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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

“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.

 
* Historians have traditionally taken the stance that this General Assembly passed no new personal liberty laws. Since I wrote this, however, I’ve discovered that the Republicans discreetly passed what amounted to a low-key personal liberty law in 1860. This law would have an impact on the infamous Lucy Bagby case of 1861, and will be discussed in detail in a future blog. – Ron Gorman, Nov. 19, 2016

 
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”

The Secret Rooms of the Fitches

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

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

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

James M. Fitch

 James M. Fitch (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sources consulted:

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

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

James Harris Fairchild, The Underground Railroad

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

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

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

Oberlin Heritage Center, “Radicals and Reformers” history walk

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

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

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

Wilbur Henry Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom

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

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

Oberlin Heritage Center Resource Center

The Society, 1901, Ohio History, Volume 13

The Oberlin News, February 10, 1899

Lucy Stone and the Margaret Garner tragedy

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

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

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

Lucy Stone
Lucy Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Sources consulted:

Levi Coffin, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin

Andrea Moore Kerr, Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality

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

Mark Reinhardt, Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?

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

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

James Bradley – from hopeless bondage to Lane Rebel

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

Seven years before the celebrated abolitionist Frederick Douglass first stood before a sympathetic audience of white abolitionists and “trembling in every limb” told them the story of his life as a slave, another ex-slave, James Bradley, stood before an audience of white colonizationists (people who believed freed slaves should be returned to Africa), and skillfully debunked the rationale of colonization and slavery.  His presentation was part of a series of academic debates on abolitionism and colonization that would have an important impact on the American abolition movement and dramatically alter the course of Oberlin’s history.

James Bradley statue

James Bradley statue – Covington, KY

The debates were held at the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, in February, 1834 (see my William T. Allan – Lane Rebel from the South blog post for details).  Of the approximately 45 total hours of debate time, James Bradley occupied about two hours, but an argument can be made that they were the two most important hours of the debates.  Bradley started by telling his personal story, of being born in Africa, enslaved as a toddler, and brought across the Atlantic Ocean to South Carolina.  Although we don’t have a transcript of his exact words at the debates, we do have a published account of his life story, written by him shortly afterwards.  Here are some excerpts:

A slaveholder bought me and took me up into Pendleton County, Ky.  I suppose I stayed with him about six months.  He sold me to a Mr. Bradley, by whose name I have ever since been called.  This man was considered a wonderfully kind master and it is true I was treated better than most of the slaves I knew.  I never suffered for food and never was flogged with the whip but oh, my soul!  I was tormented with kicks and knocks more than I can tell…

I used to work very hard. I was always obliged to be in the field by sunrise and labored until dark, stopping only at noon long enough to eat dinner.  When I was about 15 years old, I took what was called the cold plague in consequence of being overworked and I was sick a long time.  My master came to see me one day, and hearing me groan with pain, he said, “This fellow will never be of any more use to me.  I would as soon knock him in the head, as if he were an opossum.”  His children sometimes came in and shook axes and knives at me, as if they were about to knock me on the head…

My master kept me ignorant of everything he could.  I was never told anything about God or my soul.  Yet from the time I was 14 years old, I used to think a great deal about freedom.  It was my heart’s desire. I could not keep it out of my mind.  Many a sleepless night I have spent in tears because I was a slave.  I looked back on all I had suffered and when I looked ahead, all was dark and hopeless bondage.  My heart ached to feel within me the life of liberty.

After the death of my master I began to contrive how I might buy myself.  After toiling all day for my mistress, I used to sleep three or four hours and then get up and work for myself the remainder of the night. I made collars for horses out of plaited husks.  I could weave one in about eight hours and I generally took time enough from my sleep to make two collars in the course of a week.  I sold them for 50 cents each.  One summer, I tried to take two or three hours from my sleep every night, but I found that I grew weak and I was obliged to sleep more.  With my first money, I bought a pig.  The next year I earned for myself about $13 and the next, about $30…

I used to go out with my hoe and dig up little patches which I planted with corn…got up at night to tend it.  My hogs were fattened with this corn and I used to sell a number every year.  Besides this, I used to raise small patches of tobacco and sell it to buy more corn for my pigs.  In this way I worked five years.  At the end of which time, after taking out my losses, I found that I had earned $160.  With this money I hired my own time for two years.  During this period, I worked almost all the time, night and day.  The hope of liberty stung my nerves and braced my soul so much that I could do with very little sleep or rest.  I could do a great deal more work than I was ever able to do before.  At the end of two years, I had earned $300 besides feeding and clothing myself.  I now bought my time for 18 months longer and went 250 miles west, nearly into Texas, where I could make more money.  Here I earned enough to buy myself, including what I gave for my time, about $700.

As soon as I was free, I started for a free state.  When I arrived in Cincinnati, I heard of Lane Seminary, about two miles out of the city.  I had for years been praying to God that my dark mind might see the light of knowledge.  I asked for admission to the seminary.  They pitied me and granted my request, though I knew nothing of the studies which were required for admission.  I am so ignorant that I suppose it will take me two years to get up with the lowest class in the institution.  But in all respects I am treated just as kindly and as much like a brother by the students, as if my skin were as white and my education as good as their own…[1]

Bradley also told how he secretly taught himself to read and write, against his masters’ wishes (and against the law in most Southern states).  After telling his life story, Bradley went on to attack the concepts of slavery and colonization.  This was a crucial time in the national abolition movement, when a large number of white Americans, even those who opposed slavery, believed that blacks couldn’t be integrated with whites in large numbers without a detrimental effect on  both.  This was one of the biggest arguments against abolition and in favor of colonization.  At this point in time free blacks comprised less than 3% of the American population.  Enslaved blacks, on the other hand, made up more than 34% of the population of the Southern states (and more than 50% of the population of South Carolina and Louisiana).  The only knowledge many white Americans had of blacks came through the dehumanizing institution of slavery and the racial stereotypes that were used to rationalize it.  In the words of South Carolina’s pro-slavery statesman John C. Calhoun:

“…two races differing so greatly, and in so many respects, cannot possibly exist together in the same country, where their numbers are nearly equal, without the one being subjected to the other.  Experience has proved that the existing relation, in which the one is subjected to the other in the slaveholding States, is consistent with the peace and safety of both, with great improvement to the inferior…”[2]

Bradley’s mere presence at Lane Seminary, and the energy, ambition and hard work that brought him there, seriously challenged this philosophy.  But Bradley had more to say, as described by Lane student Henry B. Stanton:

This shrewd and intelligent black, cut up these white objections by the roots, and withered and scorched them under the sun of sarcastic argumentation, for nearly an hour, to which the assembly responded in repeated and spontaneous roars of laughter, which were heartily joined in by both Colonizationists and Abolitionists. Do not understand me as saying, that his speech was devoid of argument. No. It contained sound logic, enforced by apt illustrations. I wish the slanderers of negro intellect could have witnessed this unpremeditated effort.

In response to the common argument that freed slaves would be unable to take care of themselves, Bradley said: “They have to take care of, and support themselves now, and their master, and his family into the bargain; and this being so, it would be strange if they could not provide for themselves, when disencumbered from this load.”[3]

In response to the common argument that the slaves were content with their position, we know him to have written: “How strange it is that anybody should believe any human being could be a slave and yet be contented.  I do not believe there ever was a slave who did not long for liberty.  I know very well that slave owners take a great deal of pains to make people in the free states believe that slaves are happy but I know likewise that I was never acquainted with a slave, however well he was treated, who did not long to be free.”[4]

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Bradley’s contribution was critical to the debates.  Theodore Weld had the impassioned fervor and unassailable logic; William T. Allan and Huntington Lyman generated sympathy and outrage with their tales of victimization and abuse; but someone needed to attack the pervasive stereotypes and demonstrate that the John C. Calhouns were wrong.  Only James Bradley could do that, and by all accounts he did it masterfully.

After the debates, Bradley became a manager of the newly formed student anti-slavery society, and when the school tried to squelch the students’ anti-slavery activities, he became one of the “Lane Rebels” who withdrew from the school in protest.  When John J. Shipherd came down and invited the rebels  to attend Oberlin College instead, Bradley was interested.  But there was one hitch.  Oberlin College at that time didn’t have a policy to admit black students.  So the rebels demanded that such a policy be instated before they would come to Oberlin.

Shipherd, being a progressive member of the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society, was fine with this demand, but he needed the approval of the students, faculty and trustees of Oberlin College, and he expected he was in for some opposition.  He wrote back to Oberlin: “Indeed, if our Board would violate right so as to reject youth of talent and piety because they were black, I should have no heart to labor for the upbuilding of our Seminary, believing that the curse of God would come upon us, as it has upon Lane Seminary, for its unchristian abuse of the poor slave.”[5]

Opposition he expected, and opposition he got.  And then some.  It was led by none other than his colony co-founder, Philo P. Stewart, who “at once proclaimed Bro. Shipherd Mad!! crazy etc. etc. and that the School was changed into a Negro School.”  The Tappan brothers of New York offered generous financial support to the college, and the renowned revivalist minister Charles Finney offered to come to Oberlin and head a new Theological Department, if only the demands of the Lane Rebels were accepted.  But this had little or no impact on the opponents.  The college and the colony split on the issue and entered into several weeks of heated and sometimes acrimonious debate.   Finally, with Shipherd threatening to depart “for another field of labor”, the college trustees voted by a narrow 5-4 margin to accept the demands of the rebels, and Oberlin College became the first college in the country to have a formal policy of race-blind admissions.[6]

With that the Lane Rebels, James Bradley included, came to Oberlin, as did two other notable African Americans, Charles and Gideon Langston (older brothers of John Mercer Langston).  In fact so many students (the vast majority white), came to Oberlin over the next year that Oberlin College was forced to open four branch institutions in 1836 to handle the overflow.  One of these was the Sheffield Manual Labor Institute in nearby Sheffield, which stressed agricultural manual labor and preparatory coursework.  James Bradley transferred to this branch and attended along with about forty  students, including the Langston brothers, James Fitch, Mary Hosford, and Mary Kellogg (future wife of future Oberlin College President James Fairchild).

Burrell Homestead

Sheffield Manual Labor Institute at the Burrell Homestead

But things didn’t go well at Sheffield.  Its agricultural experiments failed, and the school and many of its students faced financial difficulties.  The crowning blow came when the school applied for a charter from the state of Ohio in 1837, and was told that it would only be granted if the school excluded black students.  By this time the presence of James Bradley and the Langston brothers at Oberlin and Sheffield had allayed the community’s fears, with even Philo Stewart taking “his position with the foremost of Abolitionists”, so excluding black students from any Oberlin-affiliated school was unthinkable.  (In fact, the Oberlin College campus was already openly harboring escaped slaves.)  Consequently the Sheffield institute closed, with a few of the students returning to Oberlin, but most scattering to the wind.  Unfortunately James Bradley was among the latter, and we have no record of him after leaving Sheffield.[7]

But even though we don’t know what happened to James Bradley, he clearly made his mark on Oberlin.  His sheer indomitable will propelled him out of “dark and hopeless bondage” and to the Lane Seminary debate platform 7 years before Frederick Douglass, 9 years before Sojourner Truth and William Wells Brown, and 11 years before Lewis Clarke took the national stage.  I can’t help but wonder what the results of the Lane debates might have been without him, and what the effect might have been on abolitionism and especially on the history of Oberlin.  But I’ll have to leave those questions as food for thought, along with these closing words that James Bradley wrote in his letter to abolitionist Lydia Maria Child:

“God preserve you, and strengthen you in this holy cause, until the walls of prejudice are broken down, the chains burst in pieces, and men of every color meet at the feet of Jesus, speaking kind words, and looking upon each other in love – willing to live together on earth, as they hope to live in Heaven!”  – James Bradley

Sources consulted:

Lydia Maria Child, The Oasis

Henry B. Stanton, “Great Debate at Lane Seminary”, letter to Joshua Leavitt, March 10, 1834

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

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

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

“Marker #15-47 Burrell Homestead”, Ohio Historical Society

“Mr. Calhoun to Mr. Pakenham”, Proceedings of the Senate and Documents Relative to Texas, from which the Injunction of Secrecy Has Been Removed

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

Historical Census Browser, Census Data for Year 1830,  University of Virginia Library

“Statue story of freedom”, Cincinnati.com

“James Bradley – Covington, Kentucky”, Waymarking.com

Delazon Smith, A History of Oberlin

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

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Child, pp.  106-107
[2] “Mr. Calhoun to Mr. Pakenham”
[3] Stanton, March 10, 1834
[4] Child, pp. 110-111
[5] Fairchild, p. 55
[6] Fletcher, Chapter XIV; Fairchild, p. 61
[7] “Sheffield Manual Labor Institute”; Fairchild p. 63; “General catalogue”; Smith, pp. 63-64