John Mercer Langston and Oberlin's Antebellum African American Heritage
September 26, 1998,
First Church, Oberlin, Ohio
by William and Aimee Lee Cheek
During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Oberlin was the most radical community in America and its African American inhabitants were determined to make it even more so.
To the Black leadership cohort of the "United States of Oberlin," as its threatened detractors derisively dubbed it, radical meant biracial egalitarianism, up to and including social equality. For the town's most illustrious black son, John Mercer Langston-- graduate of both the college and the theological department, first African American licensed to practice law in the west and the first to hold elected public office in the country--nothing short of black people working and living, attending school and engaging in politics "cheek by jowl" with whites would qualify as true freedom. Langston and his hometown black activist colleagues believed in Martin King's vision of the brotherhood of all human beings. They were prepared to utilize any and all available resources --moral, political, and even forcible resistance--to realize that noble dream.
These values were on conspicuous display in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, in Langston's reckoning, "at once the darkest and brightest day in the Calendar" of his home town. Perhaps nowhere better can we begin to understand Oberlin's antebellum heritage of African American activism than in taking another look at this significant episode in both local and national history.
Langston left home early on the morning of September 13, 1858, bent on official business in a neighboring county in his capacity as township clerk. Around him lay fields of turnips and potatoes. Harvest time had come to northern Ohio, but without a corresponding sense of well being.
Although no fugitive slave had ever been taken from Oberlin, and no attempt made for the past ten years, Langston had reason to worry that the "citadel of human freedom," as he named it, might be breached. Anson P. Dayton, the man he had superceded as clerk the previous year, after his ouster had switched from the Republican to the Democratic party. In reward, Dayton was appointed a deputy US marshal. Langston and other Oberlin leaders, black and white, had soon realized that Dayton, doubtless resentful over his loss to a black competitor, hopeful for further political preferment, and mindful of the financial gain that could result from the return of fugitive slaves, might use his post for that purpose. By the late summer their fears were realized. Dayton made several attempts at seizing blacks in Oberlin, only to be thwarted by the threatened parties themselves or by a vigilant citizenry.
Despite warnings to desist, Dayton teamed up with a slave hunting Kentuckian, Anderson
P. Jennings. On promises of hefty rewards, Jennings brought in three experienced confederates:
another Kentuckian and two Columbus men, a deputy marshal and a deputy sheriff, while Dayton continued to work in the background. The men matured their plans one night at the tavern of Chauncey Wack, a longtime Oberlin resident and prominent Democrat. One of Wack's regulars suggested the services of Shakespeare Boynton, who, as Langston would describe him, was a "fast young lad, about fourteen years of age," the son of a large landholder.
About the time that Langston rode out from Oberlin on September 13, Shakespeare sought out a young black man named John Price. Too ill to provide for himself, Price had been cared for at township expense since the previous spring, boarding--as fugitive slaves often did-- with a black laborer, James Armstrong, at his house on the outskirts of town.
Shakespeare persuaded John Price to go with him under the pretext of needing help to locate another black man to work in the harvest on the Boynton farm. As the two rode in a buggy on a lonely country road, three of the conspirators, armed with Bowie knives and revolvers intercepted them, dragged Price into their carriage, and sped toward Wellington. After paying Shakespeare $20, Jennings left Oberlin to join his associates at the Wadsworth House in Wellington, there to await the afternoon southbound train.
Back in Oberlin merchants were just reopening their shops after the noon dinner hour. "Like a flash of lightening," as Langston's brother Charles would put it -- came word that an Oberlin black had been seized. Black and white townsmen and students, using any means of locomotion available, set off on the nine-mile road to Wellington. Charles Langston, Oberlin Institute's first black student who had been enjoying a prolonged visit with John and his wife Carrie, and Carrie's brother Orindatus S.B. Wall, were among them. John Watson, the light- skinned confectioner, was the first to reach Wellington. Carrying a gun and with an armed black companion in his buggy, he whirled into Wellington shortly after two o'clock, waving his hat and shouting, "Kidnappers."
Alarmed at Watson's appearance, the Kentuckians retreated to the hotel attic where they holed up with John Price in a small cock loft. Below, the Columbus lawmen posted a quickly garnered posse, weapons at the ready, to guard the doors. The crowd steadily swelled. Looking down, the beleaguered Jennings thought that at least a thousand men, with a "a good many" guns, jammed the square. Other observers put the numbers at less than half that, and declared that some thirty to forty black men and a few white students wielded most of the guns. Witnesses agreed that African Americans "seemed the most warlike."
Blacks were also the most purposeful. Throughout the long, hectic afternoon, Charles Langston, John Watson and Datus Wall made concerted attempts to persuade the village constable to arrest John Price's captors for kidnapping and, failing that, to secure a habeas corpus. Langston calmed rowdies with the admonition that "it was best to take legal measures if any, and not to do anything by force." But force came to seem increasingly likely. As the five o'clock train rumbled through Wellington without its intended passengers aboard, he met in an
attic room adjoining the cock loft with one of the captors. Deputy marshal Jacob Lowe of Columbus, who had known the black schoolteacher there for several years and considered him "a reasonable man," had sought him out in hopes that he might persuade the crowd to disperse. To Lowe's chagrin, after a second conference twenty minutes later, Langston advised him the people were "bent upon a rescue at all hazards" and strongly urged him to convince Jennings, for their own safety, to surrender Price. Lowe refused. Langston got up from the bed where the two had been sitting and, Lowe would testify, "Just as he was about to go downstairs he said, 'We will have him anyhow."'
Shortly afterward, armed blackmen from Oberlin aided by several white students managed to overcome the deputized guards and push their way up to the attic. Although Jennings had a tight grip on the door latch of his refuge, someone managed to reach through a stovepipe hole and stun him with a punch to the head, causing him to loosen his hold. In the confusion of the struggle, Richard Winsor, an English theological student, led the captive rapidly to the outside, where he was nearly hurled into a buggy. Men threw their hats in the air and let out a great cheer.
At sunset John Mercer Langston returned home to find an all but deserted village. Apprised of events, he rode hard toward Wellington -- only to be met by a fast-moving buckboard driven by an exultant Simeon Bushnell, a clerk in the Oberlin bookstore. John Price, normally ebony but now "ashen-faced," was at his side. The attorney pressed on until he saw his brother and brother-in-law among "the returning hosts, shouting, singing, rejoicing in the glad results." Back in Oberlin, Langston helped the rescuers raise the "holy hurrah,' contributing a fiery denunciation of the Fugitive Slave Law and the Slave Oligarchy to the evening's celebration.
Meanwhile, John Price was secreted first in the home of bookstore owner James M. Fitch and then in the attic of future Oberlin president James H. Fairchild, and later escorted to Canada. There was no public word on his future. But John Langston, in terms that reflected the community's view of the rescue -- a Christian republican action as sanctified as a crusade -- evoked the fugitive's image: "Today John Price walks abroad in his freedom, or reposes under his own vine and fig tree with no one to molest him or make him afraid."
The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue marked, in Langston' 5 reckoning, "at once the darkest and the brightest day in the Calendar of Oberlin." Frankly envious that he had missed the dramatic moment, he took solace, he wrote, in "a fact worthy of particular mention, that in this rescue the colored men played an important and conspicuous part." Not as evenhanded as Langston in extending "our hearty thanks and lasting gratitude" to white and black rescuers alike, history until recently has all but obliterated the black protagonists. The white involvement in the Underground Railroad in Oberlin and in the Rescue case was undeniably important. Yet, as Langston underlined in his own contemporaneous telling of the story for a black publication, the African American participation was vital, not just in effecting the rescue but also in creating what Langston called its "profound impression."