The leadership exerted by Oberlin blacks in the Rescue represented the culmination of an ideology of resistance to slavery and legal discrimination articulated in the village and state over several decades. Pursuant to the fledgling Oberlin Institute's decision in 1835 to admit black students and the installation of an abolitionist faculty and clergy, African Americans had followed the drinking gourd to the protective environs of Oberlin for two major reasons. The first was to escape slavery. The second was to escape the pervasive prejudice and discrimination that caused black Ohioans to refer to themselves as "half-free." Most salient was the quest for an education for themselves and/or their children. As student John M. Brown, a future bishop of the A.M.E. church, asserted in 1844, nowhere else could a Negro get an education "as cheap as he can at Oberlin and at the same time be respected as a man." The interaction between those African Americans, male and female, free or legally enslaved, who became permanent residents of Oberlin, the fugitive slaves passing through, and the students (many of whom were also teachers)--in combination with a remarkable state black civil rights movement--provided a special dynamism to African American activism in abolitionist, evangelican antebellum Oberlin.
An Oberlin black leader reported in early 1859 that some twenty-eight fugitives with about fifty children born in freedom resided in the town. The 1860 census recorded 422 blacks in a total population of 2,115. The town was nearly 20 percent black, the highest black population proportionately of any predominantly white community in the state.
Black men and women enjoyed unparalleled access to the educational, political, economic and religious life of the community. Children attended the integrated common school. Black adolescents and adults received instruction in special classes, conducted in the Liberty School House from 1844 on, or, when deemed ready, in the Oberlin preparatory school. Oberlin males of more than "one-half Saxon descent" enjoyed the voting privileges supposedly guaranteed in Ohio law but often denied in actuality. Beyond that, John Mercer Langston would declare in 1865, "we have gone so far as to say that anybody that will take the responsibility of swearing that he is more than half-white shall vote. We do not care how black he is." Black economic achievement in Oberlin was almost certainly unmatched in any other northern community of comparable size. By 1856 a visiting black abolitionist, William C. Nell, reported that there were "cabinet makers, house contractors and builders, carpenters, blacksmiths, stucco workers, masons, coach trimmers and harness makers, upholsterers, bootmakers, grocers, farmers"--all black. More than half of the black male heads of household noted in the 1860 census were engaged in skilled occupations. Advances in property holding were commensurate. The Union Church, the only one in the village until 1855, always surprised visitors by its nondiscriminatory seating of blacks in choir and congregation.
Yet, despite the official integrationist philosophy and practice of Oberlin leaders and many of the town citizens, white racial prejudice and paternalism, as well as class and cultural differences, did intrude. The religious and political meetings held separately by African Americans from at least the early 1 840s onward manifested a desire to assert a black identity unmediated by white expectations. Equally expressive of a racial self-assertiveness were those events originated and directed by African Americans, but open to both races. Beginning in 1842 at black request, the First of August commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies replaced
the "cruel mockery" of the Fourth of July in Oberlin. African American men used their control of the programs to reject not merely their own scripted identity of deference and dependence but also that of white women, inviting young feminists like Lucy Stone to speak from their platform. Despite its unorthodoxy in educating women alongside men, Oberlin Institute restricted their public performances to reading, rather than speechmaking. This prohibition did not prevent African American women from participating in all these meetings, especially the all-black sessions held in the Liberty School to hear the stories of newly arrived fugitives and see to their comfort, or from stitching banners to be carried by black women in parades of protest and celebration, or from contributing essays and poetry, or from supporting the cause in myriad other ways.
Oberlin black community life was closely wedded to that of the college. The actual black enrollment was relatively modest, scarcely 3 percent of the 8,800 Oberlin students before the Civil War. About one-third of the one hundred black men and women enrolled in college courses from 1840 through 1865 earned degrees. These students, along with their white counterparts, as an Oberlin spokesman asserted in 1862, provided the backbone of "the entire colored school system in Ohio and Indiana, and to some good extent in the Canadas." "A very large majority" of blacks educated at Oberlin, he added, were then engaged in teaching black schools. It took the dedication of Oberlin-trained women and men to endure the consistently lower pay than teachers in white schools enjoyed, the white hostility, and the "mere sheds and basements" in which many had to teach. With a few exceptions, schooling of black children in Ohio initially depended entirely on the private efforts of abolitionists and black communities. Not until the late 1 840s did the legislature authorize public funding for black education, segregated in the main. Even then, recalcitrant public officials frequently blocked black efforts to establish schools under the law.
As a theological student in fall 1851, John Mercer Langston, who had been not quite 15 when he took his first teaching job in a country school, instigated organization of the Young Men's Antislavery Society to work, in cooperation with its female counterpart, to support black education. As the Society's agent, he traveled the state by horse and buggy to stimulate black communities to organize school districts and demand public funding, while drawing on Oberlin students as teachers. Langston made the connection between schools and activism explicit, arguing that education was essential if black Ohioans were to lend their "aid in promoting the abolition of American slavery, and in devising some judicious plan for the elevation of the half- free of the Northern states." A letter from a friend in Zanesville in February 1854 was a stark reminder of the necessity of the effort: "In our own city we have over a hundred children and no school. Help us can't you."
By the time of the Rescue, Oberlin could boast of twelve outstanding black political and social leaders. Besides John Mercer Langston, the town's leading lawyer, they were the brothers Henry and Wilson Evans, cabinet makers and upholsterers; John H. Scott, saddler and prize winning harnessmaker; John E. and Henry T. Patterson, both master masons; John Campton, master carpenter; Solomon Grimes, blacksmith; David L. Watson and O.S.B. Wall, bootmakers (Wall would be appointed the Union's first regularly commissioned black captain during the Civil War); John Watson, grocer and confectioner and future member of the school board; and Sabram
Cox, prosperous farmer and future member of the Oberlin city council.
Oberlin black activism helped to shape and was shaped by the state black civil rights movement. Early on, blacks had banded together in various localities for self-help and protest against slavery and the omnipresent discrimination in Ohio. From these efforts grew a movement with an organizational structure featuring state conventions. A small but enduring group of leaders, drawn mainly from Chillicothe, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Oberlin, propelled the movement. Predominantly southern in origin, both slave and free born, and uncommonly literate, the leaders were mainly artisans and businessmen.
Through the conventions and frequent local meetings, most often held in black churches, the movement helped to fashion an African American public separate from and in contestation with the dominant white society. These gatherings constituted the realm in which black history and the rising expectations of the black community were conveyed. Cast in the rhetoric of freedom, issues and values of common black concern were articulated, argued over and then publicized. Participants identified the dangers that threatened them and attempted to correct the white misrepresentation of them, principally that they were ignorant, inferior and incapable both of self-government and involvement in the polity. The leadership further publicized black aspirations through petition campaigns and lobbying of public officials, through speaking tours and formal addresses, through their own newspapers and those of white abolitionists and sympathizers, and through parades and freedom celebrations. John Mercer Langston, alongside his brother Charles, acted as an organizer, intellectual, and orator of the movement.
Following the rescue of John Price, Langston moved quickly to capitalize on this moment to mobilize his people and to agitate for the black and antislavery cause. With Charles and other state leaders, he issued a call for a black state convention to be held in late November in Cincinnati. Here, the Langstons were the chief architects of a new statewide black organization, the Ohio State Anti-Slavery Society which, with both Langstons as officers, would function until the outbreak of war. Its aims were the abolition of slavery and the attainment of black rights. The phrase, to "secure these objects by political and moral means, so far as may be," deliberately left open the resort to force. With the black orator and poet Frances Ellen Watkins participating prominently, the convention accorded black women full membership privileges in the society. Membership was also open to whites, with some whites participating in the Oberlin chapter.
The Cincinnati convention provided John Langston an ideal platform from which to challenge the Democratic administration in Washington. He was plainly provocative. Counting on his race to make his inflammatory declarations even more obnoxious, he devoted speech after speech to castigating the Democratic party and driving home the black determination to resist. He repeatedly characterized the Democrats as pro-slavery and predicted the party's demise. He taunted the Democratic administration with being afraid to prosecute the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers and pledged himself to "imitate their worthy example." He advocated "the right and duty of resistance by force of arms, when it was feasible."
Thirty-seven Oberlin and Wellington residents were indicted for the rescue of John Price. Most prominent of the whites were professor Henry E. Peck, attorney Ralph Plumb, and bookseller J. M. Fitch. None of the three had actually been on the scene in Wellington, but all were conspicuous in Oberlin's underground railroad operations and in the Republican party. Twelve blacks were indicted. They included Charles Langston and half of the town's top black leadership: Wilson and Henry Evans, John Watson, David Watson, John H. Scott and O.S.B. Wall. Three fugitive slaves were indicted but evaded arrest. This was also the case with former Oberlin student John Copeland, Jr., who reportedly had escorted Price to Canada.
In early January 1859, Oberlin signaled its unrepentant attitude. The Oberlin rescuers, white and black, and their wives hosted the "Felon's Feast," a dinner for those indicted from other localities. In a prophetic toast, John Langston forecast that reinstating the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would require men to go to prison or to march in battle against upholders of slavery. Black Americans were only too ready to "fight against the enemies of their country, for it is their country now. We demand that we be permitted to exercise the rights of citizens." Without the aid of African Americans, the "Slave Oligarchy" could not be overthrown. But when it should be vanquished, the black man "will stand free by your side."
On April 5, 1859, the trials began in a Cleveland courtroom with Democratic federal prosecutors before a Democratic judge, while prominent Republican lawyers handled the defense. The first man convicted was Simeon Bushnell, who had driven John Price back to Oberlin. The case of Charles Langston was called next. At this point, the prosecution announced it intended to try him and the remaining defendants with the same jury that had just convicted Bushnell. The heated dispute that followed had a critical result: the defendants who had been free to this point, all were taken into custody at the Cleveland jail. Although new jurors eventually were called, most of the Rescuers from Oberlin made it a point of honor to remain in prison. During the nearly three months that were to elapse before their release, they exacted full propaganda value from their predicament. Outside the prison, radical spokesmen--with John Langston underscoring the black dimension--likewise deployed the full range of agitational devices to keep the Rescuers' cause before the public.
When Charles Langston was convicted and called up for sentencing in early May, his response was to have the contemporary resonance of Dr. King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." In a richly wrought legal, ethical, and emotional challenge to the racially biased American system of justice, the 42-year-old "representative of the Negro race," as John Mercer called him, denounced the violations of the constitutional guarantees of an impartial trial. "I was tried by a jury who were prejudiced; before a Court that was prejudiced; prosecuted by an officer who was prejudiced, and defended, though ably, by counsel that was prejudiced." He had gone to Wellington with full knowledge that, in the words of the Dred Scott decision, "Black men have no rights which white men are bound to respect."
He pledged to do again what he had done for John Price. Unprotected by the law, "I must take upon myself the responsibility of self-protection; when I come to be claimed by some
perjured wretch as his slave, I shall never be taken into slavery. And as in that trying hour I would have others do to me, as I would call upon my friends to help me, as I would call upon you, your Honor, to help me, as I would call upon you [the prosecuting and defense attorneys] to help me, and upon you and upon you, so help me God! I stand here to say that I will do all I can for any man thus seized and held! .. .We have all a common humanity, and you all would do that; your manhood would require it, and no matter what the laws might be, you would honor yourself for doing it, while our friends and your children to all generations would honor you for doing it, and every good and honest man would say you had done right!" Moved by the plea, the judge handed Langston a reduced sentence.
Less than two weeks later, an enormous rally sponsored by the Republican party took place on the Cleveland public square. More than ten thousand aroused Ohioans poured into the city; some 1,300 from Oberlin alone, while black men and women came from as far south as Columbus. Excitement was heightened by knowledge that the state Supreme Court was about to hear a defense motion for the release of the two convicted Rescuers based on a challenge to the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law. Although those justices ultimately rejected the motion, at the moment the possibility of an armed confrontation between federal and state troops hung in the air. John Mercer Langston was the sole Oberlinian and sole African American on a roster of speakers comprising some of the state's most illustrious Republican politicians, most prominently Governor Salmon P. Chase. More than the rebellious sentiments voiced in speeches and resolutions, the inclusion of the black orator revealed how far the Rescue cases had propelled ordinarily cautious politicians down the radical road.
Once again, Langston castigated the Fugitive Slave Law and the Democratic party. Invoking the spirit of radical Christian patriotism, he exhorted, "Exhaust the law first for these men, but if this fails, for God's sake, fall back upon our own natural rights, and say to the prison walls 'come down' and set these men at liberty."
The law did free the Rescuers, but it was Lorain County law. A county grand jury in February 1859 had indicted Anderson Jennings and his three companions on a charge of kidnapping John Price. With the trial at hand, the federal district attorney fully intended to pursue further prosecutions of the Rescuers and to defend the slave catchers. But the latter, facing further loss of time and certain conviction in the county court, backed out. Lorain authorities dropped the case against the "kidnappers," in return for dismissal of the remaining indictments against the Rescuers.
In early July 1859, the Oberlin rescuers returned to jubilee. Five days later, townspeople again exulted over the release of Simeon Bushnell, who had completed his sentence and spent 88 days in the Cuyahoga County jail, the most time of any of the Rescuers. On both occasions, the rhetoric of defiance and Christian sacrifice resounded.
Henry Evans: to suffer for humanity's sake is "a pleasure and not a pain"; John Watson: oppression must be shown "no quarter";
Henry Peck: no fear of consequences should "ever persuade any of us to draw back from any consecration which a good cause may require."
For his part, John Mercer Langston damned the Fugitive Law, paid a "high and proud" tribute to his brother, and thanked "his noble friends who had gone up to Cuyahoga County jail-- thanked them in his character as a Negro--as a white man--as one in whom the blood of both races joined--as a man--and as an American citizen."
The biracial nature of the Rescue reflecting the biracial character of Oberlin, the decisive actions of black men in securing John Price's freedom, the dignified martyrdom of black prisoners alongside white, the eloquent protest of Charles Langston in the courtroom and John Mercer Langston and his colleagues at black and white meetings around the state, vitiated the claims of white supremacy that were the chief props of proslavery apologists. The Rescue injected new emotional fervor into the antislavery movement and invigorated the Ohio black protest movement. It strengthened the antislavery wing of the Republican party in Ohio and by extension in the North. It helped turn out a solid Republican majority in the state elections, and linked reluctant Republicans more firmly to antislavery in public opinion North and South. Thus, it widened the sectional polarization that with Lincoln's election would erupt into secession and war.
Black participation in the Rescue increased the hope, militance and sense of identity of African Americans, in Oberlin and out. It was rescuer John Scott and several other black men who forced Deputy Marshal Dayton to confess his part in the kidnapping and promise to resign.
In many ways, the black aggressiveness demonstrated throughout the Rescue and the intense emotions generated by it proved fuel and catalyst for Harpers Ferry. This became clear when, encouraged by John and Charles Langston, Lewis Sheridan Leary and his nephew John Copeland, Jr. --two young Oberlin black men active in extricating John Price from his captors-- joined their fate to that of John Brown. In the midst of the Rescue Case, Leary had told the local chapter of the state black Anti-Slavery Society, "Men must suffer for a good cause." With Leary killed in the attack, Copeland, writing from prison not long before his own execution, affirmed his belief that even though the raid had not succeeded in freeing the slaves, it was "the prelude to that great event."
Oberlin black activists, women as well as men, joined in late January 1861 in attempts to free Lucy Bagby, a young black woman pregnant with her first child, when she was claimed in Cleveland by two Virginians. This time, the would-be rescuers, both Langstons included, suffered humiliating failure. Two years later, after Lucy Bagby's liberation by the Union army, John Mercer Langston led the speaking at a Grand Jubilee in Cleveland to mark her return.
The internal and external stresses of acting as representative African Americans in an integrated but sometimes insensitive town were fearful. The moral courage of that endeavor undergirded the courage of Oberlin's black activists in their complicated confrontations with the staggering prejudices of the rest of society.
Reflecting in one breath on Oberlin-Wellington and the John Brown affair some thirty-five years later, Langston doubtless spoke for his Oberlin cohort when he declared, "The sacrifices
made must ever be considered large moral investments, profitable as well to the people generally as to those who thus gained their freedom."
In the harrowing ordeal of black citizenship that would consume the upcoming decades of his almost fifty year commitment to African American advancement, John Mercer Langston never abandoned the vision that had taken hold of him in young manhood at Oberlin College and that was firmly anchored in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue--that of an interracial democratic society that transcended race, class, gender and culture and looked forward to a world grounded in reason, order, self-determination and justice.
William and Aimee Lee Cheek are the authors of John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-1865 (University of Illinois Press, 1989). William Cheek is professor of History at San Diego State University. Aimee Lee Cheek is a writer and community activist in San Diego.