Today is the one hundred and sixtieth anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue. September 13, 1858 was one of the most eventful days that has ever occurred in the village’s two hundred years of existence, on both a local and a national level. The day began with a massive conflagration in the southwestern corner of the downtown, and ended with a single act of political resistance–but also human decency and compassion–that at least one historian has argued may have precipitated the coming of the American Civil War. A local woman summed it up as “a fire in the morning and war at night” (Oberlin News, 3-3-1899).
I have written about this date before. Wellington was in some ways a very different place in the fall of 1858 than it is today. The town had been legally incorporated for only three years. There was no Wellington Enterprise, no local newspaper of any name. The railroad line was less than a decade old. Dairy and cheese production was still done on individual family farms, not yet exported in massive quantities by regional factories. There were as yet no large and elegant homes on South Main or Courtland Streets, no imposing brick school filling the community with pride in its educational system. Only about 1,600 people lived in Wellington (one-third of today’s population), of whom none were people of color.
The massive fire that tore through the shops on the west side of South Main Street in the early hours of that Monday morning destroyed buildings and inventory. It gutted the pharmacy of Dr. James Rust, and the meeting rooms of the Wellington Masons. (Rust later invited Masonic Lodge #127 to relocate to his new building and occupy its third floor, which they did for nearly forty-five years.) In the absence of a fire department, volunteer bucket brigades were assembled to quell the flames, even as bystanders risked their lives running back into buildings to save precious contents. In a community so compact and close-knit, and with smoke from the blaze visible for miles in the clear autumn air, it did not take long before hundreds of people were assembled in the public square. Had those large, otherwise unoccupied crowds not been present in Wellington that afternoon, the events of the rescue might have transpired quite differently.
For a detailed description of the day, I would recommend reading A History of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue compiled by Oberlin student and Rescuer Jacob R. Shipherd in 1859 from court transcripts and contemporary writings. Nat Brandt’s 1990 publication, The Town That Started the Civil War, is also an informative and enjoyable read. Ten Wellington men were indicted in connection with the rescue of John Price, and Brandt argues that eight of those ten were “singled out because they were conductors on the Underground Railroad” (125). The indicted Wellington men were:
- Dr. Eli Boies
- Robert L. Cummings
- Matthew DeWolf
- Matthew Gillet
- Lewis Hines
- Abner Loveland
- John Mandeville
- William Sciples
- Walter Soules
- Loring Wadsworth
Thinking of all the Oberlin and Wellington people who took action that day against slavery and the inhumanity of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, I am reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” a century later, “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”