This week I opened an email from Ken Grossi, the head archivist of the Oberlin College Library in Oberlin, Ohio reminding me that it’s almost time for our annual Underground Railroad visit. I love visiting Oberlin for many reasons, but in particular because of its passionate citizenry and its history of action and civic engagement. I never grow weary of hearing about it. As our Inland cities continue to struggle with the challenges of citizen-led transformation and change, I thought I’d offer a little history lesson on the city that has been called “the town that started the Civil War.”
Towards the middle of the 19th century, Oberlin, which is located in northern Ohio, became a major focus of the abolitionist movement in the United States. The town was conceived as an integrated community with an integrated college, the first integrated college in America. It is also the oldest continuously operating coeducational institution in the US. The city and the college have long been associated with progressive causes. City founders bragged that, “Oberlin is peculiar in that which is good.”
In 1834, in response to a series of slavery debates at Cincinnati’s Lane Theological Seminary, the trustees of the Cincinnati school voted to prohibit antislavery agitation among its students and faculty. As a result, the “Lane Rebels”, a group of about 50 students left the school and were invited to join the Oberlin campus. The rebels agreed under three conditions: that Oberlin accept students regardless of color, that Oberlin respect students’ freedom of speech, and that Oberlin not “interfere with the internal regulation of the school.” Oberlin College agreed to all three conditions.
By 1852, the town of Oberlin was an active terminus on the Underground Railroad, and thousands had already passed through it on their way to freedom. This effort was assisted by an Ohio law that allowed fugitive slaves to apply for protection from extradition back to the southern states from which they had escaped. In 1858, a newly elected Democratic state legislature repealed this law, making fugitives around Oberlin vulnerable to enforcement of the Federal Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed southern slave-catchers to target and extradite them back to the South.
This situation reached a climax with the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, a pivotal moment in the town’s history when a fugitive named John Price was captured by federal officials and held in neighboring Wellington, Ohio. A large group of Oberlin residents, consisting of both White and Black townspeople, students and faculty, set out for Wellington to release Price from his captors.
The men took Price back from the arresting US Marshall, and eventually smuggled him to Canada, but the authorities were not content to let the matter rest. United States President James Buchanan personally requested prosecution of “The Rescuers.” Thirty-seven were indicted and two were convicted.
The rescue sparked major protests in Northern Ohio and gave an unprecedented boost to the anti-slavery party during the 1860 State elections. The governor of Ohio wrote to the new Republican President Abraham Lincoln urging him to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law. While Lincoln declined this request, his decision did little to prevent a number of Southern states from seceding, and America was soon embroiled in the Civil War.
A few days after Mr. Grossi’s email I received a call from Thelma Quinn Smith, a fifth generation Oberlinite. At almost 94 years old Ms. Thelma is still passionate about the town she calls home. She called first to find out what day we would arrive in Oberlin and then to talk about her family research project she just finished, and finally to share just how nice the 150th anniversary ceremony of the Westwood Cemetery turned-out. The cemetery, where Civil War soldiers and Underground Railroad operatives are buried, is one of the places we visit during the tour. It is there we hear the stories of how passionate the citizens of the town as they fought for what is right, just, and to quote its founders, “that which is good.”
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