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North Ridgeville school assembly tells story of last fugitive slave

Jon Wysochanski, The Morning Journal
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NORTH RIDGEVILLE — A special visitor took children back in time for a firsthand look into the life of a fugitive slave.

On Jan. 21 students at Wilcox Elementary, 34580 Bainbridge Road, watched actress Robin Pease perform “Last Fugitive Slave: It Happened in Ohio,” the true story of Sarah Lucy Bagby.

According to Case Western Reserve University’s Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Bagby escaped from her master in Virginia in 1860 and found refuge in Cleveland. Her master, William Goshorn, tracked her down and had her arrested by U.S. Marshals on Jan. 19, 1861.

On Jan. 23, 1861, after a short trial, Bagby was released to Goshorn based on her own admission that she was his slave.

The case roused abolitionists, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, and many viewed it as a test of the North’s willingness to obey the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Bagby was freed by Union Troops in June 1861, moved to Pittsburgh and married a Union soldier. Her final years were spent in Cleveland. She is buried in the Woodland Cemetery.

Assisted by students who played the roles of Bagby’s friend, the judge and master, Pease played slave songs from the Civil War era on the guitar while retelling the story of Bagby’s life, escape, trial and return to the South.

Pease, who has been playing the role of Bagby since 1998 for Kulture Kids — a group that works closely with the Center for Arts Inspired Learning — said her performances are all about promoting arts and cultural awareness.

“The performance makes it real to them,” she said. “A story in a book is on a page. But here I am, standing right here with some of their fellow students.”

Pease said she wants students to realize how awful slavery was and that it is still happening in other parts of the world. She also hopes it instills in young minds the concept that no matter where a person comes from, they might not be that different from the face in the mirror.

“We have to band together,” Pease said. “They have to realize that we may look different but there are actually more similarities than there are differences.”

Fourth-grader Garrett Kuhn, who played a part in the performance, said he enjoyed learning about the nation’s past.

“It was really cool to perform something from a long time ago, that actually happened, but that’s not happening anymore,” he said.

His grandparents, Bill and Amy Kuhn, attended and thought the performance was fantastic.

“I had never heard of the story before,” Bill Kuhn said. “Our grandson asked us to come the other day and we had no idea what it was all about.”

Sharon Aunchman, the program committee chairperson for the Center for Arts Inspired Learning, said the program tied in nicely with the students’ studies of the Civil War.

“This ties in with the fourth-grade classes study of the Underground Railroad,” Aunchman said.

Aunchman, who taught at Wilcox Elementary for 37 years, said coming back to watch the students learn from an arts perspective is great.

“I love coming back,” she said. “This is the perfect fit for me.”

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