STORMS COME IN ALL VARIETIES: A STRANGE ANNIVERSARY
By Sue Wurster
On April 11, 1965, we huddled in our basements as a whirlwind headed straight for the town of Oberlin. Twenty minutes later, after the tornado had blown by, the all-clear sounded. Oberlin was unscathed, leading me to believe that the story about Oberlin’s “saucer rim” might not be just the stuff of legend. Supposedly, a shallow, man-made ridge of land rings the town and picks up tornados by their tails, leading them to rage around the rim until they eventually either lose steam or carom off the arc—which is what must have happened that day. Oberlin was unharmed, but nearby Pittsfield was gone.
Oberlin is a unique place—and not only because of its “tornado bowl.” It is a grain of idealistic liberalism to be found amid fields of cynical conservatism. It houses the county’s only four-year college whose conservatory of music is considered one of the nation’s finest–as is its art museum as well. It houses a National Association of College Bookstores warehouse, an FAA air traffic control center, and a small manufacturer of specialized medical instruments now owned by Corning. In the past few decades, closing steel and car manufacturing plants in the county have resulted in rising unemployment, deepening poverty, and ever intensifying racism. The latter is not a recent development. Most of the county is made up of small “sundown” towns consisting, still, of only white people.
Oberlin takes pride in its long history of diversity. The college was the first in the country to enroll women and the first to admit blacks. In the 1800s, the town, considered an abolitionist stronghold, was a stop on the Underground Railroad where runaway slaves were sheltered and protected. Many simply stayed.
One of those runaways was a young man named John Price who arrived in September of 1858. Not long after, two Kentucky slave hunters sneaked into town, kidnapped Price from First Church where he was being hidden, and carted him off to nearby Wellington—just beyond where Pittsfield had stood. There was no jail in Wellington, so Price was placed under guard in a hotel room until his forced return to the South. But a small army of impassioned Oberlinians—students, professors, farmers, former slaves, a bookstore owner, a minister, and a shoemaker—took to Wellington to negotiate his release. When that effort failed, they stormed the hotel, took Price by force, and had him conducted safely to Canada. A federal grand jury indicted 37 of those Oberlin men who argued in court, without success, that the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional. That confrontation between Price’s rescuers and the U.S. government captured national attention and, like the Dred Scott decision, furthered the abolitionist cause. Oberlin became known as “the little town that sparked the big war.”
Strangely, on April 11 in 1865, one hundred years before that tornado flattened Pittsfield and two days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, President Abraham Lincoln gave his last address to the American people virtually ending the Civil War…the country’s biggest whirlwind of all.
Ohio History Central. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/John_Price
Fradin, Dennis Brindell and Judith Bloom Fradin. The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery. Walker Children’s Books, 2013.
I have a feeling that our family’s move to the town of Oberlin in 1965 made all the difference. For the first time, I lived in a truly diverse community (with the key word being “community”) and learned how important it is to speak out. Hard to believe that 2019 will bring my 50th Oberlin High School reunion…