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"The Age of Heroes" by Fances J. Hosford '91

BY FRANCES J. HOSFORD, '91, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF LATIN

III. Out of the House of Bondage

FROM all reports it seems clear that American slavery presented its least repulsive aspect in the northern tier of slave states, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky. There food was abundant and the climate was healthful. The majority of masters were influenced by the old patriarchal tradition, which regarded the slave as a humble member of the family, and devolved upon the master the responsibility for his well-being. An easygoing race, they demanded only moderate labor from their field hands. They claimed, and not without reason, that their people—fed, clothed, sheltered from hard times and unemployment, cared for in sickness or old age—were far better off than English factory hands, and just as free.

But commercialism, with increasing force, laid its ugly hand upon Ol' Virginy and the Old Kentucky Home. Whenever that happened all that was beautiful or even tolerable in the older system made haste to disappear. Slaves were wanted for the cotton plantations of the far South. Thousands were smuggled in from Africa in defiance of the international slave trade laws; but still there were not enough. Their natural increase did not count in the cruel conditions of life and labor that prevailed in the Gulf States. Slaves, raised in the northern slave states and sold south, became more profitable than corn or tobacco.

The pages of Harriet Beecher Stowe and of Mark Twain still bear witness to the haunting terror of being "sold south" or "sold down River." This was the Great Disaster, and they were helpless before it. More and more frequently, as the years went on, would a child or a husband disappear, and never be seen or heard from more. Slaves were bred for the market on the beautiful farms and sleepy old plantations of Virginia and Kentucky, as horses were. Jane said truly to Miss Ophelia, "There's heaps of 'em."

It was still true that in Virginia, the Old Dominion, many a slave passed his life in the good old way—humanely treated and care-free; but in Virginia, as early as 1835, William H. Seward saw a thing that would have made him an abolitionist, if other things had not. He was journeying through the state and had stopped for the night at a country inn. He saw a gang of naked little boys, driven like cattle to drink at the horse-trough, and then into a shed to sob themselves to sleep. They had been bought at different plantations, and were on their way to Richmond, to be sold at auction and taken South.

Slave mothers saw such things in Virginia and Kentucky, and to their personal dread was added the sharper pang of fear for their children. It is no wonder that such mothers tried to escape sometimes, although they knew that they were taking a desperate chance. Some of the most pitiful tales of those pitiful days concern such attempts. John Fee, one of the founders of Berea College, relates an experience of his own. He was a Kentuckian, his parents were slaveholders, but he had turned abolitionist. Feeling that he had profited by unpaid labor, he tried to make such restitution as he could by purchasing and setting free one of his father's slaves, Julett. She went to Ohio, leaving behind her children and grandchildren. In the course of time she learned that one of her sons had been sold south, and that the plan of their owner was to sell all the slave children in the New Orleans market. She determined to save them if she could, and secretly returned to Kentucky. She had arranged with friends in Ohio to take them by night across the river, but the appointed night was too short. By the time she had collected two sons, three daughters, and four grandchildren, the sun had risen, the friends had disappeared, and the forlorn little party was left helpless on the bank. They were all captured and all but the freed woman were at once sold south. She was tried for stealing slaves—her own children and grandchildren—and was sentenced to the state's prison at Frankfort. There she died.

Another case was that of Margaret Garner, whom Lucy Stone visited in the Cincinnati jail. Margaret, with her husband, his old parents, and their four young children, had escaped from Kentucky, only to be captured in Cincinnati. Mrs. Stone describes Margaret as a beautiful woman with good features and wonderful eyes. This mother attempted to kill all her children. She succeeded in killing her little three-year-old daughter, whom she attacked before her little boys, because she said that her daughter should never suffer as she had. She was placed bound on board the boat that was to carry her down the Ohio river. Her baby was in her lap. She took advantage of the lurch of the boat to let the baby roll into the river. Later an accident happened to the boat and Margaret would not let herself be saved. Her husband wrote to Mrs. Stone that Margaret was dead. He said that he thought she would be glad to know it.

And yet in spite of these and other tragedies, other mothers made the same attempt and some succeeded. We know a few details about one of these who came by the Oberlin division of underground railroad. She came from Dover, Kentucky. We do not know her name but I shall call her Miriam, since she deserves to be counted as a kinswoman of that Moses of old who brought his people out of the house of bondage.

Miriam had several children and one grandchild. She was also caring for a foster child, the little son of a fellow servant. His father was their master. When he was about two years old his mother died. On her death bed she begged Miriam to take charge of her little one—a sickly child with a father to whose mercy it was useless to appeal. The child was named Lee Howard Dobbins, but when or by whom, we do not know.

When little Lee Howard was four years old, his father—Miriam's master and his—either found himself in financial difficulties, or he saw advantages in changing his way of life; he began to dispose of his slaves. Miriam's husband was sold south.

Dobbins HeadstoneThere are secret ways by which intelligence travels fast and surely among oppressed peoples. By some channel she learned that her master had sold her two grown daughters for $1,800. The women were not yet gone, and their mother had "a brave and bold heart." She gathered her whole family—two grown daughters, one with a baby in her arms, three little boys, her own infant child, and the poor little foster child—a party of nine, all women and children; two babies and a four-year-old, These were all the slaves her master owned. It is a wonder that they dared to start; a greater wonder that they were not captured.

We shall never know how they reached Ohio. Once on free soil the Underground Railroad would help them, but the crossing of the river was the most hazardous part of the journey. We do know that there were "bootleggers" who would take escaped slaves across, but it was at a price that this party certainly could not pay. The time was February, 1853, and they might have crossed on the ice if the river was frozen, but this does not often happen, and the weather reports call this winter an average one. However they did it; in some way they reached the Ohio side.

In the fifties there were railroads in Ohio, but the officials of the Underground seem to have thought them unsafe for fugitives until they approached the Western Reserve. In the case of Miriam and her children, it is not probable that they could make any use of public conveyances. A party so conspicuous and so helpless could never venture into public view. They must have travelled by night, on foot or in wagons driven stealthily, from station to station of the Underground.

From Wellington to Oberlin the Underground did a brisk business by wagon. Mr. Henry Webster said that when he was a boy he drove many a wagon over that road, and left his human freight to be concealed in the rambling old Keep home on North Main Street. In some such way Miriam and her children reached Oberlin, but they could not stay. Their master was in hot pursuit.

Poor little Lee Howard was very ill. The hardships of the flight across Ohio were appalling to the strongest, and they had taken the last bit of resistance from the delicate child. He could travel no farther. He found kindness. A man and his wife opened their home to the sick child, and a young woman volunteered her services as nurse. Weeping, his foster mother left him, for in no other way could the rest of the party be saved.

From Oberlin to the Lake shore the Underground service was of the best. Mr. Charles Fairchild writes that he remembers driving a wagon to Brownhelm with two or three colored people hidden in its depths. There would be no lack of boys or men who would take this party to one of the smaller ports, like Vermillion, and leave them in some friendly shelter where they could wait until the right sailing vessel was loading for the north. The small harbors were then in constant use by the craft that carried food stuffs to the lumber men of Canada, and lumber to the thriving communities along the southern coast. The Underground conductors knew the skippers of these vessels, and could tell which were to be trusted. It was not necessary to ask the favor of transportation. While the vessel was loading, a black man or a little group might slip aboard. The captain preferred to have them come when his back was turned, and they were careful to oblige him. They would tuck themselves away behind the freight, but even if discovered they were in little danger. The sentiment of the Western Reserve was unfriendly to slavery and resentful of the fugutive slave laws. The casual passer-by would ask no questions, the skipper and the crew could be trusted not to see them, and when they reached the Canadian side all they had to do was to walk ashore!

Miriam and her children did this, and before they had been ten minutes ashore they met her brother, Thornton, who had escaped before, and was doing well in Canada. We can hardly blame the poor woman for sending a rather irritating message to her master. She thanked him for selling her daughters for $1,800. Had he not done this, she assured him she could never have had the courage to run away from him.

We do not know the names of those good Samaritans who undertook the care of the child left in Oberlin, for it would not have been safe to publish them in the good old times. The child was hopelessly ill, and in spite of their tender care it lived only one week.

We mortals are so made that one specific case of cruelty and wrong will claim the sympathy that we are able to withhold from a volume of statistics. And we are so made that the appeal is multiplied if the sufferer be a child. The First Church, in which so many of Oberlin's most vital experiences have centered, was crowded for the funeral of this slave baby. The three speakers were Henry Everhard Peck, destined six years later to spend weary summer months in the Cleveland jail for his part in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue; Father Keep, whose vote, eighteen years before, had determined Oberlin's attitude upon the race question; and James Thome, a southerner by birth and breeding, who had chosen to leave father and mother and house and lands for the right as he saw it—two college professors and one trustee. They voiced the indignation of the audience, "A father hunting a son to doom to the prison house of slavery"; they expressed its response to the appeal, "It is not in view of this single case that our sympathies are drawn out. It is for the great class of helpless little ones that this one comes to represent. They ask us to remember their wrongs, the wrongs of centuries inflicted upon their race, and to look down the dark future and weep for the wrongs of thousands yet unborn." And Father Keep spoke of high resolve, "We are now under obligation to consecrate ourselves unreservedly to the removal of this curse."

The case of the slave baby attracted attention out-side of Oberlin. Of course the Oberlin Evangelist noted it. Mr. Clayton Ellsworth of our faculty has traced an account, first published in the Oberlin Times, then reprinted in the National Anti-Slavery Standard of New York City, and cited in the "Slave," London, England. The students attended the funeral seven hundred strong, and these were so many missionaries for emancipation. They helped to form a public sentiment which was needed in the North as well as in the South. The poor little boy was not born, and did not die, in vain.

At a public meeting held soon after the funeral those who desired were asked to contribute ten cents each for a memorial stone. The required amount was quickly raised. The stone was unfortunately a soft marble. It is seamed, and parts of the inscription are nearly obliterated. It was imperative to place it under cover in order to save the relic, and it is now in the Oberlin College library. And the weather worn words may still be traced,—

LET SLAVERY PERISH

LEE HOWARD DOBBINS
a fugutive slave orphan
brought here by an
adopted mother in her
flight for liberty
March 17, 1853
left here wasted with
consumption found
a refuge in death
Mar., 26, 1853
Aged 4 yrs.

Hosford, Frances J., "The Age of Heroes," Oberlin Alumni Magazine, 27 (June 1931), 269-71.

 
 
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