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The Underground Railroad and the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue
Oberlin's participation in anti-slavery activity from the 1830s to 1860 took many forms. The evidence of the action of individual participants can be gleaned from the sermons of Rev. Henry Cowles, accounts of missionaries who preached in the South about evils of slavery, the third-party references to safe houses built on the route of the Underground Railroad, and the correspondence that details the activities of slave catchers running down fugitives by those now remembered as freedom-seekers. Some historians consider Oberlin to be the most important stop on the Underground Railroad.
Lee Howard Dobbins, a young slave child, was entrusted in the care of an adopted family on their flight to freedom from a Kentucky slave plantation in 1853. Too sick to continue on the journey to Canada, Lee remained in the care of a family in Oberlin but succumbed to his illness on March 26, 1853. Oberlin community members crowded First Church for the funeral and Rev. John Keep expressed the sentiment of the day: "We are now under obligation to consecrate ourselves unreservedly to the removal of this [slavery] curse." Community members contributed funds for the creation of this gravestone for Dobbins.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 gave slave owners the right to travel north to abduct their fugitive slaves, but black free persons were frequently abducted as well. They were abducted from their homes and forced to travel south into bondage. Slave catchers came to Oberlin, well known for its abolitionism, sparking fear and outrage in the community.
On September 13, 1858, citizens and students of Oberlin and citizens of Wellington successfully rescued John Price, a runaway slave living in Oberlin, from slave catchers. Price had been forcefully removed from the outskirts of Oberlin to the Wadsworth House in Wellington, about nine miles away, a stop on the train north and south, and he faced a return to slavery in Kentucky. Citizens of Oberlin and Wellington gathered outside the hotel, and several of them confronted the slave catchers and took John Price back to Oberlin and hid him in a professor's home. Price was then brought to Lake Erie where he boarded a ship for Canada and freedom.
The events that followed, including the 1859 trial of the so-called Oberlin Rescuers in Cleveland and their eventual release from the Cuyahoga County Jail, represented one of Oberlin's most remarkable achievements in the peaceful fight against the institution of slavery and in the moral quest for freedom for black Americans. The Oberlin College Archives houses a diverse collection of materials related to the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, the people who participated in it, and the role Oberlin played in the history of abolitionism and antislavery in the United States.
Top: View of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute and First Church, c. 1847. Woodcut (reproduction, hand-colored) from Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Ohio (Cincinnati, OH: Derby, Bradley & Co. , 1847), p. 315.
Additional Digital Resources
The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, Electronic Oberlin Group