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Posts Tagged ‘Oberlin’

“Odious business” in Oberlin: Northern States’ Rights, Part 3

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

“An act to prevent slaveholding and kidnapping in Ohio”REPEALED!

“An act to prohibit the confinement of fugitives from slavery in the jails of Ohio”REPEALED!

Monroe’s 1856 Habeas Corpus ActREPEALED!

In early 1858 the newly elected Democratic Ohio General Assembly wasted no time attacking Ohio’s personal liberty laws, which had been passed by the prior Republican legislature to counteract the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.  (See my Northern States’ Rights, Part 1 and Part 2 blog posts).  Between February and April they repealed the three laws listed above.  They also attempted to repeal a fourth law, “An act to prevent kidnapping”, but were unsuccessful at that, making it the only Ohio personal liberty law left standing. [1]

Although this might sound like a massive backlash on the part of the Ohio electorate, it might not have been quite as dramatic as it appears.  Ohio had a long history of flip-flopping between anti-slavery and anti-black legislatures from one election to the next.  Ohio historian William Cochran also attributed it to voter “apathy” in an off-year election, and to the Republicans “pat[ting] themselves on the back and go[ing] to sleep.”   But it’s also clear that the Democrats made a campaign issue of Republican policies, including the personal liberty laws, and it’s reasonable to assume that at least some conservative Ohioans were energized to vote Democratic by their apprehensions over the “radical” anti-slavery policies of the Republican legislature. [2]

One thing was certain though, the repeal of the personal liberty laws by the Democratic legislature opened up Ohio as a potential hunting ground for slavecatchers.   Oberlin, in particular, was vulnerable, both because it was widely known to be a haven for people seeking freedom from slavery, and also because one of Oberlin’s few pro-slavery residents, Anson P. Dayton, had just been appointed U.S. Deputy Marshal by the pro-slavery administration of President James Buchanan. [3]

The years prior to 1858 had been very quiet in northeast Ohio in terms of slavehunting activities.  The Cleveland Leader noted that “during the whole of President Pierce’s and the half of Mr. Buchanan’s Administration no efforts were made in these parts, in a business so odious to the people.”   But that would change now.  According to John Mercer Langston, who was Town Clerk at the time, in the Spring of 1858 “alarm was created by the presence of negro-catchers from Kentucky and other neighboring Southern States, who were prowling in stealth and disguise about this holy place in search of their fleeing property.”   In mid August, an attempt was made to capture the Wagoner family, and on August 20, Marshal Dayton and 3 cohorts attempted unsuccessfully to seize an African American woman and her children.  The attempt was repeated three nights later.  But Oberlin demonstrated that it could hold its own even without the support of state law, as all of these attempts were thwarted by a vigilant community.  In one case, James Smith, on hearing that Marshal Dayton was conspiring with slaveholders in North Carolina to capture him, chased the Marshal into the Palmer House (at the site of the present day Oberlin Inn) and struck him with a cane. [4]

In September, another Oberlin resident noted that “it was also universal town talk that there were several Southerners at [Chauncey] Wack’s tavern, whose business it was supposed to be to seize and carry off some of the citizens of the place.” [5]   And indeed one of those Southerners would conspire with a U.S. Marshal and two other men to abduct John Price, an alleged fugitive slave living in Oberlin.  The abduction and rescue of Price is a much publicized event known as the “Oberlin-Wellington Rescue”, so I won’t go into details here, but I thought it might be interesting to examine how the Rescue related to Ohio’s personal liberty laws.  (For details about the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, see The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue 1858)

As we shall see, Monroe’s Habeas Corpus Act might have been written for just such an event as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, and it’s interesting to note that the Republican Governor and the Republican state supreme court proceeded as if that law had never been repealed!  They defied the Buchanan Administration in Washington D.C. and the slaveholder dominated United States Supreme Court, and opened the door for a potential armed confrontation between the state and federal governments that could have dwarfed the “Battle of Lumbarton“, fought  two years earlier.

After dozens of Oberlin and Wellington men were arrested by the federal government for rescuing John Price from his captors, the Ohio Supreme Court issued writs of habeas corpus to bring two of the rescuers before it to determine for itself whether the federal government had a right to imprison them.  According to historian Thomas D. Morris in his acclaimed study of the personal liberty laws of the North, this was in direct defiance of the United States Supreme Court, which had just weeks earlier, in another Fugitive Slave Law case, ruled that a state court had no authority to interfere with, or even question, a detention once it learned that the prisoners were held under authority of the federal government (Abelman v. Booth).  In addition, the writs weren’t directed to the federal law enforcement officers who had arrested the rescuers (and who likely would have ignored the writs); instead they were directed to the Cuyahoga County Sheriff, who had jurisdiction over the jail the rescuers were being held in.   This is exactly what would have happened under the Monroe law.  The Buchanan Administration angrily protested that “the State Court have no authority to meddle with this business.”  But the Sheriff, who was sympathetic to the rescuers, voluntarily complied with the writs.  (He would have been required to under the Monroe law.)  This left the federal law enforcement agents with no choice but to accompany the Sheriff and their prisoners to the state court in Columbus.  However, they were under strict orders from the Buchanan Administration that the rescuers “must under no circumstances be surrendered”, even if the Ohio Supreme Court ordered them released. [6]

While all this was going on, Ohio Governor Salmon Chase was publicly telling a large crowd in Cleveland that he would go along with whatever the Ohio Supreme Court decided, and that if they decided the rescuers should be set free, then “so long as Ohio was a Sovereign State, that process should be executed.” [7]  Chase, of course, knew that the federal law enforcement officers would never free the rescuers voluntarily, and thus it would appear he was prepared to use force to free them, as would have been authorized by the terms of Monroe’s repealed law.  As it turns out though it was all a moot point, since the Ohio Supreme Court decided by a 3 to 2 margin that the imprisonment of the rescuers was indeed authorized by the U.S. Constitution (in spite of the judges’ own personal feelings).   Thus another armed confrontation between the federal government and the state of Ohio was avoided, but it was nonetheless a disheartening verdict for the rescuers and a sad day for Oberlin.

But all was not yet lost.  There was still one arrow left in the quiver.  Ohio still had one lonely personal liberty law left on the books, the 1857 “act to prevent kidnapping”.  If you recall from Part 1 of this series, that law mandated a minimum sentence of three years hard labor in the state penitentiary for anyone who should “forcibly or fraudulently carry off or decoy out of this state any black or mulatto person… 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.”  In February, 1859, a Lorain County Grand Jury issued an indictment under that law against the four men (including the U.S. Marshal) who had captured John Price.  Since these men were frequently coming to northeast Ohio to testify against the rescuers at their trials, it set up an interesting cat-and-mouse game where Lorain County Sheriff Harmon Burr (an Oberlin College alumnus) tried to arrest the slavecatchers, while the federal government tried to protect the slavecatchers so they could testify against the rescuers.  This led the anti-Oberlin Cleveland Plain Dealer to scoff, “Oberlin has now taken up and become the champion of the Southern doctrine of ‘State Rights’.”  [8]

Sheriff Harmon E Burr
Lorain County Sheriff Harmon Burr
(from Lorain County Sheriff’s Office)

Ultimately Sheriff Burr did succeed in arresting the slavecatchers and in convincing them that an angry Lorain County jury would almost certainly convict them at their trial, which was scheduled to begin in July.  The slavecatchers wanted no part of a three to eight year sentence of hard labor in the notorious Ohio State Penitentiary, so they accepted a deal where the county would drop the charges against them if they persuaded the federal government to drop the charges against the rescuers.  Since the testimony of the slavecatchers was essential to the case against the rescuers, the federal government had no choice but to comply with their request.  And so it was that the most conservative of  Ohio’s personal liberty laws ultimately led to the liberty of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers.  News of Oberlin’s triumph spread nationwide and even overseas, with the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican exulting, “So ends the famous rescue cases and it may be safely set down as a fixed fact that they are the last of the sort in Ohio.  The persecution of Christian men for showing kindness to runaway negroes is a losing operation socially and politically.” [9]

Out of Jail poster
Poster announcing celebration for Rescuers
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

And it was indeed a “losing operation” for the Democrats, as the Republicans regained control of the Ohio General Assembly in the elections of 1859.  Voter disgust at the Fugitive Slave Law and the treatment of the rescuers by the federal government was a contributing factor to yet another electoral flip-flop.  Beginning their new term in early 1860, James Monroe and other “radical” Republicans now looked to try and reinstate the repealed personal liberty laws.  But the situation was different than it had been the last time the Republicans were in control.  Now the Republicans were looking towards the Presidential election of 1860 and the very real possibility of a first-time ever Republican victory placing an anti-slavery President in the White House – IF they played their cards right.  And that meant playing no cards that would lead the public to perceive them as being too radical.   This was especially true after John Brown’s raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October, 1859.  Republicans wanted to distance themselves from radical and violent abolitionism as much as possible. As a result, the Republican Ohio General Assembly passed no personal liberty laws, and other northern states refrained from radical legislation as well. [10]

The strategy paid off, and Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected to the Presidency in November.  But almost immediately after his election, slaveholding states started seceding from the Union.  Despite the fact that Republicans had shown restraint in passing new personal liberty laws, the seceding states included the personal liberty laws in a list of grievances justifying their secession.   Texas, in its “Declaration of the Causes” of secession, claimed the following:

“[Texas] was received [into the federal Union] as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time… But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them? …

The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated the [fugitive slave clause] of the federal constitution, and laws passed in pursuance thereof; thereby annulling a material provision of the compact, designed by its framers to perpetuate the amity between the members of the confederacy and to secure the rights of the slave-holding States in their domestic institutions– a provision founded in justice and wisdom, and without the enforcement of which the compact fails to accomplish the object of its creation. Some of those States have imposed high fines and degrading penalties upon any of their citizens or officers who may carry out in good faith that provision of the compact, or the federal laws enacted in accordance therewith.

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery…” [11]

The secession of the slaveholding states ultimately led to civil war, and civil war moved the Fugitive Slave Law controversy to a new forum and its combatants to new battlefields.  But finally, in 1864, the United States Congress repealed the notorious Fugitive Slave Law.  The next year the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery nationwide.  And two months after that, the Ohio General Assembly finally retired its lone surviving personal liberty law, “An Act to prevent kidnapping” – the law that had brought to Oberlin one of the  greatest triumphs and most joyous celebrations of its rich and colorful history.

(This ends my blog series on Northern States’ Rights, but if you’re interested in hearing more about Oberlin’s relationship to the Fugitive Slave Law and the personal liberty laws, please join me and the Oberlin Heritage Center for a presentation commemorating the 150th anniversary of the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, at Kendal at Oberlin, on June 3, 2014.  Details will be posted at this web site as the date approaches.)

SOURCES CONSULTED:

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

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

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

“A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union”, Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, University of Tennessee

John Mercer Langston, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol

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

Jacob Rudd Shipherd, History of the Oberlin Wellington Rescue

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

James Monroe, Oberlin Thursday Lectures, Addresses, and Essays

Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity

Acts of the State of Ohio, Volume 63

The public statutes at large, of the state of Ohio [1833-1861], Volume 4

“Harmon E. Burr”, Whiteside County Biographies

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

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Public, Vol 4, pp. 3028, 3036; Cochran, p. 118
[2] Cochran, p. 118; Monroe, Speech, pp. 3, 4, 13
[3] Cheek, p. 316
[4] Cochran, pp. 119, 121; Fletcher, Chapter  XXVI; Langston, p. 183
[5] Shipherd, p. 32
[6] Morris, p. 187; Finkelman, p. 178; Brandt, p. 202
[7] Cochran, p. 186
[8] Cochran, pp. 197-198; Brandt, pp. 172-173; General Catalogue, p. 336; “Harmon”
[9] Cochran, p. 201
[10] Cochran, pp. 209-210; Monroe, Thursday, p. 121; Morris, pp. 188-190, 219-222
[11] “A Declaration”

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.

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