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Posts Tagged ‘Oberlin College’

William Howard Day & Lucie Stanton

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

In 1850, a young African American couple from Oberlin,  acclaimed as up-and-coming spokespersons against slavery and racial injustice, gazed with optimism towards a future of bright hope for themselves, their race, and their country.  But as they took their leave of Oberlin to spread that hope through Ohio and the nation, they could little imagine the disappointment and disillusion they would suffer over the next several years. In the long run they would see their efforts rewarded, but only after a temporary separation from their country and a permanent separation from each other.  Their names were William Howard Day and Lucie Stanton.

William Howard Day
William Howard Day
(courtesy University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

William Howard Day came to Oberlin in 1843 at the age of 17, where he enrolled in the collegiate program at Oberlin College.  He brought with him a strong disdain for slavery and racial injustice, learned from his mother, who had escaped from slavery in upstate New York and settled in Manhattan.  It was there, as a nine year old boy, that William witnessed the terrible race riots that wreaked havoc on Reverend Charles G. Finney’s chapel and the home of abolitionist Lewis Tappan.  But now, attending the college that Finney and Tappan had done so much to turn into an abolitionist stronghold, William wasted no time in making his mark. [1]

He became close friends with George Vashon, who in 1844 would become the first black student to receive a Bachelor’s Degree from Oberlin College, and Sabram Cox, another African American who was one of Oberlin’s most important Underground Railroad operatives.   Working closely with Vashon and Cox, William became a leading orator and organizer of the Oberlin black community.  On August 1, 1844, as Oberlin’s black citizens celebrated their third annual observance of the anniversary of British emancipation in the West Indies, William stood before the crowd to “commemorate the emancipation of eight hundred thousand of our fellow men from the galling yoke of slavery” and urged his “‘Colored friends [to] struggle on – struggle on!  Be not despondent, we shall at last conquer.”  The audience listened to William’s speech with such “great interest” that they requested it be reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist. [2]

During the long winter recesses between semesters, William would travel to Canada and teach in the many black settlements founded there by refugees from American slavery.  He also found employment in Oberlin during the school months as a typesetter for the Oberlin Evangelist.  And as new students enrolled in Oberlin College, he developed new friendships.  Among these were Charles and John Mercer Langston, and Lawrence W. Minor, all of whom would become important contributors to Oberlin’s black community.  Another new friendship was with Lucie Stanton. [3]

Lucie (often spelled Lucy) came to Oberlin in 1846, William’s senior year.  She had been raised in Cleveland in a home that was a station on the Underground Railroad.  In Cleveland she attended public school with white children, but eventually she was forced, “heart-broken”, to leave because of her race.  It was against state law at that time for black children to attend public school, so her stepfather, a wealthy African American barber, started his own private school in Cleveland, which Lucie attended.  Thus Lucie, like William, came to Oberlin highly conscious of American racism and slavery.  She and William naturally gravitated towards each other and began a courtship that would last several years. [4]

William graduated in 1847, becoming the third black student to earn a Bachelor’s Degree from Oberlin College.  He was chosen to give a commencement address, which he entitled “The Millenium of Liberty” and was reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist. [5]  William remained in Oberlin after graduating, continuing to work for the Evangelist, and helping to organize Oberlin’s “vigilance committee”- black residents that would protect the community against “men-thieves”.  In 1848, William, together with Sabram Cox, Lawrence Minor, John Watson, and Harlow H. Pease (the white nephew of Oberlin’s first resident, Peter Pindar Pease) called together a “Meeting of Colored Citizens” of Lorain County, where they passed eleven resolutions, including: [6]

1. Resolved, That we the colored citizens of Lorain county hereby declare, that whereas the Constitution of our common country gives us citizenship, we hereby, each to each, pledge ourselves to support the other in claiming our rights under the United States Constitution, and in having the laws oppressing us tested…

4. Resolved, That we still adhere to the doctrine of urging the slave to leave immediately with his hoe on his shoulder, for a land of liberty…

5. Resolved, That we urge all colored persons and their friends, to keep a sharp look-out for men-thieves and their abettors, and to warn them that no person claimed as a slave shall be taken from our midst without trouble… [7]

William was making a name for himself as a superb organizer and orator, and he would be a driving force in local, state and national black civil rights/anti-slavery conventions for the next decade.  In January, 1849, at the “State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio” in Columbus, William delivered a speech in the Hall of Representatives of the Ohio General Assembly, becoming the first black person to address a session of that body.  It was an important milestone for Ohioans and for 23-year-old William, as he urged the Assembly to repeal Ohio’s notoriously discriminatory “Black Laws”:

We believe … that every human being has rights in common, and that the meanest of those rights is legitimately beyond the reach of legislation, and higher than the claims of political expediency…

We ask for equal privileges, not because we would consider it a condescension on your part to grant them – but because we are MEN, and therefore entitled to all the privileges of other men in the same circumstances…

We ask for school privileges in common with others, for we pay school taxes in the same proportion.

We ask permission to send our deaf and dumb, our lunatic, blind, and poor to the asylums prepared for each.

We ask for the repeal of the odious enactments, requiring us to declare ourselves “paupers, vagabonds, or fugitives from justice,” before we can “lawfully” remain in the State.

We ask that colored men be not obliged to brand themselves liars, in every case of testimony in “courts of justice” where a white person is a party…

We ask that we may be one people, bound together by one common tie, and sheltered by the same impartial law…

Let us … inform our opposers that we are coming – coming for our rights – coming through the Constitution of our common country – coming through the law – and relying upon God and the justice of our cause, pledge ourselves never to cease our resistance to tyranny, whether it be in the iron manacles of the slave, or in the unjust written manacles for the free. [8]

Ohio’s Black Laws had been in effect since the early days of statehood and had survived multiple attempts at repeal.  But William’s timing was perfect in 1849.  It so happened that the General Assembly was deadlocked between representatives of the Democratic and Whig parties, with a handful of abolitionist members of the new anti-slavery Free Soil Party holding the balance of power – and willing and able to wield that power effectively.  And so, less than a month after William’s passionate appeal, the General Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority to repeal most of the Black Laws, and to permit public schooling of black children (albeit racially segregated, for the most part).  It was a significant step forward for Ohio, and a major victory for William. [9]

But William wasn’t the only one achieving major breakthroughs during this period of time.  Back at Oberlin College, Lucie was elected the first black President of the Ladies’ Literary Society in 1850, and then became the first African American woman in the country to earn a college degree.  Lucie also was chosen to deliver a commencement address, which was also reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist.  With a “charming voice, modest demeanor, appropriate pronunciation and graceful cadences”, she delivered “A Plea for the Oppressed”: [10]

Dark hover the clouds. The Anti-Slavery pulse beats faintly. The right of suffrage is denied. The colored man is still crushed by the weight of oppression. He may possess talents of the highest order, yet for him is no path of fame or distinction opened. He can never hope to attain those privileges while his brethren remain enslaved. Since, therefore, the freedom of the slave and the gaining of our rights, social and political, are inseparably connected, let all the friends of humanity plead for those who may not plead their own cause…

Truth and right must prevail. The bondsman shall go free. Look to the future! Hark! the shout of joy gushes from the heart of earth’s freed millions! It rushes upward. The angels on heaven’s outward battlements catch the sound on their golden lyres, and send it thrilling through the echoing arches of the upper world. How sweet, how majestic, from those starry isles float those deep inspiring sounds over the ocean of space! Softened and mellowed they reach earth, filling the soul with harmony, and breathing of God–of love–and of universal freedom. [11]

And so with boundless optimism, Lucie left Oberlin and found employment in Columbus, teaching in the newly established public schools for black children, while William moved to Cleveland, where he became a correspondent for an anti-slavery newspaper called the Daily True Democrat and was active in the Cleveland vigilance committee, assisting refugees from slavery.  He also remained active in conventions, and in 1851 he took aim at the Ohio Constitution and its restriction of voting rights to “white male inhabitants” only. [12]

The discriminatory word “white” in the Ohio Constitution had been a target of progressives for decades, even though the Ohio courts had since diluted it to the point that light-skinned black men like William could now vote in some localities.  Even so, William set his sights at eliminating the word completely, and a state Constitutional Convention held in 1850-1851 gave him just that opportunity.  A “State Convention of Colored Men” was held concurrently in Columbus, and William was given the chance to address both conventions simultaneously in January, 1851.  Using statistics compiled by John Mercer Langston, William told the conventions: [13]

We respectfully represent to you, that the continuance of the word “white” in the Ohio State Constitution, by which we are deprived of the privilege of voting for men to make laws by which we are to be governed, is a violation of every principle [of our fathers of the revolution]…

Again, colored men are helping, through their taxes, to bear the burdens of the State, and we ask, shall they not be permitted to be represented?…  In returns from nineteen counties represented, we find the value of real estate and personal property belonging to colored persons in those counties, amounting to more than three millions of dollars…  [We] think the amount above specified, certainly demands at your hands some attention, so that while colored men bear cheerfully their part of the burdens of the State, they may have their part of the blessings…

We ask, Gentleman, in conclusion, that you will place yourselves in our stead,- that you will candidly consider our claim, and as justice shall direct you, so to decide.  In your hands, our destiny is placed.  To you, therefore, we appeal.  We look to you “To give us our rights – for we ask for nothing more.” [14]

But this time William’s timing wasn’t so good.  In fact, it was off by decades.  The delegates of the Constitutional convention voted overwhelmingly to retain the word “white” in the new Constitution.

It was the first of a long string of disappointments, but still William and Lucie battled on.  In 1852 they joined in matrimony and Lucie returned to Cleveland.  In 1853, William started his own newspaper, The Aliened American, the first African American newspaper in Ohio.  The paper employed a highly impressive and “intelligent corps of male and female correspondents”, which included Lucie, who wrote a fictional story for the first issue about an enslaved brother and sister.  The story, entitled “Charles and Clara Hayes”, has been recognized as “the first instance of published fiction by a black woman”.  The Aliened American dealt with local and state racial issues, but William also tackled national issues, including in his first issue an editorial rebuttal of President Franklin Pierce’s recent inaugural address:  “The President forgot, or if he did not forget, cared not to remember, that the South, for whom he was pleading, tramples every day upon the Constitutional rights of free citizens.” [15]

But the trampling of Constitutional rights, by the North as well as the South, was taking its toll.  In 1854, the Ohio General Assembly expelled William from the Senate press gallery largely because of his race.  (See my Oberlin Commenst this War! blog)  In 1850 the U.S. Congress passed the notorious Fugitive Slave Law, and the Pierce Administration now demonstrated the lengths the government would go to in order to enforce it when they sent “several companies of marines, cavalry and artillery” to Boston to rendition a single fugitive, Anthony Burns.  And the United States Congress overturned the long-respected Missouri Compromise by allowing slavery into U.S. territories that had been guaranteed free.  William, who had been criticized by some of the more militant black leaders for  “wrap[ping] the stars and stripes of his country around him”, began to take a more militant stance himself.  The crowning blow came in 1856, when William and Lucie were returning from a trip to the black settlements in Canada and ended up making the long journey by train and wagon because they were denied a berth on a Michigan passenger boat due to the color of their skin.  The incident, and the ensuing unsuccessful lawsuit against the boat operator, devastated William emotionally and financially, and crushed his remaining faith in American justice. [16]

And so it was, in 1856, that William and Lucie joined thousands of other refugees from American racial oppression and relocated to Canada.  There they had a child and took an active role in helping the Canadian vigilance committees protect even Canadian blacks from being kidnapped into American slavery.  In 1858, when the radical white Ohio abolitionist, John Brown, visited Canada to recruit support for a planned slave insurgency in the heart of the American south, William agreed to print his “Provisional Constitution” for him, but refused to participate any further. [17]  (An original Day print of this document recently fetched $22,800 at auction.)

In 1859 William sailed to Britain to solicit financial support “to establish a Press … for the special benefit of the Fugitive Slaves and coloured population” of Canada.  He was still there when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, and so he also urged the British people to reject the Confederacy and support the Union.  But he also solicited funds for a new colonization effort in Africa led by his militant friend, Martin Delany. [18]

The long separation from his wife, however – leaving her to raise their child alone – irreparably damaged their marriage.  When President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Days found faith enough in the United States to return and dedicate themselves to the advancement of the freedmen, but they would go in separate directions.  William became a superintendent of schools for the Freedmen’s Bureau and ultimately President of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania school board.  Lucie had to overcome the Victorian-era stigma of being a single mother (you can read about her trials and tribulations here), but she eventually fulfilled a long-term ambition “to go South to teach”, teaching black children in Georgia and Mississippi.  After finalization of the divorce, she remarried, and under the name of Lucie Stanton Sessions was an active officer of the Women’s Relief Corps and a local temperance society. [19]

Lucie Stanton Sessions in her later years
Lucie Stanton Sessions in her later years

Although the boundless, youthful optimism of their Oberlin days may have been tempered, both Lucie and William continued to “struggle on” and dedicated their lives to the cause of “universal freedom.”

Sources consulted:

Todd Mealy, Aliened American: A Biography of William Howard Day: 1825 to 1865, Volume 1

Stephen Middleton, The Black Laws: Race and the Legal Process in Early Ohio

Frank Uriah Quillin, The Color Line in Ohio: A History of Race Prejudice in a Typical Northern State

Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection; State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio, “Minutes and Address of the State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio, Convened at Columbus, January 10th, 11th, 12th, & 13th, 1849″

State Convention of Colored Men, “Address to the Constitutional convention of Ohio / from the State convention of colored men, held in the city of Columbus, Jan. 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th, 1851″

Ellen NicKenzie Lawson with Marlene D. Merrill, The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women

“Meeting of Colored Citizens”, The Liberator, March 2, 1849, Vol XIX, No. 9, Page 1

The Oberlin Evangelist (see footnotes for specific issues)

C. Peter Ripley, et al, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume IV, The United States, 1847-1858

C. Peter Ripley, et al, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume II, Canada, 1830-1865

William Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65

William M. Mitchell, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom

Victor Ullman, Look to the North Star; a life of William King

“Ohio Constitution of 1803 (Transcript)”, Ohio History Central

James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom

Oberlin Heritage Center; Harlow Pease, “Harlow Pease (1828-1910)”

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

“Catalogue and Record of Colored Students,” 1835-62, RG 5/4/3 – Minority Student Records, Oberlin College Archives

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

 

Footnotes:

[1] Mealy, pp. 47-50
[2] Mealy, pp. 120-121; Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1844
[3] Mealy, pp. 121-126
[4] Lawson, pp. 190-191
[5] “Catalogue and Record”; Oberlin Evangelist, Oct. 13, 1847
[6] Mealy, pp. 134, 146; Oberlin Heritage Center
[7] “Meeting of Colored Citizens”
[8] Samuel J. May Anti-slavery collection
[9] Quillin, pp. 39-40
[10] Lawson, pp. 192-193; Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1850
[11] Oberlin Evangelist, Dec 17, 1850
[12] Mealy, pp. 169-172; “Ohio Constitution”
[13] Ripley, Vol. IV,  p. 225; Cheek, p. 153
[14] “Address to the Constitutional convention”
[15] Ripley, Vol. IV, pp. 215, 150; Lawson, pp. 196-197
[16] McPherson, p. 119; Ripley, Vol. IV, p. 75; Mealy, pp. 238-243
[17] Mealy, pp. 268, 277
[18] Mitchell, pp. 171-172; Mealy, p. 316
[19] Lawson, pp. 198-201

Oberlin Has Tie to “12 Years a Slave” Character

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

By David Fiske, Co-author of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, Praeger, 2013.

Though Louisiana is the primary setting for the film 12 Years a Slave, there is a connection between Oberlin and one of the characters featured in the movie. Harriet Shaw, admirably played by Alfre Woodard, was a real person, whose son Daniel Webster Shaw lived in Oberlin for several years, and is buried in Westwood Cemetery.

The role of Harriet Shaw is perhaps a source of confusion for some viewers of the movie. Why is a black woman, a former slave, living an easy life of comfort in the midst of a region full of plantations where other slaves were being worked nearly to death?

Alfre Woodard playing Harriet Shaw in "12 Years a Slave"

Alfre Woodard playing Harriet Shaw in “12 Years a Slave”

The film is based on the 1853 book, Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). Northup’s book did not say a lot about Harriet Shaw (in fact, in one place he mistakenly gives her first name as Charlotte), but he does say that she had been a slave to Mr. Shaw, who had taken her as his wife, and that there were several children in their household. Northup wrote that Harriet extended many kindnesses to poor Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o), being aware of Patsey’s difficult situation.

Though not typical, it was not entirely unusual for a slave owner to enter into a domestic relationship with a slave. Northup tells that, earlier in life fellow slave Eliza (Adepero Oduye) had lived with her master, who had broken off relations with his wife. Northup writes that Eliza had “resided with him…nine years, with servants to attend upon her, and provided with every comfort and luxury of life.”

Even the notorious Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), the slave trader who sold Northup at New Orleans, lived with a mulatto woman named Sarah Conner, who had been his slave but whom he had allowed to purchase her freedom.

Harriet Shaw existed in real life. The 1860 census shows that a 25-year-old black woman by that name lived in the household of a P. L. Shaw (his first name was probably Pleasant)–and not as a slave. The census listing shows a number of children in the household, their races given as “mulatto.” Some appear to be too old to have been the children of Harriet, but the younger ones certainly could have been.

One of the children, Daniel, was born about 1858. It seems very likely that this son of Harriet, whose full name was Daniel Webster Shaw, is the same man who, after obtaining a very impressive college education, was a prominent clergyman and writer. According to his death certificate and a record of the 1942 death, in Oberlin, of his son, Carl Clifford Shaw, Rev. Shaw was born in Eola, Louisiana. Eola is a village located on Bayou Boeuf, and the location of the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), to whom Northup and Patsey belonged. Though other records show that Daniel was born in 1859 or 1860, these dates are reasonably consistent with the information in the 1860 census listing. Eola is very small, and it seems unlikely that two different men named Daniel Shaw would have been born there around the same time.

Rev Daniel Webster Shaw r

Rev. Daniel Webster Shaw  
(Source: David James submission on Find a Grave)

Daniel Shaw attended a school not far from the plantation where his mother had lived (and where Patsey had visited her frequently). In a message sent by Rev. Shaw to a woman named Rosetta Ann Colt (who had gone to Louisiana after the Civil War to start schools for blacks), he recalled “I think of school days on the Tache [ “Teche,” for Bayou Teche, where Miss Colt had run a school] and all the kind ways in which you helped me to start out in life. If I could be permitted, how gladly would I again fill up the wood-box in your room and kindle the fire on your hearth,” and he credits his success to her help and advice. At the time he wrote this, he was the pastor of a church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Shaw continued his education at Baldwin University in Berea, Ohio (today known as Baldwin Wallace University), graduating in 1883–the first black person to do so. He also pursued studies at Boston University, Oberlin College, and later on, at Wiley University, where he was granted a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1900. As a minister he served congregations in Baltimore, Maryland; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charleston, West Virginia; Cleveland, Ohio, and in Oberlin, where he served the Rust Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1880s and 1890s. Rev. Shaw married Alice L. Bookram in Oberlin on January 23, 1888, and in 1896 the family resided at the Readie Brooks House at 60 North Park Street.

In addition to his pastoral duties, he at one point was on the faculty at Howard University, and authored many articles and pamphlets. Suffering ill health, the Rev. Dr. Shaw was forced to leave the ministry, and he returned to Oberlin in the summer of 1914, residing at 309 North Main Street. He passed away on September 28, 1914.

AUTHOR BIO:

David Fiske is a retired librarian who is a freelance writer and researcher in upstate New York. His interest in Solomon Northup began in the 1990s, and his research is included in a 2013 book he co-authored titled Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Marriage and death certificates referenced are available on familysearch.org.

Ohio Historic Inventory LOR-02073-21, Readie Brooks House, Ohio Historic Preservation Office. Contains some references to Rev. Shaw’s residence in Oberlin.

Daniel W. Shaw, The Second Emancipation of the Negro: An Address to the Colored Voters of West Virginia, 1900 [no publisher given]. Includes a biographical note about Shaw.

“African Missions,” Northern Christian Advocate [Syracuse, New York], October 26, 1905. Biographical sketch of Rosetta Ann Colt includes a quote from a letter sent to her by Rev. Shaw.

Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave. Originally published in 1853; many editions now available.

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

“There’s Mischief in this Man”: William Mallory and the Oberlin Collegiate Experience

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

by Jen Graham, Ohio History Service Corps member at the Oberlin Heritage Center

As a historian, I’ve fallen in love with letters. There is a striking liminality in reading someone else’s mail. It’s as if, by unfolding the delicate creases of yellowed paper and losing yourself in a sea of cursive, you unfold time as well. With each new reading, experiences of the past come alive in the present.  People long since dead become children again. Couples who grew old together find themselves back in the adorably awkward throws of courtship. Every casual misspelling, every witty retort, tells a story, and what began as a research topic ends up feeling more like a close friend.

My most recent foray into historical familiarity has been with a man named William Garfield Mallory (1880-1918).  William Mallory was born in Chautauqua County, New York, and entered the Oberlin Senior Academy in 1899.  He graduated from Oberlin with an A.B. in 1905 and a Masters in Physics in 1907.  In 1909, he married Mary K. Pope of Oberlin. Afterwards, he moved back to New York to study physics at Cornell and graduated with his Ph.D. in Physics in 1918.  He then accepted a teaching position in the Physics Department at Oberlin College, but, unfortunately, died only a few months later of influenza.

William Mallory, from the Oberlin Heritage Center collections

William Mallory
(courtesy of the Oberlin Heritage Center collection)

I first met William Mallory when Prue Richards, the Oberlin Heritage Center’s collections assistant, invited me to help her organize the letters in a writing box donated by his descendants, Marianne Caldwell and William Dickerman. Also donated with the box were a sled, a jacket, a portable stove, and myriad family photos. At first I was just taking the letters out of their envelopes, laying them flat, and placing each one in an archival plastic sleeve. I wasn’t reading them or transcribing them; I was just preparing them for storage in the collections.  Well, curiosity got the best of me.

What piqued my interest was not the overall story of his life. Those were just facts to me—information to help contextualize the task at hand—until I noticed a return address on a letter. That’s when I had my first moment with William Mallory. The letter was a note from Mallory to his cousin, Edith, penned while he was a student at Oberlin College. The address was 115 E. College St., which I recognized because, just over a century after that letter was written, I had lived right across the street in Tank Hall.

Spatially, our college experiences were beginning to merge. I had to get closer. I devoured that letter and the others with it. I followed Mallory through the Oberlin College “Hi-O-Hi” yearbooks like a lovesick teenager.  I found him on the track team in 1902. I found him included among the stony-faced members of the Phi Delta literary society in 1905. I even found his graduation picture and quote. Surrounded by “cheery-voiced” men and women with “an abhorrence of sin,” our straight-backed, intellectual William Mallory was described rather differently. Five words laid it all on the table: “There’s mischief in this man.”

William Malloyr's yearbook photo from the 1906 Hi-Oh-Hi Oberlin College annual

William Mallory’s senior yearbook photo
(from the 1906 Hi-O-Hi Oberlin College annual)

And it must have been true, because his accomplice in the prank described below, Merton Chamberlain, was accompanied by the quote, “A kinder gentleman treads not the earth.”

Into our freshman’s bed there strayed a tin can, and a spool of thread. Sometime after going to bed he was aroused, lighted a match and began looking about for “the devil,” as he said. Mr. Luckey came to the stair door to see what was the matter. My partner and I then jumped into bed, and let the fun go on.
– William Mallory to his grandparents February 17, 1905

Not simply a prankster, in another letter, Mallory casually poked fun at his roommate Laverne’s facial hair, writing:

“He is growing a mustache (comprised of 8 hairs, the color of road dust, and a stick of wax on each end.) He must spend 15 minutes daily cultivating it. What a waste of time!”
– William Mallory to his cousin Edith, 1900

William Mallory had a dry wit, but, like most Oberlin students, he worked hard. While he took a particular interest in the sciences, he also studied German, Latin, geometry, botany, history, and religion. Even reading his schedule was exhausting. He often rose before dawn to begin his studies, and worked or attended literary society meetings until 9:30 or 10:00 at night, only to repeat the process again the next day. He had laboratory sessions to attend, and various odd jobs in town to earn money for the rooms he rented. He joined a basketball team (“the best team in the college”) with some boys in his class and attended church four times on Sundays. Surprisingly, he somehow found time to sleep six to nine hours every night!

My favorite passage about his schoolwork concerned a history course Mallory took from Mrs. Adelia Field Johnston. Mrs. Johnston was first a graduate of Oberlin’s literary course for women in 1856. She then accepted a position as principal of the Oberlin Ladies’ Department. In 1878, Johnston was appointed the first female professor in Oberlin, and she later became the first woman on the Oberlin College Board of Trustees.  Of her class Mallory writes:

History is my most enjoyable course now. Mrs. Johnston gives us outlines of her lectures, then we listen, and write them out from memory. Because it compels attention, as well as because the course itself is valuable, I like it.
— William Mallory to Edith (undated)

A similar highlight in the collection of William Mallory’s letters (and in any account of Oberlin’s past) has to do with girls. In describing Oberlin to his cousin Edith in 1900, he lamented that “the rules are very strict about fooling with the girls. Cannot stay at the boarding house after 7 P.M. Must not speak to them after meals on Sundays, etc. etc.” Even still, despite his busy schedule and all the restrictions, he managed to find time to visit the ladies once a week. By the end of that first year, he already had favorites. As students were leaving for spring break, he wrote to William Wood, his grandfather: “There are only two girls left. But as they are the two best ones of the lot, I could stand it, if the other boys did not think so too.”

He didn’t just talk about women, though. In multiple letters, Mallory mentioned speaking with people of different races. Whether it was the African-American student who won an oratory contest in the Academy, or John Williams who spoke at a party of the treatment of African-Americans in the southern United States, or two Chinese boys who had survived the Boxer Rebellion, these encounters with such a diverse community expanded William Mallory’s horizons and opened his mind to new experiences.

William Mallory also encountered all the diversity of weather northeastern Ohio has to offer. His meteorological observations were a delight to read. I remember last October when residual storms from Hurricane Sandy blew off part of the roof of the Science Center on campus. Once, when driving into Cleveland, I experienced four different weather patterns on my commute. It wasn’t so different for William Mallory in the early 20th century.

Yesterday was a beautiful day, but it snowed hard in the evening. The weather changes very quickly.
– William Mallory to his grandfather April 4 1900

Once in a while we have a day with blue sky, but twice in a while we have dark, rainy days…The wind blew down the flag pole, on the campus, and took off a good many large limbs, and more small ones. But the next morning the sun came up clear, there was a little breeze from the north, and we thought we had a promise of fair weather, but now rubber boots are the proper things to wear again.
–William Mallory to his grandparents, 1903

The more I got to know William Mallory, the less I was prepared to stumble across the last two letters from Oberlin, dated October 6, 1918. One was from William Mallory to his mother in New York, wishing her a happy birthday, and describing a little of his new teaching job at Oberlin. He was busy because the laboratory was not in very good shape. There were a surprising number of young women in his classes, he declared, though “not all of them give early promise of being great scholars of Physics.” He wondered if some of the young ladies might not “drop out soon.”

The other letter was from his ten-year-old daughter, Stella Irene, to her grandmother, also wishing her a happy birthday. In the letter, little Stella Irene wrote in the large, careful print of a child about her school, her younger brother, Robert, a pet chicken, and her father’s health. “Dada is much better,” she said. “He is so he can get up and around some. A lot better than when we came.”

Sadly, not long after these letters were posted, William Mallory was dead. He was 38 years old. Out of respect for his memory, classes at Oberlin College were cancelled on October 21, 1918 for his funeral. He was survived by his wife, Mary Pope Mallory, and his two children, Stella Irene, age 10, and Robert, age 5.

William Mallory with his wife, Mary, daughter, Stella Irene, and son, Robert.

William Mallory with his wife, Mary, daughter, Stella Irene, and son, Robert
(from the Oberlin Heritage Center collection)

William Mallory’s letters are important, not simply for their sentimental value. They tell a story of a time in Oberlin when strict rules for female students were beginning to loosen, when people of all races came together to talk about their experiences, and when World War I took control of the community’s routine. The letters, photographs, and objects donated by Marianne Caldwell and William Dickerman add important dimension, not only to the name William Mallory, but to the already multi-faceted story of Oberlin as well.

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