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 (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.
“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