Monday, March 18, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Oberlin: Hotbed of Abolitionism

Few if any communities can claim the level of influence and the diverse associated personalities in the abolitionist movement that Oberlin, Ohio can. In Oberlin: Hotbed of Abolitionism - College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America, author J. Brent Morris tells the fascinating story of this significant town and educational institution located in northern central Ohio.

Founded in 1833, as the abolitionist movement was gaining steam, Oberlin took its name from John Frederic Oberlin, a French cleric, who worked for social change is an isolated area of his country for over half a century before dying in 1826. Founders Philo Stewart and John Shipherd desired a veritable island of religious influence in what they viewed as a sea of western frontier inequity.

In 1834, the school received a boost in its student body numbers when Lane Theological Institute in Cincinnati dismissed a number of its students for discussing abolitionist ideas. Invited to come to Oberlin, the "Lane Rebels" agreed to attend if the school was open to black students and if free speech would be allowed and respected. Not only was Oberlin progressive in its acceptance of black students, they were also co-educational. Such a forward thinking school was virtually alone in its approach to offering learning opportunities to all. As one might imagine, the school and town that developed around it became a beacon for those like-minded individuals who believed that the immediate end of slavery was the only solution to America's great sin. And it was a target to those who despised abolitionism. Runaway slaves and free blacks made Oberlin home were they welcomed, and slave catchers monitored the town in search of their prey.

Morris follows the Oberlin story through the antebellum years and makes many connections to the anti-slavery politics of first, the Liberty Party, then the Free Soilers, and finally the Republican Party. Obies (as they were known) largely rejected both the Whig and Democrat Parties as at best, tools of the "slave power," and as at worst, direct proponents of antithetical ideas. Morris shares with readers the important parts that Obies such as Charles Grandison Finney, John Keep, James Thome, Asa Mahan, William Howard Day, brothers Charles and John Langston, James Monroe, Calvin Fairbank and others had on the abolitionist movement. Associated partners and supporters such as trustee Owen Brown (John Brown's father), Ohio congressman Joshua Giddings, and Salmon P. Chase all had important parts to play in Oberlin's effectiveness in its anti-slavery work and opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law. Other important events that Morris relates are the school and town's role in the Oberlin Wellington rescue of fugitive John Price in 1858 and John Copeland and Lewis Leary's involvement in the Harpers Ferry raid as two of John Brown's soldiers.

Although the book's focus is clearly on Oberlin's antebellum existence, Morris wisely uses the book's epilogue to briefly carry the Oberlin story though the Civil War, the end of the 19th century, and into the 20th century. Excellently researched and written in an engaging style, Oberlin: Hotbed of Abolitionism reminds us that there were indeed black and white men and women who rejected the status quo in antebellum America race relations and who worked diligently for not only the end of slavery but also equality for all. I highly recommend it.

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