April 2007 Issue
A band of citizens saved a man from slave catchers in 1858, an event that resonates in the history and character of Oberlin, Ohio.
John Price probably thought he was long since home free. The whole thing, one would imagine, must have surprised him as much as anyone.
Price was about 18 years old, an African-American living in the relatively enlightened, well-educated town of Oberlin in the days before the Civil War. In Oberlin, blacks and whites co-existed peacefully and the college of the same name had established a national reputation for educating black students alongside whites when such a thing was still controversial elsewhere, to say the least.
It was his willingness to do an honest day's work that got Price in trouble on September 13, 1858 - the day that would catapult him, and many of his friends and neighbors, into harm's way and the pages of history. On that day, Price became the central figure in one of the most intriguing events in the history of the Underground Railroad and a decisive moment in the series of disagreements that led the nation toward the Civil War.
The event is known today as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.
The rescue has faded today from memory, but historian Nat Brandt attributes the event with a special significance suggested in the title he gave his highly readable 1991 book on the subject, The Town That Started the Civil War.
He writes: "The title of the book is, of course, an exaggeration. But like any exaggeration, it bears a kernel of truth, indeed more than a kernel. Writing under the nom de plume Petroleum V. Nasby early in the second year of the Civil War, humorist David Ross Locke (an influential Ohio newspaper editor who helped popularize antislavery sentiment during the war) echoed a theory that became widely held ... 'Oberlin commenst this war. Oberlin wuz the prime cause uv all the trubble.' A simplistic view, the stuff of which local legend is made. However, what is known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue reflected in myriad ways the forces that were dividing the United States and leading to war, as well as issues such as states' rights and civil rights."
Roland M. Baumann, archivist and adjunct history professor at Oberlin College, says the college has fielded hundreds of queries about the rescue since Brandt's book was published in 1990. Still, the rescue is "probably not as widely known about outside Oberlin as it should be," says Patricia Murphy, executive director of the Oberlin Heritage Center.
"But no other county has this kind of pivotal story" in the history of the abolition movement, says Baumann. His own book, 2003's The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: A Reappraisal, stresses the central role played in the event by the blacks who were involved as rescuers and planners.
That sort of look-behind-the-curtain perspective is common in Oberlin. The unconventional little town was settled in central Lorain County in 1833 by two Presbyterian ministers who moved from nearby Elyria. They wanted to create a home where solid Christian convictions would be the bedrock of civic life, with a school of higher learning that would reflect and reinforce those beliefs.
Within about a year, Oberlin found itself pulled into the national debate about slavery and the rights of African-Americans when a group of students and faculty bolted from Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati in a spat over the expression of abolitionist thought. They needed a collegiate home, and Oberlin invited them in. Oberlin - college and community closely intertwined, then as now - became a feisty blend of conservative religious fervor and liberal political passions. Black students attended Oberlin College, the town was one of the most integrated in the country, and by the early 1850s the place was a key stop on the Underground Railroad.
While escaped slaves like John Price - one of an estimated 100,000 who may have followed the Underground Railroad to freedom - may have felt at home in a welcoming place like Oberlin, in truth they had to watch their backs. The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 dictated that runaway slaves could and should be returned from wherever they were found in the free northern states to their former masters in the south. In towns like Oberlin, where abolitionist sentiment ran high and fierce, it was the most hated law in the land.
In other words, if something like the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue was likely to happen in those incendiary days, it may as well have happened in, well, Oberlin.
Price, as it turns out, wasn't the sort to watch his back all that closely. On that day in September, he was invited by a man he knew to do some harvesting work. Price had no idea that the guy was in cahoots with two Columbus marshals and a pick of Kentucky slave catchers who were out for their own kind of harvest. They forced the unsuspecting Price into a buggy and hightailed it to Wellington - about eight miles south of Oberlin and a station on the rail lines.
Word of the kidnapping hit Oberlin by about noon, and it didn't take long for a large crowd of Oberlinians - white and black, male and female, students and citizens, including some of the most prominent men in town - to grab their guns along with every wagon and buggy they could find, and hit the road.
Price's captors holed up in the two-story, balconied Wadsworth Hotel, located on the public square in Wellington. The crowd in the square grew and grew, not just with angry Oberlinians, but also with sympathetic supporters from the surrounding farm communities of Rochester, Huntington, Spencer, Sullivan and Litchfield. Within a few hours, the increasingly stirred-up mob ranged from 200 to 500 people. They surrounded the hotel, brandishing weapons and demanding that the slave catchers turn Price over.
The slave catchers, who claimed - correctly - that they had a legal right to hold Price, brought him out onto the second-story balcony to show that he was safe, and let him address the crowd. His mild words seemed only to fire people up even more. Attempts at peaceful negotiations ran through the afternoon. Finally, two groups of men stormed the hotel, breaking into the front and back doors. They forced their way up to the attic, where Price was being confined, and the hotel filled with men. Price was freed and carried to a waiting buggy as cheers burst from the crowd.
They sped back to Oberlin and hid Price in the home of professor James Fairchild, who would in a few years become president of Oberlin College. The slave catchers knew better than to try again. Price stayed with the Fairchilds for a few days and got back on the Underground Railroad toward Canada.
There was more in store for the rescuers, however. The rescue was big news, and the authorities had to react. A grand jury in Cleveland indicted 37 of the rescuers. Only two, Charles Langston and Simeon Bushnell, faced trial. Twenty of their compatriots refused bail and stayed behind bars as a show of support and solidarity, and to believers in the abolitionist cause, they became instant martyrs. Langston and Bushnell's trial was national news, as they turned their case into a pulpit from which to decry the evils of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. Both were convicted - Langston got 20 days, Bushnell 60 - but their voices were heard.
The Columbus marshals and the Kentucky slave catchers, meanwhile, were rounded up and charged with kidnapping - a reflection of the strong, conflicting sentiments running through the entire state at this point. It was agreed that the charges against them would be dropped in exchange for dropping the charges against the rest of the Oberlin rescuers, and everybody went home.
The jailbird rescuers arrived triumphantly back in Oberlin on July 7, 1859, greeted by a massive celebration that was missing two key players - Bushnell, who didn't finish his sentence for another five days, and John Price - who, once he made it to Canada, was never heard from again.
The case reverberated through the headlines and across the state. Bushnell and Langston's writ of habeas corpus made it all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which ended up reinforcing the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act, saying that like it or not, Congress had the authority to make such a law.
Long after the Civil War, the story of the rescue has resonated down through Oberlin's history.
"... It immediately became part of the oral tradition of the community," Baumann says. "It has been brought back each time Oberlin's students have been involved in pushing for social justice and activism." In the 1930s, for instance, an incident in which a black male student danced with a white female fellow student caused a controversy, "and the rescue was cited in the debate over that. And it's happened at other times, too."
Next year, the rescue will be 150 years old, while the city and college mark their 175th anniversaries. It'll be a big year in Oberlin, where if you visit Martin Luther King Park downtown you'll find a monument that sums up what all the fuss was about: "In the spring of 1859, 20 Oberlinians went to jail for the crime of rescuing John Price from slavery."
"With all their comrades in the Abolition Cause, they kindled hopes of freedom for us all."