OBERLIN — They’ve been dead for years, but the ghosts of some notable and not-so-notable figures from Oberlin’s past were very much alive in Westwood Cemetery on Saturday during a walking tour of the location that originally attracted people as a park.
Close to 40 people split into two groups enjoyed the Oberlin Heritage Center’s inaugural “Every Good Story has a Plot” tour which began at 5 p.m. and ended about a half-hour before dark Friday and Saturday nights.
“We don’t want to be here after dark,” tour guide Liz Schultz, the center’s executive director, joked as the second of Saturday’s two tour groups concluded their walk.
A major impetus for the tours was introducing participants “to some people who are overlooked in the history books,” Amanda Manahan, the center’s museum education and tour coordinator, explained as tour-takers began arriving.
Tour-takers learned about a few local people from Oberlin’s past through vignettes read by Schultz, while other lessons came from costumed interpreters including Ron Gorman, a software engineer from Columbia Station who portrayed Chauncey Wack, one of the town’s “most outspoken dissidents” who Schultz joked had “a great villain name.”
Wack, who lived from 1815 to 1900, was a Vermont native and fierce Democrat who supported the Constitution’s right of slaveholders to have escaped slaves found and returned to them via the controversial Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
Longtime owner of the Russia House inn “where you could drink, smoke cigars and bet on the horses,” Wack hosted slave-catchers at his inn, owing to his well-known anti-abolitionist stance.
In 1858, Oberlin came into the national spotlight when a group of anti-slavery Oberlin residents marched to Wellington to help local abolitionists there free John Price, an escaped Kentucky slave being held in a Wellington hotel by a federal marshal.
Price made his way to Canada and freedom only to die a short time later.
Author, entertainer and folksinger Judy Cook greeted the group at the grave of Adelia Field Johnston (1837-1910), Oberlin College’s first female faculty member and a witness to the 1858 Wellington-Oberlin Rescue.
Johnston began teaching history at the college in1878 en route to becoming a dean and professor of medieval history.
“I loved teaching and was good at it, and at 33 years old I was the youngest Oberlin College faculty member and the only woman,” Cook said.
Johnston also went on to welcome male students into her popular classes — an unheard-of practice at the time.
The third costumed interpreter was Camille Hamlin Allen, who gave a first-person portrayal of Caroline Matilda Wall Langston (1833-1915), who was the wife of John Mercer Langston, Ohio’s first black attorney, an Oberlin College graduate, member of the city council and board of education, and the first black elected to the U.S. Congress from Virginia.
The freed children of a slave and a well-to-do white North Carolina plantation owner, Caroline Langston and her siblings were sent to Ohio to be educated at a Quaker-run school.
Despite being part of a well-accomplished family, Langston experienced racism in Oberlin.
Speaking as Langston, Allen spoke about Langston’s days as an Oberlin College student in the 1850s when a group of black women were walking along a street and approached a group of white women.
“We were expected to back down and give way to them,” Allen said. “Women of color faced racial prejudice.”
The black women did not back down and were met with insults.
Caroline Langston wrote an essay about the incident which brought her before a college disciplinary board.
The tour groups also learned about the 47-acre cemetery, which was the successor to the town’s original cemetery at Morgan and Professor streets.
Formally dedicated in 1864, some 31 years after Oberlin’s founding, Westwood Cemetery was opened partly in expectation of more burials of area soldiers dying in the Civil War.
The cemetery’s design reflects the Rural Cemetery Movement of the mid- to late 1800s which saw cemeteries made to look and feel like parks with winding paths, attractive landscapes and ornate monuments.
“They were designed to have pastoral views for people to enjoy,” Schultz said, noting that cemeteries of the period were intended as spots to go to on a Sunday drive.
Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.