Northern abolitionists who defied federal law to assist accused runaway slaves demonstrated the kind of courage we need today. They weren’t deterred by [insert horrible thing the feds will do here]. They recognized the risk – and they acted anyway.

On September 13, 1858, a federal marshal in Oberlin, Ohio arrested a fugitive slave from Maysville, Kentucky, named John Price.

Hoping to avoid trouble from local abolitionists, the marshal took Price to the nearby town of Wellington. But word quickly spread, and a group of Oberlin residents followed the slave catchers to Wellington and met up with local abolitionists in town – determined to win Price’s freedom.

The marshal and his deputies took refuge in a hotel. The abolitionists tried to negotiate for Price’s release. When that failed, they stormed the motel and found him hidden in the attic. They ushered Price out of town and eventually brought him safely to freedom in Canada.

The event became known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.

Keep in mind that under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, aiding an accused runaway, or even interfering with fugitive slave rendition, was a federal crime. Those found guilty faced up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. (That amounts to about $27,000 today.)

Every man and woman who helped John Price gain his freedom on that September day knowingly broke federal law, and accepted the possibility of arrest and punishment.

The consequences were very real.

handbill oberlin wellington rescue

A federal grand jury indicted 37 participants in the rescue under the federal Fugitive Slave Act. In response, Ohio authorities arrested the federal marshal and his deputies. That led to tense negotiations between Ohio officials and the federal government.

Unsurprisingly, the state eventually released the federal agents without trial or punishment. But the federal government also released 35 of the 37 rescuers indicted and arrested. A jury later found those two men guilty in federal court, but they received relatively light sentences of just 20 and 60 days in jail.

Charles Langston was one of the two men convicted by that federal jury. He was a free black man. His father fought in the American Revolution.

Before his sentencing, the court allowed Langston to speak.

He admitted he did it.

And he swore he would do it again.

“But in view of all the facts I say, that if ever again a man is seized near me, and is about to be carried Southward as a slave, before any legal investigation has been had, I shall hold it to be my duty, as I held it that day, to secure for him, if possible, a legal inquiry into the character of the claim by which he is held. And I go father; I say that if it is adjudged illegal to procure even such an investigation, then we are thrown back upon those last defenses of our rights, which cannot be taken from us, and which God gave us that we need not be slaves. I ask your Honor, while I say this, to place yourself in my situation, and you will say with me, that if your brother, if your friends, if your wife, if your child, had been seized by men who claimed them as fugitives, and the law of the land forbade you to ask any investigation, and precluded the possibility of any legal protection or redress, – then you will say with me, that you would not only demand the protection of the law, but you would call in your neighbors and your friends, and would ask them to say with you, that these your friends could not be taken into slavery…

“I shall submit to the penalty, be it what it may. But I stand up here to say, that if for doing what I did on that day at Wellington, I am to go to jail six months, and pay a fine of a thousand dollars, according to the Fugitive Slave Law, and such is the protection the laws of this country afford me, I must take upon my self the responsibility of self-protection; and when I come to be claimed by some perjured wretch as his slave, I shall never be taken into slavery. And as in that trying hour I would have others do to me, as I would call upon my friends to help me; as I would call upon you, your Honor, to help me; as I would call upon you [to the District-Attorney], to help me; and upon you [to Judge Bliss], and upon you [to his counsel], so help me GOD! I stand here to say that I will do all I can, for any man thus seized and help, though the inevitable penalty of six months imprisonment and one thousand dollars fine for each offense hangs over me! We have a common humanity. You would do so; your manhood would require it; and no matter what the laws might me, you would honor yourself for doing it; your friends would honor you for doing it; your children to all generations would honor you for doing it; and every good and honest man would say, you had done right!”

I wonder how many of the people who run around flapping their gums about slavery today, as if carving out some courageous, grand moral position, would have had the courage to stand up with Langston against federal power and oppose slavery when it really mattered.

Very few, I imagine.

Most of them are followers.

Langston didn’t think much of those whom meekly submit. In fact, as he was arguing that the jury that convicted him was not made up of his peers, and was prejudiced against him, he condemned his own people for allowing themselves to remain in bondage.

“And the prejudices which white people have against colored men, grow out of this fact: that we have, as a people, consented for two hundred years to be slaves of the whites. We have been scourged, crushed, and cruelly oppressed, and have submitted to it all tamely, meekly, peaceably; I mean as a people, and with rare individual exceptions; and to-day you see us thus, meekly submitting to the penalties of an infamous law. Now the Americans have this feeling, and it is an honorable one, that they will respect those who will rebel at oppression, but despise those who tamely submit to outrage and wrong; and while our people as a people submit, they will as a people be despised. Why, they will hardly meet on terms of equality with us in a whiskey shop, in a car, at a table, or even at the altar of God. So thorough and hearty a contempt have they for those who will meekly lie still under the heel of the oppressor.”

I ask you this – will we one day find ourselves despised by posterity?

Mike Maharrey

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