Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Flashback Moment: The John Price Rescue

In 1854 a Richmond, Virginia slave named Anthony Burns escaped to Boston. He was captured, and after a rescue attempt for him failed, Burns was returned to Virginia. Burns was later purchased by abolitionists and then given his freedom. A similar, but less well known rescue involved a Kentucky slave two years later.

In January of 1856, John Price, a slave who had run away from a Kentucky plantation and his master John Bacon, made his way across the Ohio River. With the help of Underground Railroad Quaker connections, he made his way to Oberlin, Ohio instead of continuing on to Canada and assured freedom. Oberlin, Ohio was the home of Oberlin College, a rare academic institution for this era. Oberlin College not only had a co-educational student body, but also had a number of African American students.

John Price had struggled during his two years in Oberlin, often taking odd jobs to pay his rent. On September 13, 1858, while working as a hired hand for a local farmer, Price and the farmer's son were on their way to the fields when their wagon was quickly approached by a carriage from the rear. The fast moving carriage contained two Kentucky slave catchers and the Oberlin deputy marshal. The slave catchers quickly apprehended Price. Their plan was to take Price to nearby Wellington, Ohio, board a train to Columbus, Ohio, and then finally south to Kentucky. On the way to Wellington, Price and his captors passed two Oberlin College students and Price called out for help, but the students did not seem to notice his plea.

Price and the slave catchers arrived in Wellington and boarded at a hotel to await the next train. Little did the captors know that the students had in fact heard Price's call for help and had gone on to Oberlin for assistance from their fellow townsmen.

A mob from Oberlin, including a number of students and faculty from the college, arrived shortly in Wellington, and along with a number of citizens of that town, surrounded the hotel. After a series of negotiations between the captors and the interracial mob went nowhere, the throng broke into the hotel room, freed Price, and assisted him eventually to Canada and freedom.

A number of the identified rescuers were later arrested and tried for violating the fugitive Slave Act of 1850. While awaiting their individual trials they were even secretly visited by Kansas fugitive John Brown, who provided encouragement. The defendants' attorneys turned tables during the trials and filed suit against the slave catchers for kidnapping. On May 30, 1859 the Ohio Supreme Court ruled against the rescuers. But, the federal government had wearied with the trials and the increased national discontent caused by partisan reporting in the newspapers. With an agreement from the slave catchers, charges were dropped against the rescuers in exchange for dropped state charges against the captors. All went free.

Although not as historically well remembered as the celebrated Anthony Burns episode, the John Price incident further polarized the North and South on the slavery issue. This event also revitalized the abolitionist movement, which had suffered a significant setback the year before with the Dred Scott decision, and added to the growing list of sectional disputes that would eventually lead to war.

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