Eight Miles That Changed a Nation

Wellington/Oberlin History and the Underground Railroad
Part II

Oberlin: “Stop 99” on the Underground Railroad

Oberlin has been at the vanguard of civil liberties in America, with Oberlin College as the first institution to open its doors to African-Americans (1835) and women (1837). A major center of the anti-slavery movement in the U.S., the town attracted many runaway slaves whose descendants still live in Oberlin today.

Oberlin Heritage Center’s
Abolitionist Walk, outside First Church

The first stop in your tour around town should be the Oberlin Heritage Center [73 South Professor Street]. It is the former home of Civil War General Giles W. Shurtleff, who led the first African-American regiment from Ohio to serve in the Civil War. It later became the home of abolitionist James Monroe. Here, you’ll find the majestic portrait of Dr. James Harris Fairchild, who harbored John Price after his re-capture and who became a president of Oberlin College. With regular tours, “History Walks” and impassioned docents, the Museum gives you plenty of history lessons on Oberlin’s activist citizens, both white and African-American.

John Mercer Langston

Oberlin is a great walking town, so you’ll find most historic homes within reach. The Langston House [207 East College Street] was the home of John Mercer Langston, Ohio’s first African-American attorney and an ardent abolitionist. His brother Charles Langston was an Oberlin-Wellington Rescuer. Then, stop by the Bardwell House [181 East Lorain], home of the Reverend John Bardwell and his wife Cornelia, both abolitionists who hid runaway slaves under the eaves of their house. The Langston and Bardwell Houses are privately owned and not open to the public. The First Church in Oberlin [106 North Main Street] was the historic meeting place of the Oberlin Anti-Slavery Society, and the site of the haunting memorial and funeral service for a four-year-old slave child, Lee Howard Dobbins.

Underground Railroad Monument in Westwood Cemetery

If ever a place “boasted” of more illustrious citizens laid to rest, it would be Westwood Cemetery [455 Morgan Street]. Amidst statuesque pines and oak trees are the graves of Simeon Bushnell, one of the Rescuers; Lewis Clarke, a former slave and abolitionist whom, it was believed, Harriet Beecher Stowe based her character George Harris on in Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the unmarked grave (see below) of four-year-old Lee Howard Dobbins; James Harris Fairchild; Charles Martin Hall, inventor of an inexpensive method of producing aluminum; James Fitch, who secretly drove John Price to Fairchild’s home; the abolitionist James Monroe; General Giles Waldo Shurtleff; and John Watson, a former slave, Oberlin businessman and a chief organizer of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.

Before Rosa Parks There Was Henry Lee

You’ll discover one of the most astounding stories of Oberlin in Henry Lee, a former slave buried in Westwood. Lee predated Rosa Park’s historic refusal to sit in the “colored section” of a bus in Montgomery, AL, on December 1, 1955 by almost a century. In 1865 in Wheeling, West Virginia, Lee refused to be uprooted from a first-class train seat and placed in a section reserved for black patrons. Four years later, Lee showed the same courage on another train; he was beaten and jailed. He sued the railroad and won the lawsuit – plus damages — two years later. Lee was also adamant with Oberlin schools about removing the name “Sambo” from a textbook, claiming it was racist. His efforts paid off; the author pledged to remove the name in his next edition.

For educators and scholars who are interested in serious research, a must-visit would be the Oberlin College Archives, Special Collections, at the Mudd (Library) Center [148 West College Street, Fourth Floor.]. The Collection holds 2,500 to 3,000 titles related to the anti-slavery movement in the U.S. and especially to the activism of Oberlin College students and professors. They include such precious documents as the original Rescuer newspaper, published on the day of the Rescue, as well as hundreds of letters and manuscripts written by abolitionists. Here, too, you will find Southern plantation inventories and bills of sale for slaves. You will see such artifacts as the chain and lock for a 19-year-old slave named Margaret Toogood, who was unshackled by Union General Lew Wallace. Wallace donated the shackles to Oberlin College.

Tourists and groups already pay a visit to the future home of
the Underground Railroad Center, the Oberlin Gasholder
Building

One of the most poignant symbols of the Underground Railroad held currently in the Collection is the tombstone of the slave child Lee Howard Dobbins. Too ill to travel to Canada with his family, he was kept behind in Oberlin, where he died on March 26, 1853, just days after his arrival. His tombstone was removed from Westwood Cemetery for safekeeping, and it will be transferred to the new Oberlin Underground Railroad Center [South Main Street, adjacent to the former Missler supermarket] once the building has been restored. “Serving as a tourist gateway and transportation hub, the Center will celebrate Oberlin’s rich history in the anti-slavery movement and honors African-American heritage to promote a better understanding of the past and provide a pathway to our future,” says Oberlin Assistant City Manager Darlene Colaso, explaining the Center’s mission. With a multi-phased restoration plan, the Oberlin-focused Center is expected to open in several years, and will feature ongoing historic and educational exhibitions in a serene setting of lawns and gardens. Colaso adds, “The project has far-reaching economic development tentacles that will not only touch those in Oberlin, but will benefit the surrounding regional area, as well. Oberlin has many compelling stories. I believe that the Center, coupled with Oberlin’s rich history, will quickly become a national draw.”

To add to the wealth of history, Oberlin is blessed with wonderful restaurants and shops. Rest your weary feet and tantalize your palate at The Feve [30 South Main Street] or Quick and Delicious [311 South Main Street]. Spend a couple days exploring the areas history, using the Oberlin Inn or other local lodging for your base while you explore.

Be sure to check out Oberlin’s renowned festivals. Juneteenth Celebration [June 17-19, 2011] is the nation’s oldest event commemorating the freeing of slaves in the U.S. (1865). You’ll be moved by lectures and a Westwood Cemetery walking tour at Oberlin’s Juneteenth festivities, plus you’ll enjoy a delectable community picnic with terrific music. Or you can bring out your inner artist at Oberlin’s annual Chalk Walk [June 25], creating chalk art on the “canvas” of Oberlin sidewalks. Be sure to bring the little ones to the Family Fun Fair [August 6], with antique autos on display, kids’ games and oldies music.

While Lorain County has played a proud, heroic and oftentimes tragic role in the history of the United States, it also celebrates the enduring spirit of life. You’ll find out, to be sure.

-Margaret Swendseid

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