A COMMON HUMANITY: THE OBERLIN-WELLINGTON RESCUE: When the Federal Government and the US Constitution were at odds with private conscience in pre-Civil War Ohio over slavery

Course: HIS 317/517: The Civil War and Reconstruction or HIS 215: African American History to 1877 or HIS 111 US History to 1877

Department: History

Institution: Cleveland State University

Instructor: Dr. Peter Manos

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: 300/500 College Juniors, Seniors and Graduate Students

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Blackboard, Panopto video, Microsoft Office

Author Bio: Peter Manos is an adjunct professor of history at Cleveland State University and also producing artistic director of the Bodwin Theatre Company which develops content for the theatre and for video documentaries for use in the classroom. Dr. Manos has published a number of historical plays relating to African American and regular history through Dramatic Publishing, Inc., and which are produced by schools, community theatres, and professional theatres throughout the world.

Abstract: Documentary films can be useful for online learning if paired with meaningful activities in the classroom and online. Films can provide human faces to the human actions that make up history. They can present compelling narratives that can act as a springboard for activities that sharpen communication and problem-solving skills generally, and study of federalism and abolitionism before the Civil War specifically. In this instance, a two-part documentary on the 1858 rescue of a runaway slave from slave catchers and the subsequent trial of the rescuers lays the context for a lesson on the US Constitution, US politics and federal and state laws as applied to the moral dilemma of slavery in American history.

Introduction: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

Schools, and especially online schools, compete with videos for attention. The videos win all too often. As a result, lessons are learned peripherally while the main focus is on entertainment. Sometimes the lessons are true, but innocuous: video of a kitten stumbling across the keys of a Steinway shows us how adorable, stupid, and funny cats can be. Sometimes they are false and destructive: scenes from Gone With the Wind show us a glorious plantation world before the Civil War “ruined” it, with simple-minded blacks providing the labor uncomplainingly, and indeed gratefully, while whites tighten their corsets in the boudoir and drink juleps on the veranda. A documentary that tells a compelling and historically factual story can provide better lessons. An assignment that uses the documentary as the starting and ending point, but by no means the main point, of a class lesson, can tap into this power of teaching through story and context.

The Video Documentary: A Common Humanity: The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Parts One and Two.

“Part One: The Rescue,” tells the story of the 1858 rescue of a runaway slave who had been living in Oberlin, Ohio, and captured by slave catchers from Kentucky by school and town persons in Oberlin and Wellington. The video is at this link and is available on YouTube:

“Part Two: The Trial of the Century” tells the story of the rescuers’ trial in Cleveland, Ohio and is at this link and is also available on YouTube:

We are also preparing a video of 35 minutes for use in high school and middle school classrooms that combine the two parts in a more stream-line version.

Classroom use:

The videos may be used in conjunction with a study of the US Constitution as it was before the Civil War and the Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1850 so that California could be admitted as a state without slavery.

Historical background:

The first half of the 1800s in the US had turned into a competition between pro- and anti-slave states for control of the national government. 13 of the first 16 US presidents had been either slaveholders or sympathetic to the slave-holding interests of the country but the US Senate was evenly divided between anti- and pro-slave representation. The Fugitive Slave Law was the culmination of the compromises that had kept the nation from dividing over the slavery issue. Though California would make an anti-slave majority in the Senate, the Fugitive State Law made resistance to slavery a federal crime. It was the anger created by the law as well as a growing militancy among abolitionists that made the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue possible and added to the divide that would culminate in the Civil War and the subsequent passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, ending slavery, guaranteeing citizenship, voting rights, and equal protection under the law for all persons regardless of ethnicity (though of course women would not be guaranteed the right to vote for another 50 years).

Activity #1: Making Laws

Students in small groups are members of the US Congress. Their job is first to avert Civil War by crafting laws that will mollify both pro- and anti-slave interests. Their second is to make laws ending slavery and promoting universal equality in the US should a Civil War occur. It is advisable that Part One be shown before this activity to orient students to the problem. The class would then discuss their solutions and perhaps as to which are the most workable.

Activity #2: Trying and Defending the Accused

After viewing Part One, students would divide into groups as legal teams defending the rescuers. They must come up with at least 5 arguments as to why the rescuers are not guilty or should not be punished for their actions. Then Part Two would be viewed by students and they can discuss how the real arguments of the attorneys were similar or different than the ones the students had come up with.”

Activity #3: Essay- “A Higher Law”

After viewing the videos, students should list at least 3 causes they would be willing to fight for, even if it meant legal punishment. In an in-class or assigned journal essay of at least 3 paragraphs, they should discuss each cause individually with 3 reasons why each is important. This would work well as a Blackboard Discussion Board assignment with full credit awarded with the posting of the essay journal and the writing of at least 2 substantive replies to other students’ journals- agree? Disagree? Why? More replies could be done for extra credit.

Course Syllabi:

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