Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


The weary feet and willing shoulders of Almira Porter Barnes

March 22nd, 2016

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

Oberlin’s history is chock-full of people who have gained national and international recognition for their achievements, like Antoinette Brown (Blackwell) – the first female ordained minister in the United States.  But none of these people, no matter how deserved their recognition has been, could have reached their lofty heights without standing on the shoulders of people who came before them.  And Oberlin’s history is also chock-full of the unsung heroes and heroines who willingly offered those shoulders.  Few of those unsung heroines are as fascinating to me as an obscure grandmother from upstate New York named Almira Porter Barnes.  In an age when the conventional wisdom had it that a grandmother’s place was knitting by the fireside, this remarkable lady was traveling the northern United States and Canada, investigating and influencing, financing and philanthropizing, encouraging and endorsing the great reform movements of her day: abolitionism, universal education, temperance, and general moral reform.  (And she did her share of knitting too, by the way, but not always by the fireside.)  She left an indelible mark not only on Antoinette Brown, but on Oberlin as well.

Antoinette Brown

Antoinette Brown

Almira Porter, of whom we unfortunately have no photographs, was born in Connecticut in 1786.  In 1807 she married a tinsmith named Blakeslee Barnes.  They moved to Troy, New York and had 6 children before Blakeslee died in 1823.  She never remarried.  It’s not clear how much of Almira’s considerable wealth came from her husband’s tinsmith business or from other sources, but she clearly weathered the economic depression of 1837 with plenty of wealth intact to donate and loan to worthy causes. She donated hundreds of dollars (at least) to Oberlin College, the Oberlin Board of Education and the Ladies’ Education Society of Oberlin (likely in the tens of thousands of dollars in today’s currency). [1]

Her interest in Oberlin likely began through friendship with the Shipherd family in Troy, whose scion, John Jay Shipherd, was the co-founder of Oberlin colony and college.  After that she helped fund the Oberlin College education of her grandson, Francis Fletcher in the 1840s.  She also took an active interest in the Oberlin College education of her nephew, future Oberlin College Professor Henry E. Peck. [2]

Henry Peck

Henry Peck
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Although Barnes never officially resided in Oberlin or enrolled in Oberlin College, she spent summers in Oberlin during the 1840s attending, for her own personal edification, the theology classes of Oberlin College Professor Charles G. Finney.  Most of what we know about  Barnes comes from three letters that she wrote from Oberlin to her daughter, Mrs. Laura Willard in Troy, during the summer of 1844.  These letters shine an interesting light on early Oberlin and antebellum America. [3]

Barnes-writingsample

Sample from an Almira Porter Barnes letter. Not a millimeter of paper was wasted!
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Barnes arrived in Oberlin in June that year, having started her journey with a boat ride from Troy to Buffalo via the Erie Canal.  Along the way she arrived in Rochester just in time for a three day anti-slavery convention.  Barnes considered skipping the convention, but her friends “urged me to stay and thought I should loose [sic] my standing in the Liberty Party if I did not.”

The Liberty Party was the first national abolitionist party, and it’s interesting that in this era of  rough-and-tumble, male-only politics, Mrs. Barnes had any standing in a national political party to lose.   Although abolitionists tended to be more progressive in the realm of women’s rights than American society in general, the political wing of the abolitionists was generally considered to be the least progressive of this group.  But “the temptation of course was very great,” and Mrs. Barnes “concluded to remain through the week,” which she spent “very pleasantly.”

After the convention, she crossed Lake Erie to Cleveland, where she ran into Professor Calvin Stowe of Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary and William Beecher, the husband and brother, respectively, of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who eight years later would publish the epic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.   Together the three of them took a carriage to “of course… the Temperance House.”

On the stagecoach to Oberlin the next morning, Barnes chanced to meet her college instructor, Professor Finney, who was also the renowned revivalist pastor of Oberlin’s one and only church, and several other Oberlinites, including her nephew, Henry Peck, and her grandson.  The group had been attending a religious convention in Cleveland.  But they returned early,  “the convention having passed a vote that they would not let the Oberlin people say any thing, the object of the meeting was to promote pure and undefiled religion.”  Ha!  It wasn’t just abolitionism that made early Oberlin unpopular with its neighbors, but its unorthodox church and its unconventional pastor as well.

Reverend Charles G. Finney (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Reverend Charles G. Finney
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Finally arriving in Oberlin, Barnes settled in for a long stay in the home of Oberlin College President Asa Mahan and his wife, Mary.  Shortly afterwards word came from John Jay Shipherd “at Michigan” that he and his family were “all well and very happy and prospects flattering”  – news which Barnes asked her daughter to relay to the Shipherd family in Troy.  Shipherd had left Oberlin early that year for Olivet, Michigan to start a similar college and colony there.  Despite the good tidings, he would be dead within three months.

Barnes continued to gently push the envelope of gender roles in Oberlin, as she sat in on Professor Finney’s classes in the male dominated Seminary. [4]  But she was only in Oberlin for a month before she was already off on her next adventure.  She had an opportunity to visit Canada and the Mahans encouraged her to go, insisting that “it would be a great satisfaction and encouragement to Mr. and Mrs. Rice to receive a visit” from her.  The Rices were missionaries in the fugitive slave colony in Malden, Upper Canada (present day Windsor, Ontario).  And so  Barnes boarded a boat in Cleveland and crossed Lake Erie to Canada.  Here she had an opportunity to visit the colonists who had escaped from American slavery.  She wrote about this experience in her characteristically breathless style (which I’ve separated into paragraphs for ease of readability):

“Saturday morning we went out to call on the coulored [sic] people and spent most of the day, and I am sure I never spent a day so pleasantly in making calls as I did that day.  All that we called upon had made their escape from Slavery and it was exceedingly interesting to have them tell how they managed to escape and what hardships and fatigue they endured in getting away and their suffering for fear they should be taken and carried back and especially their trial on account of leaving behind them their friends[;] prehaps [sic] a Husband had left a wife and children[,] or a wife her husband[,] or children had left parents that they should never see again[,] and they manifested as much feeling about it as any other people would.

 

The most that I talked with were those had learnt that they were to be soald [sic] from their familys [sic] and separated probably for ever[;] some had managed to get their families with them and some had escaped alone at the risk of their lives.  They all seemed to feel as if they should have no mercy shown them if they should be overtaken.  I asked one of them what he would have done if he had been pursued[;] he said before he would have been taken he would have killed his pursuers as quick as he would have killed a black snake, but he seemed to have a kind heart and said he should be very glad to see his Master their [sic], and would do him a favor as quick as he would anyone…  But they all say if emancipation was to take place we would not be here long.  The most of them have a little place and manage to get along some how.” [5]

Barnes’ excursion to Canada was a short one, however.  By August she was back in Oberlin,  “regularly” attending Finney’s theology lectures “at nine o’clock and another at eleven”.  “My time is almost constantly occupied in some thing that is or might be both interesting and improving,” she explained.  One such activity was Oberlin’s third annual  commemoration of British emancipation in the West Indies – where she was “invited to the first table” reserved for “professors families and distinguished strangers”.  (See my “August First” blog for her description of this.)   Of Oberlin Barnes said, “no one can realise [sic] the difference in which such things are regarded here from what they are in other places, who has not been here, not only in regard to the treatment of coulored people but almost every thing else.” [6]

With the end of the school year in August, Barnes returned home to New York, where she undoubtedly heard the startling news of the passing of John Jay Shipherd in September 1844.  Shipherd’s death presented the Oberlin Collegiate Institute with a potential dilemma since they were occupying land that belonged to his estate.  Concerned that the Shipherd family might choose to sell the land if they didn’t return to Oberlin, the college wondered where they might get the funds to buy it from them if necessary.  With funds hard to come by, an agent for the college suggested that President Mahan “call upon Mrs. Barnes on his way to New York” and request a loan.  He also noted that “Mrs. Barnes wishes [to buy or lease] a lot in Oberlin”, but only “if it was located right” – near President Mahan’s home or the chapel on Professor Street.  (Since the Shipherds did move back to Oberlin, and there’s no record that Mrs. Barnes did, it appears that neither of these transactions took place.) [7]

The following year Henry Peck graduated from the Oberlin College seminary, but his aunt continued to attend Finney’s classes.  In 1847, at the age of 61, she was joined in the classes by 22 year old Antoinette Brown, who had graduated from the Oberlin College Ladies’ Literary course. Brown would speak highly of “My friend Mrs. Barnes… who used to bring her knitting to our Oberlin class exercises.”  (Wow – knitting during Finney’s classes.  I doubt there were many people who could get away with that!)  But Brown planned on taking the classes a step further than Barnes was.  For Brown, the classes were more than just about personal edification.  She wanted to preach, even though no woman had ever been ordained a minister and the college had made it clear that they weren’t about to graduate the first.  Brown would not be deterred, however, and in 1850 she completed the program as a “resident graduate”, without being ordained or awarded a degree. [8]

Brown was now in a dilemma, however.  She had completed her studies, but her life’s calling was unavailable to her because of gender discrimination.  But the ubiquitous Mrs. Barnes saw a way to assist her young friend through her own New York City missionary work.  “She now made this proposition to me,” Brown wrote, “if I would go to work in charities and in the slums, speaking as I could find opportunity in public and private, she would guarantee me a very fair salary and would find me a boarding-place with Zeruiah Porter Weed of the Class of 1838 Oberlin Literary.”  Brown gratefully accepted the offer. [9]

On her way to New York City, Brown stopped at an abolitionist convention in Oswego, where she hoped to deliver an address of her own.  But here too she encountered gender discrimination.  Although many of the conventioneers were likely the same people who gave Mrs. Barnes “standing” in the political anti-slavery movement, they still weren’t prepared to allow a woman to speak in public. [10]

Disappointed, Brown made another stop, at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in Massachusetts.  Here at last she was allowed to speak, impressing the audience with a lecture on one of her pet topics – that the Bible didn’t forbid women to speak in public.  But when she finally arrived in New York City, she learned that most of the ladies in Barnes’ Guardian Society didn’t share that viewpoint.  “The Guardian Society Ladies are of course not in perfect sympathy with my views,” Brown wrote, “& would not endorse the idea of my preaching on Sundays which was the plan we had formed.”  Since Brown was dead set on preaching (with or without ordination), the women finally concluded mutually that it would be best to terminate “our contemplated enterprise.”  Brown explained: [11]

“Mrs. Barns [sic] herself will still labor as a Missionary when she is able.  She is a noble woman, has really liberal views & would gladly sustain me in the contemplated labors notwithstanding any prejudice on account of my womananity.  So would Mrs. Weed.  I admire many traits in her character very much.  Neither of them would have fettered me in the least, yet they do not fully feel prepared to adopt all my views, & since there must be some prejudice against me I felt oppressed with the idea of compelling them to bear the credit of views which were not wholy [sic] their own though they had no hesitation about it.  The society ladies are kind courteous & pleasant, but they cannot with their views encourage my preaching.  So taking all things together we all thought it best to relinquish the enterprize [sic]… I can think of no person in the whole world that I would sooner have for my employer than Mrs. Barns, I love her very much; but I feel relieved that our engagement is broken.” [12]

Eventually it would all work out for Brown, of course, as she was ordained in 1853, preached in several churches, married Samuel Blackwell, and became a successful speaker and writer on behalf of abolitionism, racial equality, women’s rights, and temperance.  She also worked with her friend and fellow Oberlin College alumna, Lucy Stone, and others to found the American Woman Suffrage Association, which advocated women’s rights, but without sacrificing the principles of racial equality like other women’s organizations were then doing.

Almira Porter Barnes would only witness the early years of her young friend’s success, however, having passed away in 1858.  The American Female Guardian Society would remember her as one of “three specially influential Vice Presidents” (Mary Mahan being another), whose “weary feet have safely reached that peaceful shore.” [13]

After all that traveling over all those years, the feet may indeed have been weary, but the shoulders were always willing.

To hear more about Almira Porter Barnes and other Oberlin abolitionists, please join us on Saturday, April 2, 2016 at 11:00 A.M. at the Oberlin Public Library for a presentation of “Old Secrets, New Stories of Oberlin’s Underground Railroad”

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Almira Porter Barnes to Mrs. Laura Willard, June 28, 1844, Oberlin College Archives (OCA), Robert S. Fletcher collection, RG 30/24, Box 3, Folder: “Correspondence – Misc pre-1865”

Almira Porter Barnes to Mrs. Laura Willard, July 29, 1844, OCA, Robert S. Fletcher collection, op. cit.

Almira Porter Barnes to Mrs. Laura Willard, August 12, 1844, OCA, Robert S. Fletcher collection, op. cit.

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

Elizabeth Cazden, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, a Biography

Sherlock Bristol to Hamilton Hill, Oct 21, 1844, OCA, Robert S. Fletcher collection, RG 30/24, Box 14, Folder 9 (“Treasurer’s Office, File K”).

Sarah R. I. Bennett, Woman’s Work Among the Lowly

James Dascomb to Mrs. Almira Barnes, October 26, 1843, OCA, Autograph File, RG 16/5/3

Albert Welles, History of the Buell Family of England

Henry Porter Andrews, The Descendants of John Porter of Windsor, Conn. 1635-9. Vol. 1

“Receipts of the Oberlin Board of Education”, Oberlin Evangelist, March 17, 1841

“Pocket sized subscription book”, OCA, RG 7/1/2, Subseries 7, Box 2, Envelope marked “[Probably Dawes book pages used as agent…]”

General Catalogue of Oberlin College: 1833- 1908

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

James H. Fairchild, Oberlin: The Colony and the College, 1833-1883

George Derby and James Terry White, The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume XII

Blakeslee Barnes House (1820)“, Historic Buildings of Connecticut

“Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount – 1774 to Present”,  MeasuringWorth.com

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Welles, p. 224; “Receipts”; “Pocket-sized subscription books”; “Seven Ways”

[2] Barnes to Willard, June 28, 1844; Fletcher, p. 19; Dascomb to Barnes, Oct 26, 1843; General Catalogue, p. 333; Derby, p. 115; Welles, pp. 224-225

[3] Barnes to Willard, June 28, 1844; Lasser, p. 98

[4] Barnes to Willard, June 28, 1844

[5] Barnes to Willard, July 29, 1844

[6] Barnes to Willard, June 28, 1844; Barnes to Willard, Aug 12, 1844

[7] Barnes to Willard, June 28, 1844; Bristol to Hill

[8] Cazden, p. 56; Lasser, p. 12

[9] Cazden, p. 56

[10] Cazden, pp. 56-57

[11] Cazden, p. 57; Lasser, p. 96

[12] Lasser, pp. 96-97

[13] Bennett, p. 293

Integrating Oberlin’s Barber Shops, 1944-45

February 25th, 2016

By Mary Manning, Ph.D., 2015-16 Local History Corps AmeriCorps Member

Examining the history of Oberlin’s barber shops means addressing a situation in which overt discrimination was standard practice, far into the twentieth century and throughout the United States. In 1940, Oberlin had 4,305 citizens, and 897 of them were black. [1]  Yet, by this time, there were no barbers in town who would serve African-American customers in their shops during regular business hours. This post presents the story of how, at the height of World War II, discrimination in the barber shops became a town-wide topic of discussion and, subsequently, a cause for social action.

In the early 1940s, when an African-American man in Oberlin wanted a haircut, he would need to go to a barber, like Walker Fair, who cut hair at his home during off hours. Though these black barbers loyally served the African-American community, barbering was only a side gig. Most of them also worked full-time jobs, either as laborers in town or in industrial jobs in nearby cities like Elyria. Many white Oberlinians did not realize this racial divide existed until, at a night meeting at Oberlin College’s Graduate School of Theology, an African-American student announced that he was leaving to go get a haircut. At first, the white students did not understand—where could someone get a haircut at that time of night? Once it became clear that the barber shops patronized by white students and faculty were off limits to black students, these men decided to act. [2]

 

Headline May 11 1944

Headline in The Oberlin News-Tribune, May 11, 1944. (Image from Oberlin College Special Collections.)

 

On May 4, 1944, some of these students staged protests in local barber shops. Two groups with both black and white members, one led by Reverend Joseph F. King, then the pastor at First Church, and the other led by Larry Durgin, a theological school student, went into two of the shops in town and stated that they would like shaves or haircuts. The white members of each group also stated that they would gladly wait to be served until after the barbers had attended to the black members of their group. The barbers, in turn, claimed that “they did not have the ‘necessary experience, that technical difficulties were involved which would make successful work on Negro hair impossible.’” [3]  As the protesters explained their presence to every new customer that entered, and some of those customers simply chose to leave, the confronted barbers closed their doors on that day rather than give in to the protesters.

With this non-violent action, integration in the barber shops provoked heated dialogue in town. Because the effect of the protest was so great, the Oberlin News-Tribune immediately took a stand in its editorial published on May 11. Though the editor, Charles Mosher, criticized the tactics of the students and their allies, illuminating aspects of the increasing town and gown divide, he declared: “like a dash of cold water in our faces, [the protests] awoke many of us to realization that race segregation in the barber shops is no credit to Oberlin.” [4]  Mosher would later say, in an oral history interview, that “no event in Oberlin…since the Wellington rescue came so close to inflamed violence.” [5]  It was also Mosher, in that editorial, who proposed a solution: “buy one of the local barber shops and operate it on a bi-racial policy.” [6]

On the Sunday after the newspaper published Mosher’s editorial, Dr. Walter Horton, a theology professor substituting for Reverend King at First Church, also forcefully addressed the topic in his sermon. He invoked the intentions of Oberlin’s founders to create “an ideal community,” and he reminded the congregation of the city’s historic commitment to “the equality of all men before God.” On the subject of the barber shops, Horton cut straight to the heart of the matter, saying: ‘The right to have a hair-cut at convenient hours, without going out of town or suffering humiliating rebuffs from the only shops open, may not be as important as the rights to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’; but the denial of this elementary human service in Oberlin constitutes a reversal of all our most sacred traditions and casts a cloud over the reputation for fair play for which we are famous.” [7]

Thus, the theological students and professors, with the support and counsel of prominent Oberlinians, including the activist Robert Thomas and Mount Zion Baptist Church’s Reverend Normal C. Crosby, determined to follow Mosher’s recommendation. They would call themselves the Barber Shop Harmony Committee, and they would raise funds to buy out a local shop and hire a barber from out of town who would commit to running an integrated shop. By the end of their first meeting on June 19, thirty-seven members of the community had pledged $541 toward the fund. [8]  By September, the committee had calculated that they would need at least $2,500 to execute their plan, and they decided to sell stock at $1 per share, an affordable price even for student supporters. [9]  They would eventually purchase a shop from Bill Winder, one of the barbers targeted in the May 4 protests. On October 31, the Barber Shop Harmony Committee finalized a deal with Winder to buy his shop at 42 ½ South Main St. for $1,250. They then acknowledged their vision of social progress through their decision to rechristen Winder’s space as the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop.  [10]

Despite the clear successes of their fundraising and the shop’s purchase, the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop still lacked one item without which it could not operate: the willing barber. At first, they hired a man from Washington, D.C., who would arrive at the end of October but who then “had his plans changed by personal affairs.” [11]  Though they had intended to open on November 1, they could not open for another ten days, by which time they had secured the services of a barber whose name was Jerry Mizuiri. Mizuiri (“pronounced like Missouri,” noted the newspaper) was a Japanese-American from Oakland, California. [12]

 

Cosmopolitan Barber Shop ad, Oberlin Review, 1944-11-17, vol 73-A, no. 2, p. 2

Advertisement in The Oberlin Review, Nov. 11, 1944.  (Image from the Oberlin College Archives.)

 

However, in 1944, World War II raged abroad. The Oberlin News-Tribune, on December 28 of that year, would list the names of over 700 local people in service overseas, along with 16 names of local men who had died, 3 who remained prisoners of war, and the approximately 50 men who had already been honorably discharged, perhaps due to injuries. [13]  Many of these servicemen fought in the especially brutal Pacific theater of the war while, in the United States, the perceived threat of Japanese invasion had resulted in over 100,000 Japanese-Americans being removed from their West Coast homes and interned in camps further inland by a federal agency, the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Though Mizuiri was an American citizen by birth, he had been relocated to an internment camp in Northern California. [14]  He was then sent to Cleveland, where a satellite office of the WRA funneled displaced Japanese-American workers into local industrial and clerical jobs. [15]  Employers, such as Oberlin’s Cosmopolitan Barber Shop, might send job notices to the WRA office, who would then place qualified workers in those roles. Mizuiri’s arrival in Oberlin for the purpose of running an integrated shop was so noteworthy that Time Magazine even briefly covered it. In a very short item titled “Tonsorial Tolerance,” the magazine let its readers infer the irony of the situation by noting that white students could finally get their hair cut “beside Negroes” by a barber who was a “Nisei,” a Japanese term meaning “second generation.” [16]

Though wartime Oberlin now had the potential to transcend the black/white racial barrier, business at the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop did not immediately boom. Mizuiri was far from the only Japanese-American person to be relocated and employed in the area, but the fact remained that anti-Japanese rhetoric remained a significant component of the era’s homefront propaganda. Town activist and barber shop corporation member Robert Thomas recalled later, in 1979, that a number of town residents had expressed to him that they preferred not to have Mizuiri “fooling around their heads with a razor.” [17]  Consequently, this other means of racial discrimination made it difficult for the integrated barber shop to meet its social goals. The directors of the shop’s corporation tracked the racial identities of people who patronized the shop over its first few months of existence and estimated that only five percent of their customers were actually African-American. [18]

Soon, outside circumstances again took over from the men who ran the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop—the West Coast reopened to Japanese-Americans, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the Allied Powers would triumph in the war. By May 1945, Mizuiri left Oberlin, eventually to rejoin his family in California.[19]  In seeking another barber, the committee found Robert Taliaferro, a man perhaps more suited to pleasing the Oberlin community. Besides working as a barber in Wooster, Wellington, and Cleveland, Taliaferro was an African-American Baptist minister. With the untimely presence of a Japanese-American barber removed from the equation, business steadily picked up.

 

Oberlin Review, 7-12-46, p. 2 ad

Advertisement in The Oberlin Review, July 12, 1946. (Image from the Oberlin College Archives.)

 

With Taliaferro at the helm, the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop could finally be viewed as a success, so much so that, by 1946, they decided to hire a second barber. By chance, Gerald Scott happened to be looking for a new place to settle down. While walking through downtown Oberlin, already enamored with the beauty of the area, he saw a “Barber Wanted” sign in a window and immediately applied. An African-American man who had been working as a barber in Wooster, Scott would take over the shop’s second chair and eventually become known to everyone in town as Scotty. After four years, with the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop deemed both a social and a financial success, the corporation decided to sell the business. When Taliaferro, by then an older man, passed on their offer, Scotty bought the shop, agreeing to the condition that it would always remain integrated. [20]

 

Scotty's 42 S Main 1948 Hi O Hi CROP

Scott Brothers Barber Shop ca. 1948 (Image from 1948 Hi-O-Hi Oberlin High School Yearbook.)

 

Though Oberlin’s racial struggles certainly did not end with the founding of the Barber Shop Harmony Committee, Scotty would spend the rest of his life as a barber in Oberlin and become one of the town’s most beloved businessmen. More importantly, integrated barber shops became the norm, and African-American barbers from then on had the option of serving both black and white customers in their own storefront shops. Scotty was eventually joined in town by George Goodson and Ray Murphy, who both grew up in Oberlin, served in World War II, and then came home to make their careers as barbers in integrated Oberlin shops. Though twentieth-century Oberlin faced the same racial struggles as the rest of the United States, men like these barbers provided welcoming spaces that could unite members of the community, even if only for the time it took to get a haircut.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Barber Shop Harmony,” The Oberlin News-Tribune, May 11, 1944, p.4.

Charles Adams and Harriet Johnson Mosher. Interview by Marlene Merrill. Oberlin Oral History Project, Series I. Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, OH. May 9-10, 1983.

“Committee to Purchase Winder Shop,” The Oberlin News-Tribune, Sept. 21, 1944, p. 1.

“Cosmopolitan Barber Shop Subscribers to Meet Next Thursday,” The Oberlin News-Tribune, May 3, 1945, p. 1.

George Jones, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Thomas, and Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas. Interview by Allan Patterson. Oberlin Oral History Project, Series I. Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, OH. Nov. 17, 1984.

Gerald Scott. Interview by Mildred Chapin. Oberlin Oral History Project, Series I. Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, OH. Nov. 14, 1986.

“Horton Discusses Segregation Controversy in the Light of Oberlin’s Historic Ideals,” Oberlin News-Tribune, May 18, 1944, p. 4.

“Inter-Racial Barber Shop Completes Deal with Winder,” The Oberlin News-Tribune, Nov. 2, 1944, p. 1.

“Japanese.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

“Jerry Mizuiri.” San Francisco Chronicle, Apr. 22, 2009.

“Mizuire, Ichiro J.” File Unit: Japanese-American Internee Data File, 1942 – 1946. Series: Records about Japanese-Americans Relocated During World War II, created 1988-89, documenting the period 1942-46; Record Group 210.  National Archives and Records Administration.

“Oberlin Does Not Forget!” The Oberlin News-Tribune, Dec. 28, 1944, p. 1

Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas. Interview by Peter Way. Oberlin Oral History Project, Series I. Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, OH. April 19, 1979.

Roland M. Baumann, Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College

“Theology Groups Test Race Views of Barber Shops,” The Oberlin Review, vol. 72A, no. 24, May 12, 1944, p. 1.

“Tonsorial Tolerance,” Time Magazine, Nov. 27, 1944, p. 44.

“To Raise Fund for Bi-Racial Barber Shop,” The Oberlin News-Tribune, June 22, 1944, p. 1.

 

FOOTNOTES:
[1] Baumann, p. 97
[2] Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas, interview, April 19, 1979.
[3] “Theology Groups Test Race Views of Barber Shops”
[4] “Barber Shop Harmony”
[5] Charles Adams and Harriet Johnson Mosher, interview, May 9-10, 1983.
[6] “Barber Shop Harmony”
[7] “Horton Discusses Segregation Controversy”
[8] “To Raise Fund for Bi-Racial Barber Shop”
[9] “Committee to Purchase Winder Shop”
[10] “Inter-Racial Barber Shop Completes Deal with Winder”
[11] “Committee to Purchase Winder Shop”; “Inter-Racial Barber Shop Completes Deal with Winder”
[12] “Inter-Racial Barber Shop is Now a Going Concern”
[13] “Oberlin Does Not Forget!”
[14] “Mizuire, Ichiro J.”
[15] “Japanese”
[16] “Tonsorial Tolerance”
[17] Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas, interview, April 19, 1979.
[18] George Jones, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Thomas, and Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas, interview, Nov. 17, 1984.
[19] “Cosmopolitan Barber Shop Subscribers to Meet Next Thursday”; “Jerry Mizuiri”; Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas, interview, April 19, 1979.
[20] Gerald Scott, interview, Nov. 14, 1986.

Frances Jackson Coppin – From Slavery to Trailblazer

December 17th, 2015

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

Frances (“Fanny”) Jackson came to Oberlin in 1860 with a dream – a dream “to get an education and to teach my people”, she said. “This idea was deep in my soul. Where it came from I cannot tell, for I had never had any exhortations, nor any lectures which influenced me to take this course. It must have been born in me.”   It was a big dream for a 23 year old woman who ten years earlier had been bought out of slavery by her aunt. But it was a dream that had been nurtured at the Rhode Island State Normal School, would blossom at Oberlin, and would inspire the dreams of thousands of others. [1]

Fanny M. Jackson

Fanny M. Jackson
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Fanny Jackson entered the Oberlin College preparatory school in 1860, where after a year of study she would make a bold decision. She would enroll in the baccalaureate program (the “gentleman’s course”) at Oberlin College, rather than the literary program commonly prescribed for women. “The faculty did not forbid a woman to take the gentleman’s course,” she explained, “but they did not advise it. There was plenty of Latin and Greek in it, and as much mathematics as one could shoulder.” But with an unquenchable dedication that would characterize her life, she “took a long breath and prepared for a delightful contest.” [2]

At that time no African American woman had ever graduated from Oberlin’s baccalaureate program. But Jackson felt comfortable in Oberlin, even though she felt she “had the honor of the whole African race upon my shoulders.” She would room with the families of Professors Henry Peck and Charles Churchill, and would always acknowledge “the influence upon my life in these two Christian homes, where I was regarded as an honored member of the family circle.” [3]

Jackson’s teaching career began during the extended Oberlin College winter breaks, when she taught a night school, as described by the Lorain County News in 1864:

This School is open to all the Colored people of Oberlin, both young and old, who desire to receive instruction in the elementary branches, reading, writing, spelling, grammar, etc., and is most ably conducted by Miss F.M. Jackson, a young lady of rare accomplishments and devotion to the work. On the evening of our call the exercises were most interesting. The pupils were mostly adults, who, after a hard day’s labor[,] embracing the opportunity afforded them for self-improvement, bent their minds to the task before them with an earnestness and concentration that were truly gratifying. Miss Jackson has the knack of at once interesting and instructing, a fact evidently well appreciated by her scholars who appeared to enter with great enthusiasm into all her novel plans for their improvement. [4]

Jackson found her work with adults who had been kept in ignorance by slavery and prejudice to be immensely rewarding. “It was deeply touching to me to see old men painfully following the simple words of spelling; so intensely eager to learn”, she explained years later. “I felt that for such people to have been kept in the darkness of ignorance was an unpardonable sin, and rejoiced that even then I could enter measurably upon the course in life which I had long ago chosen.” [5]

For practically all of Jackson’s tenure at Oberlin, the United States was embroiled in Civil War. Jackson watched closely as her white classmates enlisted in droves to fight for the Union cause and her black classmates were turned away – admonished that “this is a white man’s government… white men are able to defend and protect it.”  When the federal government finally did allow black men to serve in 1863, the state of Massachusetts raised the first black northern regiment: the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Jackson, voted “class poet” by her college classmates, wrote a poem in honor of the men who enlisted in this regiment, which included eighteen Oberlinites.  It was published on page one of the Lorain County News and minced no words as to what the men of the 54th were fighting for: [6]

Now, Freedom stands holding with uplifted face,
Her hands, dipped in blood, on the brow of our race.
Attest it! my country, and never again
By this holy baptism, forget we are men,
Nor care, when we’ve mingled our blood in your battles,
To sneer at our manhood and call us your “chattles.”  [7]

But in this same year of the Emancipation Proclamation and bloody draft riots, Jackson noted that “a very bitter feeling was exhibited against the colored people of the country, because they were held responsible for the fratricidal war then going on.”  It was in this volatile environment that the faculty of Oberlin College embarked on a bold endeavor. “It was a custom in Oberlin that forty students from the junior and senior classes were employed to teach the preparatory classes,” Jackson explained.  “As it was now time for the juniors to begin their work, the Faculty informed me that it was their purpose to give me a class, but I was to distinctly understand that if the pupils rebelled against my teaching, they did not intend to force it.” [8]

Unlike the voluntary classes she had taught so far, Jackson would be teaching a compulsory class of mostly white students – the first African American teacher to do so.  Certainly the faculty’s hedge against forcing the issue would be considered unacceptable and discriminatory by today’s standards, but in 1863 America, where the Supreme Court of the land had a standing ruling that descendants of Africans were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”, Jackson understood that “it took a little moral courage on the part of the faculty to put me in my place against the old custom of giving classes only to white students.”  What she didn’t mention was that it took even greater courage for herself to accept the offer. But where the cause of education or the advancement of her race or gender was at stake, Jackson would never back away from the challenge. The result was, in her own words, “an overwhelming success”: [9]

Fortunately for my training at the [Rhode Island] normal school, and my own dear love of teaching, tho there was a little surprise on the faces of some when they came into the class, and saw the teacher, there were no signs of rebellion. The class went on increasing in numbers until it had to be divided, and I was given both divisions. One of the divisions ran up again, but the Faculty decided that I had as much as I could do… [10]

The Principal of the Preparatory Department was “delighted” with the results.   A visiting reporter from an African American Philadelphia newspaper described it even more glowingly: [11]

It affords us much pleasure to say, that we never saw a teacher who took so much pains to explain every thing so clearly, as did Miss Fanny, to her class. Her manners are very pleasant and graceful. Her class is very large, being composed of both white and colored. She is the first colored person that ever taught in this institution, and we are proud of her. In the class she now teaches, the young white men and girls were a little prejudiced against her, when she was first placed as a teacher over them by the Faculty, but now they deem it an honor to be taught by her. [12]

Indeed, one student was so upset after his first class that “he came into his boarding place, flaming with indignation, and threatening to write at once to his parents and get taken home again, because his teacher was a woman, and a BLACK woman. But his matron persuaded him to a little delay, and it was not long before he preferred Miss Jackson to any other teacher.”  [13]

In 1865, Fanny Jackson graduated from Oberlin College with a bachelor’s degree. Interestingly, she was not now the first black woman to do so.  Mary Jane Patterson had attained that honor at Oberlin in 1862 (and perhaps was the first black woman in the country to earn that degree). Both women would now be offered teaching positions at the Institute for Colored Youth in Pennsylvania, but ironically Jackson would be appointed Principal of the Female Department, while Patterson would become her assistant. [14]

Mary Jane Patterson

Mary Jane Patterson
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Jackson was thrilled about the Institute and her prospects, writing:

In the year 1837, the Friends [Quakers] of Philadelphia had established a school for the education of colored youth in higher learning. To make a test whether or not the Negro was capable of acquiring any considerable degree of education. For it was one of the strongest arguments in the defense of slavery, that the Negro was an inferior creation formed by the Almighty for just the work he was doing. It is said that John C. Calhoun made the remark, that if there could be found a Negro that could conjugate a Greek verb, he would give up all his preconceived ideas of the inferiority of the Negro. Well, let’s try him, and see, said the fair-minded Quaker people. And for years this institution, known as the Institute for Colored Youth, was visited by interested persons from different parts of the United States and Europe. Here I was given the delightful task of teaching my own people, and how delighted I was to see them mastering Caesar, Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Xenophon’s Anabasis. We also taught New Testament Greek.  [15]

Already after her first week of teaching, the Quaker managers of the Institute declared her a “very valuable acquisition” and noticed a “greater animation of manner and a louder and clearer mode of speaking among the girls.” In her first year, enrollment in the Female Department almost doubled.  She lived and taught by a simple philosophy: “Many a child called dull, would advance rapidly under a patient, wise and skillful teacher, and the teacher should be as conscientious in the endeavor to improve himself as he is to improve the child.” [16]

By 1869 the managers were so impressed that they promoted her to head Principal of the entire Institute, the first African American woman in the country to take such a position. At that time, Mary Jane Patterson resigned and took a teaching position in Washington, D.C. Two years later she too would become a Principal, of the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (the forerunner of prestigious Dunbar High School).

The focus of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia at this time was to train students to become teachers themselves, a task that was not only sacred to Jackson, but was critical in this era of Reconstruction, when millions of freedmen needed and yearned for education. Indeed during the interval from 1861 to 1875, the Institute would send 56 known teachers to the South, comparing favorably with the 290 known teachers sent from the much larger Oberlin College, which sent far more than any other northern academic institution. [17]

But Jackson realized that not all students were meant to be teachers, and so as the Reconstruction era came to a close in the late 1870s, she embarked upon what she called an “Industrial Crusade”, to bring industrial education to the Institute: [18]

At a meeting of the public school directors and heads of some of the educational institutions, I was asked to tell what was being done in Philadelphia for the industrial education of the colored youth. It may well be understood I had a tale to tell. And I told them the only place in the city where a colored boy could learn a trade was the House of Refuge or the Penitentiary, and the sooner he became incorrigible and got into the Refuge or committed a crime and got into the Penitentiary, the more promising it would be for his industrial training. It was to me a serious occasion. I so expressed myself. [19]

Despite the tremendous regard the managers of the Institute held for their Principal, they were reluctant to move in this direction. But Jackson would not be deterred. It would take a decade of diplomatic persuasion, but ultimately the industrial school would become a reality. By this time Fanny Jackson had become Mrs. Fanny Coppin, marrying the Reverend Levi Coppin of Baltimore’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, who had been impressed by her “irreproachable character” and her “undisputed leadership in all matters of race advancement.” [20]

In 1890 a large celebration was held to honor Mrs. Coppin’s 25th anniversary with the Institute. By then thousands of students had studied under her tutelage, 3/4ths of the black teachers in Philadelphia and nearby Camden were graduates of her Institute, and there was a waiting list to get in.  In addition to her schoolwork, she founded the Women’s Exchange and Girls’ Home for disadvantaged females in Philadelphia, and wrote a women’s column for an influential African American Philadelphia newspaper. [21]

Through the 1890s, the industrial college turned out to be an unqualified success, training bricklayers, shoemakers, carpenters, printers, plasterers, tailors, dressmakers, and stenographers.  Mrs. Coppin insisted that women be included in the courses as well as men.  “During my entire life, I have suffered from two disadvantages,” she told one audience, “first, that I am a woman; second, than I am a Negro.”   But as the 19th century drew to a close and the 20th century was ushered in, changes were in the air.  Mrs. Coppin began to have health problems.  Reverend Coppin was appointed a Bishop in South Africa.  And the managers of the Institute requested that Mrs. Coppin “tone down” her beloved academic curriculum, claiming that it was “pitched too high”, and began a move towards a re-organization that stressed more elementary courses and “manual training” in its stead. [22]

These factors, to varying and unknown degrees, likely influenced Mrs. Coppin’s decision in 1902 to resign from the Institute after 37 years of service.  But she left on good terms.  The newly appointed “Committee to Re-organize the Institute” reported: “Your committee has much satisfaction in recording the high esteem that they have found general for the past work of the Institute and the enlightened views of its devoted head, Frances J. Coppin. Radical changes in the future will not of course discredit the work of the past…”  [23]

That same year the Coppins moved to South Africa. Mrs. Coppin called it “a fortunate incident to finish my active work right in Africa.”  But failing health brought her back to Philadelphia a year later, and there she continued to decline. In her final year of life, at age 75, she wrote her autobiography at the request of her friends.  Published shortly after her death in 1913, the book was characteristically only one third about herself, and the remainder about teaching methods and biographical sketches of her colleagues and students. Even the portion that was about herself was full of praise for others. “My obligation to the dear people of Oberlin can never be measured in words,” she wrote. [24]

But that obligation was paid forward – many thousands of times.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Fanny Jackson-Coppin, Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching

Linda Marie Perkins, Fanny Jackson Coppin and the Institute for Colored Youth (PhD dissertation)

Levi Jenkins Coppin, Unwritten History

“Oberlin Colored School”, Lorain County News, Feb 10, 1864, p. 2

“Sketches by the Wayside”, The Christian Recorder, August 26, 1865, p. 2

“To the 54th Mass. Volunteers”, Lorain County News, June 10, 1863, p. 1

“A Worthy Enterprise”, Lorain County News, February 4, 1863, p. 3

“A Fortnight in Oberlin”, National Anti-Slavery Standard, March 11, 1865, p. 3

Fannie Jackson Coppin, Class of 1865“, Oberlin College

Ronald E. Butchart, “Mission Matters: Mount Holyoke, Oberlin, and the Schooling of Southern Blacks, 1861-1917”, History of Education Quarterly, Spring 2002

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

John Mercer Langston, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol

Scott v. Sandford“, Legal Information Institute

“Fanny Jackson Coppin” graduate file, Oberlin College Archives, RG 28/2, Box 208

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

“Mary Jane Patterson (1840-1894)”, Notable Black American Women

“The Grandeur of our Triumph”, Lorain County News, Nov 15, 1865, p. 1

“From Slavery Onward”, Oberlin Weekly News, Aug 22, 1889, p. 3

“Prejudice at Oberlin”, National Anti-Slavery Standard, July 9, 1864, p. 2

“Notes by the Way”, The Christian Recorder, Nov 27, 1902, p. 1

“Gala Week in Philadelphia”, New York Age, July 5, 1890

“Philadelphia Anniversary”, New York Age, Oct 4, 1890

Ellen N. Lawson and Marlene Merrill, “The Antebellum ‘Talented Thousandth’: Black College Students at Oberlin Before the Civil War,” The Journal of Negro Education, Spring 1983, pp. 390-402

James H. Fairchild, Oberlin: The Colony and the College, 1833-1883

Roland M. Baumann, Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College

About CU“, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania

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

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Jackson-Coppin, p. 17
[2] Jackson-Coppin, p. 12
[3] Jackson-Coppin, pp. 13-14, 15
[4] “Oberlin Colored School”; “A Worthy Enterprise”
[5] Jackson-Coppin, p. 18
[6] Langston, p. 206; Jackson-Coppin, p. 15; Bigglestone, p. 237
[7] “To the 54th”
[8] Jackson-Coppin, pp. 12, 18
[9] “Fannie”; “Scott”; Jackson-Coppin, pp. 18-19
[10] Jackson-Coppin, p. 12
[11] Jackson-Coppin, p. 19
[12] “Sketches”
[13] “A Fortnight”
[14] “Mary Jane”, pp. 826-827
[15] Jackson-Coppin, pp. 19-20
[16] Perkins, p. 84; Jackson-Coppin, p. 53
[17] Butchart, pp. 7-8
[18] Jackson-Coppin, pp. 27, 36
[19] Jackson-Coppin, p. 28
[20] Coppin, p. 353
[21] Perkins, pp. 160-161, 245
[22] Perkins, pp. 251, 257, 262, 281, 294
[23] Perkins, p. 285
[24] Jackson-Coppin, pp. 13, 122, Preface

 

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]

ClarksonWilberforce

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.

WilliamHowardDay

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.

Stone-August1st

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.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“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

 

FOOTNOTES:

[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