Rescue in Ohio

Posted by Pete on Sep 13th 2023

The dramatic Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858 punctured a hole in the Fugitive Slave Law (photo: the rescuers in jail)

John Brown didn’t ride alone.

When he led his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, trying to spark a slave rebellion across the South, Brown was joined by several other radical abolitionists.

Two of them were the free black men, Lewis Sheridan Leary and John Copeland.

But Harpers Ferry wasn’t the first time that Leary and Copeland had fought against the federal government in the name of abolition.

John Brown Tea Towel

John Brown was joined by several radical abolitionists in his raid on Harpers Ferry

See the John Brown Tea Towel

A year earlier, on 13 September 1858, they were members of an abolitionist posse who liberated John Price, an escaped slave, from prison in Wellington, Ohio.

In the 1850s, Ohio wasn’t a slave state. Far from it.

Slavery was illegal there, and Ohio towns like Wellington and Oberlin were home to some of the most radical abolitionists in America.

But in 1850, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Law.

Southern planters were furious that enslaved people in the South were able to escape, along the ‘Underground Railroad’ to Canada, via Northern US states where slavery was unlawful.

Through their influence in Congress, the slave masters enacted the Fugitive Slave Law.

This legislation forced federal law enforcement officials in the North to arrest escaped slaves and deport them back to their enslavers in the South.

Northern abolitionists were enraged.

Not only were the planters upholding the barbaric institution of slavery within the United States, but they were now trying to extend its legal grip into the free states which had chosen to abolish it.

In the free North, sparks were going to fly.

Harriet Tubman Tea Towel

Harriet Tubman was a conductor on the 'Underground Railroad', whose actions to help enslaved people escape had greatly angered Southern slaveowners

See the Harriet Tubman Tea Towel

Sure enough, when a U.S. Marshal arrested John Price in Oberlin, Ohio, there was a local uprising.

Price was an escaped slave from Maysville, Kentucky, and Oberlin was a fiercely abolitionist town.

Having arrested Price, the Marshal tried to flee to nearby Wellington, where he was planning to throw Price on a train headed South.

But a band of rescuers from Oberlin chased them down.

The abolitionists surrounded the Marshal in a Wellington hotel, stormed the building, and freed Price, who was being held upstairs in the attic.

They quickly got Price back to Oberlin, and sent him on his way to Canada, where he found his freedom at the end of the Underground Railroad.

But that wasn’t the end of the story…

Frederick Douglass Tea Towel

Frederick Douglass and others showed immense bravery to speak out against and undermine the institution of slavery

See the Frederick Douglass Tea Towel

The Oberlin abolitionists had, of course, broken federal law. 37 of them were indicted by a federal jury.

Many of the defendants were free black citizens, including Charles Henry Langston, grandfather of the Harlem Renaissance radical, Langston Hughes, and a leader in the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society.

Langston’s brother, John, was also there. In 1888, after the Civil War, he became the first African American to be elected to Congress from Virginia.

As it happened, most of the federal indictments were dropped and only two men were convicted for the rescue, both of them given relatively short sentences.

The US government didn’t want a national showdown over the lawfulness and morality of the Fugitive Slave Law. National policymakers were still trying to paper over the cracks which were about to cause the Civil War.

But they were bound to fail.

The contradictions of slavery in the U.S. could not be overcome by legal compromises, or even the Underground Railroad.

Instead, it took the struggle of hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers, many of them free or emancipated black men and women, to overthrow the slave system.

Many of the Oberlin-Wellington rescuers lived to see that victory. Others did not.

Lewis Sheridan Leary was killed during the raid on Harpers Ferry, and John Copeland was captured and executed for treason.

But these men were no traitors.

Throughout their lives, from Oberlin to Harpers Ferry, they remained loyal to the greatest cause of all: liberation.

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