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Integrating Oberlin’s Barber Shops, 1944-45

Thursday, 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.

A Medal of Honor and a Holy… euchre deck?

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

November 1864 – 150 years ago this month – saw a curious spectacle in the American Civil War.  After Union General William Sherman captured the city of Atlanta from Confederate General John Bell Hood, both armies turned and headed away from each other, with the goal of bringing the hard hand of war to their opponent’s civilian infrastructure.  Sherman headed southeast on his infamous March to the Sea, intending to “make Georgia howl”.  Hood turned north on what could have been just as infamous a march, perhaps even inducing some howling north of the Ohio River.  But where Sherman’s march was a success, Hood’s march failed to even make it out of Tennessee.  An Oberlin man would earn the Medal of Honor and an interesting keepsake for the part he played in stopping him.

John Whedon Seele
John Whedon Steele
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives [1])

His name was John Whedon Steele, and he missed by only a few miles becoming one of the first citizens born in Oberlin.  Instead he was born near Akron as his parents migrated en route to Oberlin from New York in 1835.  His father, Dr. Alexander Steele, would become Oberlin’s first full-time physician.  His younger brother, George, would become an Oberlin College professor and co-founder of the music conservatory.  But it appears that John always had somewhat of a reputation as a renegade (well… by early Oberlin standards, that is).  Nevertheless he attended Oberlin College, got his law degree in Michigan, and returned to Oberlin just before the start of the Civil War. [2]

At the outbreak of war, Steele joined with Alonzo Pease (artist, Underground Railroad operative, and nephew of Oberlin’s first settlers) to recruit a company of infantry.  The company would eventually muster into service as Company H of the 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, with Pease as Captain and Steele as First Lieutenant.   They soon found themselves in the “western theater” of operations, ultimately making their way to Tennessee, and Steele was promoted and transferred to Captain of Company E.  According to the Lorain County News, this company was “made up of roystering blades from Cleveland and other cities which have made their previous commanders much trouble.  John [Steele], however, suits them to a dot and they are fast working into a state of superior discipline.”   Steele would lead this company in a “gallantly and successfully” executed charge against a rebel battery at the first bloodbath battle of the war, the Battle of Shiloh, in April, 1862. [3]

It wouldn’t be long, however, before Steele was again promoted and transferred, this time to Major, ultimately serving as aide-de-camp on the staff of General David S. Stanley’s 4th Corps.  Although we sometimes tend to think of staff officers as holding cushy desk jobs, nothing could be further from the truth for many of them.  In the Civil War, staff officers were often in the thick of battle, relaying orders from their superiors to the troops on the field, directing troop movements, and coordinating attacks.  Such appears to be the case with Major Steele.  He participated in two more epic bloodbaths, at Stones River and Chickamauga, before joining in General Sherman’s four month campaign to capture Atlanta in the summer of 1864. [4]

After Sherman took that city, the two armies engaged in two months of cat-and-mouse warfare in northern Georgia and Alabama in which they failed to come to a general engagement.  Finally they turned and went their separate ways, in General Stanley’s words, “like two school boys… each saying ‘Well I cannot whip you but I can kick over your bread basket.'”   But before Sherman turned east to kick over Georgia’s bread basket, he detached two corps under General John Schofield, with orders to join forces with Union General George Thomas in Nashville and stop Hood’s advance.  General Stanley’s 4th Corps, with Major Steele as aide-de-camp, was included in Schofield’s detachment. [5]

Hood now knew that his northward journey would be a difficult one, but being one of the most aggressive commanders in the war, he was not deterred.  His army was larger than either Thomas’ or Schofield’s detachments, and he believed that if he could isolate them and bring them to battle independently, he could destroy them in kind, then turn his attention to Ohio’s “bread basket”, or perhaps come to the rescue of Robert E. Lee’s besieged army in Virginia (see my Battle of New Market Heights blog).

Spring Hill-Franklin Campaign, 1864
(Troop movements and positions are approximated and simplified, for clarity’s sake)

Hood’s first victim was to be General Schofield, who had a vulnerable supply line leading back to the main Union depot at Nashville.  Hood devised a plan whereby he would march his army around Schofield’s flank to Spring Hill, Tennessee, where he could cut that supply line and isolate Schofield from Thomas before they had a chance to link up.

The movement was accomplished brilliantly, but when Hood’s troops arrived at Spring Hill on November 29, they were met by a division of General Stanley’s 4th Corps, which had been sent in advance with Schofield’s wagon train.  It’s not known what part Major Steele played in the fierce fighting that accompanied this part of the battle, but his comrades held their ground, and the rebels retired at nightfall.

They didn’t retire far, however.  In fact they went into bivouac right alongside the turnpike that General Schofield’s troops would have to travel to get to Nashville.  It was an “extremely perilous” situation for the federals, and Schofield decided he needed to get out of it – quick.  So he ordered a night march in which his troops would tramp as quietly as possible up the turnpike past the resting Confederates. [6]

Amazingly, it worked.  Well, almost.  Schofield’s infantry marched cleanly out of the trap.  But bringing up the rear was the slow, cumbersome wagon train – 800 wagons and caissons carrying the food, ammunition, medicines, and artillery needed to support Schofield’s infantry.  With most of the infantry already gone, the train creaked and groaned up the narrow turnpike, past the campfires of the rebel troops, escorted only by a scant guard.  It was, in General Stanley’s words, “like treading upon the thin crust covering a smouldering volcano.” [7]

Then at about 3:00 A.M. the volcano blew.  Several regiments of Confederate cavalry launched a flank attack against the head of the helpless wagon train.  Years later, General Stanley, who was “thrown into despair” by the news, described what happened next: [8]

“My two most vigilant staff officers, General [then Colonel] Fullerton and Colonel [then Major] Steele … were near the point attacked which was about four miles from Spring Hill.  Instantly they took measures to repel the attack.  They found our headquarter’s guard…  This company was about thirty-five strong and commanded by a gallant young officer, Captain Scott.  Using this as a nucleus, these gallant officers picked up from train guards, headquarter’s guards, anyone carrying a gun, a little body of men, marched up to point blank range, gave the rebels a volley which cleared the road, and very soon our big train moved on again.” [9]

Interestingly, in Stanley’s original report to headquarters, he gave all the credit to Major Steele, with no mention of Fullerton or Scott.  But by all accounts less than five percent of the Union wagons were destroyed; the rest were saved by the makeshift strike force, whose boldness apparently deceived the rebels into believing the train guard was much larger than it really was. [10]

At daybreak, Hood was furious to learn that Schofield had slipped out of his trap.  Now that his best opportunity to prevent a link-up between Schofield and Thomas was lost, he would throw his troops headlong into Schofield’s command in desperation.  That reckless assault would occur late that afternoon, November 30th, fifteen miles north of Spring Hill, at Franklin, against stout Union defenses prepared largely by another Oberlin alumnus, Major General Jacob Cox of the 23rd Corps, and supplied in part by the wagon train that had been saved by Steele’s improvised force that morning.   The result was arguably the most devastating defeat suffered by the Confederate army in the entire war.  Six Confederate generals were mortally wounded that day.  Only one Union general was wounded, and that was General Stanley, who was struck by a bullet in the  neck as he took the field to help lead a countercharge and close a dangerous breach that had opened in his lines.  Major Steele was reported to be with him; that is, until he was knocked off his horse by a rebel Minié ball (a large caliber rifled bullet notorious for its bone-shattering effects) that passed through his breast pocket.  But Hood was repulsed, and that night Schofield slipped away again, ultimately to hook up with General Thomas at Nashville, where two weeks later they virtually destroyed what was left of Hood’s army.  Ohio was saved from invasion. [11]

Jacob Dolson Cox
Jacob Dolson Cox [12]

Meanwhile, Stanley and Steele were furloughed to convalesce from their wounds.  Steele would tell the Oberlin townsfolk how his life had been saved by the contents of his breast pocket, which absorbed the impact of the Minié ball that struck him down.  But this wasn’t the classic narrative of the devout war hero saved by a bullet-stopping Bible.  Instead, Steele liked to tell how he was hit “in my euchre deck”.  (One can only wonder whether the theologians of Oberlin shook their heads in disappointment over the card-playing, cigar-smoking, renegade hero!) [13]

Steele recovered and returned to action, this time in Texas, to fight the last major Confederate hold-out, General Edmund Kirby Smith.  He received one more promotion, to brevet Lieutenant Colonel, before he was mustered out of service in 1866.

But his life of service was only just beginning.  He returned to Oberlin and became active in all aspects of community life and politics.  He served as Lorain County Probate Judge and for many years as Oberlin’s Postmaster.  At a community meeting in February, 1866, he delivered a speech and joined in passing a set of resolutions supporting Congress in its growing rift with President Andrew Johnson over Reconstruction policy.  Among the resolutions passed was one exhorting Congress “to give the control of the nation to its loyal inhabitants, and full protection to the freed men in the exercises of all rights and privileges we claim for ourselves.” [14]

He was a staunch advocate of a reliable, safe community water supply, and played a crucial role in bringing it to fruition.  He also worked tirelessly for other modern improvements, as well as community beautification.  “We’ve got to keep moving,” he told a community meeting.  “No psychology or theology will make a person who is accustomed to a marble lavatory, satisfied with a wash bowl on a stump.  Self-inflicted torture is out of date… The world moves and we have to move with it.  In fact we ought to move a little ahead of it.” [15]

He firmly believed that citizens ought to “so arrange our private affairs as not to close the door against our public duties.”  And practicing what he preached, he accepted an appointment as a trustee of the County Children’s Home in Oberlin.   In the words of Oberlin College Professor Azariah S. Root, “One had only to see the Judge as he was about the place and witness the affectionate attitude of the children toward him, to realize how much of genuine, loving service he was giving to the enterprise…” [16]

In 1897 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for “saving the train” at the Battle of Spring Hill 33 years earlier, and President William McKinley, a fellow Ohio Republican Civil War veteran, invited him to the White House.  (Interestingly, Steele’s commanding officer, General Stanley, received the Medal of Honor four years earlier for the counterattack he “gallantly led” at the Battle of Franklin in which he and Steele were wounded.)

Steele’s final public service was one of particular honor and responsibility.  He was selected to distribute the funds that had been donated by  Andrew Carnegie to students and residents of Oberlin who had been financially devastated by the failure of the Citizens Bank in the wake of the Cassie Chadwick scandal.  According to Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King, “no one could be associated with him in that work, and not recognize the great pains with which he went into the multitudes of cases, following them out with insight and tact and sympathy, carrying often their burden as though it were an individual burden of his own.” [17]

It is noteworthy that Steele, a non-religious man, should gain such a reputation for “uncompromising honesty” and trustworthiness in the devoutly pious community of early Oberlin.  He did in time, however, confess to telling one little white lie.  In an 1886 interview with a Chicago newspaper, Steele divulged that the bullet-stopping contents of his pocket on the battlefield that distant day was not a euchre deck after all.  But neither was it a New Testament or an Old Testament.  Instead it was a leather-bound memorandum book, which he kept and passed on to his family, bullet hole and all.  When asked why he had told the “staid but patriotic professors at Oberlin” that it was a euchre deck, Steele explained: “You see, I was afraid they would distort my memorandum book into a Testament, and make a text of the incident, and I had to do a little hedging to keep myself out of the pulpit.” [18]

On April 26, 1905 the pulpit caught up with Colonel Steele nonetheless, when at the age of 69 he died of a heart ailment.  The Oberlin News devoted its entire front page and much of its second page to an obituary and the transcripts of three eulogies delivered at his funeral service at First Church.  One of the eulogists was Oberlin College President King, whose words I close with:

“…In his death Oberlin loses one of her most individual links with her past, and one of her most interesting and important citizens.  Thinking himself, doubtless, sometimes out of sympathy with much in Oberlin, he nevertheless showed a persistent and an almost unmatched devotion to her interests, both in the defense of her reputation and in care for her practical interests…

We are coming to understand now what was not so clear in the days of his young manhood, that we cannot require the same kind of response from widely different temperaments.

… but his close friends learned to see that a sometimes brusque manner was the shield of a marked sensitiveness and a rare tenderness that yet could not be wholly hidden.  And those did not know him who had not seen in him that delicate courtesy that seems often to belong to the true soldier – a courtesy that was more than courtliness, full of genuine human feeling, and free from all affectation and every trace of condescension.  He was a rare friend and a rare public servant.” [19]

Steele tombstone

John Whedon Steele is buried in Westwood Cemetery, Section R, where his grave is a stop on the Oberlin Heritage Center’s “Radicals and Reformers” history walk.

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Wilbur H. Phillips, Oberlin Colony: The Story of a Century

“Another Honored Citizen Gone”, Oberlin News, May 2, 1905, pp. 1-2

David S. Stanley, Personal Memoirs of Major-General D. S. Stanley

“John W. Steele Ex ’60”, Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Vol 1, pp. 238-239

“Col. J. W. Steele”, The Elyria Republican, July 29, 1886

John K. Shellenberger, The Battle of Spring Hill, Tennessee

Dennis W. Belcher, General David S. Stanley, USA: A Civil War Biography

Jamie Gillum, Stephen M. Hood, Twenty-five Hours to Tragedy: The Battle of Spring Hill

“The 41st O.V.”, Lorain County News, April 16, 1862, p. 2

“The 41st O.V. before, at and after the Battle of Pittsburg Landing”, Lorain County News, April 30, 1862, p. 2

“The Voice of Oberlin, Its Words for the Crisis”, Lorain County News, March 7, 1866, p. 3

Official Records of the Rebellion (abbrev. “O.R.” below)

“Promoted”, Lorain County News, February 29, 1862, p. 2

George Frederick Wright, A Standard History of Lorain County, Ohio

Oberlin College Archives, “Steele, John Whedon 1851-1858” student file, RG 28, Series 1, Sub-series 1, Box 241

41st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry (1861-1865)“, Ohio Civil War Central

Jacob Dolson Cox (1828-1900)“, The North Carolina Civil War Experience

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1

General Catalogue of Oberlin College, 1833 [-] 1908, Oberlin College Archives, p. 1582

“Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database”, National Park Service

“Pension applications for service in the US Army between 1861 and 1900”, National Archives.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “Steele, John Whedon 1851-1858” student (alumnus) file, Box 241

[2] Phillips, pp. 220, 234

[3] “Promoted”, “The 41st O.V.”; “The 41st O.V. before…”; O.R. Series I, Volume X, Part 1, p. 324

[4] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[5] Stanley, pp. 196-197

[6] O.R. Series 1, Vol 45, Part 1, p. 1138

[7] Stanley, p. 204

[8] O.R. Series 1, Vol 45, Part 1, p. 115

[9] Stanley, p. 205

[10] O.R. Series 1, Vol 45, Part 1, p. 115

[11] ibid.; Belcher, p. 213; “Col. J. W. Steele”; Phillips, pp. 223-224

[12] “Jacob Dolson Cox (1828-1900)

[13] “Col. J.W. Steele”; Phillips, pp. 224, 239

[14] “The Voice of Oberlin”

[15] Phillips, pp. 153, 233; “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[16] Phillips, p. 234; Wright, p. 183; “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[17] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[18] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”; Phillips, pp. 224, 234; “Col. J.W. Steele”

[19] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass debate in Oberlin

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

Did you know that Oberlin was the scene of a series of heated public debates featuring renowned abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass and their colleagues in the 1840s?  Well, it was, and if you didn’t know that, you’re not alone!  Even though the debates were attended by up to 3,000 people, the leaders in Oberlin at that time really weren’t all that keen about publicizing them.  But I am, so here’s my blog about them.

William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass

First some background.  By the time William Lloyd Garrison came on the abolition scene in New England in the early 1830s, the abolitionist movement had already been thriving for decades in many states, including Ohio.  But Garrison quickly realized the need to nationalize the movement, and together with the Tappan brothers of New York  (Arthur and Lewis, benefactors of Oberlin College), he co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS).   This was an era of good feeling between abolitionists (Lewis Tappan praised Garrison as a “discreet, humble and faithful Christian”), and the national movement took off like wildfire, quickly engulfing Ohio and the newly formed colony of Oberlin.  In its first seven years of operation, the AAS boasted almost 2,000 charter societies and 200,000 members nationwide.

Yet in spite of all its initial success, cracks were developing in the organization right from the very beginning.  Garrison was the editor of an anti-slavery newspaper in Boston called The Liberator.  Although its circulation was small, Garrison wrote with a style that journalist Horace Greeley described as “bold, radical, earnest, eloquent, extravagant, denunciatory, egotistic.”[1]  This style got him national attention, but was always an irritant to some of his fellow abolitionists.  But Garrison quickly became more and more radical and the list of people, groups and institutions he denounced grew ever longer.  He denounced organized religion for maintaining relationships with slaveholders.  He denounced the U.S. Constitution as a pro-slavery document, and encouraged abolitionists to withdraw from government altogether by refusing to vote or serve in public office.  He would eventually even advocate dismemberment of the United States, under the slogan “No Union with Slaveholders.” But he also became an ardent pacifist, advocating “non-resistance” in all circumstances.  And he brought abolitionist women into the cause, insisting that they be able to speak publicly in front of audiences comprised of both genders, which was considered taboo in that era.  He insisted on equal rights for women as well as African Americans.

Finally, by 1840, the Tappan brothers and many other abolitionists (including the Oberlin College faculty) came to believe that Garrison was “using the Society as an instrument” to promote ideas that he deemed “paramount to the Anti S[lavery] cause” with the result that “the slave has been lost sight of mainly.”[2]  So they withdrew from the AAS and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and a political party of their own called the Liberty Party, which focused exclusively on abolishing slavery through the church and government, within the constitutional framework of the United States.

But Garrison was undeterred, and by the mid-1840s he launched a program to urge Ohio abolitionists to “come out” of the church, the government, and the federal union – a movement dubbed “come-outerism”.  In the first wave of his effort, he sent Stephen Foster and Abby Kelley to Ohio as his ambassadors.  Stephen Foster was a radical New England abolitionist who had been physically ejected from 24 New England churches and arrested 4 times for disrupting sermons with loud oratories of his own, frequently referring to the clergy as a “brotherhood of thieves”.[3]  Abby Kelley was a New England Quaker feminist and abolitionist who “came out” of the Quakers in 1841 over a dispute about allowing abolitionist speakers in meeting houses.  In 1845 she married Stephen Foster and became Mrs. Abby Kelley Foster.  Together they founded a western Garrisonian headquarters and newspaper, the Anti-Slavery Bugle, at Salem, Ohio.

The Fosters

During the first half of 1846, the Fosters tried unsuccessfully to bring their message to Oberlin, but were blocked by the college faculty, who considered them “infidels” for their anti-church stance, and  “unsafe advocates of the slave.”  But finally, after insistence of  the Oberlin black community and some Oberlin College students (most notably Lucy Stone, Betsey Cowles and Sallie Holley), Oberlin College President Asa Mahan agreed to let them speak, as long as he was given equal time to rebut their arguments.[4]  The result was a five-day series of debates, two to three hours each, held at the chapel of Colonial Hall in September, 1846.  There were two main topics of discussion: is the Constitution a pro-slavery document, and “can Christian abolitionists consistently remain in a church sustaining the same relation to slavery that the church in Oberlin does?”[5]

Regarding the church question, the Oberlin church had long since resolved to sever all direct relationships with slaveholders and other supporters of slavery.  The Garrisonians approved of this, but they objected to the church’s position that they would not withhold fellowship from other anti-slavery ministers or churches who themselves maintained relationships with churches that didn’t denounce slavery.   Although we don’t have a record as to exactly what the debaters said on this topic, Lucy Stone, who was a correspondent to the pro-Garrison Anti-Slavery Bugle, probably spoke for the Fosters when she wrote that the Oberlin church “continues to give to, and receive letters from churches which are not only in full fellowship with, but made up in part of slaveholders”, thus forming “a link in the chain” of bondage.  And Asa Mahan likely took the position of the church itself, that maintaining these relationships could be “the best means of exerting an anti-slavery influence.”[6]

The bulk of the debate however (totaling about 12 hours of discussion), focused on the relationship of slavery to the U.S. Constitution.  Although the Constitution never mentions slavery or any derivative of the word “slave” by name, it did include three clauses that were widely recognized to relate to slavery.  For example, one of these reads:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall… be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due. (Article IV, Section 2)

It was widely accepted that the term “person held to service or labour” referred to both slaves and indentured servants, and this clause was the justification for the Fugitive Slave Law.  Therefore, the Fosters argued, the Constitution supported and encouraged slavery.  But Asa Mahan, borrowing an argument from philosopher Lysander Spooner, quoted an 1805 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (on an entirely different subject matter)[7]:

Where rights are infringed, where fundamental principles are overthrown, where the general system of the law[s] is departed from, the legislative intention must be expressed with irresistible clearness, to induce a court of justice to suppose a design to effect such objects. (United States v. Fisher – 6 US 358)

Mahan argued that the vague references to slavery in the Constitution didn’t constitute the “irresistible clearness” that would be required for “infringing rights and trampling down justice.”  He argued further that even when the American colonies were under British rule, no slavery laws had ever been passed with sufficiently  “irresistible clearness”.  Thus slavery was, and always had been, an “illegal usurpation” in the United States and the American colonies.[8]

As the debates continued, both sides began to engage in personal attacks, each accusing the other of not being “sincere” in their anti-slavery advocacy.  Mrs. Foster also spoke out, prompting one audience member to remark afterwards that she should be “tarred and feathered”.  Mahan concluded his arguments by comparing come-outerism to a “hideous monster… armed with hellish daggers” that could only “tear down and never build up.”  Stephen Foster responded by quoting a verse from the New Testament that said, “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” (Revelation 18:4)[9]

Asa Mahan
Asa Mahan (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

As for the outcome of the 1846 debates, the Oberlin Evangelist reported: “We are not aware that disunion and come-out-ism have made one new convert… the Fosters were deemed weak in argument – strong only in vituperation.” The Anti-Slavery Bugle reported from Oberlin that “the great mass of the people here, especially the students, believe that President Mahan achieved a complete victory”, but attributed this in large part to the faculty prejudicing the community in the weeks leading up to the debates.  The Fosters declared that Mahan “was very gentlemanly in deportment, but exhibited a recklessness of principle.”  Oberlin Professor James Fairchild said “the atmosphere waxed hot and lurid with the fire and smoke of the conflict.”  A group of black Oberlin residents passed resolutions claiming that both Mahan and the Fosters were “true and honest friends of the oppressed”, and that Garrison “has wreathed for himself a crown of unfading laurels.”[10]

But the Fosters clearly failed to break the ice in Oberlin, so Garrison now decided to send in the ‘first string’.  He would visit Ohio and Oberlin himself the next year, with his protégé Frederick Douglass, a compelling abolitionist speaker who had escaped from slavery and joined the Garrison movement in New England.  Garrison and Douglass received a much friendlier reception in Oberlin than the Fosters had, and were even allowed to present their arguments at First Church (the Meeting House) during commencement weekend in August, 1847.  Asa Mahan, who had a historically stormy relationship with Garrison, insisted once again on the right of rebuttal, setting up another series of debates.  This time Garrison would handle the Constitutional and disunion arguments, while Douglass handled the anti-church arguments.  Garrison described the debates and his Oberlin visit in a letter to his wife:

You know that from the commencement of the Institution in Oberlin, I took a lively interest in its welfare…  Oberlin has done much for the relief of the flying fugitives from the Southern prison house, multitudes of whom have found it a refuge from their pursuers and been fed, clad, sheltered, comforted, and kindly assisted on their way out of this horrible land to Canada. It has also promoted the cause of emancipation in various ways and its church refuses to be connected with any slaveholding or pro-slavery church by religious fellowship; though it is said to be involved in ecclesiastical and political relations which impair the strength of its testimony and diminish the power of its example. From these, if they exist, it is to be hoped it will be wholly extricated ere long, as light increases and duty is made manifest…

The meeting house is as spacious as the Broadway Tabernacle in New York, but much better arranged. Two of the graduates took occasion in their addresses to denounce the “fanaticism of Come-outerism and Disunionism” and to make a thrust at those who, in the guise of anti-slavery, temperance, etc., are endeavoring to promote “infidelity”…

Yesterday at 10 o’clock we began our meetings in the church – nearly three thousand persons in attendance. Another was held in the afternoon, another in the evening, and this forenoon we have had another long session. Douglass and myself have done nearly all the talking on our side, friend Foster saying but little. The principal topics of discussion have been Come-outerism from the Church and the State. Pres. Mahan entered into the debate in favor of the US Constitution as an anti-slavery instrument and consequently of the Liberty Party. He was perfectly respectful and submitted to our interrogations with good temper and courtesy. As a disputant he is adroit and plausible, but neither vigorous nor profound. I shall say nothing about my visit here for the public eye until my return. What impression we made at Oberlin I cannot say, but I was abundantly satisfied as to the apparent effect. I think our visit was an important one and very timely withal.[11]

Unfortunately, that’s about all the information we have about the 1847 debates.  The Oberlin Evangelist, which had summarized  its long article about the 1846 debates by saying “the discussion is now over”, apparently meant it; they said not one word about the 1847 visit or debates.  Garrison never wrote anything “for the public eye” after his return either, as he became deathly ill while in Cleveland, was incapacitated for weeks, and didn’t resume editing his newspaper until the following year.  The Anti-Slavery Bugle may have summed it up best when it said, “The people, in short, had become so accustomed to hearing Disunion and Come-outer doctrines uttered with all the harshness and sternness of Luther’s reformatory spirit, that when Garrison and Douglass came, they appeared, by comparison, the Melanchthons of the cause.”[12]  We do know that a member of the audience wrote that “Prest. Mahan was masterly and dignified, overturning and scattering to the winds every position of his opponent.”  And Mahan was highly impressed with Douglass, who he called “one of the greatest phenomena of the age… full of wit, human[ity], and pathos and sometimes mighty in invective.”[13]  Garrison and Douglass left town on good terms, with Professor Finney even loaning them his enormous revival tent to use in meetings around Ohio.

But interestingly enough, within two months of these debates, Frederick Douglass would begin to distance himself from the Garrisonians.  He started his own newspaper, against Garrison’s advice, in upstate New York, the “heartland” of the Liberty Party.   By 1851, Douglass would complete the schism with Garrison, declaring the Constitution to be an anti-slavery document and becoming an advocate of political activism.  He would now advance some of the very same reasoning that Asa Mahan used when speaking about the Constitution, and would denounce the idea of disunion as placing “the slave system more exclusively under the control of the slaveholding States.”[14]

So was the Constitution really pro-slavery, or was it anti-slavery?  Well, perhaps it was both.  In 1854, a new political party was founded on the premise that the Constitution protected slavery in the states where it already existed, but it provided no guarantees to expand it into the national territories, and that the Founding Fathers in fact opposed the expansion of slavery and hoped for its “ultimate extinction”.  That party was the Republican Party.  Ironically, the Republicans rose to power in the elections of 1860 with the help of votes and political action from many abolitionists.  (Garrison himself refused to vote, although he also refused to denounce the Republicans, which led to a schism between him and the Fosters).  Even more ironically, the victory of the Republican Party led to the attempted dismemberment of the Union by the slaveholders.  And in the crowning irony, the slaveholders’ attempt at disunion ultimately led to the abolition of slavery nationwide, although in a manner few intended, expected, or desired.

Sources consulted:

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College

Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery

Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison 1805-1879, Vol 3, 1841-1860

“The Disunionist Discussion”, Oberlin Evangelist, September 30, 1846, p. 158

“Mr. and Mrs. Foster at Oberlin”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, October 9, 1846

“Church action on the subject of slavery”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, October 9, 1846

Lindsay Swift, William Lloyd Garrison

Lysander Spooner, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery

Wendell Phillips, Review of Lysander Spooner’s Essay On the Unconstitutionality of Slavery

“The Cause in Ohio”, The Liberator, October 23, 1846, p. 171

“Garrison and Douglass”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, September 17, 1847

Frederick Douglass, “The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?”

James H. Fairchild, Oberlin: the colony and the college, 1833-1883

Edward H. Madden and James E. Hamilton, Freedom and Grace: The Life of Asa Mahan

John L. Thomas, The Liberator William Lloyd Garrison

Encylopaedia Britannica, “American Anti-Slavery Society”

Stephen Symonds Foster“, Portraits of American Abolitionists, Photo. Coll. 81, Massachusetts Historical Society Photo Archives.

Footnotes:

[1] Mayer, p. 427
[2] Thomas, p. 292
[3] Mayer,  p. 304; Madden, p. 86
[4] Fletcher, Chapter XIX
[5] “The Disunionist Discussion”
[6] “Church action on the subject of slavery”; Madden, p.86
[7] “The Disunionist Discussion”; Spooner; Phillips
[8] “The Disunionist Discussion”
[9] “Mr. and Mrs. Foster at Oberlin”
[10] “The Disunionist Discussion”; “Mr. and Mrs. Foster at Oberlin”; “The Cause in Ohio”; Fairchild, p.86
[11] Garrison, pp. 202-203
[12] “Garrison and Douglass”
[13] Fletcher, Chapter XIX
[14] Douglass, “Constitution”