Out of Africa

Captive prince helped get a school moving

One of the most remarkable persons to grace the Fort Wayne region was an African 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. He 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 an 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 was tortured, including beatings with poisonous vines. He nearly died, but he refused when the cruel master offered to exchange him for his sister.

One night when he had passed out after being severely beaten, 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 concept of where he might be, but guided by a light. In Morris’ biography, Lindley Baldwin 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, learned English and gradually learned he wanted to become a missionary. 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. Samuel was told he must go to America to receive an education and to seek out Rev. Stephen Merritt in New York.

After an arduous ocean crossing, Samuel found Merritt, a wealthy man who took Samuel in and fed and clothed him. Samuel surprised Merritt with his convictions and according to Baldwin, his ability to communicate in a matter-of-fact tone – never using “oratorical tricks of professional revivalists.”

Shortly thereafter, Samuel was sent by train to Fort Wayne to enroll at the Methodist College. President Thaddeus C. Reade was hesitant to accept this young black man with no money and little academic training. The school was in severe financial trouble and facing closure, yet Reade enrolled Samuel. On the following Sunday he spoke about Samuel and how he had accepted him on faith. Only a little money was collected at first, but it spawned a “Samuel Morris Faith Fund” that continued to grow. That fund made it possible to move the school to Upland.

Samuel dreamed of returning to his homeland as a missionary. However, 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.” He was admitted to St. Joseph Hospital. On May 12, 1893, a nun of the Poor Handmaid of Jesus Christ summoned a doctor, who found Samuel 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. That and a nearby reflecting pool with lifelike statues all commemorate the spirit of Prince Kaboo.

First appeared in the May 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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