Wellman clearly believes Huntington House was a safe house on the Underground Railroad, though she admitted that no written document supports this.
Wellman also noted, “In 1903, James R. Cox, former law associate of William Henry Seward, recalled that ‘the fugitives that came to Auburn were, during the summer time, hidden in the Theological Seminary.'" (Cox’s father taught at the seminary, after being hounded out of his Brooklyn church by anti-abolitionists.) Cox lived nearby on Franklin Street. Was he in cahoots with Huntington in helping escaped slaves? It’s an interesting question!
These circumstances suggest a Huntington quite different from the grandfatherly figure of available photos: a determined man, an abolitionist, who deliberately designs and builds his home as a safe house for fugitive slaves, and places it physically as closely as possible to the seminary halls, so as to create a kind of symbiosis between the two. A leader among Young Turks, he seems to have wanted to get personally involved with the Underground Railroad activity on campus. Perhaps he yearned to be a student again, a dangerous radical among others.
None of this is mentioned in Huntington’s obituary or in the laudatory articles in the seminary record after his death, perhaps a sign that Auburn, like many cities in the North, contained a strong conservative element not particularly welcoming to blacks in the early 20th century. The postbellum seminary seems to have consistently avoided public references to its radical past.
Huntington, who retired in 1893, married twice. His first wife, Anna Euphemia Van Vechten, of Schenectady, died in 1866. Two years later he married her sister, Katharine Van Vechten, who lived until 1924, her 99th year. Upon her death, Huntington House became the property of Auburn Theological Seminary. After refurbishing, it continued as living quarters for professor Gaius Glenn Atkins and his family. Today the house, looking much as it did in 1861, has been remodeled into professional offices.