Against critical race theory being taught in schools? Read this.
Spurred by the imaginary dangers of critical race theory (CRT), many Republican-led state legislatures have enacted laws restricting the way history can be taught in public schools. Nominally directed at “divisive” concepts, most of the bills effectively prohibit or penalize factual discussion of structural or pervasive racism in American history.
September marks the anniversary of one of the most dramatic challenges to white supremacy in the years before the Civil War — an event that could not be accurately taught under many of the anti-CRT statutes pending or already in force.
In late summer 1858, John Price was living quietly in Oberlin, Ohio. A refugee from enslavement in Kentucky, Price felt safe in Oberlin, then the most racially progressive community in the U.S. The eponymous college, founded in 1833, was among the first in the nation to welcome Black students, and the community had grown more staunchly abolitionist over the years. The town clerk was John Mercer Langston, the first Black municipal official in the U.S.
Oberlin naturally attracted fugitives such as Price, but that also made the town a magnet for slave hunters, who ranged across Ohio seeking vulnerable African Americans, with little regard to whether they were legally free or runaways.
Price was recognized – rightly or pretextually – by a slave hunter named Anderson Jennings, who anticipated a $500 reward for returning him to Kentucky. Early on Sept. 13, armed with a warrant under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Jennings and three henchmen lured Price out of town, overpowered him and hustled him into a buggy nearby headed to Wellington, where they planned to catch a train to Columbus for a perfunctory hearing, and then southward to Kentucky.
The abduction was conducted under the full authority of the U.S. government. The Fugitive Slave Act had been part of the Compromise of 1850, passed at the behest of the southern slavocrats who virtually controlled Congress, the presidency and the courts. The statute’s sham hearing procedure was designed to make it nearly impossible for a suspected fugitive to resist rendition to the South. There was no right to a jury or appeal, and the alleged fugitives were not permitted to testify in their own defense. The presiding commissioners were paid $10 for granting a “certificate of removal” but only $5 for releasing an alleged runaway. Interfering with the capture of a fugitive was a federal felony. Lacking any semblance of due process, the Fugitive Slave Act was a model of structural racism if ever there was one.
Reaching Wellington in early afternoon, the kidnappers waited for the 5:00 p.m. train at a nearby hotel. Unknown to the slave catchers, however, an Oberlin abolitionist had seen them seizing Price, and he raised an alarm in the village square.
More than 100 Oberliners, both Black and white, rushed to Wellington, where they surrounded the hotel. The posse retreated to the attic, hoping to wait out the siege, while waving their warrant as protection under law.
To the Oberliners, the warrant was worthless paper. Two groups of young men – again, Black and white together – climbed to the attic and overwhelmed the slave hunters. They carried Price to a waiting wagon that sped him to Oberlin, where celebratory speeches were delivered at a bonfire rally.
After a few days in hiding, Price was escorted to Canada by John Anthony Copeland, a young Black man and former Oberlin student who (as I detail in my book “The ‘Colored Hero’ of Harpers Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War against Slavery“) would soon fight and die with John Brown in Virginia.
President James Buchanan, a pro-slavery “doughface,” was outraged by the bold resistance to federal law. He personally ordered a sweeping prosecution, at one point considering the death penalty for treason. Ultimately, 37 rescuers – including 12 African Americans – were indicted for violating the Fugitive Slave Act, and held for trial before the U.S. District Court in Cleveland.
The trial was a landmark in American legal history. The rescuers acknowledged violating the Fugitive Slave Act but argued for acquittal under a “higher law.” Civil disobedience in the face of slave hunting had long been preached in pulpits and the streets, but never before had it been raised in court. The jury should refuse to convict, asserted one defense lawyer, and should instead rejoice “over the escape of a brother man from bondage.”
The most significant defendant was the prominent Black abolitionist Charles Langston, an Oberlin graduate, John Mercer’s older brother and later the grandfather of the poet Langston Hughes. Following his inevitable conviction, Langston stunned the public with his defiant speech at sentencing, in which he declared his intention to continue rescuing fugitives from enslavement, without deference to the verdict of a racist court.
“I know that the courts of this country are so constituted as to oppress and outrage colored men,” Langston began. “I cannot, then, expect, judging from the past history of the country, any mercy from the laws [or] from the Constitution.”
He vowed to assist those who had gained freedom, “by escaping from the plantations of their masters, eluding the blood-thirsty patrols and sentinels so thickly scattered all along their path, outrunning bloodhounds and horses, swimming rivers and fording swamps, and reaching at last, through incredible difficulties, what they, in their delusion, supposed to be free soil.”
There is much more to the story of the Oberlin rescue, but it cannot be told without honestly acknowledging the Slave Power’s domination of the U.S. government from the founding of the Republic until the eve of the Civil War. That would evidently violate typical anti-CRT guidelines, which prohibit describing “American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
But the Fugitive Slave Act was not mistakenly enacted despite the nation’s principles. It was, as Charles Langston understood, the intentional institutionalization of white supremacy, under which a Black man had no rights.
Langston’s prosecutor declared that “slaves were not fit for freedom” and castigated the rescuers for “outraging the law of the land.” In words disturbingly similar to today’s anti-CRT hysteria, he railed that “the students who attend that Oberlin College are taught sedition and treason.”
That was an overwrought exaggeration. The students at Oberlin were simply taught the truth about racism in a curriculum that we still need today.
Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor Emeritus at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and the author of “The ‘Colored Hero’ of Harpers Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War against Slavery” and “Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial.”