John Ogilvie Stevenson, teacher of the freedmen in Port Lavaca and Galveston, Texas, was born on June 10, 1841, in Bannockburn, Scotland, to Alex and Margaret (Ogilvie) Stevenson.
As a young man Stevenson labored in coal mines, worked in a woolen mill, and later learned the trade of tanner and currier, being employed at his uncle's firm of Ogilvie & Duchart. However, wages in Scotland were not enough to realize his dream of a higher education. In 1865 he traveled to Canada finding his way to Rice Lake, Minnesota, where he worked for a farmer. He also taught for a short while in a country school and took employment at a bank in St. Paul. Stevenson's forebearers were preachers and elders of the Scots Presbyterian Church—thus the Christian religion and serving others had been at the core of his boyhood. When he learned that the American Missionary Association (AMA), working with the Freedmen's Bureau, was recruiting men and women to teach the freed slaves in the southern states, he signed up.
In March 1867, Stevenson was sent by the AMA and the Freedmen's Bureau to Port Lavaca, Texas, where he held classes for seventy "scholars" in the upper story of an old warehouse. With the promise of money from the bureau and the financial assistance of a few local businessmen, he began construction of a building to serve as a school and church. However, the bureau funds never materialized, and Stevenson and his pupils were forced to hold classes in the unfinished building. "The freedmen out of their poverty, the churches that were appealed to, and individuals out of Christian charity raised funds enough to finish and furnish the union church and school building." During Stevenson's tenure in Lavaca he slept for months with a revolver under his pillow due to threats by the Ku Klux Klan. He became sick "almost unto death" with yellow fever and was nursed back to life again only by the tender care of his black friend.
In the fall of 1869, Stevenson was asked to serve as principal of the Barnes Institute in Galveston, replacing the former principal, Sarah Barnes. Miss Barnes had campaigned for funds to build a two-story brick school house which was still being constructed when Stevenson took over. He and two other AMA teachers, Miss Skinner and Miss Williams, continued teaching in an African-American Baptist church until January 3, when classes commenced in the new building. During his tenure in Galveston, a number of teachers worked under Stevenson, including Anna Keen from Wisconsin.
By January of 1871, Stevenson had gained recognition for not only his well-run institute but for his summer travels at the request of the bureau superintendent of schools, resulting in additional schools for the freedmen. Confident that he was a good candidate for state superintendent of schools, Stevenson petitioned to Gov. Edmund J. Davis for the position and garnered some impressive signatures including that of State Senator George Ruby, Congressman William Sinclair, and former bureau superintendent of schools, Major Louis Stevenson. He also received the endorsement of the Republican Association of Galveston. However, Governor Davis appointed Jacob Carlos DeGress who yielded a more "powerful political influence."
Stevenson continued as principal of the Barnes Institute until the end of the school year 1872, when he left Texas to pursue his dream of a higher education. He entered Yale University that fall, and in 1875, after earning a B.D. degree, he and Anna Keen were married.
Stevenson served as minister in Congregational churches in Ellsworth, Connecticut, and Shenandoah and Waterloo, Iowa. He later received a B. A. degree from Oberlin College in Ohio and in 1892 was honored with a D.D. degree from Tabor College in Kansas. He and Anna had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Anna Keen Stevenson died on May 21, 1888, at the age of forty-three, eight months after the death of their infant son, Louis. Stevenson married Ella McDonald on July 18, 1889. They had no children together.
After years of preaching Stevenson lost his voice but continued communicating his thoughts through writing. For a number of years he edited the Woman's Standard, an Iowa newspaper published on behalf of woman suffrage. He wrote editorials for the Waterloo Evening Courier expressing his views on a multitude of subjects from politics to religion. He died of asthma "complicated by heart disease" in Waterloo, Iowa, on December 19, 1912, at seventy-one years of age. Many heartfelt tributes were printed following his death. An editorial from the Waterloo Evening Courier, December 21, 1912, summarized how he had lived his life:
Dr. Stevenson had a soul of justice, conviction, charity and democracy. His beliefs were notable above all things for their championship of the under dog. He loved the right. He loved the weak, the poor, the helpless and abused. Waterloo has lost a man whose counterpart is not known to us anywhere. And humanity has lost a friend, a friend who spent his last years in humble circumstances but who now takes his place in eternity among the elect of great minds and souls.