Friday, November 2, 2012

Sometimes, it's the little stories...

I’ve been living in Oberlin for three years and have toured the historic society’s buildings and taken the history walks with very knowledgeable tour guides. I’ve seen the various monuments around town commemorating the Underground Railroad and I know the historical significance of the college, which, in 1833, was the first to admit both blacks and women.

Last week, I had lunch with Darlene Colaso, who works for the City of Oberlin. One of her jobs is overseeing the development of the Center for the Underground Railroad. While we were talking big picture, she mentioned a little boy slave who, in 1853, was too sick to travel on with his family to Canada. The family was still in danger, with their owner coming after them, so they had to continue on to Canada. Little Lee Howard Dobbins was left behind in Oberlin with some good Samaritans and died just days later. It’s only one little story in the overall complex problem of slavery and the incidents leading up to the Civil War, but the way the town reacted touched my heart.

A service was held in First Church, which still exists, for this small boy who nobody knew. More than one thousand people crammed into the church, to honor little Lee Howard Dobbins. Each person gave what he could (the recommendation was ten cents each), to pay for a gravestone for him. The words carved into the stone are Let Slavery Perish! and then tells the story of Lee Dobbins, and how his flight to freedom ended in Oberlin.

The gravestone of Lee Howard Dobbins will be the first permanent exhibit of the Underground Railroad Center. For more information on the Underground Railroad Project, visit their website:

Lee Dobbins’ life and death could have been lost in the shuffle. After all, there were many slaves who risked their lives and were consumed by terror as they dashed from the plantations to freedom in Canada, and each had their own story, now lost in time. But Lee Howard Dobbins died in Oberlin. His little story lives on. 


  1. It seems that little Lee Dobbins spent his final days amidst a beautiful community with people who cared for him deeply. Thank you for sharing his story with us, Becky!

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