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Oberlin
American Visions. 10.2 (April-May 1995): pUR8+.
Abstract: 

Ohio, and especially Lorain County abound with sites important to African Americans. Underground railroad stations, memorials to heroes of Harper's Ferry, John Mercer Langston House and more. A list of festivals of interest is given as well as a description of various points of interest.

Full Text: 

The list of African Americans who attended Oberlin College is long and distinguished--as is Oberlin, Ohio's involvement with the Underground Railroad. Although the town and the college were liberal and open-minded, there were still patterns of paternalism and even segments of segregation in both (as there were elsewhere along the Underground Railroad). These patterns underline the differences with institutions, such as Wilberforce University, that were controlled by blacks.

I would call Oberlin College a shining example of an institution that opened its doors. several members of the community and the college were involved with John Brown before he made his famous raid on Harpers Ferry, and, of course, Brown's father, Owen, was on the board of trustees.

Even today, Oberlin continues to play a prominent role in educating African Americans who go on to have a great influence not only upon black society, but on America as a whole. The school's music department, in particular, which has graduated, sponsored or encouraged the likes of Anna Julia Cooper and William Grant Still, continues a tradition that dates back 150 years and that was especially Slong in the last half of the 19th century--a tradition of making an impact on the country by schooling those who went on to become the backbone of America's educated black leadership.

Oberlin, Ohio, and Oberlin College were conceived in 1833 as Christian bodies--in the words of their founder, the Rev. John Jay Shipherd, they were places "to live together in all things as brethren, and to glorify God in our bodies and spirits, which are His." The college was the first in the United States to admit women (1833) and one of the first to admit African Americans. It was this last factor that determined the town's history--and which today makes Oberlin, and surrounding Lorain County, such a fascinating stop for visitors.

In February 1835, the college's board of trustees was deadlocked 4-4 on the issue of admitting African Americans, when its chairman, the Rev. John Keep, cast the deciding vote in favor. (The prominent New York abolitionist Arthur Tappan had offered funds for the struggling college on the condition that blacks be admitted and that designated antislavery professors join the faculty.) From that point through the remainder of the century, Oberlin was the leading institution of higher education for African Americans--and, as such, the college and the community found themselves intimately involved in the antislavery struggle.

Virtually the entire community supported the effort, and fugitive slaves who got as far as Oberlin could be assured of passing on to Huron or Sandusky, Ohio, and then on to freedom in Amherstburg, Ontario, in Canada. Oberlin's communal defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act was flagrant: When John Price, an 18-year-old fugitive slave living in Oberlin, was seized by slave hunters and a U.S. marshal in nearby Wellington, Ohio, 200 to 300 Oberlin citizens and students, black and white, forcibly freed the youth, who was later escorted to Canada. Twenty townsfolk spent time in jail after standing trial in Cleveland for this act. As a testament to Oberlin's rejection of an immoral law and as part of the defense of its citizen activists, the town brought kidnapping charges against the slave hunters who had detained Price.

Among the black activists who took part in the Price rescue were John Copeland (who was rumored to have guided Price on to Canada after his liberation) and Lewis Leary--both of whom later died in John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry--The freeborn Evans brothers, the fugitive Jeremiah Fox, the freed John H. Scott, and the freed Orindatus S.B. Wall, who would go on to become the first regularly commissioned black captain in the U.S. Army.

Today's visitors to Oberlin can trace much of this history--and the lives of those who made it--in buildings, statues, markers and cemeteries that testify both to black initiative and to a multiracial effort to promote what is best about America. Don't miss the First Church, site both of the Oberlin Anti-Slavery Society meetings and the memorial service for John Copeland after his death at Harpers Ferry; the Evans House, gathering spot for Oberlin's leading black activists; the Monroe House, home of yet another abolitionist who served on the college faculty; and Westwood Cemetery, where many of the town's antislavery activists lie buried.

Other African-American heritage sites include the Shurtleff statue, which pays tribute to Col. Giles Shurtleff, commander of Ohio's first black Civil War regiment; the Underground Railroad Sculpture on South Professor Street; Tappan Square; the Underground Railroad Monument and Martin Luther King jr. Park, which is graced by three statues--one of Dr. King, one commemorating the Oberlin-Wellington rescue, and one honoring the three African Americans from Oberlin who died in the Harpers Ferry raid. Two other stops in Oberlin that you won't want to miss are the John Mercer Langston House and the Allen Memorial Art Museum. John Mercer Langston (1829-1897) and his brother Charles, the sons of a Virginia planter and a freedwoman of African and Indian ancestry, were raised in Ohio by a succession of abolitionist families, black and white, after their parents' deaths in 1834. Oberlin's fifth black graduate and the president of the Ohio State Anti-slavery Society, J.M. Langston was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854-after the bar association determined that he had more white than black blood in his ancestry! In the following year, he was elected the clerk of an Ohio township, becoming the first known black elected official in America's history. Langston later recruited troops for black Civil War regiments, served as the inspector general of the Freedmen's Bureau, headed Howard University's law department, was U.S. minister to Haiti, served as president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute--the first state-supported black college in America--and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1888 as Virginia's first African-american congressman.

Although he left Ohio after the Civil War, Langston's ties to Oberlin were deep: Not only did he marry the sister of O.S.B. Wall; his brother Charles, who was also educated at Oberlin, married the widow of Lewis Leary, one of Oberlin's black martyrs of the Harpers Ferry raid (the daughter of Charles and Mary Leary was the mother of Langston Hughes, America's pre-eminent black poet of the 20th century). Today, the John Mercer Langston House, a National Historic Landmark that is not open to the public, recalls the life of a man whose endeavor took him, as the title of his autobiography proclaims, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol.

In Oberlin, you can take yourself from Langston's old home to Africa simply by stopping in at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Here you'll find a score of ethnographic and art objects from West Africa, including textiles and wooden carvings of the Dan, Senufo, Guro, Pende and Baga peoples. You'll also see a score of paintings by well-known African-American artists, including Richmond Barthe, Romare Bearden and Horace Pippin.

One final thought: Not all of north central Ohio's attractions are located in Oberlin. In addition to the lakeshore appeal of nearby Lake Erie and the many possibilities to be found 20 miles away in Cleveland, the surrounding towns of Lorain County have sites directly linked to the Underground Railroad. Most are simply drive-by, rather than stop-in, experiences; but if you take the trouble to acquire the county's excellent "African-american Heritage Tour" brochure, you'll have enough background information to appreciate what you are witnessing. Among the more significant sites are the former David Webster House, which had a makeshift elevator within a 12-foot fireplace so that runaways could be hidden from sight; Kanisa House, which in the 1850s had concealed rooms and tunnels and which now serves as the home of the First Community Interfaith Institute, sponsor of the annual Afro-american Festival (see "Festivities" sidebar); and Monteith Hall, which had a tunnel extending from its basement to the nearby Black River and whose owner managed the entire southern shore of Lake Erie operations for the Underground Railroad. The first site is in Huntington, the other two in Elyria. All underscore the truth that the entire county gave support to 19th-century America's most critical covert enterprise.

For further information on Lorain County sites, call the Lorain County Visitors Bureau, (800) 334-1673.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Chase, Henry, and Charles Blockson. "Oberlin." American Visions, Apr.-May 1995, p. UR8+. Academic OneFile, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FA16883764%2FAONE%3Fu%3Dtemple_main%26sid%3DAONE%26xid%3D2070d1c1. Accessed 21 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A16883764