When the Slave-Catcher Came to Town

Article excerpt

From Daniel J. Sharfsteins The Invisible Line, which chronicles the sometimes brutal history of three families as they journey, over the course of generations, across American color lines.

Oberlin, Ohio, September 1858

Abig man stands out in a small town. Anderson Jennings was over six feet tall, full bearded, a prime specimen of what was known as a "buffalo bull."

When he appeared in the village of Oberlin, people instantly seemed to know who he was and where he was from. Amid the muted tones of Ohio, his Kentucky accent sounded like a fiddle out of tune. Oberlin was a college town and religious settlement, a quiet community of learning and prayer. But Jennings carried two five-shooters, rarely left his room at the tavern by the railroad depot, and kept to the shadows when he did. As he well knew, no town in the United States hated slavery with as much passion as Oberlin. Yet there he was, in his words, "nigger-catching."

Jennings owned a farm and livery stable in Mason County, Kentucky, on the Ohio River's south bank. His slaves were more valuable than his land, and almost every year his human quarry increased. When a young man named Henry disappeared one late summer night in 1858, it was as if $1,500 had fallen out of Jennings's coat. Jennings could guess where Henry was heading. Even though a neighbor described Jennings as someone who did not "follow the business of capturing niggers," he could draw on the decades of experience that Mason County slaveowners had in tracking down runaways. Jennings headed to the river landing at Maysville. In his pockets he carried his guns, a roll of ten- and twentydollar bills, and a set of handcuffs. He was ready to recapture a man he thought of as "my boy."

Jennings sensed that if Henry was heading north, sooner or later he would pass through Oberlin. A generation earlier, descendants of New England Puritàns had built the college and town in the northern Ohio forest, dedicating themselves to bringing "our perishing world . . . under the entire influence of the blessed gospel of peace." To give themselves time, health, and money to serve the Lord, they renounced "all bad habits, and especially the smoking and chewing of tobacco, unless it is necessary as a medicine," pledged not to drink tea and coffee "as far as practicable," and rejected "all the world's expensive and unwholesome fashions of dress, particularly tight dressing and ornamental attire." They built themselves a simple world: saltbox houses, unadorned brick school buildings, and a village green guarded by a towering elm, like a hand reaching to heaven. They prayed in its shade.

Always the center of the community, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute trained missionaries and teachers "in body, intellect and heart, for the service of the Lord." From its beginning in 1832, the school educated both sexes. Within three years, it devoted itself to the abolition of slavery, taking the then-radical step of admitting students "irrespective of color." In the decades that followed, blacks and whites studied and worshipped together and spent their vacations lecturing for antislavery societies and teaching in colored schools. Scandalous rumors circulated around the country that white and black Oberliners shared dormitory rooms and were even marrying each other. Hundreds of runaway slaves passed through on their way to Canada, and dozens more put down roots there. It was no secret. Six miles north of town, a sign pointed the way there not with an arrow but with "a full-length picture of a colored man, running with all his might to reach the place."

Jennings did not have to run to Oberlin.

He steamed seventy miles up the Ohio River to Cincinnati and then took the newly built railroad two hundred miles northeast. It let him off in Wellington, ten miles south of his destination. Sitting in the men's car, watching the muddy expanses of harvested cornfields go by, he had reason to be nervous about his incursion into enemy land. …