Oberlin, Ohio had a long tradition of defying the Fugitive Slave Act. With the particulars of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858, Judith and Dennis Fradin bring an incredible story of conviction to children’s attention with The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery. .
Oberlin was so welcoming to escaping slaves that many chose to remain in Oberlin rather than moving on to Canada. In September 1858 when slavehunters came to Oberlin for two escaped slaves, they succeeded in capturing one of them, John. While John and his kidnapper were waiting for the train south in nearby Wellington, hundreds of Oberlinians set out after the slavehunter – students, store owners, men, women, former slaves risking their own recapture, even a 74-year-old Underground Railroad conductor. The Fradins build the tension of the afternoon with timestamped action beginning at 2:30 when John was brought to Wellington until 6:15 when the Oberlinians enter Wadsworth’s Hotel and successfully took John back.
Unfortunately, fearing future slavehunters, John left Oberlin after several days and nothing is known about his life after that. President Buchanan sided with the kidnappers and upheld the Fugitive Slave Act. The resulting was a 3 month jail sentence for 39 of the Oberlinians. However, the town never wavered in their belief in a higher law than the Fugitive Slave Act. At the Welcome Home celebration for the imprisoned rescuers, the townspeople pledged “No fugitive slave shall ever be taken from Oberlin either with or without a warrant, if we have power to prevent it.” Eric Velasquez’ artwork is moving, but the photo of the men outside the Cuyahoga County Jail, April 1859 is the most powerful image in this homage to people who stood firm in their convictions. The choice to have this photo in the story rather than just in the notes section reminds the readers of the reality of the danger John was in and the risks the townspeople took. A powerful book about a particular historical episode with timeless implications regarding civil disobedience.
Head over to this week’s host, 100 Scope Notes, for more Nonfiction Monday.