Oberlin Heritage Center Blog

A Visit to Whitney Plantation

September 19th, 2015

By Melva Tolbert, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer

September 9, 2015

Melva Tolbert portrait


While recently visiting my daughter, who resides in New Orleans, Louisiana, we decided to spend an afternoon at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, LA.  Jessica is a history major and an elementary school teacher.  She had been to the plantation before and was pleasantly surprised with the approach that was taken that distinguished it from other plantation tours.  The focus was not on the owners of the plantation, but on the enslaved people.

We drove almost an hour away from the city and passed by other plantations on our way.  As we pulled into the large gravel parking lot you could see the large white “big house”.  We entered the welcoming center which sold tickets, books and displayed the journey that people from western African had taken  from their homeland to the Caribbean Islands, the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico to work the land.  The display also illustrates the involvement of the early Catholic popes and the British monarchies involvement in the early slave trade.

Our tour guide gathered together me, my daughter and four young women from Europe on an hour and fifteen minute walk through life in Louisiana in the early 1800s.  Our first stop was Antioch Baptist Church where we watched a video about the plantation and were introduced to some of the children that worked the land.  The plantation was purchased in 1752 by Ambroise Heidel, a German emigrant and he became wealthy producing indigo.  In the early 1800s, his son transitioned the plantation to sugar which was a much more physically demanding product and required many enslaved people.

Antioch Baptist Church

The Antioch Baptist Church (seen here at a distance behind the slave memorial) was founded by former slaves in 1868.  Originally located about 8 miles from the plantation, it was moved to the Whitney in 1999.  Photo courtesy of Whitney Plantation.

We then visited an outdoor memorial that recorded the words and honored the former enslaved children and families.  These words were captured through the Federal Writers Project (FWP) that was a part of the Works Progress Administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The FWP supported writers during the Great Depression and interviewed former enslaved people from the South.


The Allees Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

The Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall is the name of the slave memorial on the property that is dedicated to the 107,000 people enslaved in Louisiana in the antebellum era.  Photo courtesy of Whitney Plantation.

Wall of Honor

The Wall of Honor honors all the people who were enslaved on the Whitney Plantation. Their names and the information related to them (origin, age, skills) were retrieved from original archives and engraved on granite slabs.  Photo courtesy of Whitney Plantation.

We continued our walk of the plantation that included the slave quarters, blacksmith shop, overseers home, a jail for runaway slaves, the kitchen and finally the owner’s house.   It was interesting to note that the kitchen resembled the slave quarters, but was actually a part of the owner’s house.  Their food was prepared and then transported to the pantry in the owner’s house.  During this time, our guide detailed the conditions that the enslaved were working under including starvation, castrations, imprisonment, separation from family and mixing with the owner’s family.

Slave Cabins

Before the Civil War, the Whitney Plantation counted 22 slave cabins on its site.  The large iron cauldrons dotting the plantation landscape were used in refining sugar cane harvested from the fields.  Photo courtesy of Whitney Plantation.

After 1865, the slaves were free, but they had no education, large families and still felt tied to the land.  The former enslaved became sharecroppers and continued to work the land up until it was outlawed in 1965.  The Whitney Plantation was purchased by another owner, preserved and is a part of the National Register of Historic Places.  The new owner wants to educate the public by telling the story of the enslaved.  Additionally, he wants to help people understand some of the challenges we continue to face today is of plantation life.

On my way out, I purchased,  Chained to the Land, Voices of Cotton & Cane Plantations by Lynette Ater Tanner.  I summarized a few of the stories and they are as follows:

Story 1 –  Julia Woodrich was interviewed on May 13, 1940 at the age of 89.  When the master died, her family was sold.  She never saw her brothers or sisters again and because she was so young she remained with her mother.  Her mother had fifteen children and never by the same man.  Each time her mother was sold she had to take on another man, even the master.  She was considered a good breeder.

After the master and misses died, the younger master took over and split up the money and property. Julia remembers when they were freed because the master could no longer take care of them so they lived off of fish and berries.  She remembers that the master would come get her sister and take her to his quarters and then inquired the following day how she felt.

Story 2 – Mrs.  Webb was interviewed August 17, 1940, but unsure of her age.  She remembers her master being the cruelest in St. John the Baptist Parish.  If an enslaved person was disobedient, he would place him in a box and they could not move.  This master was known for having very attractive slaves.  He heard about a slave with a fine physique so he bought him.  Because this enslaved person had been raised with the master’s children he was not used to harsh work, so he refused the hard work.  The master day after day directed him to work in the fields and each time he refused.  He was then told by the master to dig a hole, which he did.  The next day he was told by the master to get into the hole and the master shot him and he fell down in the hole.

Story 3 – Peter Barber was interviewed August 23, 1940 and estimated his age to be 96 years old.  He was proud in describing his life as eventful.  He acknowledges that he was born into slavery on a farm in Charlottesville, Virginia.  He refers to his master as ‘good’ as long as you were working.  He remembers being sold to another master who was a tobacco farmer for $900.00 using both union and confederate money.  Because there was talk of sending him to the Blue Mountains to fight he ran away.   Peter did not talk a lot, but he listened and he knew what the fighting was all about.  Peter and a friend, Jimmie, jumped on a boat that was headed for Cincinnati.  Both of them were put off of the boat since they knew Peter and Jimmie were not passengers.  They walked the remainder of the way.  While in Cincinnati, his friend joined the Army, but they delayed taking Peter.  Now separated from his friend, he took a job on a boat that traveled up and down the Ohio River then another boat to New Orleans.  He never joined the army and traveled the Mississippi for fifty-six years as a loner.  He is proud that his travels allowed him to see 13 presidents, but he never got to see Abe Lincoln.

OHC Note:  In 2014, the Whitney Plantation opened its doors to the public for the first time in its 262 year history as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery.  For more information, visit www.whitneyplantation.com.

August First – the original “Juneteenth”

July 23rd, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent, researcher, and trustee
July 23, 2015

In my last blog, I wrote about how Juneteenth became a national celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.  But before there was a Juneteenth, there was the First of August, to celebrate the end of slavery in the British West Indies.  While it may not sound like a big deal to us today, West Indian Emancipation Day, as it was called, was a big deal in early Oberlin and other abolitionist and African American communities.  In an era when American slaveholders were tightening the chains ever tighter on their bondsmen, West Indian Emancipation (which would soon lead to the extinction of legalized slavery throughout the British Empire) was a glimmer of hope just 600 miles from the American mainland.

West Indian Emancipation was the result of the labors of Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and other British abolitionists who had devoted decades of their lives to the anti-slavery cause.  A short but bloody slave uprising on the West Indian island of Jamaica during Christmas 1831 gave traction to the movement, and finally Parliament decreed that slavery in the British West Indies would be abolished beginning August 1, 1834.   Three of the West Indian islands – Antigua, Montserrat, and Bermuda – would set their slaves free unconditionally on that date, while the other islands would begin a gradual emancipation plan, called “apprenticeship”, that would take several years. [1]


But whereas a bloody slave rebellion had helped lead to the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire, a similar rebellion in the United States at about the same time had exactly the opposite effect.   Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia in August, 1831 caused slaveholders to tighten the chains (figuratively speaking) on their slaves all the more.  Discouraged by the turn of events at home, American abolitionists and blacks looked to Britain as a sign of hope.

And so it was that the first August 1st celebration in the United States took place in New York City on August 1, 1834, and abolitionist missionaries, teachers, and reporters flocked to the British West Indies to observe and assist in the emancipation process.   Among the early Americans to arrive there was Oberlin’s own Lane Rebel and future college professor, James Thome, who was commissioned by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1837 to report on the progress of West Indian Emancipation.  Not surprisingly, Thome reported that Antigua, which had experienced immediate, unconditional emancipation, “is the morning star of our nation, and though it glimmers faintly through a lurid sky, yet we hail it, and catch at every ray as the token of a bright sun which may yet burst gloriously upon us.”   He was less sanguine about the gradual emancipation in the other islands, yet he still insisted “that we are much better off now than we have been for a long time.”   Reports like these caused Arthur Tappan’s anti-slavery newspaper, The Emancipator, upon the completion of the British emancipation process in 1838, to declare that August 1st should be celebrated as a recurring holiday by abolitionists everywhere. [2]

So it was written, and so it was done, with annual celebrations spreading outward from New York and New England over the next several years.  Oberlin’s first August First celebration occurred in 1842 under the leadership of Sabram Cox, an escaped slave who came to Oberlin to obtain an education a few years earlier and would remain the rest of his life as a key community leader.  Assisting Cox was George B. Vashon, a free-born black who two years later would become the first African American to earn a Bachelor’s Degree at Oberlin College and then go on to become a teacher in Haiti (another Carribbean island that achieved emancipation, but in this case by a massive slave uprising in the 1790s).  Also assisting was William P. Newman, another escaped slave and Oberlin College student who would go on to become an educator and minister to the fugitive slave colonies in Canada.  The Oberlin Evangelist described the results of their efforts as follows:

Perhaps there has never been more interest felt, on any public occasion in this place, than at the celebration by the colored people, on the first [of this month].  The anniversary of the emancipation of 800,000 persons held in slavery in the British West Indies, must be a more interesting time to the friends of human rights, than the anniversary of American Independence, so long as the principles of the declaration of that independence are so utterly disregarded by our slave-holding and pro-slavery citizens.  And then this was probably the first effort made by any portion of the colored people of Ohio to show their improvement and the effect of giving them equal rights.  The idea of the celebration originated with, and all the arrangements were made and executed by the colored people, with scarcely a suggestion from others.  And, no doubt, we speak the feelings of the very large audience in attendance, when we say that the whole was conceived and executed with excellent judgment, and good taste.  We heard no expression but that of satisfaction and gratification.

The celebration lasted from morning to evening, with speeches by the organizers as well as Oberlin College President Asa Mahan, Professor John Morgan, and Professor Thome, who told of his personal experiences in the West Indies.  As reported by the Evangelist,  “The large chapel was crowded to excess, and the interest continued to the close, as was manifested by the earnest attention and moistened eye of many in the congregation…  After the meeting, two hundred and fifty persons sat down to a plain free dinner, provided by the colored people, eighty of whom were at the table.  Of these nearly one half had felt the galling chain of slavery.” [3]

The following year would see the celebration return, and the Oberlin Evangelist would once again report that “Throughout the whole, the true principle of equality, the essential brotherhood of man, prevailed, and the effect was most happy on all concerned.”   In 1844, a new leader of the Oberlin African American community and the First of August celebrations would emerge in the person of Oberlin College student William Howard Day.  Although only 18 years old at the time, Day would deliver a stirring address and become the chief organizer of the annual event for the next two years. Invoking the legacy of the African liberator Cinque, whose 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad ultimately led to the liberty of its enslaved passengers, Day proclaimed: [4]

I love my country, but never can I sacrifice the rights of man for a love of country.  The truth must be told: our country is guilty – we are guilty, and slavery must be abolished soon, or we may prepare to suffer the consequences.  We have long enough clung to the faint hope of a change; we have long enough listened to the frequest whisper, “Peace, be still”, and now the call is for action.  From the memorable rock of Plymouth, a beacon has been lighted by the fires of liberty.  The irrevocable decree has gone forth from the Supreme Court of the universe – “Proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants thereof.”  If such were the sentiments of the pilgrim fathers, if such be the command of God, liberty we can, and liberty we must have.  If “coming events cast their shadows before”, who can prophesy that the decks of the Amistad and Creole are not the faint sketches of our future history.  If a Cinque or a Washington shall hereafter rise, (which may God forbid) – if our land shall be deluged in blood – if your attention shall be directed to the Southern quarter by the roar of the booming cannon, and the shrieks of the wounded and dying – if devastation and ruin take the place of supposed peace – or if with the burning of villages they shall be enveloped in one common grave – you will be responsible.  You have it in your power to avert it.  The same means used for the abolition of Slavery in the West Indies, will avail now.  Their efforts were few and feeble, but at last they conquered; and with the same well-directed efforts, with the same spirit, and with the dependence on the same God, we shall conquer.


Day would go on to have a long career of anti-slavery and equal rights advocacy, locally, nationally and internationally.  (See my William Howard Day blog.)  Among those listening to Day’s speech that August 1st was a frequent visitor to Oberlin, Mrs. Almira Porter Barnes, from Troy, New York.  Mrs. Barnes was an abolitionist and moral reform activist who was on close terms with the Oberlin College establishment.  She described the day’s events as follows:

… at eight oclock in the morning there was a prayer meeting [and] a number of prayers and addresses were made by both coulored [sic] and white[;] a white gentleman from Jamaca [sic] was present who was a slaveholder untill [sic] a short time previous to Emancipation and gave us some account of the manner in which the day was kept there and the effect it had had upon the slaveholder and the slave.  At three o’clock in the after noon a large assembly met in the church and listened to several addresses from coulored young men that would have done honor to students from any institution in the country.  A dinner was provided by the coulored people and between two and three hundred invitations given including of course the professors families and distinguished strangers like myself.  After partaking of an excellent repast consisting of pyes [sic] cake fruit &c we had some excellent singing and some appropriate remarks by a Mr Hall a Baptist Minister who formerly preached in Rochester and then the invited company dispersed and the tables were filled again with any who were disposed to partake… [5]

The African American organizers of the Oberlin August First celebrations also welcomed participation by women.  Many of the female participants prepared essays that were read to the audience by male proxies, in deference to the contemporary tabboo against women orators sharing the stage with men and speaking before a mixed audience.  In 1846, Oberlin resident Mary Hester Crabb, an emancipated slave, and Oberlin College student Emeline Crooker had their essays read, and the following year, Oberlin College student Antoinette Brown (who would become the first female ordained minister in the United States in 1853) also wrote an essay.  But the event organizers were also amenable to women who would dare to defy the public speaking tabboo.  On August 1, 1846, Oberlin College student Lucy Stone did just that, and in the words of one reporter, “in a clear, full tone, read her own article”. The speech, entitled “Why Do We Rejoice Today?”, was the first in an illustrious speaking career that spanned several decades.  (See my Lucy Stone blog).  The following is an excerpt: [6]

We rejoice to-day, not simply because the genius of freedom is now presiding and scattering blessings, where eight years ago the Demon of slavery brooded; – nor merely that where ignorance and heathenism then prevailed, the light of science and christianity is now dawning; – nor yet because to-day is the anniversary of the moral and political birth-day of eight hundred thousand human beings, – but we rejoice in the grander fact, that in one of the largest and most influential kingdoms of the world, a public sentiment exists which shivers the chains of the slave and lets “the oppressed go free” – which practically recognizes the equal brotherhood and inalienable rights of man…


The doom of slavery everywhere is sealed in the public sentiment which caused England to reach out her hand over the broad Atlantic, to lift up from his deep degradation, and make conscious of his manhood, the bondman pining there.  The influence of that event will be wide as the world, and longer than the stream of time.


But as Oberlinites and abolitionists found hope and cheer in the example set by the British, the political leaders of the American slaveholding states had a vastly different view of the situation.  To them West Indian emancipation was a catastrophe like none other, to be avoided at all costs.  Just months before William Howard Day delivered his first August 1st address, and as Thomas Clarkson and other British abolitionists were turning their attention towards worldwide abolition, U.S. Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, one of the South’s most powerful slaveholders, wrote to the British Foreign Minister and warned him that if Britain were to “succeed in accomplishing in the United States, what she avows to be her desire and the object of her constant exertions to effect throughout the world, so far from being wise or humane, she would involve in the greatest calamity the whole country.”  The following year, South Carolina Governor James Hammond went a step further in a scathing letter to Clarkson himself, declaring that the anti-slavery agitation of recent years had served only to drive American slaveholders into “a close examination of the subject in all its bearings, and the  result had been an universal conviction that in holding Slaves we violate no law of God – inflict no injustice on any of his creatures – while the terrible consequences of emancipation to all parties and the world at large, clearly revealed to us, make us shudder at the bare thought of it.”  Even fifteen years later, as Alabama prepared to secede from the Union on the eve of the Civil War, Alabama secession commissioner Stephen Hale warned the Governor of Kentucky that if secession failed, “the dark pall of barbarism must soon gather over our sunny land, and the scenes of West India emancipation, with its attendant horrors and crimes (that monument of British fanaticism and folly), be re-enacted in our own land upon a more gigantic scale.” [7]

Clearly the road to Juneteenth in the United States would be a vastly more difficult path than the road to August 1st had been in the British Empire.  But with the British example before it,  Oberlin would stay the course through many more August 1st commemorations.  Even as late as August 1, 1862, in the midst of bloody civil war, at a meeting chaired by Oberlin College graduate Elias Toussaint Jones, its “citizens irrespective of color” would resolve:

That this day – the memorial day of Freedom to 800,000 slaves in the West Indies – was the first instalment [sic] in modern times of the redeeming power of true Christian civilization upon the destinies of the oppressed; that the work begun then and there still progresses and cannot cease till the same power shall have pervaded every Christian nation, not excepting our own; that we have unmistakeable indications that God is moving his almighty agencies towards this result; that the insane rebellion of the South was permitted and will be over-ruled of God to this end, and that a thousand lesser subordinate events conspire to assure us that the day of universal emancipation in this country is at hand. [8]

Eight weeks later President Lincoln would unveil to the nation his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.



“First of August – Colored People”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 17, 1842, p. 5

“The First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 16, 1843, p. 7

“The First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 14, 1844, p. 7

“Emancipation in the West Indies. Slavery in America”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1844, p. 3

“First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 14, 1845, p. 6

“First of August in Oberlin”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 19, 1846, p. 6

“Jamaica”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 18,1847, p. 6

“First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 18,1852, pp. 6-7

“Annual Report of the Female A. S. Soc”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 15,1855, p. 7

“First of August in Oberlin”, The Oberlin Evangelist, July 30, 1862, p. 7

“First of August in Oberlin (Concluded from our last)”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 13, 1862, pp. 5-6

“Why do we rejoice to-day?”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, November 27, 1846, p. 3

Almira Porter Barnes to Mrs. Laura Willard, August 12, 1844, Oberlin College Archives, Robert S. Fletcher collection, RG30/24, Box 3, Folder: “Correspondence – Misc pre-1865″

Dr. John Oldfield, “British Anti-Slavery“, February 17, 2011, BBC

James A. Thome, Joseph Horace Kimball, Emancipation in the West Indies

Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists

Todd Mealy, Aliened American: A Biography of William Howard Day, 1825-1865, Volume 1

“Celebration of the Disenfranchised Americans of Oberlin, Ohio, First of August, 1846″, Oberlin College Archives, Oberlin File, RG21, Series XI, Box 2

John C. Calhoun, letter to Mr. Pakenham, April 18, 1844, Proceedings of the Senate and Documents Relative to Texas, from which the Injunction of Secrecy Has Been Removed, p. 53

James Henry Hammond to Thomas Clarkson, March 24, 1845, The Pro-Slavery Argument: as Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States, pp. 169-170

Stephen F. Hale, letter to Gov. B. McGoffin of Kentucky, December 27, 1860, Official Records of the Rebellion, Series 4, Volume 1, p. 9

Gale L. Kenny, Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica

John Stauffer, “American Responses to British Emancipation: The Problem of Progress“, Third Annual Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference at Yale University, October 25-28, 2001

Kevin O’Brien Chang, “Sam Sharpe – Emancipation Hero“, July 27, 2012, The Gleaner

Lucy Stone to “Dear Father and Mother”, August 16, 1846, Oberlin College Archives, Robert S. Fletcher collection, RG30/24, Box 10, Folder 2

Carol Lasser and Marlene Deahl Merrill, ed., Friends & Sisters: Letters Between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846-93

Roland M. Baumann, “A Voice Beneath History: the Story of Mary Hester Crabb”, presentation at Oberlin Public Library, February 1, 2014

William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College From its Foundation through the Civil War, volume 1

General Catalogue of Oberlin College: 1833- 1908

Minority Student Records“, Oberlin College Archives, RG 5/4/3



[1] Kenny, pp. 55-56

[2] Quarles, pp. 123, 124; Thome, pp. 209, 478

[3] Oberlin Evangelist, August 17, 1842

[4] Oberlin Evangelist, August 16, 1843; Mealy, pp. 123-124; “Celebration”; Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1844

[5] Barnes

[6] Baumann; “Celebration”; Lasser, p. 24; Stone to “Dear Father and Mother”; “Why do we rejoice to-day?

[7] Calhoun; Hammond; Hale

[8] Oberlin Evangelist, July 30, 1862

Behind the Scenes – Oral History Digitizing

July 1st, 2015

by Eileen Telegdy, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer

I am Eileen Telegdy and in October of 2014 I retired, sold my home and moved to a condo in Oberlin. I responded to an ad Liz Schultz, the Museum Education and Tour Coordinator of the Oberlin Heritage Center, placed in the local paper in January of 2015 seeking volunteers to join the Oberlin Oral History Committee. I joined and volunteered to help digitize the cassette tapes from the Series II phase of the project (2000 to the present).


Eileen Telegdy digitizing an oral history cassette


Digitizing the tapes is done in the basement of the Monroe House, which is teeming with activity by employees, interns, students and volunteers. The space is well utilized and surprisingly quiet, interrupted only by phone and doorbell rings and soft spoken conversations. Everyone is friendly, welcoming and helpful. Once an interview is completed it is painstakingly transcribed, saved to files on the computer and also printed and placed in a binder. A preface is also written, cassette labeled and cataloged in inventory. The quality of the tapes varies.

To digitize, the cassette tape is played on a converter connected to the computer with a USB cord. As the converter plays the tape, a free program called Audacity records it and then converts it into a WAV (sound) file. The results in a more efficient method of storage and improved preservation and availability. I found listening to the interviews captivating and compelling, so much so that I wanted to be in the basement of the Monroe House with earphones on four mornings a week for a couple of months. I listened to the interviews as they were recorded and simultaneously read the transcripts to check for any discrepancies. The chronicling from childhood to retirement years of multiple generations of residents who experienced all the conflict and challenges that faced our nation during the last millennium to the present is illuminating and hearing their stories in their own voices adds an invaluable dimension.

Since most interviews are not focused on one specific subject, information on various issues is revealed in an anecdotal manner in numerous interviews of different individuals, providing insight and understanding of very diverse positions on a multitude of issues. For example, the interviews explain the obstacles encountered and the procedures required that eventually brought Splash Zone, the industrial park, fair housing, Kendal, and the FAA to Oberlin, plus the beginning of Head Start and averting what was the apparent imminent closure of the hospital in Oberlin. This is not a comprehensive list; only a representation of some of the subjects discussed. All benefited from the perseverance and diligent efforts of hard working motivated individuals who believed in the betterment of the city for all ages and races. I think hearing the voices increases understanding of the transcripts exponentially. The voices provide intent, emotion and inflection that are lacking in the written word. It is my sincere hope this method will keep the interviews available for many years. Presently, all the cassette tapes in inventory have been digitized. It was a pleasure and privilege to contribute to this project.

Juneteenth – the “extinction” of legalized slavery in America

June 12th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent, researcher and trustee

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first “Juneteenth” – June 19, 1865 – a day which has come to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.  Since Juneteenth is such an important day in modern Oberlin, and the fight against slavery was such an important part of Oberlin’s early history, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write a blog describing how American slavery ended, how Oberlin reacted to it, and why Juneteenth has been chosen as the day to celebrate it.  None of it was as straightforward as one might think.

Most people are aware that  American slavery was ended by the Civil War, and that specifically President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had something to do with it.   But the actual demise of slavery was in fact a complicated process, as might be expected of an institution that had become so deeply ingrained in the American social, political and economic landscape throughout the first “four score and 7 years” of this nation’s existence.

When President Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, seven slaveholding states had already declared themselves seceded from the Union and were in the process of arming themselves for potential war.   “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended,” Lincoln said in his inaugural address, “while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”   And he meant it.  Three months earlier, when slaveholding states began to call for secession conventions in response to Lincoln’s election, President-elect Lincoln told a colleague in a private dispatch: “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery… Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than later.”   But while Lincoln always maintained that stopping the expansion of slavery would put it on “the course of ultimate extinction”, he also reassured slaveholders in that same inaugural address that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” [1]

Most abolitionists and Oberlinites concurred.  Initially, that is.  But surely, they thought, when the Confederate states opened fire on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, President Lincoln would use the opportunity to eradicate slavery forever.   After all, former President John Quincy Adams, who as a Constitutional lawyer successfully argued the Amistad case before the U.S. Supreme Court, had told Congress twenty years earlier that “under a state of actual invasion and of actual war… not only the President of the United States but the commander of the army has power to order the universal emancipation of the slaves.”  But even as Lincoln called up troops to put down the rebellion, he held fast to both his promises – he would not compromise on the extension of slavery into new territory, but he also would not interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed.  In fact as combat operations began, he censured those military commanders who took it upon themselves to emancipate the slaves in their jurisdiction, and supported military commanders who returned escaped slaves to their owners.  More than a year into the war, Lincoln would still insist that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union”, and that although his “personal wish” remained “that all men every where could be free”, he would use his war powers to free the slaves only insofar as he believed it would “save the Union”. [2]

Perplexed on how to proceed, the citizens of Oberlin called a series of public meetings during commencement week, in August, 1861, to discuss the situation.  The meetings drew not only local dignitaries, but such nationally recognized figures as the renowned abolitionist Reverend Edward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) from Massachusetts, and U.S. Representative James Ashley from Toledo.   (Ashley was himself a former Underground Railroad conductor who was portrayed, not altogether flatteringly, in Stephen Spielberg’s recent movie “Lincoln”.)  Speaking just weeks after Union forces had suffered a major, humiliating defeat in Virginia, Representative Ashley told his Oberlin audience:

“I am now on my return homewards from Washington.  I saw President Lincoln but the day before I left.  He said to me – Can you tell me why it is that one Secessionist [soldier] is equal to five Union men?  I said, Yes.  The reason is that the Secessionist has an idea; the Union men have not.  The former knows what he works and fights for.  The latter don’t know.  They must save Slavery and yet must fight it; and in this everlasting perplexity and conflict of aims and interests, they cannot have energy, or will…


Now, friends, if you will speak out, and if the people of the Great West will speak out, our rulers will obey.  And for myself I am not willing to give such favors to rebels as the policy of our Government thus far seems to accord them.”

James Ashley

Reverend Beecher resolved that “By virtue of the present treason and war, we have a legal right to strike Slavery down”, and “If this is not done, a dark mist of uncertainty hangs over the issue of this war.”  These sentiments resonated with the locals.  Cleveland Reverend James Thome (a former Oberlin College Professor and Lane Rebel) proclaimed, “We who have spoken out all along thus far, ought to speak out now.  Our Government needs and perhaps desires just this expression from us.  If ever there was a time when courage and unswerving boldness were in season, that time is now.”

Edward H. Fairchild, Principal of the Oberlin College Preparatory Department, took it a step further.  Not only should the slaves be freed, they should be armed and allowed to fight: “Let the blacks, bond and free, be marshalled for this contest, and come up to strike for Freedom, and to smite down this rebellion.  When armed and disciplined, let them sweep the Gulf States, take possession, and hold the country.  It is legitimately theirs.”  And according to the Oberlin Evangelist, “All agreed that, through a specially kind Providence, Slavery had put itself into a position where it may be smitten down, and that it is in the highest degree wise for the Federal Government to exercise this war power as fast as it can be done to purpose.” [3]

Jame Thome, E. H. Fairchild

But it would be more than a year later before Lincoln was finally ready to act.  And even then it wouldn’t be the “universal emancipation” that John Quincy Adams had envisioned two decades earlier.  Lincoln insisted that the Constitution only gave him authority to free the slaves in regions that were in rebellion, and thus his Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, freed only those “persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States.”  Fully aware that slaveholders in those rebellious regions would not feel the least bit bound by the President’s proclamation, some abolitionists cried foul – insisting that the proclamation didn’t free any slaves at all.  But in Oberlin it was generally cheered.  The Proclamation in fact freed thousands of slaves immediately, some of them right in Oberlin, who had escaped from the rebel states and had ever since lived in constant apprehension of recapture and return to slavery.  And it was understood that with each advance of Union arms many more slaves would be freed, and many of them in turn, would “be marshalled for this contest, and come up to strike for Freedom” themselves, as Principal Fairchild had advocated more than a year earlier.  And so the Oberlin Evangelist jubilantly proclaimed: [4]

“We shall account this proclamation as the great and glorious decision.  It fixes a policy.  It is a mighty word for freedom.  Its echoes will gladden four millions of hearts where little joy has found place for many generations.  We hope the watchword as the tidings flash from one plantation to another all the way from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, will be Pray and wait.  The God of the oppressed is surely coming!”

5th USCT
5th USCT troops

And that’s exactly how it happened.  As Union armed forces made their slow but steady advance into the Confederate interior, the tidings did indeed flash from one plantation to another.  In 1864 the tidings were carried to coastal North Carolina and Virginia, as the 5th United States Colored Troops (USCT),  a regiment of “blacks, bond and free” with a strong Oberlin presence, conducted raids into rebel territory, freeing slaves as it went.  (See my Battle of New Market Heights blog.)   Hundreds of miles away the tidings flashed to Eliza Wallace, in Natchez, Mississippi, who with her three children was helped on the road to Oberlin and freedom by Oberlin resident and alumnus, Chaplain Sela Wright of the 70th United States Colored Infantry.  Nobody knows how many thousands of slaves were freed between Natchez and the Virginia coast, but it’s estimated that 130,000 of them served in the United States army.  And ultimately, after much praying and waiting, the tidings did indeed make it all the way to the Rio Grande, but not until weeks after Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, President Lincoln had been assassinated, and many considered the war to be over.  And so it was that on June 19, 1865 Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas with a proclamation that “all slaves are free” and with the military power to back it up. The promise of the Emancipation Proclamation was now complete. [5]

Sela Wright

Reverend Sela Wright, in later years

(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

But wait!  We seem to be forgetting something.  Recall that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed those slaves in regions “in rebellion against the United States”.  What about the hundreds of thousands of slaves held in regions where the rebellion had already been suppressed, or slaveholding states which had remained loyal right from the start, like Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware?  Well, the Lincoln Administration didn’t forget about them either.  In fact it employed a carrot and stick approach to entice these regions to abolish slavery voluntarily, which most of them did by the time General Granger landed in Galveston.  And for the last stubborn holdouts – Kentucky and Delaware – the Lincoln Administration had also been using a carrot and stick approach to pass a Constitutional Amendment, originally introduced into Congress by none other than Representative James Ashley (mentioned above), that would ban slavery nationwide and forever.  That amendment was finally ratified on  December 18, 1865, becoming the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, making institutional, legalized slavery extinct everywhere in the United States of America.

So why do we celebrate June 19, 1865, a date that really only affected the slaves in Galveston, Texas?  Probably for the simple reason that they and their descendants kept the memory alive, year after year after year.  Today we might be more inclined to see January 1 (the date the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect) or December 18 (the date the 13th Amendment was ratified) as more appropriate for a national celebration.   But the vast majority of slaves were freed between those two events, and with a bloody Civil War and a strife-filled Reconstruction in progress, the freed men and women had all they could do to make the difficult transition to freedom, without trying to organize a national day of commemoration.  It wasn’t until the civil rights era of the 20th century that Galveston’s celebration garnered national attention, and the idea spread slowly across the country.  In 2004 the City of Oberlin officially joined the throng by designating “Juneteenth, the Saturday in June that falls between the 13th and 19th of June each year, as an Officially Recognized day of Commemoration and Celebration.” [6]

So please join us in celebrating the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth this Saturday, June 13th, in Oberlin.  Enjoy the many cultural festivities, stop by the Oberlin Heritage Center’s booth on Tappan Square, perhaps even sign up for one of our historic tours.  But as you’re enjoying the food, music and fun, remember too the millions of Americans who endured the bitter hopelessness of this awful institution, and remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, who fought for freedom – some, like Gordon Granger, Sela Wright and the men of the 5th USCT, who freed slaves outright, and others who fought to preserve a Union that would finally bring slavery to its “ultimate extinction”.  And remember too that while institutional slavery is indeed extinct, the racial prejudices and mistrust that propagated it and were perpetuated by it are not.  But that’s our battle.

Happy Juneteenth (and go Cavs)!



“Discussion on Slavery and the War”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Sept. 11, 1861, p. 4

“Legal Notice of Coming Emancipation”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Oct. 8, 1862, p. 3

“The Emancipation Proclamation”, National Archives & Records Administration

History of Juneteenth“, Juneteenth.com

Oberlin Resolution (R01-06-CMS),  Oberlin Juneteenth, Inc.

Abraham Lincoln, First inaugural address, March 4, 1861

Abraham Lincoln to William Kellogg, December 11, 1860, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol 4

Abraham Lincoln reply to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1861, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol 5

Worthington Chauncey Ford and Charles Francis Adams,  John Quincy Adams: His Connection with the Monroe Doctrine (1823)

Oberlin News, June 12, 1893

Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895

Abraham Lincoln, “Mr. Lincoln’s Reply”, Third Joint Debate at Jonesboro, IL, Sept 15, 1858

“Wright, Sela G.”, Soldiers and Sailors Database – The Civil War, National Park Service

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

General catalogue of Oberlin college, 1833 [-] 1908, Oberlin College Archives



[1] First inaugural address; Kellogg; Jonesboro

[2] Ford, Adams, p. 77; Greeley

[3] “Discussion”

[4] Emancipation Proclamation; “Legal Notice”

[5] Oberlin News; “Wright“; General catalogue; Finkelman, p. 394; “History

[6] “History“, Oberlin Resolution

Celebrating 20 Years of Community Service

April 27th, 2015

By Laurie Stein (Oberlin College 2006)

The Oberlin Heritage Center was delighted that former intern Laurie Stein was able to return to her alma mater to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Community Services Work-Study Program of Oberlin College, and also to present at the Annual Meeting of the Oberlin Heritage Center on April 1, 2015. The Oberlin Heritage Center has been a community partner since the inception of the work study program.  Here we reprint Laurie’s remarks on the impact community service at the Heritage Center had on her future career path. Laurie Stein is Curator of the Lake Forest – Lake Bluff Historical Society.

First of all I want to thank the staff at the Heritage Center and Tania Boster and Beth Blissman at Oberlin College for inviting me here this week. It’s wonderful to see a lot of familiar faces and see the many steps forward taken by this organization since my time here. It’s hard to believe that in 2016 it will be ten years since I graduated from Oberlin.

The reason I’m joining you today is to celebrate the 20-year partnership between the Oberlin Heritage Center and the college’s Community Services Work-Study Program, which has been absolutely wonderful. I give it all the credit in the world for allowing me to take my study of history and hone it into a passion for interpreting the past for a public audience.

I first became connected with the Oberlin Heritage Center through a Winter Term project in my second year. I conducted research for the Ohio Historic Inventory, surveying buildings and architecture and using archives to discover their former occupants.

At the end of the three-week winter term period, I recall thinking what a shame it was that my part in the project was ending. I was just starting to become familiar with the resources and with Oberlin’s built environment and there was so much more to do! But with double majoring, playing soccer, and working to help pay my tuition, I did not realistically see how I could continue as a volunteer, at least not on a regular basis.

So I was absolutely thrilled when Pat Murphy told me that as a work study student, I could apply to continue working there during the school year through the Community Services Work-Study Program, since the Oberlin Heritage Center was one of their community partners.

BBlissman+LStein+TBoster - blog

Beth Blissman, Director of the Bonner Center for Service and Learning, Laurie Stein, and Tania Boster, Director of the Community Services Work-Study Program

This was just terrific news, that I could work to defray the cost of my attendance at school in the field that I was interested in. I think I had an inkling even then that this wasn’t just a career-building opportunity; for me this might be the career-building opportunity.

And so I continued as an intern at the Heritage Center for the rest of my time at Oberlin, including over one summer, and then after I graduated, as a Museum Fellow for a year.

It was during this time that the Oberlin Heritage Center taught me what the “public” part of public historian really meant. At first I thought that for me it meant doing research that someone else would interpret – it was what I initially considered myself best at, being the most like “writing papers,” which I had already conquered as a history major. But after that first Winter Term, I was pushed out of my comfort zone, and I worked on not just the inventory, but on any number of other projects: giving tours, docent training, special events, stuffing envelopes for membership mailings, scanning photographs, summer camps, updating the website, taking photos of gravestones at the cemetery, copyediting the annual report, demonstrating the use of stilts on the lawn in front of the schoolhouse, and much more – all things, maybe except for the stilts, that I use regularly in my current job in Lake Forest.

This was a wonderful aspect of my intern experience at the OHC, that I wasn’t just buttonholed into one project. I really got a chance to see the inner workings of a small, active history museum – a museum that had become, thanks to Pat Murphy and Mary Anne Cunningham and all of you who are here tonight, a model for other history museums across the country, including mine in Lake Forest.

All of these experiences were invaluable when I applied to graduate school, and they were invaluable in signaling that I wanted to start my career at a museum like this one, where I would be able to work closely with our interns, our board, our volunteers – where I could get to know our museum members by name and say hello to them at events – where I could help develop innovative programs and provide services to the local community. The museum where I work now, the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society, is just starting a regular internship program with our local college, Lake Forest College, and I can only hope that eventually it has a similar impact to what I was lucky enough to experience here through the Heritage Center and the Community Services Work-Study Program. Thank you.