Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


The Election of 1857 and Oberlin’s Dissent

November 19th, 2016

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

The recent Presidential election, in which Ohio continued its recent trend of flip-flopping between blue and red every 8 years, got me thinking about early Ohio history. It was even worse back then actually – with the flip-flops often happening every two years. In particular, I thought about the election of 1857, another biennial flip with accompanying flop, where the issues of the day were much more divisive than the issues we face today (as hard as that may be to believe!) The 1857 election would arguably turn out to be particularly significant to Oberlin, but it didn’t go Oberlin’s way at all. Nevertheless Oberlin would face the problem with characteristic steady and calm resolve, and ultimately Oberlin would prevail. (Note: This topic was originally covered in great detail in my Northern States’ Rights three-part series of blogs three years ago, but in light of recent events I thought it was worth revisiting from a new perspective with some additional information.)

The election of 1857 was a state election, not a national one. State elections were more significant then, as many Ohioans, including most Oberlinites, had given up on the federal government altogether and put their faith in the state to protect their rights. The federal government at that time seemed hopelessly wedded to the “slave power”, run by Democrats at a time when the Democratic party was unabashedly pro-slavery. The 1850s had seen an endless stream of intrusions by the Democratic “slaveocracy” on the liberties of the northern states and western territories, beginning with the notorious Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which denied accused fugitive slaves even the most basic legal rights and proscribed stiff penalties for anyone who assisted them, or even refused to assist in their capture. Even at the time of the 1857 election, Democratic President James Buchanan was doing everything in his power to force an oppressive pro-slavery state constitution and legislature on the overwhelmingly anti-slavery inhabitants of Kansas Territory.

But there was one ray of hope amidst all this angst for Ohio’s anti-slavery residents. In 1854, a new anti-slavery party called the Republicans had formed. And the statewide elections of 1855 saw an extraordinary flip where this brand new party took control of the governorship and both houses of the state General Assembly from the Democrats. Over the next two years, the Republican General Assembly passed four “personal liberty laws”, which partially counteracted the federal Fugitive Slave Law and restored some basic legal rights to Ohio’s black residents, hundreds of whom resided in Oberlin. The most radical of these laws, a “Habeas Corpus act”, was written by Oberlin’s own favorite son, Representative James Monroe, an Oberlin College Professor (see my  Northern States’ Rights, Part 2 blog for details).

James Monroe

James Monroe (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

All of this was in jeopardy, however, with the statewide election of October, 1857, as every state Representative and Senator was up for re-election. Without today’s sophisticated polling techniques (and yes, my eyes were rolling as I typed that), it’s hard to know exactly what the people of 1857 expected from the election, but clearly Oberlin hoped for another Republican victory and did its share by reelecting James Monroe to his seat. The rest of Ohio didn’t come through, however. There’s some indication of Republican complacency and low turnout, and some indication that the Democrats were particularly motivated to repeal the personal liberty laws, but whatever the case, the Democrats regained control of both houses of the General Assembly. (The Republican governor did manage to win reelection by a slim margin, but the governorship at that time was a relatively weak office, with no veto power.) [1]

If there was any adverse reaction in Oberlin to the election results, it’s not apparent from the historical record. Instead, James Monroe would return to his seat in Columbus and fight to keep Ohio Democrats from overturning the personal liberty laws, and Oberlin would quietly go about its usual business as if nothing had changed: assisting freedom seekers who appeared on its doorstep, and sending out abolitionist missionaries, teachers, preachers, journalists, lawyers, etc., to spread the anti-slavery message throughout Ohio and the northern states.

But elections have consequences, and the consequences of this one would be severe for Oberlin. Returning to his seat in Columbus in January, 1858, James Monroe, now a member of the minority party, knew he would face an uphill fight. The Democrats wasted no time in proving him right. Within days of their arrival at the capitol, they introduced a bill to repeal one of the Republican personal liberty laws, leaving no doubt that they intended to repeal the others as well and potentially turn Ohio’s citizens into “bloodhounds” for the “slaveocracy”. So Monroe addressed the Ohio House of Representatives and in his characteristic style issued the Democrats a stern warning:

When God created me, he set me erect upon two feet. I have never had any reason to doubt the wisdom of the arrangement. At least, I will never so far disown my own manhood, as to prostrate myself into a barking quadruped upon the bleeding footsteps of a human brother struggling to be free…
 
I believe you are pursuing a course well adapted to ruin your own party in the State, and restore the law-making power to the hands of the Republicans. When I came to the Legislature this Winter, I expected you to engage in a moderate share of Pro-slavery action; but this is an immoderate share of it… Even though, as a party, you should feel under the necessity of eating your peck of dirt, why should you – for that reason – volunteer to swallow a bushel? I have strong hope that you will not…
 
Some of the [news]papers in this part of the State, after the last election, complained, with good reason, that in some portions of the [Western] Reserve the Republicans did not turn out to the election. But gentlemen, if you will only pass this bill, and repeal the Habeas Corpus Act and the law to prevent slaveholding in the State of Ohio, and indorse Mr. Buchanan’s Kansas policy, there will be no complaint, two years hence, about the Republicans of the Reserve not turning out. The Yankees of Ashtabula, instead of staying at home to make cider on the second Tuesday of October, will leave the cider to work on its own account, and, thronging to the polls in a mass together with their fellow Republicans throughout the State, will, by triumphantly returning a majority to this General Assembly, rebuke this disposition to extend and fortify the slave power. [2]

Monroe’s mention of Ashtabula, a county in the staunchly abolitionist, far northeastern corner of the state, appears to have had some merit. “We are ashamed,” lamented an Ashtabula County correspondent the day after the election, “but we cannot help it. It rained hard nearly all day, and our lazy fellows could not be got out.” But the problem extended well beyond Ashtabula. [3]

Monroe also distributed a pamphlet urging the General Assembly not to repeal his own Habeas Corpus personal liberty law, describing a hypothetical situation that could play out without the protection that the personal liberty laws provided against the “unjust” and “hated” Fugitive Slave Law:

A law breathes its own spirit into all the proceedings under it. The deep hatred of the community, also, against an unjust law, often exhibiting itself in unmistakeable [sic] expressions of hostility, will sometimes justify, in the opinion of the officers of such a law, hasty and extraordinary proceedings. A United States marshal who should be sent to Greene County to seize a supposed fugitive, would be tempted, unless a man of uncommon courage, to enter the county in the night, seize the first colored man that he could find alone and unarmed, and leave before morning, without making any very extensive inquiry, as to whether he had taken the right man or not. [4]

The Democrats ignored Monroe’s warnings. They went ahead with their agenda and repealed three of the Republican personal liberty laws, leaving only the most conservative one standing. Not content with turning the clock back to 1854, they also took aim at an Ohio tradition that dated back sixteen years. “We are unalterably opposed to negro suffrage and equality, without reference to shade or proportion of African blood,” they proclaimed. Although Ohio’s state constitution had restricted voting rights to white men only from its very inception, the Ohio Supreme Court had ruled in 1842 that any mixed-race man who was “nearer white than black” was white enough to vote. Now in 1859, the Democratic General Assembly passed a law overturning that decision. [5]

As if that wasn’t enough, the federal government took the opportunity to pile on. Federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law had always been lax in the Western Reserve, and overt slavecatcher activity had been virtually non-existent in Oberlin for over a decade. Even in southern Ohio, President Buchanan had backed down from a confrontation with Ohio authorities over Monroe’s radical personal liberty law in 1857. But now that would all change. In the spring of 1858, while Ohio Democrats were earnestly repealing the Republican personal liberty laws, President Buchanan felt emboldened enough to appoint an aggressive new federal marshal named Matthew Johnson to the Northern District of Ohio. Johnson intended to go after fugitives from slavery not just in the Western Reserve, but specifically in Oberlin. To that end, he appointed a disgruntled Oberlin insider named Anson Dayton as his deputy. The election of 1857 was about to come home to Oberlin. [6]

Oberlin would stand firm, however. Dayton’s direct attempts to capture freedom seekers within the borders of Oberlin village in the summer of 1858 met with stiff resistance from Oberlin’s black community. By the end of summer he had grown more cautious, helping only to identify an alleged Oberlin fugitive named John Price to a visiting pair of Kentucky slavecatchers. It would be another U.S. marshal from Columbus who would join the Kentuckians in a duplicitous scheme to lure Price out of Oberlin, ambush him, and put him on a southbound train in nearby Wellington – actions eerily reminiscent of the hypothetical situation James Monroe had described just six months earlier. In an event that gained national notoriety as the “Oberlin-Wellington Rescue”, scores of Oberlinites rushed to Price’s assistance in Wellington. Although they succeeded in rescuing Price from his captors and escorting him safely to Canada, Oberlin and Wellington now found themselves in the crosshairs of an irate Buchanan Administration. A federal grand jury convened in Cleveland and indicted 37 men for violating the Fugitive Slave Law. [7]

The Buchanan Administration could scarcely have made a more damaging move to their own cause, however. Oberlin, whose purpose from its inception as a colony was to “exert a mighty influence” on American spirituality, seized upon this event as an opportunity to exert a mighty influence on American public opinion regarding the “slave power” as well. After holding a defiantly jolly “Felon’s Feast”, the indicted men cheerfully turned themselves in to federal authorities, and as their trials dragged into April, 1859, they literally dared the federal government to jail them pending the verdicts, which the federal government compliantly did. [8]

It was a public relations bonanza. In Painesville, just a stone’s throw from Ashtabula County, a meeting of citizens “large in numbers, and earnest in spirit” responded two weeks later by passing the following resolutions:

Resolved, That the act of the Federal Court in causing the arrest and imprisonment of our fellow citizens of Lorain county, for no crime, but for the performance of a duty clearly required by Religion and Humanity, is an outrage…
 
Resolved, That the events now transpiring in Ohio, remind us of the duty of strenuous efforts for the return of a Legislature at our next election that will enact a Personal Liberty bill, providing for the political disfranchisement and outlawry of any citizen who shall in any way attempt the enforcement upon the free soil of Ohio of the hated Fugitive Law. [9]

The next month, thousands of Ohioans flocked to Cleveland, just blocks from where the Rescuers were being held in jail, to rally in support of the Rescuers and condemn the actions of the federal government. Republican Governor Salmon Chase addressed the angry crowd and reminded them: “The great remedy is in the people themselves, at the ballot box. Elect men with backbone who will stand up for [your] rights, no matter what forces are arrayed against [you].” [10]

Five months later, In the statewide election of October, 1859, Ohioans would do just that, fulfilling James Monroe’s prophesy of the year before. Not only the “Yankees of Ashtabula”, but “Republicans throughout the State”, left “the cider to work on its own account” and headed to the polls, “triumphantly returning a majority to this General Assembly.”

The Republicans returned with renewed energy and enthusiasm, but also tempered by their previous defeat. They would pass only one new personal liberty law* to join the lone personal liberty law that the Democrats were previously unable to repeal. (That unrepealed law, by the way, was instrumental in getting the charges dropped against the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers.) The more radical personal liberty laws, like Monroe’s, the Republicans would leave on the shelf. But Ohio Republicans would also “demand the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.” The General Assembly did its part in accommodating that wish, electing Republican Salmon Chase, the country’s most vocal opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law, to the United States Senate (as U.S. Senators at that time were elected by state legislatures, not by popular vote). The Republican Ohio Supreme Court also pitched in, striking down the Democratic law of early 1859 that had denied the vote to any “persons having a mixture of African blood.” [11]

Republican enthusiasm flourished right on into the 1860 Presidential election, when Ohio elected by a wide margin the first ever Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But history repeats itself, as another saying goes, over and over again. Great progress is never linear, but a series of forward steps interrupted occasionally by the inevitable and often disheartening backstep. History teaches us that antebellum Ohio’s progress was no more linear than today’s – in fact far less so. But history also teaches us that progress can resume after a backslide, if its advocates use the opportunity to regroup and re-energize, to constructively “exert a mighty influence” on public opinion, to listen to the grievances of their opponents, and to accommodate those grievances that are reasonable while standing firm and courageous against those grievances that are not.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “We may stumble and fall, but shall rise again; it should be enough if we did not run away from the battle.” [12]

 

* Historians have traditionally taken the stance that this General Assembly passed no new personal liberty laws – a claim that I myself repeated in my Part 3 blog. Since then I have discovered that the Republicans discreetly passed what amounted to a low-key personal liberty law in 1860. [13] This law would have an impact on the infamous Lucy Bagby case of 1861, and will be discussed in detail in a future blog.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Ron Gorman, Kidnapped into Slavery: Northern States’ Rights, Part 1

Ron Gorman, Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law: Northern States’ Rights, Part 2

Ron Gorman, “Odious Business” in Oberlin: Northern States’ Rights, Part 3

James Monroe, “Speech of Mr. Monroe of Lorain, In the House of Representatives, Jan 12, 1858”, Oberlin College Archives, RG30/22, Series 5, Subseries 3, Box 27

James Monroe, Speech of Mr. Monroe of Lorain, upon the bill to repeal the Habeas Corpus Act of 1856

The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue 1858“, Oberlin Heritage Center

Jacob Rudd Shipherd, Oberlin Wellington Rescue

Steven Lubet, The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry

Stephen Middleton, The Black Laws: Race and the Legal Process in Early Ohio

“Public Voice of the People. Public Meeting at Painesville”, Cleveland Daily Leader, Apr 28, 1859, p. 2

“Benighted Ashtabula”, Ohio State Journal, Oct. 16, 1857, p. 2

The Ohio Platforms of the Republican and Democratic Parties, from 1855 to 1881 Inclusive

Joseph Patterson Smith, History of the Republican Party in Ohio, Volume 1

“Alfred J. Anderson v. Thomas Milliken and Others”, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Ohio, Volume 9

Acts of the State of Ohio, Volume 57

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

Gaye Williams Ortiz and Clara A. B. Joseph, Theology and Literature: Rethinking Reader Responsibility

 
FOOTNOTES:

[1] Gorman, Part 3
[2] Monroe, “Speech…Jan 12, 1858”, pp.4, 7-8
[3] “Benighted Ashtabula”
[4] Monroe, Speech…Habeas Corpus Act of 1856, p. 5
[5] Ohio Platforms, p. 9; Middleton, pp. 130-131
[6] Lubet, pp. 58, 65, 77; Gorman, Part 3; Gorman, Part 2
[7] Gorman, Part 3; The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue 1858
[8] Fairchild, p. 19 (quoting John J. Shipherd)
[9] “Public Voice”
[10] Shipherd, p. 255
[11] Gorman, Part 3; Smith, p. 91; “Alfred J. Anderson”, p. 458
[12] Ortiz, p. 126
[13] Acts…Volume 57, pp. 108-109

“Unyielding dedication”: Stephen Johnson on Richard Lothrop’s Legacy

July 22nd, 2016

by Hannah Cipinko, Oberlin Heritage Center Junior Intern

 

Untitled

Richard Lothrop (1925-2015), pictured with his cocker spaniel Rusty. [1]

Oberlin is well known for its historic qualities, its strong sense of community, and high amount of community involvement. In this post we will explore the legacy of an extraordinary historian and community member, the late Richard Lothrop.  His legacy lives on today through his impressively thorough collection of significant documents and newspapers from Oberlin’s history, which are now both preserved and available for research at the Oberlin Heritage Center.

Richard Lothrop was born in 1925 in Washington, D.C., and came to live in Oberlin at only three months old. He lived with his father, mother, and younger sister. His father was a professor of chemistry at Oberlin College. After graduating from Oberlin High School, Lothrop attended the College of Wooster and then worked in various college administration positions until taking a teaching job at Fairview High School. Richard went on to become “archivist emeritus” at Oberlin’s Christ Episcopal Church, and was named “Oberlinian of the Year” in 1996. This quote from his 2015 obituary in the Oberlin News-Tribune demonstrates the extent of his “unyielding dedication to his hometown”. . .

“Richard’s legacy included an almost obsessive trait to save newspaper clippings and document people, places, and events. He kept hundreds of files on subjects ranging from Oberlin events, Oberlin residents, and Oberlin College students, faculty, and staff to trains, planes, automobiles, and stamps!”[2]

I spoke with Oberlin Heritage Center Board of Trustees member Stephen Johnson, who is undertaking the immense project of sorting and preserving the files for posterity, to find out more about both Oberlin’s more recent history and Lothrop’s legacy of preservation.

 

Hannah Cipinko (HC): To start us off, how long have you been working with the Oberlin Heritage Center?

Steve Johnson (SJ): Well, I’ve been a trustee now for five years, and I’ve had an association with them for over twenty. We’ve been members for a long, long time. And my father was president for thirteen years of the predecessor of the Oberlin Heritage Center, O.H.I.O (Oberlin Historical and Improvement Organization) so that’s where I got my interest.

 

HC: Do you know how the Heritage Center in particular came to possess these documents instead of any other organization?

SJ: Our former executive director Pat Murphy was friends with Dick Lothrop and knew of his collection. Dick had assured OHC that upon his death we would receive all this material. When he went into a nursing home . . . we ended up with twelve boxes of this material, so now we’re in the process of going through it.

 

HC:  What is that process like? Do you grab a file, or go alphabetically, and just dive in?

SJ: We’ve been working through it alphabetically. You open a file, and then . . . I sort the files into people, obituaries, and then miscellaneous, which is anything from churches, or town events, businesses in town, you know . . . anything that doesn’t qualify as people. . . We also sort out any documents from college publications because the college already has those in their archives, and there’s no need to duplicate that here . . . Once it’s sorted out, it has to be copied onto acid free paper and filed.

 

HC: What do you consider the most interesting story or item you have discovered so far?

SJ: I recently ran into a big stack of articles on our former congressman from Oberlin, who had also been the editor of the Oberlin News-Tribune, Charles Mosher. That was really fascinating to go through, it turns out he was quite an eloquent speaker and writer. So that was fun [laughs].

Untitled 2

An article about Charles Mosher found in Lothrop’s collection.

The Lorain Journal, December 12th 1975 [3]

SJ: There have been articles that have gone back to World War II, which is an interest of mine, and it’s interesting to see what the town was doing as far as scrap drives, and that kind of thing, as well as the boys and women who went off to war. Then, some of the articles are from an Oberlin Times newspaper from way back in the beginning of the century, and anything in there is interesting, just to see what life was like way back when.

The newspapers back [from] anytime before 1945 are very social. So you get little half column inch things about Mrs. Jones who threw a party and tea was served with these little crumb cakes. You know, these little snippets of life in Oberlin.

 

HC: Things you wouldn’t ordinarily think of as history.

SJ: Exactly. It shows, definitely, a way of life that has changed. It’s all interesting stuff; when you look at it, it’s like a time capsule that you open up and all of a sudden it’s 70 years ago, 80 years ago, 90 years ago.

It’s interesting to see because sometimes you get articles that are very factual, very illuminating of a person or a thing, and then you’ll have a one column inch thing that he saved of somebody who got a traffic citation. So it’s everything in between. I’ve see the heights of Oberlin history, and I’ve also sort of seen some of the depths of Oberlin history, but it’s all history. It’s something we will keep.

 

HC: What’s really fascinating about this is that it’s not only a snapshot of Oberlin’s history, but also of the perspective of Richard Lothrop as someone immersed in Oberlin’s modern culture and history. Do you think there is anything to be learned about his perspective from what he chose to keep in his files? Were there any items in particular you were surprised to see that Lothrop preserved?

SJ: The thing that strikes me about this collection is just how all inclusive it is. It doesn’t seem like he left out much; if a new business opened in town and there was a newspaper article about it, he clipped it. If there was a newspaper article in the New York Times about somebody who did something fantastic, and he had an Oberlin connection, maybe graduated from Oberlin in 1935, he has that in there.

It’s an incredible collection, and I think the most amazing thing about it is how widespread it is. He didn’t focus in on just his friends or his acquaintances, he didn’t do just Oberlin government or Oberlin sports or anything else, it’s an all inclusive thing. And for him to sit there — I sometimes get a vision of him sitting alone in his house at night, going through all the newspapers, making these clippings, and filing them away. It must have taken an incredible amount of time.

 

HC: How long do you think it will take, in full, to sort through and organize these documents?

SJ: Right now, I’m at 13 months. I probably have close to at least 200 hours at this point, probably more than that. I can see another, two years to finish it up. It’s all got to be filed, Linda Gates here at OHC has been doing all of the filing, as I get things done she grabs them and files them. I think I’m on box four or five; I’m into the M’s right now [laughs]. I have six or seven boxes left to go. So that’s at least another year and a half. It will be three years by the time everything is done completely.

 

It is clear that Lothrop’s legacy is particularly present at the Oberlin Heritage Center, whose mission it is to preserve and share local history and stories such as his. Lothrop’s obituary says it best: “History was his passion. He loved to tell stories. He had stories to tell.”[2] The Oberlin Heritage Center will continue to share his stories alongside others with the addition of his files to our collections.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“An Interview with Steve Johnson.” Interview by author. June 22, 2016.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Oberlin News-Tribune. “Richard Lothrop.” Oberlin News-Tribune, August 31, 2015. 2015. Accessed June 18, 2016. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/theoberlinnewstribune/obituary.aspx?pid=175693314. Web.

[2] “Richard Lothrop Obituary.” Cowlingfuneralhomeoh.com. 2015. Accessed June 20, 2016. http://www.cowlingfuneralhomeoh.com/obits/obituary.php?id=657250. Web.

[3] Cutleur, Bob. “Congressman Charlie Mosher Closes Out An Industrious, Undefeated Career.” The Lorain Journal, 12 Dec. 1975: n. pag. Print.

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