Stimulated by the imaginary dangers critical race theory (CRT), many Republican-led state legislatures have enacted laws restricting how history can be taught in public schools. Nominally directed to “divider” Notions, most bills effectively prohibit or penalize factual discussions of invasive racism in American history.
September marks the anniversary of one of the most dramatic challenges to white supremacy in the years leading up to the Civil War – an event that could not be accurately taught under many pending or already anti-CRT laws. in force.
By the late summer of 1858, John Price was living quietly in Oberlin, Ohio. A refugee from slavery in Kentucky, Price felt safe in Oberlin, then the most racially progressive community in the United States. The eponymous college, founded in 1833, was among the first in the country to welcome black students, and the community had become more staunchly abolitionist. over the years. The city clerk was John Mercer Langston, the first black city official in the United States.
Oberlin naturally attracted fugitives such as Price, but it also made the town a magnet for slave hunters, who scoured Ohio for vulnerable African Americans, oblivious to whether they were were legally free or at large.
Price was recognized – with cause or pretext – by a slave hunter named Anderson Jennings, who expected a $500 reward for returning to Kentucky. Early on September 13, armed with a warrant under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Jennings and three henchmen lured Price out of town, overpowered him, and pushed him into a nearby buggy. heading for Wellington, where they planned to take a train to Columbus. for a superficial audience, then south to Kentucky.
The kidnapping was carried out under the full authority of the US government. The Fugitive Slave Act was part of the Compromise of 1850, passed at the behest of southern Slavocrats who virtually controlled Congress, the presidency, and the courts. The mock statute hearing procedure was designed to make it nearly impossible for a suspected fugitive to resist restitution to the South. There was no right to a jury or appeal, and alleged fugitives were not allowed to testify in their own defense. The presiding commissioners were paid $10 for granting a “certificate of removal”, but only $5 for freeing an alleged fugitive. Interfering with the capture of a fugitive was a federal crime. Devoid of any semblance of due process, the Fugitive Slave Act was a model of structural racism if ever there was one.
Arriving in Wellington in the early afternoon, the kidnappers waited for the 5:00 p.m. train at a nearby hotel. Unbeknownst to the slave hunters, however, an Oberlin abolitionist had seen them seize Price, and he sounded the alarm in the town square.
More than 100 Oberliners, black and white, rushed to Wellington, where they surrounded the hotel. The group retreated to the attic, hoping to wait out the siege, while waving their protection warrant under the law.
To the Oberliners, the money order was worthless paper. Two groups of young men—again, Black and White together—came up to the attic and overwhelmed the slave hunters. They carried Price into a waiting train car that took him to Oberlin, where celebratory speeches were delivered to a rally around a bonfire.
After a few days in hiding, Price was escorted to Canada by John Anthony Copeland, a young black man and former Oberlin student who (as I detail in my book “Harpers Ferry’s ‘Colored Hero’: John Anthony Copeland and the War on Slavery“) would soon fight and die with John Brown in Virginia.
President James Buchanan, a pro-slavery “dough face” was outraged by the bold resistance to federal law. He personally ordered a broad prosecution, at one point considering the death penalty for treason. Ultimately, 37 rescuers – including 12 African Americans – were charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act and tried in US District Court in Cleveland.
The trial marked a turning point in the history of American law. The rescuers admitted violating the Fugitive Slave Act, but pleaded for acquittal under “superior law”. Civil disobedience in the face of the slave hunt has long been preached from pulpits and on the streets, but never before has it been raised in court. The jury should decline to convict, a defense attorney argued, and should instead rejoice “in the escape of a brother from bondage.”
The most prominent defendant was prominent black abolitionist Charles Langston, an Oberlin graduate, older brother of John Mercer and later grandfather of the poet Langston Hughes. Following his inevitable sentencing, Langston stunned the public with his provocative speech at sentencing, in which he declared his intention to continue saving fugitives from slavery, with no deference to a racist court verdict.
“I know that the courts of this country are so constituted as to oppress and outrage colored men,” Langston began. “I cannot therefore expect, judging by the past history of the country, any mercy from the laws [or] of the Constitution. »
He swore to aid those who had won freedom, “escaping from the plantations of their masters, avoiding the bloodthirsty patrols and sentries so profusely scattered all along their way, outrunning bloodhounds and horses, fording rivers and swamps, and reaching at last, through incredible difficulties, what they, in their delusion, supposed to be free ground.
There’s a lot more to the story of the Oberlin rescue, but it can’t be told without honestly acknowledging the slave power domination of the American government from the founding of the Republic until the eve of the Civil War. This would obviously violate the typical anti-CRT guidelineswhich prohibit portraying “American history as anything other than the creation of a new nation based in large part on the universal principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence”.
But the Fugitive Slave Law was not enacted by mistake despite the nation’s principles. It was, as Charles Langston understood, the intentional institutionalization of white supremacy, under which a black man had no rights.
Langston’s prosecutor said “the slaves were not fit for freedom” and castigated the rescuers for “breaking the law of the land”. In words eerily similar to today anti CRT hysteria, he railed that “students who attend this Oberlin College learn sedition and treason”.
It was an exaggerated exaggeration. Oberlin students simply learned the truth about racism in a program we still need today.
Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and author of “Harpers Ferry’s ‘Colored Hero’: John Anthony Copeland and the War on Slavery” and “Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers and Slavery on Trial.”