Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Was Easily the Coolest Thing Ever to Happen in Ohio

(A personal note: I meant to have this article ready during Black History Month. I'm afraid Life intervened, a couple of times. I'm therefore declaring it to be Black History Year. Or possibly Black History Forever.)

Sorry about the title. I don't mean to hate on Ohio, but seriously, when was the last time you heard about something cool happening in Ohio? Well, the reason you can't think of anything is that the last awesome thing to happen in that state took place in 1858. It features a daring international siege/heist-style rescue and dramatic court case complete with courtroom speeches to make Atticus Finch and that guy from Inherit the Wind weep. Oh, and two of the guys involved were pretty much the coolest ever. Let me tell you about them first, and then we'll get to the Amazing Ohio Drama in which they both participated.

The Langston brothers were two of the most fucking bad-ass 19th century black men ever. It's hard to say who was cooler; between Charles Henry and John Mercer Langston there was so much concentrated awesome that in the early 20th century, something unbelievable happened. Someone named a golf course after one of them. There is a goddamn golf course that was named after John in 1939. It's like these two black men kicked racism in the teeth so hard that they had to find the single whitest thing possible to name after them, just to get across how much they fucked up racism. They kicked racism in the teeth so hard that racism was shitting toenails for weeks. And one of the coolest things these two guys ever did was get involved in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue which, you'll recall, is the topic of this article.

I will now get back to the main topic of the article.

This story starts with a guy named John Price. He was a slave from Kentucky, and in 1856, he became a fugitive slave. He made it to the non-slave state of Ohio. Unfortunately for him, America had a law just for people like him, called the Fugitive Slave Act, which basically stated "oh cool, you made it from a slave state to a free state. Well done, fugitive. But your owner still totally owns you, and all marshals and other government officials are legally obligated to help return you to him or her. Sucks to be you. Should've thought of that before you were born a slave."

It was under that law that poor John Price was arrested in Ohio in 1858, after a couple years of living and working quietly as a free man when a couple of cockwagons, professional slave-catchers (people who made money by capitalizing on the Fugitive Slave laws by kidnapping free black people, sometimes former slaves, sometimes just random people they decided should be future slaves, and returning them to their "masters," in the south. You know, even if they'd never been slaves before. They were really not good people.) decided to kidnap him, with the help of the legally-obliged-to-help federal marshal.

This happened in a town called Oberlin, which was a little complicated for the federal marshal who arrested John Price, not because his arrest was, you know, wrong and bullshit, but because Oberlin was not exactly a pro-slavery town. Obviously, or an escaped slave like John Price probably wouldn't have decided it was a good place to settle down, get a job, and live. It was actually pretty much an abolitionist town, was active on the Underground Railroad, and featured a college full of students who were also radically anti-slavery, and you know what college students are like. I mean, today they'd probably have circulated a petition on facebook, but there was a time when college students were fairly radical and prone to getting political and revolutionary action going. In fact, they, along with the townspeople, had formed the Oberlin Anti-Slavery Society back in 1835 (probably not the same college students as were involved in 1858, unless they were like, really, really terrible at learning stuff), which by the time John Price got into hot water was being headed by none other than our two heroes, the Langston brothers. This was a fairly radical group by 1858 standards; it wasn't just for emancipation, it was for "the immediate emancipation of the whole colored race within the United States: the emancipation of the slave from the oppression of the master, the emancipation of the free colored men from the oppression of public sentiment, and the elevation of both to an intellectual, moral and political equality with the whites." So, what are people who favor all that to do when a black man is arrested, right in their own town, for the crime of escaping from slavery? Get fucking pissed off, that's what. And do something about it.

So, with the risk of angry townspeople and college students taking action to free John Price and then presumably free him from the oppression of public sentiment and elevate him to an intellectual, moral, and political equality with the whites, the marshal decided it was a good idea to take him out of town before shit went down, and took him to a town called Wellington. Here's the thing, though. Those anti-slavery activists from Oberlin? Yeah, they too possessed the technology necessary to go to Wellington, which, according to a map of Ohio I happen to have in my possession, is basically right the Hell next to Oberlin. Like, they're in the same county. Counties are small. It was like, less than ten miles. As far as fleeing goes, this was a pretty half-assed effort, gotta say. John Price had made way, way more effort to get to freedom than this marshal was apparently willing to go to to keep him from it. I guess that's what a sports commentator might call "just wanting it more." Anyway, the marshal's plan was to get John Price and the slave catchers onto a southbound train, whereupon they would no longer be his problem.

That's when what history has deemed a "mob" showed up in Wellington. Well...I guess they were kinda mob-like. There were thirty seven people (including the Langston brothers), and they were armed and angry so I guess there were certain mobbish qualities, but they were an awesome mob, so I think we can let that go. Mobs are sometimes on the right side. Moreover, by 19th century standards, they were far from a typical armed mob: firstly, they were about two thirds white and one third black. Angry armed mobs in the mid 19th century were rarely racially integrated. Secondly, as counterintuitive as it might sound, this was a mob of pacifists. What, you might ask, were pacifists doing in a mob anyway? Carrying weapons, no less? And that would be a pretty damn good question.

The answer was that these guys were willing to do whatever it took to save John Price. Not only were they against slavery, but a member of their own community had just been taken. One mob-member shouted out "they have carried away one of our own men in broad daylight!" suggesting just how much the town took this personally. One woman lent a man who was on his way to Wellington her horse, and told him that she didn't mind if he ended up getting the horse killed, so long as he brought back the captive safely. That's a big deal; imagine lending someone your car and being like "hey, it's cool if you total it, just do what you gotta do." I'm not saying it was unwarranted; a person's life matters more than a horse's, but it's still a pretty good sign that the people of Oberlin were committed to saving this guy. These people were not fucking around, and it's hardly surprising that even pacifists were willing to make a bit of a threat.

When they got to Wellington, the mob surrounded the hotel where John Price was being held. Some people were calling out that it was illegal for the slavecatchers to take him. Others were calling out that they didn't really give a flying fuck what the law was, but they weren't leaving without him. Charles Langston (remember him and his brother? They're the awesome guys.) moved through the crowd, keeping the armed dudes calm, while people negotiated with John Price's captors. Unfortunately, a southbound train was pulling into the station, which, since the kidnappers were going to get on it with their captive, kind of added some tension to the whole deal.

The negotiators switched straight into rescue mode. It's unclear exactly what went down...the Oberlin Evangelist, a newspaper with obvious abolitionist sympathies, claims that "at last the doors themselves gave way before the moral force that was brought to bear upon them, and the poor fugitive walked forth to the crowd who bore him off in triumph. Not a shot was fired, nor a blow struck, nor a bolt broken." So...the crowd broke Price out of the hotel by being right. Yeah, that sounds...uh, metaphorical. The trial transcript suggests that a window was broken and a dude was punched in the face, which sounds a lot more literal, not to mention, you know, effective. Another account mentions a ladder being used, since Price was being kept in the attic. By the way, I usually try and keep an informal tone with these articles, and call folks I like by their first names, but when I was reading the trial transcript they kept calling John Price "John" in a clear attempt to be condescending and they were also dropping the n-word like it was going out of style so I'm going to be calling him Price just to spite them. Anyway.

Oh, something else the bad guys (what, I don't have to use legal terms like "prosecution" here do I? The BAD GUYS) in the trial transcripts imply is that Price was totally down with the whole returning to slavery thing. Apparently he wanted to go back to Kentucky and had no desire to get rescued by this annoying multi-racial mob. Hint: that was not the case.

Price was rescued, without anyone getting shot, which was cool, and taken back to Oberlin, where he hid out at the home of the College President for a while, because seriously, the pillars of the Oberlin community were all down with this rescue. He was eventually spirited away to Canada. Hooray! The good guys win, and it's all good, right?

Obviously no. It was the nineteenth fucking century. Thirty-seven of the rescuers, including Charles Langston, were arrested and indited by a grand jury. In response the state of Ohio went ahead and arrested the marshal and his team, because apparently states can have a wicked sense of humor sometimes.

Here's Charles Henry Langston, by the way

I don't care how racist and pro-slavery you are, how do arrest a man who owns that hat? He's clearly better than you.

And while we're at it, here's his brother, John Mercer

As with many 19th century gentlemen, his beard is like a whole other person in this picture. I think he may have loaned it to Lincoln later in life, but I have no proof of that.

Ultimately, only two guys were put on trial; Charles, and some white guy named Bushnell. Bushnell was convicted, and then the court called back the SAME (all white) jury to try Charles. Does that sound sketchy as fuck to you? Because it sounds sketchy as fuck to me. Firstly, they were all white. Secondly, those (white) dudes on the jury had already served their jury duty for whatever length of time, and I feel like they probably had better shit to do than come back for another trial. No one likes jury duty, and having to do it twice in a row sounds like some serious 8th Amendment violating shit to me. Thirdly, they were all fucking white. Fourthly, and most importantly, how the FUCK is a jury that has already convicted a dude supposed to be impartial when trying the guy accused of the same crime? Also, I may not have mentioned this before, but they were all white.

Anyway, against all odds, an all white jury that had already convicted one guy of helping to rescue a black man from slavery somehow managed to also convict a black man accused of the same thing, and Charles was found guilty. After he was convicted, the judge asked him if there was anything he'd like to say before he was sentenced. And thus the entire world got several degrees more awesome.

To start with, he said he wasn't expecting the judge to go easy on him. "I know that the courts of this country, that the laws of this country, that the governmental machinery of this country, are so constituted as to oppress and outrage colored men, men of my complexion. I cannot, then, of course, expect, judging from the past history of the country, any mercy from the laws, from the constitution, or from the courts of the country."

Sorry, let me translate that into not-nineteenth-century-smart-person talk. "You're all a bunch of racists who work for racists to enforce racists laws written by racists. I'm not optimistic about this whole thing."

Charles went on to talk about the events for which he was being put on trial, and was not shy about owning up to his part in the action. He said : "Being identified with that man, by color, by race, by manhood, by sympathies, such as God has implanted in us all, I felt it my duty to do and do what I could toward liberating him."

Then he got to the "why this whole trial was bullshit" part of his address and pointed out that he was supposed to get a "jury of his peers," and instead had been given a jury made up of racist white people. He pointed out that all white people in America hold racist feelings toward black people including the attorney who defended him. He made a point of saying that the attorney defended him "ably" but was prejudiced nevertheless. The fact that the entire courtroom did not just bow down at the Truths that were coming out of this man's mouth is remarkable. Seriously, can you picture this scene? An old fashioned court room, with one man explaining the concept of Justice to everyone? It feels cinematic as fuck to me. Someone should film that shit; everyone loves a courtroom drama, and this one has the advantage of being true.

So, after admitting to the crime and calling everyone in the court racists, what more could Charles do to really endear himself to the judge? Well, this calls for a full paragraph quote.

"And now I thank you for this leniency, this indulgence, in giving a man unjustly condemned, by a tribunal before which he is declare to have no rights, the privilege of speaking in his own behalf. I know that it will do nothing toward mitigating your sentence, but it is a privilege to be allowed to speak, and I thank you for it. I shall submit to the penalty, be it what it may. But I stand up here to say, that if for doing what I did on that day at Wellington, I am to go to jail six months, and pay a fine of a thousand dollars, according to the Fugitive Slave Law, and such is the protection the laws of this country afford me, I must take upon my self the responsibility of self-protection; and when I come to be claimed by some perjured wretch as his slave, I shall never be taken into slavery. And as in that trying hour I would have others do to me, as I would call upon my friends to help me; as I would call upon you, your Honor, to help me; as I would call upon you [to the District-Attorney], to help me; and upon you [to Judge Bliss], and upon you [to his counsel], so help me GOD! I stand here to say that I will do all I can, for any man thus seized and help, though the inevitable penalty of six months imprisonment and one thousand dollars fine for each offense hangs over me! We have a common humanity. You would do so; your manhood would require it; and no matter what the laws might me, you would honor yourself for doing it; your friends would honor you for doing it; your children to all generations would honor you for doing it; and every good and honest man would say, you had done right! [Great and prolonged applause, in spite of the efforts of the Court and the Marshal.]"

Seriously Hollywood, anyone who even THINKS about playing Charles Langston is going to get an Oscar. (The full text of his address is here).

The judge sentenced him to twenty days in jail and ordered him to pay a hundred dollar fine.

An appeal failed, as did a rally of ten thousand people in Cleavland, at which John Langston was somehow the only black speaker. Well, I say it failed; it failed to keep Charles and Bushnell out of jail, but it certainly succeeded in making the Chief Justice who refused the appeal look like an ass; he failed to get re-elected the next year. And it also succeeded at drawing national attention to the obvious bullshit that was the Fugitive Slave Law. A couple of the black rescuers would go on to participate in John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry, be captured along with him, and hanged soon after. These abolitionists were willing to put their bodies on the line because they already were; as Charles repeatedly makes clear in his speech, as long as slavery and the Fugitive Slave act existed, no black person could ever be safe from slavery.

And as for the Langston brothers? John would go on to be the first dean of Howard University Law School. They were both involved in politics, with John serving in the U.S. Congress starting in 1888 (first black person to be a congressperson from Virginia, and the last one for almost a hundred years) as well as acting as the US Ambassador to Haiti. Charles moved to Kansas early in the Civil War, and opened a school for escaped slaves. He would later go on to become president of what would become Western University, and married the widow of one of those men who was hanged after John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry. Oh, and their grandson was Langston Hughes.

And that's the tale of the most interesting thing ever to happen in Ohio. Not bad, Ohio. Not fucking bad.

(Sorry Ohio. I really don't mean to call you boring. I'm sure lots of cool things have happened within your borders; forgive my hyperbole. It's something I do.)

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Collection of Works by Catastrophone Orchestra (a book review)

A Collection of Works by Catastrophone Orchestra is a volume of short stories and vignettes, some connected along a central narrative, others simply loosely linked by geography. Each story is set in a slightly sci-fi version of late 19th, early 20th century New York City that will be described as "dystopian" by people who have never read Jacob Riis, and is populated by anarchists, communists, activists, revolutionaries, paupers, magicians, artists, scientists, doctors, and madmen.

The characters, world, and writing are all solid, and make for a very enjoyable read, but for me personally this was also the right book at the right time. I'm not just talking about my burning desire for steampunk works that incorporate and engage with politics, although that's certainly part of it. I think in order for people to really get this review I'm going to have to tell you when I read this book.

I started it very, very late one Sunday night, after spending part of Saturday, and almost all of Sunday, in police custody, following my third Occupy Wall Street arrest. My stay included 9 hours in the Central Booking holding cells known, since the 1830s, as "The Tombs." I got out right before the night court closed down, and made my way home.

I don't know how many of you have ever been in a similar situation, but I was feeling, as I find I usually do in those moments, a boiling sense of political radicalism that I was too tired, hungry, and angry to actually direct anywhere. It's a lot like being seventeen, really; you want to find the physical embodiment of oppression and set it on fire, and there's just not a lot to do with that feeling until you've showered, eaten, slept, and regained your ability to have and express coherent political thoughts.

It was while I was in that state that I got home and started reading this book. I don't think a more perfect collection of words could have come to my hand. It took me into a world that was alien and archaic, yet harshly, viscerally familiar and recognizable. The characters are all vividly drawn, maybe a little overstated in a Dickensian kind of way, and placed in an equally vivid, immersive world of New York City slums. For the most interesting characters, which is the majority of the ones we meet, their convictions are what drives them. We have the central characters, who run on a heady combination of anarchism, madness, and opiates, and who run a free medical clinic in the Lower East Side even as they work on a project that combines music and terrorism; we accompany an unemployed working class communist to a May Day rally that becomes a riot; and we take a journey through the city with an animal rights activist whose only question is where he can most effectively deploy the bomb he's built in order to aid the cause of animal welfare.

In my above-mentioned mental state, this was exactly what I needed; so many of these characters are aflame with some revolutionary ideal, and on their way to doing something about it. I eagerly and fiercely identified with them. One story even featured the Tombs and the Manhattan Central Booking Night Court. I'm not saying you have to have just got out of jail to appreciate this book, of course. Just that if you think you may be going to jail for political reasons, try and have this book waiting when you get out, because that's one of the many occasions on which you will enjoy reading it.

The world in which these stories take place is not terribly different from the one that historically existed; there are some minor technological changes, but other than that the most noticeable anomaly is the existence, in this reality, of steampunks. Steampunks are depicted here as 19th century anarchist punks; young people with dyed hair, piercings and tattoos. I loved this concept, and the glimpses we saw of how the steampunks interact with a May Day rally, as well as the police, are fascinating and feel very true to life. I not only believed in the steampunks as a 19th century subculture, I really wanted to hang out with them, at least for a while, even if I'd probably head back to hear Johann Most speak at the rally eventually.

I know the Catastrophone Orchestra wants to see steampunk become a politically conscious subculture, and I think that works like this are the perfect way to go about it. To be honest, I found the manifesto outlining that idea at the beginning of this volume to be by far the least interesting part. The stories speak effectively for themselves, and simply by existing they argue persuasively for a steampunk that involves historical, present, and fantastical politics.

I hear a lot about steampunk as "escapism," and I find that idea intensely problematic. This book is a journey without being an escape; it transfers the concerns and issues of the real world, both modern and historical, into a universe in which those issues look different, but feel profoundly the same. It doesn't make you forget real problems, it lets you view them through the greasy, steamed lens of a different, fascinating world.

Mostly, this is a work that's made up of details. Since it's a series of short stories and vignettes, rather than a novel, the truly wonderful things about it are mainly small moments that work particularly well; my favorite is the introduction of a formerly politically active steelworker who now wears a mohawk, picks fights with cops, and calls himself Neal Lisst. (Say it out loud). I don't particularly want to give away too much of what made this book good; it's mainly a series of beautiful, clever, or otherwise superb moments that you kind of just have to find yourself; if I'm going to go around describing them, you might as well read the book, which I seriously urge you to do. And I urge the Catastrophone Orchestra to produce more of this kind of work.

A Collection of Works by Catastrophone Orchestra is available from Combustion Books at http://www.combustionbooks.org/ as well as through Amazon, in electronic edition.