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Oberlin
Unmasked

by Delazon Smith, a Student

Written 1837
Condensed 2019

~

Preface by TBT.

Conduct and Character
of the Church.

Introduction.

Conduct and Character, Concluded.

Course of Study,
and Manual Labor.

Abolition.

Board and
Mode of Living.

Intolerance or
Suppression of Opinion.

Connexion of Male and
Female Departments.

Concluding Remarks.

 

.
This web page reflects the racist attitudes
of a young white man nearly 200 years ago.

Across from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music is a rather literal memorial honoring the emergence of the Underground Railroad, which came to Oberlin in 1836.

2001 photo

During the first part of the 19th century, this network of secret routes and safe houses helped tens of thousands of slaves escaping bondage in the South to find refuge in the North or in Canada.

They were abetted in their flight by northern abolitionists.  In particular, for three days after the “Oberlin-Wellington Rescue” in 1858, escapee John Price found refuge just 400 feet south of these rails in the home of future Oberlin College president James Fairchild.

Back in 1834, James and his older brother Edward Henry Fairchild had enrolled as freshmen, having come from the family farm ten miles away.  In 1835, from upstate New York came Delazon Smith, whose subsequent pamphlet I've been serializing.

Even in those days, several hundred slaves were already fleeing each year.  Smith presumably agreed with abolition, as he attended the convention of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in the spring of 1836.  But a few months later, when the town first became involved with the Underground Railroad, he objected.  The fleeing slaves were still legally the property of their Southern masters.  Abetting their escape to freedom was not only illegal by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 but also a violation of Article 4 of the Constitution: 

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

Proclaiming their loyalty not to the Constitution but to “a higher law,” several Oberlin students traveled 200 miles south and stationed themselves on the banks of the Ohio River.  There they enticed slaves to desert their masters and head north to freedom.  One commentator later would call Oberlin “the town that started the Civil War.” 

Delazon Smith opposed this civil disobedience.  He also criticized the “revolting doctrine of amalgamation” that allowed blacks to mix with whites in polite society.  Such an “abomination,” later known as integration, was a likely result of abolition.

 

 

Abolition.

I have nothing to do here with the merits of the abolition of slavery or with the principles of the American Anti-Slavery Society.  Taking it for granted that the reader is acquainted with those avowed principles, my purpose is to contrast them with the conduct of some leading Oberlin abolitionists.

This Institution is necessarily of abolition sentiment, from the character of its benefactors and its patrons generally.  Consequently there is more precept, example and action on this subject than on all others put together.

The Institution is open for blacks as for whites.  So far as is practicable at the present time, amalgamation is carried out.  Negroes, male and female, commingle intimately with their white brethren and sisters in all of the Institute's associations, parties, visits, rides, walks, et cetera.

 

Welcome!

If ever I blushed to think myself a man, it has been in witnessing the reception and treatment of the Negro species in Oberlin.  When the arrival of one is announced, there is a great noise like the rush of many waters, so great is their anxiety to see another of their colored brethren.

At the table a contest ensues to see who shall enjoy the pleasure of their company and mingle in their conversation.  Not content with this, the females in the Colony and ladies of the Institution must receive another degree.  Accordingly, parties of pleasure are got up.  Negroes, male and female, are invited, and they receive more courtesies and bows than any of their white brethren and sisters.

To cap the climax of these convivialities, the Negro gentlemen accompany some of the “discreet sisters” to their rooms!  To what extent these intimacies are carried, I am unable to tell, except the Lord shall bring to light something more tangible — as in the case of Ray Potter.  (Rev. Potter, of New England, seduced a young Church sister.  He determined to conceal his crime until it was evident some six months afterwards that his sin was likely to betray him.)

 

Scandalizing the Fairchilds' Neighbors

White Americans' attitudes are shaped by concerns about the status of their racial group.  Any progress toward equality may provoke resentment on the part of dominant group members.  Whites attempt to undermine racial progress they see as threatening their group's status. 

— Robb Willer and Rachel Wetts, "Privilege on the Precipice," in Social Forces, May 2018.

 

As thieves progress and grow bolder in villainy, so do Oberlin students in amalgamation.  Not content with carrying on these operations among citizens who possess kindred spirits, some have had the presumption to make an exhibition of their conduct abroad.

For an instance:  Edward H. Fairchild, a practical amalgamator 21 years of age, distinguished himself in the autumn of 1836 by taking one of the colored sisters from the Institution with him to his father's house in Brownhelm, ten miles distant.  So strong was his affection for her that his parents were obliged to receive both or neither of them.  Not satisfied by outraging the feelings of his father's family, he gallanted her to Church and through the neighborhood, thus insulting those whom he knew abhorred the revolting doctrine of amalgamation.

But enough! Enough!  My heart sickens and my hand becomes almost paralyzed in recalling and exposing these abominations.

 

Avoiding Products of Slave Labor, Such As Cotton

Oberlin abolitionists, having become so famous as the harbingers of the notorious “rebels of Lane Seminary,” have deemed it necessary to surpass all others in order to keep pace with their notoriety.

Accordingly, in the fall of 1836, a discussion was held on the use of the products of slave labor.  It was unanimously resolved that to use the products of slave labor (except in case of absolute necessity) was a sin against God, and therefore they would at once and forever abstain.  It has been the occasion of considerable merriment to witness these men attempting to carry out their professed principles.

Let one example suffice.  After the above discussion, a student called at the house of the Agent of the Institution to remain during the night.  On going to bed he discovered that the sheets were made of cotton.  He told the mistress of the house that it was contrary to his principles to cover his body with garments which he suspected to contain the “blood of souls.”  No others could be furnished, so he returned to the bed chamber determined to take his night's repose upon the carpet on the floor.  The next morning, while boasting how nobly he had carried out his principles, he was informed to his chagrin that the carpet was half cotton!  O, ye dupes of wild fanaticism, how long will you “strain at gnats and swallow camels”?

 

Get On Board the Freedom Train

But Oberlin does not stop here.  Ever fertile in expedients, she has now a new one in operation, much worse than all others — so much at variance with the laws of the nation and the principles of our sacred union that it is almost incredible.

 

The scheme:

To steal the slaves from their masters and colonize them in Canada.

In the autumn of 1836, a Negro by the name of Williams appeared in Oberlin and soon obtained an audience of the principal abolitionists.  To them he unfolded this unlawful and seditious enterprise.

He said it was the first business of the proper agents to enter stealthily upon the plantations in the dead of night and persuade the slaves to desert their masters.  To avoid suspicion or detection, he assumes the character of a teamster driving a team of horses.

When beyond the reach of danger, he dresses the slaves in different attire and gives them directions to pursue one of three routes, either to Oberlin, Cleveland, or Ashtabula, along with recommendations to particular individuals on the way who will offer assistance, and sets them off for Canada.


He said he had sacrificed everything, but by the assistance of others he had been enabled to rob the South of hundreds of their Negroes, liberating 14 from one plantation.  At length, however, his fortune changed.  In one of his expeditions he was so near being taken himself that he was obliged to desert his horses and wagon and escape for his life.

But neither the loss of property nor the risk of life seemed to intimidate him.  He immediately set about to obtain another team.  After visiting different parts of the country, and especially the Oneida Institute at Whitesboro, N.Y., from the President of which he received a certificate expressive of good character and superior skill for his enterprise, he was then directed to Oberlin.

Accordingly, an individual here was appointed to solicit funds.  The subject was publicly announced at the table in the dining hall, when nearly fifty dollars was immediately contributed.  Students subscribed and paid sums which were honestly due their creditors and for which they greatly stood in need.

After his departure, busybodies were assiduously engaged in stirring up the people for a more extended effort.  One of their first efforts was to forward clothes in which to disguise the stolen Negroes.

 

Come Across the River!

Several students, including one Martin L. Brooks, now announced their willingness to proceed to the Ohio River for the purpose of making an exhibition of their patriotism and benevolence by teaching the colored children colonized on the banks of the Ohio.  Several departed under the professed design of enticing slaves to desert their masters.

     I looked over Jordan
          And what did I see?
     A band of angels!
          Comin’ after me!
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin’ for to carry me home!

     If you get there
          Before I do,
     Tell all my friends
          I’m a-comin’ too.
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin’ for to carry me home.
 

Words: Wallace Willis, 1840
Images: Janie McGee and Ruth Starr Rose

 
These seditionary movements were never expected to reach the public ear.  They were carried on covertly, either from their dread of popular indignation or from a consciousness that their deeds were evil.

So anxious have they been to conceal their iniquity that they have resorted to open base lying.  Not one month after the departure of the aforesaid Williams, several theological students from Oberlin engaged in a discussion at Elyria.  One of their antagonists asserted that their abolition sentiments would lead them to entice the slaves to desert their masters.  They denied the charge in toto, declaring that they abhorred and deprecated the sentiment or measures that would tend to such a result.  At the same time they were well aware that they had assisted, advised, and otherwise encouraged these treasonable means.

What a glorious compound of Oberlinism and contemptible hypocrisy is here exhibited!  If this may be taken as a specimen of their moral honesty, we may well distrust their professions of patriotism and love of country, and of their pretentions of friendship to civil and religious liberty.

One of the first of the fugitive slaves resulting from the result of the labors of those individuals stationed upon the Ohio River was that of a tall athletic Negro who came into Oberlin early in the winter of ’36.  Having been secreted in the public house a few days, he was supplied with money and directed to Canada via Detroit.

How important and regardless of the future some of these fugitives become when beyond the reach of their masters!  At Detroit he had a mind to take advantage of his liberty and pocket of cash by acting the gentleman in taking a little of the “good creature” now and then. But he soon found “High Life Below Stairs” too much for him, and, taking down his “top gallant,” he anchored in a road where steamers can sail or lie in safety.

What the final disposal of several others hidden in President Mahan's house was, I am unable to say, though I conclude that they too found a safe lodgment in Canada.

 

Additional “Bundles of Wood”

But every day brings the miserable tidings of repeated violations of the laws of the country.  The above lines of this head had scarcely been penned when the cry was heard from all quarters, “Brethren!  Another full load of colored brethren have arrived!”  So completely did the reception, entertainment, and circumstances of their departure cap what I had considered the climax before, that I cannot forbear giving the particulars of the whole affair.

This load of Negroes was piloted into Oberlin by the aforementioned student Martin L. Brooks.  Students with eager eyes and gaping mouths hurried to the public house to see and converse with their colored brethren.  In the afternoon they were invited by numbers of the students to the boarding house.  At table they were interspersed among the brethren and sisters that all might enjoy the privilege of glorifying and deifying the Negro species.

After the feast was over, they were escorted into the sitting room, where especially the “discreet sisters” severally held sweet converse with them. Several of the brethren — especially S.W. Smuller, whom I have mentioned earlier — could not refrain from accompanying the sisters, as they had an affection particularly for the Negress.

From all appearances, Mr. Smuller was completely enamored with her gracefulness and beauty and was remarkably attentive to her wants.  When they were about to leave the ladies' hall to return to the public house, he walked arm in arm with this Negro wench back to the tavern, disregarding the claims of her reputed husband.  How proper it was for this visionary to conduct thus, I leave to the judgment of the reader, hoping he will make due allowance for the fascinations of amorous affections.

This load of Negroes remained in Oberlin as long perhaps as security might warrant, and they obtained a good supply of money.  The evening of May 1st, 1837, was the time fixed for their departure.  On starting, “all hands were on deck” to give a parting look and loving kiss. The President, students, colonists, and not a few of the “discreet sisters” were all there, bidding adieu to the objects of their adoration.  The parting of none was as tender as that of Mr. Smuller with the young Negress.  Amid wistful looks, honeyed words, and squeezing of hands, the wagon started, and he was obliged to bid farewell, heaving a deep sigh.  But what was the landlord's chagrin on finding, after their departure, that one of the Negroes had stolen his six-dollar beaver hat!

 

Further Developments

Not long after their departure, some eight or ten students became fearful that the Negroes and their companions would meet with difficulty, either by being overtaken by their masters or by being apprehended by others as fugitives.  The students resolved to overtake them in order to rescue and defend them in case of an attack.  They armed themselves with dirks, butcher knives, pistols, et cetera, and were soon in full pursuit.  Fortunately, however, there was no attack, no violence, and consequently no blood shed.  The Negroes were safely shipped for Canada.

It may be wondered that the Oberlinians who have heretofore decried mobocratic violence so loudly should sally forth at dead of night, armed with war-like instruments, for the purpose of inflicting violence on any who should frustrate their designs. They are driven to these desperate measures by President Mahan himself, who publicly declared that should the proper authorities attempt to take them while in Oberlin, they would fight until the last, law or no law. His motto is rule or ruin.

Only a few days had elapsed before another student returned from Cincinnati bringing two more escapees, between the ages of 16 to 20.  He had enticed the female from her master while on board a steamboat near Cincinnati; on arriving at Oberlin, she was left as a servant girl in the family of a colonist.  The young male fugitive was then dressed in female apparel, and after having his face and hands painted, he was accompanied by one of the brethren of the Institution to the shore of the Lake, where he too set sail for Canada.

 

Where Will This Lead?

I know not where these abominations will end, or what these visionaries have in view.  But when sheltered men, disguised by a hypocritical profession, resort to stratagem and deception and rebellion, we may presumptively infer that their ultimate object deserves to be ranked with the conspiracy of a Cataline or the treason of a Burr!

Still it is the patriot's hope that the Ciceros of America will ferret out the rebels, expose their seditionary and anti-republican and unconstitutional movements, and bring them to experience that punishment which their conduct so richly deserves.

That our country may be enabled to maintain the supremacy of her laws should be the prayer of every American heart.

 

Continue to “Intolerance or Supression of Opinion.

 

TBT

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