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Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law: Northern States’ Rights, Part 2

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

It was May 27, 1857, four years before the start of the American Civil War.  On this day an armed confrontation over the issue of states’ rights would occur between forces of the United States federal government and local law enforcement officers at South Charleston.  But this wasn’t South Charleston, South Carolina, it was South Charleston, Ohio, about midway between Columbus and Dayton.  The confrontation, which involved the exchange of gunfire and the serious injury of a county sheriff, would be called the “Battle of Lumbarton”, or the “Greene County Rescue”.  A United States District Judge would blame the fighting on a “strange and anomalous” law passed a year earlier by the Ohio General Assembly.  That law was written by Oberlin College Professor James Monroe, a freshman state legislator, with the support of Governor Salmon P. Chase.  It was a “personal liberty law”, designed to counteract the effects of the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Law (see my Kidnapped into Slavery blog post).  But its critics would call it “shocking in its hideousness, loathsome in its practices, and dangerous in its designs.”  This blog will examine that law and the battle that ensued. [1]

On its surface, there was nothing about this law that would suggest the “hidden treachery” its critics accused it of.  Certainly nothing about its name would evoke anything but a deep yawn:  “An act further to amend and supplementary to an act entitled an act securing the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus.”  Nor was its author, Professor Monroe, the kind of fire-eating hot-head who you might expect would write a “statute of sedition and discord.” [2]

In fact this law, as its tortuous name suggests, was an amendment to an existing state law – the 1811 “act securing the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus.”  The writ of habeas corpus is an ancient and revered legal custom that allows a judge to order a prisoner who is being detained to be brought before him so that the judge can determine if the detention is lawful.  If the judge decides it isn’t, the prisoner is released.  The writ of habeas corpus became a flashpoint in the late 1850s when northern states began to resist the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and question the legality of the detentions of accused fugitive slaves held in custody by the federal government. [3]

In one particularly high-profile Ohio case, the 1856 Margaret Garner tragedy (see my Lucy Stone and the Margaret Garner tragedy blog post), a local judge issued a writ of habeas corpus to bring before him the Garner family, who were being held as alleged fugitive slaves, but they were returned to slavery instead.  This infuriated Ohio’s abolitionist Governor, Salmon P. Chase, who found himself powerless to do anything about it.  So Chase asked James Monroe to draft an amendment to the 1811 law that would give him the power to forcefully execute the writ of habeas corpus if the need were ever to arise again in the future.  The result was the law described above, which is commonly known as the 1856 Habeas Corpus Act, or Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law. [4]

In the late 1850s, when Monroe was defending his law against critics who called it “a disgrace to our State” and demanded its repeal, he tried to downplay its radical nature, saying: “The late law amends and repeals only one section of the original act, and the amendment in this case is an unimportant one.”[5]   But thirty years later he was singing a different tune.  Here’s how he described his law to an Oberlin audience at that time:

The effective provision of the new bill was that whenever any judge or a State court who is about to issue the writ of Habeas Corpus for the relief of any person alleged to be unlawfully deprived of liberty by an officer, shall become convinced, by affidavit or otherwise, that such officer will not obey the writ, he shall direct it to the sheriff of the county, who shall proceed with the “power of the county” that is, all the able-bodied citizens of the vicinage, and take the person detained out of the custody of the officer detaining him, and bring him before the judge issuing the writ…
 
It is easy to see that any county like Lorain, where the anti-slavery sentiment was strong, would furnish a pretty lively company to be the sheriff’s posse.  Neither slavery, nor the Fugitive Slave Law, nor even the United States Courts were named in the bill, but it was nevertheless a vigorous procedure.  The bill had not much growl or bark in it, but it had plenty of teeth. [6]

Aha!  So it wasn’t “unimportant” after all.  It was a “vigorous procedure” with “plenty of teeth”.  When you consider that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law effectively made the federal government slavecatcher-in-chief, and that it prohibited federal officers who were holding alleged fugitive slaves from letting them go free, it can be seen that this law could indeed lead to armed conflict between the federal government and a “sheriff’s posse” made up of “all the able-bodied citizens” of an anti-slavery community.  In fact, it could be called a state-sponsored rescue!

So let’s look at how it played out in the Battle of Lumbarton.  The action began on May 27, 1857 in Mechanicsburg, Ohio, when a U.S. Deputy Marshal and his posse arrested four citizens for violating  the Fugitive Slave Law by allegedly helping a fugitive slave to escape.  The Marshal and his posse then headed out cross-country with their prisoners towards Cincinnati.

Word spread rapidly of the arrest, and a county judge issued a writ of habeas corpus ordering the county sheriff to bring the prisoners before him, so he could determine if the arrest was lawful.  The Clark County Sheriff, John Layton, gathered a posse and went after the Marshal and his prisoners.  They caught up with them near South Charleston.  Gunshots were fired, but apparently nobody was hit.  Sheriff Layton, however, was severely beaten during the altercation by the U.S. Marshal and his posse.  The Marshal then continued on his way, with his prisoners, while the seriously injured Sheriff was attended to by his comrades.

Word spread once again, and a larger posse was gathered to pursue the Marshal as he and his entourage crossed into Greene County.  This posse was led by Sheriff Lewis, who caught up with his quarry near Lumbarton (a.k.a. Lumberton).  This time the U.S. Marshal surrendered without injury.  Sheriff Lewis took the Marshal and his posse to Springfield and jailed them there for the assault on Sheriff Layton.  The Marshal’s prisoners (the four Mechanicsburg men who had been arrested for helping a freedom seeker escape from slavery) were taken before a Judge in Urbana, who released them.

The case of the U.S. Marshal and his posse, held in jail in Springfield, now came to a hearing before a United States District Judge, Humphrey Leavitt.  Arguing in favor of the Marshal was attorney and politician Clement Vallandigham, a Democrat.  Arguing against the Marshal was Ohio Attorney General Christopher Wolcott, a Republican.

Leavitt & Vallandigham

But the case quickly evolved into something much bigger in scope as Vallandigham launched into an excoriating attack on James Monroe’s 1856 Habeas Corpus Act, which he claimed was responsible for the violence:

The heat of the times demanded something of a higher mettle; and the act of 1856 is produced from the same loins, and engendered in the same spirit, but an offspring of far lustier and more vigorous birth.  This act requires the writ [of habeas corpus] in certain cases to be addressed to the Sheriff or Coroner, even where the party is in custody of an officer by virtue of judicial process.  It is therefore a hybrid – a monstrosity in legislation and jurisprudence… It is not a habeas corpus, because it is not addressed to the party who detains the prisoner… But it is called a habeas corpus, because that is a holy name and embalmed in the hearts of the people.  It has a wicked and treasonable purpose to subserve, and it must assume a sacred name and garb… But the motives and the results expected from it cannot be thus concealed; and, in a court of law, it must be stripped of its disguises, and set forth in its true character – a statute of sedition and discord. [7]

Judge Leavitt basically agreed with Vallandigham and ordered the release of the U.S. Marshal and his posse.  He also denounced Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law as being the cause of the violence:

To understand the nature of this conflict, it should be remembered that the deputy marshals, by their official oaths, were under a positive and paramount obligation to retain their prisoners, and to oppose all attempts to rescue them… The sheriff had a writ which commanded him to take the prisoners from the custody of these officers of the United States.  It was not the usual and well-known writ of habeas corpus, … but a writ requiring them to be taken, forcibly, if necessary, from those having the prior and lawful custody…  So the sheriff understood it; and hence he and his assistants deliberately armed themselves, as a preparation for the conflict which they foresaw was inevitable…
 
… the writ under the extraordinary Ohio law of 1856, requiring the officer to whom it is directed to take the prisoners, no matter by whom or by what authority they are detained, is a wholly different thing.  This act seems to have been inconsiderately passed, and in its practical execution must lead to frequent conflicts between the national and state authorities.  It might, with great propriety, be designated as an act to prevent the execution of laws of the United States within the state of Ohio. [8]

It bears mentioning that Judge Leavitt acknowledged that “it cannot be assumed as a fact” that the judge who issued the writ of habeas corpus knew that the prisoners were in the custody of a U.S. Marshal, leading James Monroe to argue that it could not be “assumed as a fact” that the Sheriff was operating under the 1856 Habeas Corpus Act.  Governor Chase also voiced dissatisfaction with Judge Leavitt’s ruling, saying that it “denied the right of the State to execute its own criminal process or civil process, where the execution interfered with the claims of masters under the fugitive slave law.”  However Chase did eventually meet with President James Buchanan, a pro-Southern Democrat, and negotiate a compromise whereby the federal government and the state of Ohio would drop all charges against all participants.  (Although Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law was actually intended to free alleged fugitive slaves, in this case it freed four people who were accused of assisting fugitive slaves.) [9]

Judge Leavitt’s attack of the 1856 Habeas Corpus Act would play a role in the state elections of 1857, as James Monroe noted that “it was freely scattered about upon our desks, like other electioneering documents.”  The Democrats would regain control of both houses of the General Assembly, and among their first orders of business when they took office in early 1858 was to attempt to repeal Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law.  Professor Monroe wrote an eloquent (and sometimes witty) speech in defense of his law, but the Democrats brought it to a vote without discussion, so the speech was never delivered.  But I thought it might be nice, a century and a half later, to post some excerpts from that undelivered speech.  In addition to downplaying the radicality of the law (as has already been quoted), he intended to say the following: [10]

I see nothing in the character of the Fugitive Slave Act or its officers, which should make unlawful imprisonment or restraint less probable under that act than under others.  There is no reason, so far as I can discover, why the business of slave-catching should make one engaged in it so much more intelligent and so much more tender of the liberty of his fellow men than others would be, as to exempt him from all danger of acting without proper authority.  I think a slave-catcher, even though fortified with the virtuous consciousness of being a Buchanan Democrat, would still be subject to human infirmity… Partial and oppressive laws are very apt to be executed in an illegal and oppressive manner.  A law breathes its own spirit into all the proceedings under it…
 
The provisions of a Habeas Corpus Act will be sufficiently stringent in every country where the people are not slaves, to secure obedience to the Writ, and they will be made especially vigorous in times when some great usurpation is stalking through the land, and crushing personal liberty under its elephantine tread…
 
If I understand this decision, it virtually robs us of the Writ of Habeas Corpus altogether.  If a man is only a United States officer he may seize whomsoever he pleases without any legal authority whatever, and all the Writs which our State courts can issue will be of no avail for the protection of the injured party because he is in the custody of a United States officer…
 
But I shall be told that Judge Leavitt is against the law of 1856. This I admit without hesitation, and I hope without alarm. I shall endeavor to console myself for the want of such an ally by the high authorities I have quoted, and the arguments I have employed…
 
If there is danger of conflict between the State of Ohio and the Federal Government, it is because that Government is not willing to be confined within its constitutional limits – because in its zeal for the interests of its Southern masters, it is willing to put in peril the liberty of the people.  This course, if persisted in, undoubtedly will produce a “conflict.”  Tyrants have always had occasion to complain that the people would not submit to be enslaved quietly…
 
We have been frequently told… that the act of 1856 is an act of nullification, and that its friends are nullifiers – enemies of the Constitution and the Union…  They have spoken as if they had a sort of monopoly of the American eagle – as if they were on terms of particular confidence with that bird, and we were men of too unclean lips to invoke her name…  Sir, no man shall outdo me in attachment to the American eagle.  The truly national eagle – the eagle of Washington, and Jefferson, and Franklin, is a bird that I admire… But the eagle of the Buchanan Democracy is a bird of a very different species and of very different tastes… a bird of Stygian form and hue, with blood shot eye and discordant scream and hideous and unshapely proportions, burying her sharpened beak and talons in the bleeding back of a fleeing, ghastly, famished negro, and beating her dusky wings upon his shrunken sides.  To such an eagle I freely acknlowledge I profess no allegiance.  She shall never spread her wings upon the banner under which I march.  I avow myself a traitor to such a symbol of authority; and to all the consequences of such an avowal, I will cheerfully submit. – James Monroe

(In the next and final blog of this series, we’ll see the fate of this law and Ohio’s three other personal liberty laws, and the dramatic impact these laws had on Oberlin.)

 
SOURCES CONSULTED:

James Monroe, Speech of Mr. Monroe of Lorain, upon the Bill to Repeal the Habeas Corpus Act of 1856

“Ex parte Sifford” [5 Am. Law Reg. 659]

James Monroe, Oberlin Thursday Lectures, Addresses, and Essays

Clement L. Vallandigham, SPEECHES, ARGUMENTS, ADDRESSES, AND LETTERS OF CLEMENT L. VALLANDIGHAM

“An act further to amend and supplementary to an act entitled an act securing the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus”, Acts of the State of Ohio, Volume 53, p. 61

“John E. Layton and the Greene County Rescue Case of 1857”, Springfield, Ohio Community Website – History of Clark County

 “Battle of Lumbarton”, Ohio History Central

“Clark County Sheriff was felled by federal marshals”, Springfield News-Sun, June 2, 2013

Thomas D. Morris, Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North 1780-1861

Jacob William Shuckers, The Life and Public Service of Salmon Portland Chase

Catherine M. Rockicky,  James Monroe: Oberlin’s Christian Statesman & Reformer, 1821-1898

 
FOOTNOTES:

[1] “John E. Layton”; “Ex parte Sifford”; Monroe, Speech, p. 4
[2] Monroe, Speech, p. 4; “An act”; Vallandigham, p. 145
[3] Morris, pp. 168-180
[4] Shuckers, pp. 172-174; Monroe, Thursday, p. 115
[5] Monroe, Speech, pp. 4, 10
[6] Monroe, Thursday, pp. 119-120
[7] Vallandigham, pp. 144-145
[8] “Ex parte Sifford”
[9] Monroe, Speech, p. 13; Shuckers, p. 182
[10] Monroe, Speech, pp. 5, 8-9, 12, 13, 14

Kidnapped into Slavery: Northern States’ Rights, Part 1

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

The movie 12 Years a Slave, now showing in northeast Ohio, graphically depicts several deplorable aspects of American slavery, including the fact that freeborn African Americans could be kidnapped and carried into a life of bondage.  The true-life story of Solomon Northup, portrayed in the movie, was the result of an illegal kidnapping in Washington, D.C.  But to make the story even sadder, in 1850, just nine years after Northup’s illegal abduction, the laws of the United States were modified, not to make it harder for such atrocities to occur, but in such a way as to make it easier – to in fact make such abductions possible with the full sanction of U.S. law and with the support of federal law officers and American citizens deputized to assist them, whether willingly or not.  This blog will discuss how such a law could come to be, and how some northern legislators, like Oberlin’s James Monroe, eventually fought back, to defend the rights of their states to protect their citizens from the tragic fate of Solomon Northup.

James Monroe

James Monroe (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

The law I’m alluding to is the infamous Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, passed at a time when this country was on the verge of splintering in two and disintegrating into civil war.   The northern states (north of the Mason-Dixon line/Ohio River) had for the most part abolished slavery by then, to the point that only about 1% of their black population remained enslaved (in Delaware and New Jersey).  In the southern states, however, slavery was flourishing, so that more than 93% of their black population was enslaved.[1]  This led to tremendous tensions between the sections, as described by South Carolina’s “states’ rights” Senator, John C. Calhoun, in his last speech to Congress in early 1850:

There is a question of vital importance to the Southern section, in reference to which the views and feelings of the two sections are as opposite and hostile as they can possibly be. I refer to the relation between the two races in the Southern section, which constitutes a vital portion of her social organization. Every portion of the North entertains views and feelings more or less hostile to it… On the contrary, the Southern section regards the relation as one which can not be destroyed without subjecting the two races to the greatest calamity, and the section to poverty, desolation, and wretchedness; and accordingly they feel bound by every consideration of interest and safety to defend it.
 
Unless something decisive is done, I again ask, What is to stop this agitation before the great and final object at which it aims–the abolition of slavery in the States–is consummated? Is it, then, not certain that if something is not done to arrest it, the South will be forced to choose between abolition and secession? [2]

The “agitation” to which he refers includes several anti-slavery policies and practices of the northern states and their citizens, but one of the most irritating to southern slaveholders was what Calhoun called the failure of the North “to do her duty by causing the stipulations relative to fugitive slaves to be faithfully fulfilled.”  In other words, the North was not cooperating, and even downright obstructing, the return of enslaved persons who had escaped from their owners in the South to seek freedom in the North.  This, the slaveholders felt, was in violation of the fugitive slave clause of the U.S. Constitution:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due. – Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3

Many Northerners felt differently, however – that the vagueness of this clause left them latitude to insure, at the minimum, that freeborn Americans like Solomon Northup would not be carried off into slavery.  Without going into the long, complicated series of litigation and legislation that this clause precipitated in the decades prior to 1850, I’ll just suffice it to say that by 1850 the situation was as confused and turbulent as ever.

And so it was that a group of U.S. Congressmen crafted the “Compromise of 1850”, the latest in a long series of compromises designed to attempt to preserve a democratic Union by supporting and maintaining institutionalized slavery.  One of the key pieces of this compromise was a new fugitive slave law, to enforce the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution.   But this law was so tilted in favor of the slaveholders that the New York Evening Post called it “An Act for the Encouragement of Kidnapping.” [3]

The Fugitive Slave Law brought the Southern viewpoint, that a black person was assumed a slave until proven otherwise, into the northern states, where all people, white and black, were assumed free until proven otherwise.  It required neither the alleged fugitive slave nor the alleged slaveowner to appear in person to testify.  In fact, the alleged fugitive was prohibited from testifying in his/her defense altogether, while the alleged slaveowner need only file an affidavit claiming ownership and providing a physical description of the alleged fugitive.  It established a set of federal Commissioners to “exercise and discharge” the provisions of the act.  It also charged United States Marshals and Deputies with enforcement of the act.  Where the Marshals had insufficient numbers to perform their duties, they were authorized to “summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus  of the proper county.”  And if any of the Marshals, Deputies, or bystanders refused or failed in their duties, they were subject to stiff penalties themselves, as anyone assisting an alleged fugitive would be as well.  The act also provided for monetary remuneration of the Commissioners for each case they heard, to be doubled if they decided in favor of the alleged slaveowner.[4]

No wonder the Oberlin Evangelist lamented, “Everything is yielded to the slave power which can be asked…  O this horrible legislation for iniquity, and against freedom and righteousness!” And yet it passed both houses of the United States Congress, and was signed into law in September, 1850 by President Millard Fillmore.  It was overwhelmingly opposed in Ohio, where abolitionist Senator Salmon P. Chase voted against it (his colleague, Senator Ewing not voting), and 14 Representatives voted against it while only 3 voted in its favor. But it had virtually unanimous Southern support, and enough northern Congressmen either voted for it or abstained from voting altogether, to dress this “hideous deformity”, as Oberlin’s John Mercer Langston called it, “in the garb of law.”[5]

Even the Cleveland Plain Dealer, noted for its vehement anti-abolitionist opinions, complained that the law was not “confined to the slave States,” but was enforced “wholly in the free States… by free men.  The service it requires is not the kind we owe to either God, man, or the devil.” [6]  Lewis Tappan, the abolitionist New York merchant and key benefactor of Oberlin College, minced no words:

It constitutes at the North, in our neighborhoods, and by our firesides, the most anomalous, overshadowing, insulting, and despotic police that perverted mind can contrive, or guilty power sustain—a police which guilty power cannot sustain, until honor, and purity, and freedom have fled from among us, and we have consented to be the most drivelling, and base, and worthless slaves that ever crawled at the foot of tyranny. [7]

But it was now the law of the land and President Fillmore ominously pronounced the Compromise of 1850 a “final settlement.”  The nation now watched and waited to see if the “finality” would hold.  But as it turns out, it didn’t even take four months for a freeborn black man to be “returned” to slavery under this law.  On December 21, 1850, a United States Commissioner in Philadelphia ordered that Adam Gibson be sent to his alleged owner in Maryland, based on the testimony of a witness who was currently under indictment for kidnapping.  Fortunately for Gibson, his alleged owner was honest enough to admit the error and return him to Pennsylvania, otherwise Gibson would have suffered the same horrible fate as Solomon Northup.  One can only wonder how many Adam Gibsons weren’t so lucky. [8]

Over the next few years scores of blacks were arrested under this law, with the vast majority being remanded to slavery.  But other than a handful of rescues, Notherners were powerless to do anything about it.  In 1853, Solomon Northup was finally released from his 12 year ordeal and published his narrative, further dismaying the northern public.  Northern indignation grew with each rendition and reached a crescendo in 1854, when President Franklin Pierce sent hundreds of U.S. troops to Massachusetts to return Anthony Burns to slavery, marching him through the Boston streets as crowds watched helplessly and church bells tolled in lament. [9]

Still, only one northern state, Vermont, had been able to pass legislation to dilute the effects of the Fugitive Slave Law, but it was too far away from ‘ground zero’ to make an impact.  But another momentous event occurred at the same time as the Burns debacle that would change everything.  The United States Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing slavery into Kansas and Nebraska, which at that time were United States territories.  Many Northerners felt this was a flagrant violation of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in the territories that far north.  Having simmered with indignation while they upheld the Compromise of 1850, Northerners now boiled over into action.  The anti-slavery Republican Party was formed, and state legislatures began to pass “personal liberty laws” to counteract the Fugitive Slave Law. [10]

Ohio had its first opportunity to test the waters of this new political climate in the election of 1855, and the result was a stunning victory for the infant Republican Party.  Republicans took control of both houses of the Ohio General Assembly, and Republican abolitionist Salmon P. Chase was elected Governor.  One of the new freshmen Republican members of the Ohio House of Representatives was another abolitionist, Oberlin College Professor James Monroe.

Salmon Chase

Salmon P. Chase

When the Republicans took office in January, 1856, Monroe, despite being a political rookie, immediately began feeling out his Republican colleagues on the idea of passing personal liberty laws in Ohio.   As he wrote in his personal notes, “If Ohio would be a free state with free citizens & maintain the great safeguards of liberty, she must make a stand.”  He quickly discerned, however, that “about one half of the Republicans were very conservative” and “had nothing that could be called anti-slavery principle as that term was understood in Oberlin.” [11]

Then another momentous event occurred, this time in southern Ohio, that changed everything once again.  Just three weeks after the Republicans took office, news broke of the tragic Margaret Garner affair (see my Lucy Stone and the Margaret Garner tragedy blog for details).  Ohioans were horrified at the story of the freedom seeker who had killed one of her children in Cincinnati rather than letting slavecatchers take her.  Years later, Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President, who had been an abolitionist lawyer in Cincinnati at the time, told Monroe of the reaction in Cincinnati:

[Hayes] lived in a street of Southern sympathizers; but, as he expressed it, the whole street was converted by the tragedy of Margaret Garner.  The next day after it occurred, a leader among his pro-slavery neighbors called at his house, and as he met Mr. Hayes, exclaimed with great fervor, “Mr. Hayes, hereafter I am with you.  From this time forward, I will not only be a Black Republican, but I will be a damned abolitionist.” [12]

Governor Chase and other state and local anti-slavery officials had tried every trick in the book to get Garner and the rest of her family out of federal custody, but they could not get past the Fugitive Slave Law, and the whole family was eventually returned to slavery.  The Governor was incensed at the impotence imposed upon him, and he vented his frustration to Monroe:

… there was a knock at my door, and Governor Chase entered.  He was laboring under great excitement of some kind, and appeared to be angry.  He broke out abruptly, “What are you Republicans doing in the House, and what are you doing, Monroe, when a mother who is a free woman is compelled to kill her children on the soil of Ohio to save them from slavery, and that because there is no efficient law for her protection?… You ought to introduce a bill into the House in the morning, have it carried through both Houses under a suspension of the rules, and have it become a law before you adjourn to-morrow.” [13]

Though it didn’t happen quite that fast, Monroe, with Chase’s support, in the wake of the outrage over the Garner case, wrote and passed a law that would arguably become one of the most radical personal liberty laws in the country.  The law went into effect on April 5, 1856.  It was a law that Monroe would say years later “had not much growl or bark in it, but it had plenty of teeth.”  Its critics would call it “insane and aggressive legislation” (and that’s when they were being nice.)  I’ll discuss this very intriguing law in detail in my next blog post. [14]

It would be a full year after passage of Monroe’s law before the Ohio legislature would pass any further personal liberty laws, and when they did they would be among the most conservative of such laws.  In the Spring of 1857, they  passed “An act to prohibit the confinement of fugitives from slavery in the jails of Ohio”, and “An act to prevent slaveholding and kidnapping in Ohio”, and “An act to prevent kidnapping”.  The latter law would turn out to be the most noteworthy of the three.  Here’s an excerpt:

… no person or persons shall kidnap or forcibly or fraudulently carry off or decoy out of this state any black or mulatto person or persons within this state, claimed as fugitives from service or labor, or shall attempt to [do so],  without first taking such black or mulatto person or persons before the court, judge or commissioner of the proper circuit, district or county…
 
… any person or persons offending against the provisions of this act shall be… confined in the penitentiary at hard labor for any space of time not less than three years nor more than eight years…
[15]

Three to eight years hard labor in the notorious Ohio State Penitentiary.  That sounds pretty severe in our day and age.  But it pales by comparison to Solomon Northup’s twelve years of brutality and “unrequited toil”, or the life sentences that hundreds of victims of the Fugitive Slave Law endured.  Nevertheless, the new laws made an impact, as we shall soon see.  Stay tuned.

 
SOURCES CONSULTED:

James Monroe, Oberlin Thursday lectures, addresses and essays

Thomas D. Morris, Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North 1780-1861

William Cox Cochran, The Western Reserve and the Fugitive Slave Law

Lewis Tappan, The Fugitive Slave Bill: Its History and Unconstitutionality

John C. Calhoun, “The Clay Compromise Measures”, National Center for Public Policy Research

Samuel May, The Fugitive Slave Law and its Victims

“Doings of Congress”, Oberlin Evangelist, September 25, 1850

Carol Wilson, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861

James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom

“Fugitive Slave Act, 1850”, National Center for Public Policy Research

Joseph Rockwell Swan,  The Revised Statutes of the State of Ohio, of a General Nature, in Force August 1, 1860

“Historical Census Browser, 1850”, University of Virgina Library

“Amendment of the Habeas Corpus Act”, Oberlin College Archives, RG30/22, “James Monroe”, Box 19

Clement L. Vallandigham, SPEECHES, ARGUMENTS, ADDRESSES, AND LETTERS OF CLEMENT L. VALLANDIGHAM

President Millard Fillmore, “First Annual Message, December 2, 1850”, The Miller Center

Philip S. Foner, “History of Black Americans From the Compromise of 1850 to the End of the Civil War”

Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave

 
FOOTNOTES:

[1] “Historical Census Browser”
[2] Calhoun
[3] May, p. 3
[4] “Fugitive Slave Act”
[5]  “Doings of  Congress”, p. 6;  Tappan, pp. 12-16; Foner
[6] Cochran, pp. 103-104
[7] Tappan, p. 29
[8] Fillmore;  May, p. 12; Wilson, pp. 52-53
[9] Potter, p. 138;  McPherson, pp. 119-120
[10] Morris, pp. 159, 168
[11] “Amendment”, p.2; Monroe, p. 111
[12] Monroe, p. 116
[13] ibid., p. 117
[14] ibid., p. 120, Vallandigham, p. 154
[15] Swan, p. 418

Thomas Tucker and Charles Jones: Missionaries FROM Africa

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

It’s no secret that one of the primary goals of Oberlin College in its first decades of existence was to train Americans to become missionaries who would go out into the world and crusade against slavery and other moral ills.  That’s why I find the story of Thomas DeSaille Tucker and Charles Jones so intriguing; it’s an interesting twist on the traditional Oberlin narrative.  Tucker and Jones were native Africans who came to America, attended Oberlin College and devoted their lives to combating slavery right here in the United States, serving as missionaries in the American South in its hour of greatest need.

Thomas DeSaille Tucker

Thomas DeSaille Tucker
Courtesy State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Unfortunately I have no picture to post of Charles Jones, and the information on him is scant, but what we do have comes from reliable sources.  There is quite a bit of information available on Tucker, however, and his legacy continues to this very day (although his middle name is subject to a wide range of spellings, including deSaliere, DeSota, and De Selkirk).

Jones and Tucker were raised in Sherbro, Sierra Leone, Africa.  Jones was the son of a powerful Muslim chief, and Tucker was the grandson of another powerful chief, who also happened to be a slave trader.[1]  Both youths were educated in the Kaw-Mendi (a.k.a. Mende or Mendi) mission that was established on the western coast of Sierra Leone by American philanthropists in the 1840s.  In fact the land for the mission was rented to them by Tucker’s grandfather, and the original purpose of the mission was to repatriate the survivors of the slave ship Amistad.  Oberlin College benefactors Lewis and Arthur Tappan were among the main supporters of the mission, which was basically run by Oberlin students and alumni, about 30 of whom would ultimately serve there.  Certainly Jones and Tucker would have known, and perhaps been influenced by, Sarah Margru Kinson, one of the original Amistad captives, who was educated at Oberlin College after her release, then returned to Sherbro in 1849 to become a missionary and teacher herself.  (For more information on Sarah Margru Kinson, the Amistad, and the Mendi mission, see Sarah Margru Kinson: The Two Worlds of an Amistad Captive, by Marlene D. Merrill, available from the Oberlin Heritage Center gift shop.)

Jones and Tucker were brought to the United States in 1856 by Oberlin College alumnus George Thompson, who returned to Oberlin after relinquishing his post as director of the Mendi mission.  Tucker would have been about 12 years old at the time, Jones was probably about 17.  Interestingly, they arrived in the United States in the summer, and when asked how they liked it, they replied, “We like it very well, but it is too hot for us, we can’t stand it!”[2]

Both of the boys lived with Thompson initially, although Jones eventually took a shoemaker apprenticeship with Oberlin’s Orindatus S. B. Wall and moved in with his family.  Tucker entered the preparatory school at Oberlin College in 1858 at the age of about 14, and entered the collegiate program two years later.  Jones attended the preparatory school in the 1860-1861 school year.  But both had every intention of returning to Africa after receiving their education, just as Sarah Margru Kinson had, to dedicate their lives, as Tucker put it, to “do good in my native land.”[3]

Thompson and Wall

When Tucker was still in Africa as a 10 year old boy, he had written to Lewis Tappan about the “wicked practices” of his country, including warfare that involved attacking towns when “the enemy on the other part are asleep” and killing “their enemies so much even as not to have pity upon some of young babes.”  A relative of Tucker’s, who would eventually become a slave trader himself, had also written Tappan that “slavery and bigamy or polygamy will be the last sins an african [sic] will forsake.”   But now that Thomas Tucker had crossed the ocean, he came to see that the United States had its own sins and wicked practices, as he wrote to a friend back in Africa:

‘The colored men in this country have no voice in the general government; even in some of the States they have no voice in the State government.  It would fairly sicken you to be here on a fourth of July and hear guns firing and “starspangled banner” waving “over the land of the free and the home of the brave” while there are this day 4,000,000 of slaves in their possession.  O what a hypocrisy.  God will not always sleep but will yet come in judgment against this country except they speedily repent.’[4]

Then the American Civil War broke out.  Union forces made slow progress into the slaveholding states of the South, and as they did so they were thronged by slaves who had escaped from their owners.  The Fugitive Slave Law, which remained in force, demanded that slaves be returned to their owners on claim.  Although some Union commanders were all too happy to comply and relieve themselves of the burden of accommodating the freedom seekers, a few saw this as an opportunity to strike a blow against slavery and the Confederacy.  General Benjamin Butler, who had seized the military bases at Fortress Monroe in the Norfolk-Hampton region of coastal Virginia, was among the latter.  Arguing that the Confederates considered the slaves as “property”  which they were using to support the rebellion, he claimed the right to refuse their return.  And thus hundreds of freedom seekers became “contraband” of war.

Now came the tremendous logistical problem of sheltering them, feeding them, and providing them the education that most had been denied all their lives.  Mary Peake, a local free black school teacher, and Peter Herbert, a local fugitive from slavery, got permission to establish schools on property seized by the Union forces.  Herbert in fact established his school in the abandoned summer home of slaveholding ex-President John Tyler, who had left the area and thrown his support to the Confederacy.  Both Peake and Herbert soon had dozens of students in their classes.

Northern abolitionists, both black and white, from the American Missionary Association (the same group that ran the Mendi mission) also came down to help.  Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood directed relief operations in person and helped establish more schools, while George Whipple (one of Oberlin’s “Lane Rebels”) and Simeon S. Jocelyn petitioned the Lincoln Administration for support.  On December 3, 1862, the Oberlin Evangelist reported:

“Since the meeting of the Am. Missionary Association in this place, Oct. 15, five students from Oberlin College and Seminary have left us for service under the Association in labors among the freemen at or near Fortress Monroe, or in South Carolina, namely: Wm O. King and Palmer Litts, of the Junior Theological Class; Edwin S. Williams of the Middle Theological Class and his wife; and Thomas De Selkirk Tucker of the Junior Class, a native of Sherbro, Africa, brought thence by Rev. Geo. Thompson and in a course of education in Oberlin College.  They are all teachers of considerable experience, with the exception of the last named, and all give promise of efficiency and usefulness in their work.  They left us with many requests for prayer – their case and work awakening profound sympathy among their Christian friends.  Not having completed their course of study, they all expect to return for that purpose after a service perhaps of six months.”

Upon his arrival in Hampton, Virginia, Thomas Tucker immediately began teaching classes in the Tyler house.  It was difficult work.  The teachers were faced with overcrowded classrooms, they endured the hostility and prejudices of many of the Union troops as well as the local populace, and their varying backgrounds and skill levels sometimes created tensions among themselves.  But the missionaries drew their inspiration from their students, finding “their love of freedom strong.  Their desire for learning and the aptitude of children and adults to learn… remarkable.”[5]

Tucker returned to Oberlin in mid-1863.  The time he spent in Virginia and the substandard pay he received while there set his Oberlin education back one year, but with cooperation of the school administration he was able to secure good winter employment and continue his education.[6]

In 1864, Tucker expressed disappointment that his Mendi friend, Charles Jones, had joined the Union armed forces.  Tucker took this as a sign (quite correctly, it turned out) that Jones would not be returning to Africa.  That Jones enlisted is not surprising, given that his Oberlin mentor, O.S.B. Wall, became a tireless recruiter of black Ohio soldiers when the Lincoln Administration finally allowed African Americans to enlist in 1863.  (Wall himself earned a Captain’s commission, perhaps the first African American to do so.)  Wall recruited for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer and the 5th United States Colored Troops (USCT) infantry regiments in 1863, and the 27th USCT infantry regiment in early 1864.  Only one Charles Jones appears on the roster of these regiments, as a private in Company D of the 27th USCT, which recruited several African American men from Oberlin.  If this was our Charles Jones, he would have seen some of the hardest fighting of the entire war in Virginia in the Spring and Summer of 1864.[7]

Tucker himself was still intent on returning to Africa after completing his Oberlin education, saying:

“Whenever I reflect, so far as youth can, on all the Providences connected with my coming to, and residence in this country, thus far, I cannot resist the conviction that he intends me for some work in life.  To be sure all men know that they were not made to be drones; yet there are times when we are, as it were, divinely impressed with a sense of the path marked out for us in life.  I feel that my only highest goodness and happiness will consist in spending my life for benighted dear Africa…  At all events, unless I can see plainer indications of Providence allotting me a sphere of duty in this country, to Africa I will return.”[8]

However he also began to foresee difficulties if he returned to his powerful family in Sherbro, writing:

“Far from any desire to forget and foresake Africa; I still yet, as I have in the past, cherished the deepest sympathy for my native land… My family influences in the Sherbro, as you well know, are very extensive.  Returning there I would be subjected to trials and temptations which you perhaps can not well conceive of in this country.  As your Sherbro mission is the only one you have in Africa, and as I could not return and labor there without great disadvantages, I preferred to be where I could be most efficient.  I could willingly go to such a place as Shengay, Sierra Leone — anywhere where I can be farthest from my relatives.”[9]

But when Tucker received his A.B. (Bachelor of Arts) degree from Oberlin in 1865, there were no teaching opportunities for him in Africa outside of the Sherbro mission.  He thus resolved himself to be “governed by a sense of duty, and not by selfish inclinations” and to “teach in any capacity — for the elevation of the freedmen.”[10]

And that he did.  After graduating, Tucker returned to the South, this time to educate freedmen in Georgetown, Kentucky and later New Orleans, Louisiana.  His friend, Charles Jones, having survived the war, also heard the calling to head south and became a preacher in Mississippi.  (He was believed to be in Friars Point, Mississippi until about 1883, and then sometime thereafter might possibly have relocated to North Carolina, still preaching.)[11]  Tucker edited a series of newspapers while in New Orleans and studied law at Straight University, a school established by the American Missionary Association to train black missionaries and to provide legal training to students to help support civil rights in the South.  (Straight University eventually merged into present-day Dillard University.)  Tucker earned his law degree in 1883, then moved to Pensacola, Florida, where he had a successful law practice for four years.

In 1887, Tucker co-founded a college in Tallahassee, Florida called the State Normal School for Colored Students.  His co-founder was another Oberlin College black alumnus and one-time Florida state legislator, Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs.  When the State Board of Education selected Tucker to be the school’s first president, the editor of a local newspaper wrote:

“The State Board of Education certainly deserves much credit for the appointments recently made for this school. … We have known Professor Tucker for about 18 years and we have never met a more genial, broadminded and sterling gentleman. He possesses first-class qualities as a friend, gentleman and scholar, and commands the respect of all who know him. He is a strong man, morally and intellectually, and the new Normal has a security of success under his charge.”[12]

Tucker would serve as president for 14 years, but would eventually be forced to resign over policy differences with state authorities.  Influenced by his own Oberlin College education, Tucker wanted the school to offer a strong liberal arts education to its students to complement its vocational training.  State authorities believed the school should focus on vocational training only, and accused Tucker of providing instruction that was “void of the results of the kind for which the money was furnished” and of hiring instructors who were “not in sympathy… with Southern institutions.”  Interestingly enough though, Tucker was replaced by yet another African American Oberlin College graduate, Nathan B. Young.[13]

According to his contemporary Florida historian, Rowland H. Rerick, Tucker was “an able and intelligent man, of excellent character and notable executive ability and an admirable influence upon the students.’’[14]   But now he returned to his law practice and died just two years later in 1903.  If he were with us today, however, he would undoubtedly be proud of the college he co-founded.   No longer known as the State Normal School for Colored Students, it is now called the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (“Florida A&M”), and provides a wide range of studies and programs, from baccalaureate to doctoral, to students of all races and ethnicities, though predominantly African American.  And yes, it provides liberal arts instruction too.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Clara Merritt De Boer, The Role of Afro-Americans in the Origin and Work of the American Missionary Association: 1839-1877, Vols 1 & 2

Robert Francis Engs, Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1861-1890

Leedell W. Neyland, “State-Supported Higher Education Among Negroes in the State of Florida”, The Florida historical quarterly, Volume 43 Issue 02. October 1964, pp. 108-110

George Thompson, The Palm Land; Or, West Africa, Illustrated

“Teachers for the Freedmen”, Oberlin Evangelist, Dec 3, 1862, p.7

Joseph Yannielli, “George Thompson among the Africans: Empathy, Authority, and Insanity in the Age of Abolition”, Journal of American History, vol 96, issue 4, March 2010, p. 998

General catalogue of Oberlin college, 1833 [-] 1908, Oberlin College Archives

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1

Clifton H. Johnson, “Tucker, Thomas DeSaliere”, Dictionary of African Christian Biography

Oberlin College Archives, RG 28/1, Alumni and Development Records, Former Student File, Series B, Box 313, Folder “Jones, Charles 1860-1861”

1860 United States Census, Lorain County, Russia Township

National Park Service, “Soldiers and Sailors Database”

Ira Berlin, Joseph Patrick Reidy, Leslie S. Rowland, The Black Military Experience

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

Mark St. John Erickson, “An uneasy alliance of white missionaries and refugee slaves leads to freedom in Civil War Hampton”, HR History

Joe M. Richardson, Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861-1890

Adam Fairclough, “Being in the Field of Education and also Being a Negro…Seems…Tragic: Black Teachers in the Jim Crow South”, The Journal of American History, Vol. 87, No. 1. (Jun., 2000), pp. 65-91

Emma J. Lapsanky-Werner, Margaret Hope Bacon (editors), Back to Africa: Benjamin Coates and the Colonization Movement in America, 1848-1880

Marlene D. Merrill,  Sarah Margru Kinson: The Two Worlds of an Amistad Captive

Abdul Karim Bangura, “The Life and Times of the Amistad Returnees to Sierra Leone and Their Impact: A Pluridisciplinary Exploration”, Africa Update Newsletter, Vol. XIX, Issue 2 (Spring 2012)

Versalle F. Washington, Eagles on their Buttons

Daniel J. Sharfstein, The Invisible Line

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

Anne W. Chapman, “Fight for Home Saves Plantation”, Daily Press

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Yannielli, p. 998
[2] Yannielli, p. 998; De Boer pp. 121-122; 1860 U.S. Census; Thompson, pp. 441-442
[3] Sharfstein, p. 94; 1860 U.S. Census;  General Catalogue; Lapsanky-Werner, p. 152
[4] De Boer, pp. 119-121, 123
[5] Engs, p. 36, 48
[6] De Boer, pp. 258-259
[7] De Boer, p. 261; Washington, p. 13; Berlin, p. 93; Bigglestone, pp. 237-240; “Soldiers and Sailors Database”
[8] De Boer, p. 259
[9] ibid, p. 261
[10] ibid, pp. 260, 262
[11] Yannielli, p. 998; Oberlin College Archives, RG 28/1
[12] Neyland, p. 108; General Catalogue; Johnson, “Dictionary”
[13] Neyland, pp. 109-110; Yannielli, p. 998; General Catalogue
[14] Neyland, p. 110

The Secret Rooms of the Fitches

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

One of the most romanticized aspects of the Underground Railroad is the secret rooms and tunnels that were used to hide enslaved people seeking their freedom.  And naturally it would be expected that a staunchly abolitionist town like Oberlin, a major hub on the Underground Railroad, would be teeming with secret rooms and tunnels, right?  Well, put it this way, Oberlin residents can take comfort in the knowledge that they’re in little danger of being swallowed up by sinkholes created by collapsing networks of subterranean tunnels.  Ironically, the very fact that Oberlin was such an abolitionist stronghold made secret rooms and tunnels largely (but not entirely) unnecessary.  With literally hundreds of anti-slavery households, the entire campus of an abolitionist college, and a sizable African American population for freedom seekers to “disappear” into, combined with a vigilant, savvy, abolitionist community, slavecatchers were already at a hopeless disadvantage in Oberlin.

That said, we do know that some secret rooms existed in and around Oberlin.  But we only have documented evidence of a few of Oberlin’s secret rooms actually being used to harbor freedom seekers.  Two of those rooms were in the home (no longer standing, unfortunately) of James and Jane Fitch, on South Professor Street.

James M. Fitch

 James M. Fitch (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

The Fitches were both native upstate New Yorkers.  James was one of the early students of Oberlin College, attending in 1836 (the era of the Lane Rebels) and transferring to Oberlin College’s Sheffield branch in 1837.  (See my James Bradley – from hopeless bondage to Lane Rebel blog entry for background.)   But when the Sheffield institute closed after just one year, James did not return to Oberlin College.  Instead, sometime around 1838, he married Jane Bushnell.  Jane hailed from a staunchly abolitionist family.  Her uncles, Daniel and Horace, moved to Cincinnati where they would become conductors on the Underground Railroad.  Horace would become a prominent anti-slavery minister, and Daniel would move to Oberlin in 1856, become a justice of the peace, and finish his life here.  One of Jane’s older brothers, Albert, attended Oberlin College in 1838 and became a missionary to Africa.  One of her younger brothers, Simeon, attended Oberlin College in 1852.

During the time that James Fitch was attending Oberlin College, abolitionists were excited by the news that the British Empire was abolishing slavery in its domains, including the West Indies.  In 1837, some of Oberlin’s Lane Rebels established a mission in Jamaica to educate and Christianize the freed slaves and help them adjust to their new lives of freedom.  Both James and Jane went to Jamaica to help with the missionary work.  They returned to Oberlin around 1844, at which time James went into the printing business, printing the Oberlin Evangelist and numerous catalogs and volumes for Oberlin College.  He also opened a campus bookstore on College Street and became superintendent of Oberlin’s Sunday School.  Jane became one of its teachers.  Jane’s brother, Simeon, became a typesetter and a clerk in James’ bookstore.

The Fitches also became active Underground Railroad conductors in Oberlin, so active in fact that they decided to construct secret rooms in the house they built on South Professor Street (at the intersection of South Street, the site of the present Old Barrows building).  Jane described the rooms in a newspaper interview several decades later:

“My husband was a merchant in Oberlin and when he built the house we lived in during the days of the underground railway, he decided to have at least two rooms built in the house in which fugitive slaves could be concealed while they were being harbored there on their way to Elyria, where they were taken on board a vessel in the Black River, and thence carried to the end of their journey toward freedom in Canada.  One room was reached by a blind door cut through the back partition of a closet off a sleeping room.  From the sleeping room the closet seemed to extend to the end of the house, and really there was not much room behind it.  But there was space enough for a fugitive to remain comfortably while waiting for dark, perhaps, to continue his journey.  You know, under the operation of the Fugitive Slave Act our houses could be searched.  If any one opened the closet door he would only see some of the children’s dresses hung up against the wall.  If the searcher were more than usually inquisitive and took down the dresses there was no door visible.  Another room was in the attic.  The stairs leading to that attic room were so arranged that a searching party going up them would be at a great disadvantage if the fugitive would resist.

 
Of course when a slave was taken to the attic Mr. Fitch would tell him that if the searchers came he would be obliged to admit them to the house, but the slave would be provided with something to – well, he would have something that would make it possible for him to resist a number of people.”

Jane went on to describe how freedom seekers were frequently brought to their home “under a load of hay or in closed vehicles, disguised.”  The freedom seekers would be fed and housed while arrangements were made to transport them to Elyria.  But this wasn’t the extent of the Fitches’ Underground Railroad activities.  Records also show that they financed the boarding of freedom seekers in other parts of town.

The great irony about the Fitches’ secret rooms is that in the moment of Oberlin’s greatest need for a secure place to hide a freedom seeker, it was decided that he would be safer in one of the houses in Oberlin without a secret room.  This was in the infamous Oberlin-Wellington Rescue case, in which a crowd of Oberlinites and Wellingtonians rescued John Price, a fugitive slave, from the custody of law enforcement agents in Wellington.  Price, who had been abducted by the agents just outside of Oberlin, called for help from a passing carriage as he was being transported southwards by his abductors towards Wellington.  When the passengers in the passing carriage returned to Oberlin with the news, Jane’s brother, Simeon, was one of the first of hundreds of Oberlinites to head down there.  After the crowd in Wellington helped Price break free from his captors, it was Simeon who rushed him back to Oberlin in a buggy.  His natural inclination was to bring Price to his sister’s home and hide him in one of the secret rooms.  Jane Fitch tells the story:

“I, like all the other women of Oberlin, was excited and anxious for news.  So when my brother entered our house, as he did from the back way and shortly after dark, I demanded of him to tell me at once what had happened.  In response he gave me a look of caution, and that, in those days, was all that was required.  When I found that all was safe in the house my brother brought the slave in from the backyard and he was taken to one of the secret rooms.  That night John was passed on to Elyria, and the next day he was crossing Lake Erie on his way to Canada and freedom.”

Interestingly though, that last sentence is incorrect.  Although John Price was indeed escorted out of the Fitches’ home that night, he was not taken to Elyria.  Instead he was taken to the home of Oberlin College Professor (and future President) James Fairchild.  In a meeting between James Fitch, Professor Fairchild, and Oberlin College Professor James Monroe, it was decided that Fitch and Monroe were too well known as Underground Railroad conductors to safely harbor John Price, Fitch’s secret rooms notwithstanding.  So they brought Price to the Fairchild’s house instead, where he stayed for 3 days, even though they  had no secret rooms and had never harbored a freedom seeker before.  Perhaps in the great secrecy of the moment Jane Fitch didn’t realize that Price had been removed to the Fairchilds’ home, or perhaps at the time of the interview she was still protecting the Fairchilds’ secret and was unaware that James Fairchild himself had gone public with his story a few weeks earlier.

It turns out that it was all a moot point anyway, as the law enforcement agents never pursued to Oberlin (presumably they understood the futility of such an endeavor), and never learned that either the Fitches or the Fairchilds had sheltered John Price.  That didn’t stop the federal government from indicting and arresting James Fitch, however, along with Simeon Bushnell and three dozen other men, for violation of the Fugitive Slave Law.  (See  The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue 1858 for more information).

During the 3 months that her husband and brother were held in jail, Jane Fitch remained defiant, urging her husband to “flinch not an inch!”  James and Simeon remained defiant as well, and with the support of a sympathetic jailer and sheriff they even managed to set up a printing press and print 5,000 copies of their own abolitionist newspaper, which they called The Rescuer, during their incarceration.  (Complimentary reprints of this newspaper are available at the Oberlin Heritage Center.)  It was a very makeshift operation, using borrowed fonts and improvised tools.  Lacking even an italics font, they enjoined the reader to “supply the emphasis according to taste.”

Of all the interesting things that were printed in The Rescuer, one in particular stands out to me as a good note to close this blog with.  One day in jail with his fellow “political prisoners”, James Fitch received 60 letters from the children in his Sunday School.  Excerpts from some of those letters were printed in The Rescuer.  One of those letters came from an African American girl named Mary, from South Carolina.  It appears that Mary might have been a fugitive from slavery, for the rescuers defied the federal government to “catch her if you can.”  But if Mary was a fugitive, she was apparently living a relatively normal life out in the open, as did many of Oberlin’s fugitives, rather than hiding in secret rooms or tunnels.  Here’s what Mary wrote:

“I never knew what freedom was till I came here.  I was not allowed to go to school nor Sabbath School.  They made us say some questions after them, such as “Servants be obedient to your masters,” and the like.  I never in all my past life have had so much enjoyment as since I came here.  I feel very sorry to have you shut up in jail.  If I could do anything to make you happy I would gladly do it.”

James Fitch replied simply, “Thank you.  You have made me happy.”  [Emphasis supplied according to taste]

 

James and Jane Fitch and Simeon Bushnell and their families are buried side-by-side at Oberlin’s Westwood Cemetery (Section R; GPS coordinates N41° 17.039′  W82° 13.990′).  Their graves are among those visited in the Oberlin Heritage Center’s “Radicals and Reformers” walking tour of Westwood Cemetery.

Sources consulted:

“Rescue of a Slave”, The Sun (New York, NY) April 7, 1895

Bushnell Genealogy, “The Bushnell Book”, Parts A and B

James Harris Fairchild, The Underground Railroad

James Harris Fairchild, Oberlin: the colony and the college, 1833-1883

Gale L. Kenny, Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-emancipation Jamaica, 1834-1866

“General catalogue of Oberlin college, 1833 [-] 1908″, Oberlin College Archives

Oberlin Heritage Center, “Radicals and Reformers” history walk

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

Jacob R. Shipherd, History of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1

Wilbur Henry Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom

“Sheffield Manual Labor Institute”, The Village Pioneer, March, 2008

Thornton Bigelow Penfield, Sarah Ingraham Penfield, Letters from Jamaica 1858-1866

Oberlin Heritage Center Resource Center

The Society, 1901, Ohio History, Volume 13

The Oberlin News, February 10, 1899

Lucy Stone and the Margaret Garner tragedy

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

The winter of 1856 was a particularly harsh one – harsh enough that the Ohio River froze solid in January, something that only happened every few years.  When it did happen, enslaved Americans on the Kentucky side of the river would take the opportunity to make their break for freedom across the solid ice.  January 1856 saw two freedom seekers cross the frozen Ohio who would eventually make national headlines.  They were unknown to each other, and crossed at different places with different groups, but both would have an Oberlin connection.  One of their stories would have a happy ending; the other would be one of the most tragic stories of American slavery.

The story with the happy ending belonged to John Price, of Oberlin-Wellington Rescue fame, who crossed the Ohio River on horseback at Maysville, Kentucky.  But this blog post is about the tragic story, belonging to Margaret Garner, who crossed fifty miles downriver at Cincinnati.  The Oberlin connection in her story is through Oberlin College graduate Lucy Stone.  However, Stone’s role was sadly not as a rescuer, but instead as a consoler, as two women from vastly different backgrounds came face-to-face in a grim chapter of American history.

Lucy Stone
Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone had come to Oberlin from Massachusetts in 1843 and enrolled in the general program at Oberlin College, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree.  She was 24 years old and already an avid follower of William Lloyd Garrison and his radical abolitionist/feminist/pacifist “no government” views.  She was immediately impressed with Oberlin, writing “The teachers are pleasant, and the young ladies too.  Colored gentlemen and ladies eat at the same table with us, and there appears to be no difference.”

As progressive as Oberlin was, in one area it was still quite conservative, much to Stone’s frustration.  The general nationwide tabboo against women speaking in public was quite evident at Oberlin, prompting her to say, “I hoped when I came to Oberlin that the course of study would permit such practice, but I was never in a place where women are so rigidly taught that they must not speak in public.”  But Stone was a natural orator, with tremendous charisma, persuasiveness and logical power, and “the voice of an angel” that could yet project enough to be heard by thousands.  And she would not be silenced.  She helped resurrect the Young Ladies’ Assocation on campus and led many spirited debates there.  She also engaged in ad hoc speeches and debates whenever she could, sometimes enduring the disapproval of much (but not all) of the faculty, and greatly honing her already exceptional oratory skills.  In one debate with an older male student, her opponent later confessed that she “swept [my arguments] away like chaff before the wind.”

When she wasn’t debating or studying, she earned spare money by teaching classes to fugitive slaves and freedmen.  Initially there was some discontent among the male students at having a female teacher, but Stone quickly overcame the objections and became quite popular with the students.  Not only did she teach them, but she learned from them as well, listening empathetically to their stories of life in slavery.  She wrote, “When I saw how they were dehumanized… I wondered, that in the wide universe of god, one tongue could be found, that failed to utter its indignant rebuke against all that pertains to so execrable a system.”

She also wrote numerous articles and became the Oberlin correspondent for the Anti-Slavery Bugle, a radical anti-slavery newspaper published in Lisbon, Ohio.  Her articles were sometimes critical of Oberlin for being too conservative (as ironic as that may sound), preferring the much more radical brand of abolitionism espoused by Garrison and his Boston followers (see my William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass debate in Oberlin blog post for more information.)  Her career at Oberlin was thus a love-hate relationship, culminating in her 1847 graduation with a Bachelor’s degree.

After graduating she returned to Massachusetts and became a paid lecturer for the New England Anti-Slavery Society.  Her lectures were exceedingly popular, albeit controversial because of both the abolitionist topic and the gender of the speaker.  She found herself speaking more and more on behalf of women’s rights, sponsoring her own lectures and drawing large crowds of paying guests.  Her lectures took her all over the country, including even some Southern states, and to Canada as well.  Then, in 1855, she married a Cincinnati businessman named Henry Blackwell, in a ceremony in which the couple issued a protest against the traditional subservient role of the wife.  By mutual agreement, Stone kept her own surname – the first woman in the country to do so.

Then, just nine months after the wedding, the shocking news of the Margaret Garner story broke nationwide.  Stone was on a speaking tour in the Northeast when Margaret Garner crossed the frozen Ohio River on foot with a party of 16 other freedom seekers.  Margaret Garner was just 22 years old, but already was married and had four children and was pregnant with a fifth.  When her party reached the Ohio shore they split up into smaller groups and went in different directions.  Margaret’s group of eight included her husband and children.  They made their way to the residence of a freed slave who they knew by the name of Elijah Kite.

Kite, being concerned about the safety of his guests, went to consult with Cincinnati’s foremost Underground Railroad conductor, Levi Coffin.  Coffin advised that the Garner party be moved “at once” to an African American settlement on the western side of the city where freedom seekers often took refuge.  Kite returned to his home to get the Garners, while Coffin made arrangements for their transportation northward that night.

But while all this was going on, Garner’s owner, Archibald Gaines, had crossed the Ohio River and gathered a posse of slavecatchers in pursuit.  They interviewed people who had seen the Garner party on the road and were able to track them to Kite’s residence.  Kite had not had time to remove the Garner’s before his dwelling was surrounded by the slavecatchers, who demanded that they surrender.  Levi Coffin described what happened next:

“The fugitives were determined to fight, and to die, rather than to be taken back to slavery.  Margaret, the mother of the four children, declared that she would kill herself and her children before she would return to bondage.  The slave men were armed and fought bravely.  The window was first battered down with a stick of wood, and one of the deputy marshals attempted to enter, but a pistol shot from within made a flesh wound on his arm and caused him to abandon the attempt.  The pursuers then battered down the door with some timber and rushed in.  The husband of Margaret fired several shots, and wounded one of the officers, but was soon overpowered and dragged out of the house.  At this moment, Maragert Garner, seeing that their hopes of freedom were vain, seized a butcher knife that lay on the table, and with one stroke cut the throat of her little daughter, whom she probably loved the best.  She then attempted to take the life of the other children and to kill herself, but she was overpowered and hampered before she could complete her desperate work.  The whole party was then arrested and lodged in jail.”

Garner painting
Artist’s (incorrect) depiction of the Margaret Garner tragedy

The party remained in jail for almost a month while the legal wrangling continued.  They had numerous visitors, but according to Coffin, “those who came to speak words of comfort and cheer felt them die upon their lips, when they looked into [Margaret’s] face, and marked its expression of settled despair.  Her sorrow was beyond reach of any words of encouragement and consolation, and can be realized in all its fullness only by those who have tasted of a cup equally bitter.”  Visitors noticed two old scars on Margaret’s face, but when asked about them she would only reply, “white man struck me.”  Others noticed the light complexion of her children and speculated that it was evidence of sexual abuse at the hands of her owner.

One of the visitors who tried to console Margaret was Lucy Stone, who returned to her new home in Cincinnati after completing her speaking tour.  While Stone met with Margaret, a rumor started that Stone had attempted to procure a knife for Margaret so she could finish the job if the trial went against her.  The slaveholder’s attorney, Colonel Chambers, openly accused Stone of this in court.  When Stone heard about the accusation, she asked to be allowed to address the court after it adjourned for the day.  At that time, speaking with her natural eloquence, Lucy Stone Blackwell (as the court called her) made the following statement to a packed courtroom:

“I am only sorry that I was not in when Colonel Chambers said what he did about me, and my giving a knife to Margaret. When I saw that poor fugitive, took her toil-hardened hand in mine, and read in her face deep suffering and an ardent longing for freedom, I could not help bid her be of good cheer. I told her that a thousand hearts were aching for her, and that they were glad one child of hers was safe with the angels. Her only reply was a look of deep despair, of anguish such as no words can speak.

I thought the spirit she manifested was the same with that of our ancestors to whom we had erected the monument at Bunker Hill–the spirit that would rather let us all go back to God than back to slavery. The faded faces of the negro children tell too plainly to what degradation female slaves must submit. Rather than give her little daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right to do so? That desire had its root in the deepest and holiest feelings of our nature–implanted alike in black and white by our common Father. With my own teeth I would tear open my veins and let the earth drink my blood, rather than to wear the chains of slavery. How then could I blame her for wishing her child to find freedom with God and the angels, where no chains are?

I know not whether this Commissioner has children, else I would appeal to him to know how he would feel to have them torn from him, but I feel that he will not disregard the Book which says: ‘Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best.'”

Listening to Stone speak was a reporter from the women’s rights newpaper, The Lily, who was enthralled with “the fascinating power of her voice, so irresistibly sweet and powerful.  Its melody has lingered around my heart ever since I first heard its tones, like a magic spell, and I only wish that it might reach the ear of the nation – when I am sure its stubborn heart would relent.”

But the stubborn heart of the nation did not relent.  The Fugitive Slave Law reigned supreme.  The Garners had top-notch legal counsel in the person of the abolitionist attorney,  John Jolliffe, and support from the newly inaugurated abolitionist Governor of Ohio, Salmon Chase.  But it wouldn’t be enough.  Jolliffe argued that the Garners had, in prior years, been brought into Ohio by their owner on business, and that under Ohio law that made them free, even though they had not realized it at the time.  The court agreed that they would have been free at that time, if only they had claimed their freedom.  But since they “voluntarily” returned to Kentucky and slavery with their owner, they had surrendered that freedom.   And now, being in Ohio as fugitives without their owner’s consent, they were subject to be returned to his custody.

Then Jolliffe tried an extremely unusual maneuver.  He asked the county prosecutor to indict his own clients for the murder of Margaret’s two year old daughter, believing that a conviction would bring them out of federal custody and into state custody where Governor Chase could pardon them.  But the court would have no part of it.  The Fugitive Slave Law superseded even Ohio’s murder laws.  To the “outrage” of Governor Chase, a U.S. district judge ordered the Garners released to the slavecatchers, and “hardly an hour elapsed… before the fugitives were lodged in a Kentucky jail.”  Governor Chase issued a warrant of extradition, but the slavecatchers eluded his agents, and the Garners were sold “downriver” to what attorney Jolliffe called “the seething hell of American slavery.”

But fate would intervene on the boat ride down the Mississippi, as the boat was involved in a collision and Margaret Garner and one of her children ended up overboard.  The child drowned, but Margaret was pulled back aboard the ship.  Some claimed that Margaret “displayed frantic joy” when told of the death of her child.  Margaret herself would survive to make it to New Orleans, but would die there of typhoid fever two years later.  The Underground Railroad, which helped tens of thousands of freedom seekers escape from bondage, had been unable to help Margaret Garner.  Like her two children, and millions of other enslaved Americans before her, death was Margaret Garner’s rescuer.

 

Margaret Garner’s story became the inspiration for Lorain native Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved.  The novel, and a series of park benches she placed in “important locations in African American history” around the world, are dedicated to the memory of the slaves.  One of those benches is in Oberlin’s Toni Morrison Park on the northeast corner of Lorain and Main Streets. (Click for video, courtesy Visit Lorain County).

 

Sources consulted:

Levi Coffin, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin

Andrea Moore Kerr, Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality

Jacob William Shuckers, William Maxwell Evarts, The Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase

Mark Reinhardt, Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?

“Bench by the Road Project”, The Toni Morrison Society

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1