Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Oberlin—The Little College in the Wilderness That Let the Ladies In

Oberlin women grads of 1855 included Ann Hazel, center.

On December 3, 1833 Oberlin College in Ohio became the first institution in the United States to become co-educational.  The College and the town of the same name were founded by John J. Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart two idealistic Presbyterian missionaries to the still virtual frontier of northern Ohio.  They found the locals crude, uneducated, and in sin suffering from a lack of good moral guidance.  They resolved to found a Christian community and a school to educate more missionaries to benighted pioneers.

Legend had it that they started out on horse back from Elyria, Ohio and found their ideal location just eight miles south when they stopped eat and pray in the dense forest.  They discovered the land belonged to a Connecticut investor.  Undeterred, Shipherd headed east, found the owner and convinced him to donate 500 acres to start the school.  Both founders rounded up further supporters from family and friends in the east, and purchased 5,000 more acres as a town site.  The first settlers arrived at Oberlin, named for an Alsatian  missionary the founders admired in the spring of 1833, the school was chartered September and classes started on December 3 29 men and 15 women students began classes in the Oberlin Collegiate Institute.  Students were charged no tuition, but expected to donate their labor at literally hacking a college out of the wilderness and supporting it with the income of farms and orchards.

A year after the school started, Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati banned abolition agitation among students and faculty.  A large percentage of the faculty and many students led by Trustee Asa Mahan, and Professor John Morgan left the school in protest.  Fledgling Oberlin invited them to come there.  Mahan agreed on three conditions:  that Oberlin accept students regardless of color, respect students’ freedom of speech, and Trustees not “interfere with the internal regulation of the school.”  The founders readily agreed.   In 1836 a new theological school at Oberlin opened and Mahan became President of the college and went on to be the driving force behind the school for the next 15 years.

True to its word, Oberlin was admitting Black students on an absolutely equal basis as whites from 1834.  By the turn of the 20th Century more than one third of all Black college graduates from predominately white colleges came from Oberlin.

Although there had been women on campus from the beginning, it was 1837 when the first four women entered the degree program and three of the four—Mary Caroline Rudd, Mary Hosford, and Elizabeth Prall graduated with their class in 1841.

Oberlin became an abolitionist hot bed.  Both the college and homes in the town served as stations on the Underground Railroad. In 1858 37 students and faculty were indicted when they rescued a runaway slave arrested in Oberlin from Federal Marshals in the town of Wellington by force.  The case created a national furor.  Only two of those indicted actually went to trial, but publicity about the case strengthen the abolitionist cause in the state and spurred the new state Republican Party to take a strong stance against the Fugitive Slave Act.  Two Oberlin College participants in that action—Lewis Sheridan Leary and John Anthony Copeland—and town resident Shields Green Fredrick Douglas, joined John Brown in his raid on the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal. 

William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, and other firebrands of the movement all spoke at the college—and recruited faculty and students for the movement.  Little wonder that historians have called Oberlin, “The college that started the Civil War.”  The school is still proud of this past and on the campus are monuments to the Underground Railroad, the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, and John Browns raid.

The campus was equally hospitable to the emerging movement for Women’s Suffrage.  Pioneers of the movement like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Harriet Beecher Stowe spoke there and important regional meeting of various Women’s suffrage societies were held at the school or in the town. Suffrage leader Lucy Stone was among the early Oberlin co-eds. 1847 graduate Antoinette Brown Blackwell spoke at the first national Women’s Rights convention in 1850 which was organized by Stone.  She became a leader of the movement and one of the first women ordained to the ministry in the United States.  Other Oberlin graduates have continued to provide leadership for the women’s movement to this day.

In recognition of the college’s unique place in Black and Women’s history it was added to the National Registry of Historic Sites.

In 1850 the State Legislature granted a new charter to the school officially changing the name to Oberlin College.  The College’s famous Music School opened in 1867.

Oberlin has continued to be a bastion of liberal education and a cradle for student activism to this day.  There are currently about 2,850 students pursuing a degree at the school.  They maintain the tradition of activism and inclusion.  It is near the top of lists of schools for campus activism, openness to Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, and Transgender students, and is the “friendliest campus” to vegetarian and vegan students.

It is now one of the most prestigious private four year liberal arts colleges in the country.  More of its graduates go on to earn Ph.D. than those of any other American college or university.  At a time when similar institutions—like equally famous Antioch College in Yellow Springs have been forced to close and many more are in danger, Oberlin has continued to thrive. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Patrick..thanks for this. My daughter went to Oberlin, and graduated with Highest Honors. True to form, she went on to earn a Ph.D., a Fullbright, and now teaches. Through her, I've met bunches of Obies, which newly include her husband. They are amazing talented folks, and best of all, they've stuck together in a supportive cohort. Couldn't imagine a better situation, and deeply indebted to Oberlin, truly an extraordinary school...