Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


For the Union or Slavery? The Case of Lucy Bagby: Oberlin’s Perspective

Oberlin was outraged following the outcome of the trial of the fugitive slave, Sara Lucy Bagby, in Cleveland on January 23, 1861, in which the court decided to restore Lucy to her Virginian owner in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850:

“Now what strikes us most forcibly with respect to this tragedy and its accessories is the fact that there seems to have been a studied attempt on the part of men, from whom better things are due, to make it appear that the Western Reserve is compliant toward the Fugitive Slave act and that its people will cheerfully obey that barbarous statute. We object to the representation as being utterly false…” (The Lorain County News, 30 Jan 1861, p. 2, c. 2)

Bagby was a twenty-eight year old freedom seeker from Wheeling, Virginia. Pregnant and alone, she had escaped to Cleveland and was residing there when her master, William Goshorn, found out her location and had her promptly arrested on the 19th of January, 1861. In a time when the country was facing the secession of five states from the Union, the typically abolitionist-leaning Cleveland was under pressure—if they would not obey a federal law, were they against the Union as well? One of the Southern states’ main complaints was that the Northern states were all too often disobedient to federal  laws—especially so with the Fugitive Slave Act. The Wheeling, Virginia’s Daily Intelligencer included a quote by Mr. Barlow, the counsel for Goshorn during the trial, on the court’s decision to return Bagby to her Southern claimant, which aptly sums up the Southern grievance:

“The duty of the Court is to give effect to the law. In justice to the claimants, I must say they are actuated by no mercenary motives. Neither do they come to wake the prejudices of the North. Virginia now stands in a commanding position, and wishes to show the Southern people that the Northern people will execute the laws, and be faithful to the Union. “ (The Daily Intelligencer, 26 Jan 1861)

Oberlin, as ever staunchly abolitionist, however, did not view Cleveland’s court decision as a noble act of support for the Union, but as a betrayal of morality—on something that they believed all of the Western Reserve felt strongly: that the Fugitive Slave Act was an abomination and slavery must be abolished.

“The people of the Reserve (at least two thirds of them) being Christian born and Christian bred, hate slavery. They look upon it as an outrage of all the rights which neither statutes can sanction nor law sanctify.”(The Lorain County News, 30 Jan 1861)

When the National Democrat castigated Oberlinians as being “disunionists” for their condemnation of Cleveland’s actions, The Lorain County News editors responded rather adroitly:

“We are not, nor have we ever been, Disunionists. We have always believed that the Constitution which cements the union of the States is an instrument which, rightly expounded, would secure not only all needed political but all desirable personal rights…” (The Lorain County News, 6 Feb 1861, p. 2, c. 1)

Despite the heated abolitionist sentiment in Northern Ohio, and despite several attempts by some African American activists to break Lucy out of the federal building she was kept in during the Cleveland trial and to rescue Lucy on her train ride back to Virginia, Bagby was one the last Northern freedom seekers to be returned to the South under the Fugitive Slave Act. Upon her return to Virginia she was apparently punished harshly, and her child, born enslaved. However, Wheeling was captured by Union forces early on in the war. She was thereupon emancipated, married a Union soldier, and later, she returned once again to Cleveland.

Sources Consulted & Recommended Reading:

“Public feeling on the Reserve with Respect to the Fugitive Slave Act.” The Lorain County News, 30 Jan 1861, p.2, c. 1-4; “Are We Disunionists?” The Lorain County News, 6 Feb  1861, p. 2, c. 1, 2.; Stauffer, John. “Fear and Doubt in Cleveland.” The Times Opinionator. Published 22 Dec 2010. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/22/fear-and-doubt-in-cleveland; “Bagby Fugitive Slave Case.” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Last modified 21 Jul 1997. http://ech.case.edu/ech-cgi/article.pl?id=BFSC; Daily Intelligencer, 26 Jan 1861. In “Lucy Bagby.” http://wheeling.weirton.lib.wv.us/history/people/others/lbagby.htm; Vacha, John E. “The Case of Sara Lucy Bagby, A Late Gesture.” Ohio History 76 (Autumn 1967).

Questions? Comments?

Please contact Karyn via email: cw150@oberlinheritage.org

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