Runaway Slave in Oberlin!
A short middle school reading play based on a true story of civil disobedience.
by David B. McCoy
Robert Cochran: Clerk of Courts, Maysville, Kentucky
John Bacon: Owner of runaway slave, John Price
John Price: Runaway slave
Shakespeare Boynton: Teen-aged boy of Oberlin
Man #1: Slavecatcher
Man #2: Slavecatcher
Anderson Jennings: Slavecatcher
Mayor: Mayor of Oberlin
William Lincoln: Citizen of Oberlin
John Scott: Citizen of Oberlin
Simeon Bushnell: Citizen of Oberlin and known abolitionist
NARRATOR 1: In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law which stated that any person helping a runaway slave, or even refusing to help a slavecatcher, could be fined up to $1,000. In Ohio, the college town of Oberlin was known to be an active hub of the Underground Railroad. It would be only a matter of time before the citizens of Oberlin would clash with slavecatchers over the new law.
NARRATOR 2: It is September, 1858, and John Bacon has traveled to Maysville, Kentucky, to see Robert Cochran, the County Clerk of Courts.
COCHRAN: Good morning, Mr. Bacon. What can I do for you today?
BACON: I'd like you to draw up a document giving the slavecatcher, Mr. Jennings, the power to capture and return my runaway slave, John Price.
COCHRAN: If I remember correctly, he was the slave who stole one of your horses, rode here to Maysville and crossed into Ohio?
BACON: Yes, that's the one. Once there, he met up with some Quakers who helped him north through that Underground Railroad.
COCHRAN: I take it, then, he did not make it all the way to Canada, and you know his whereabouts?
BACON: Indeed. Mr. Jennings has informed me that he found my runaway in that college town of Oberlin, Ohio.
COCHRAN: That's only a day or so from Lake Erie and his total escape...
BACON: It seems he's decided not to run all the way to Canada. Mr. Jennings reports that John is living with a free black man and jobbing himself out to do farm labor.
COCHRAN: Can you describe in detail what your slave looks like?
BACON: He is about 20 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall, heavy set, copper colored, and weighs about 140 pounds.
COCHRAN: Very good, Mr. Bacon. Stop back later this afternoon and I will have the necessary papers drawn up. With any luck, you will have your runaway back in a month.
NARRATOR 3: The runaway, John, is climbing into a buggy driven by Shakespeare Boynton just outside the town of Oberlin. Shakespeare has been sent by his father to pick John up and take him back to the Boynton farm for a day of digging potatoes.
JOHN: Shakespeare, that is a fine-looking horse pulling your buggy.
SHAKESPEARE: He is my father's best. Its not very often he lets me take him out.
JOHN: Looks like a good day to dig potatoes. Will you be working in the field with me?
SHAKESPEARE: I'm afraid so. My sister, too. Pa really planted a lot of potatoes this year--you'd think he's one of those conductors hiding recent runaways.
NARRATOR 4: Glancing over his shoulder, Shakespeare spots another buggy rapidly approaching from behind carrying three men. As it nears, Shakespeare pulls his buggy over and the three men surround them.
MAN #1: Nicely done, Shakespeare. This runaway suspected nothing.
JOHN: Shakespeare, what have you done? I thought we were friends.
SHAKESPEARE: I am sorry, John. These men offered me $20.00 to arrange your capture. Besides, if I refused, I could be fined a thousand dollars.
MAN #2: As we promised, here is your money. And for you, runaway, I have a gun should you try anything stupid.
MR. JENNINGS: (Sounding official) Runaway slave, John Price, I have been hired by your owner, Mr. John Bacon, to arrest and return you to his farm in Kentucky.
JOHN: I'm not about to cause any trouble. I will go with you.
NARRATOR 5: The three men take John to the nearby town of Wellington where they hope to catch the 5:13 train heading south. Unbeknownst to the slavecatchers, the abolitionist, Ansel Layman, has been watching and listening to John's capture from his barn. As soon as the road is clear, Layman heads to alert other abolitionists of their plan.
The Next Day
NARRATOR 6: Because the events in Wellington involved his citizens, the Mayor of Oberlin has requested a meeting with Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Scott, and Simeon Bushnell.
SCOTT: Mr. Mayor, you requested to see us?
MAYOR: Yes. By the end of the week, reporters from every newspaper will be in town asking questions, and I want to describe what happened in Wellington.
LINCOLN: Thanks to Mr. Layman, news of John's capture spread quickly through town.
SCOTT: It seemed that every man, white and black, was on his way to Wellington.
BUSHNELL: I bet there must have been 100 of us!
LINCOLN: When we reached Wellington, we discovered that the slavecatchers were holding John at the Wellington Hotel.
BUSHNELL: But five proslavers were guarding the door.
SCOTT: Pretty soon people were shouting, "Bring John out! Free the man! We're not going to let you enslave John again!"
LINCOLN: Some in the crowd had guns, but I knew they would never shoot, so I decided to act.
MAYOR: That's when you and the others stormed the guards and the hand-to-hand fighting broke out?
SCOTT: Yes. The fighting went on until Lincoln pulled his gun and held it to the head of one of the guards.
MAYOR: You then entered the front of the hotel while another group smashed through the rear door?
BUSHNELL: And by the time we got to the room in which John was being held, we had at least 20 men.
SCOTT: With one united push, we broke the door open and rushed John out to a waiting buggy.
MAYOR: --Bringing him back here to Oberlin? Where is he now?
BUSHNELL: We don't know.
MAYOR: What do you mean, you don't know? Mr. Bushnell, I understand you drove the escape buggy.
BUSHNELL: Yes, but I turned him over to one of the conductors of the Underground Railroad.
MAYOR: And you are sure John Price is out of town and on his way to Canada?
LINCOLN, SCOTT &BUSHNELL: Yes.
MAYOR: Thank you, gentleman, for filling me in on what happened. I am now sure that if Oberlin was not widely known as an abolitionist town, it soon will be.
NARRATOR 7: President Buchanan was furious when he learned such a violation of the Fugitive Slave Law had occurred. At his insistence, a grand jury was called and 21 citizens were sent to Cleveland for trial. All were found guilty and jailed 84 days.
Copyright © 2002 by David B. McCoy. Permission is given to classroom teachers to reproduce this play. Reproduction of this play in any other form is strictly forbidden without prior written permission from the author.