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The weary feet and willing shoulders of Almira Porter Barnes

Tuesday, 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

Frances Jackson Coppin – From Slavery to Trailblazer

Thursday, 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

 

August First – the original “Juneteenth”

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

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

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

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

ClarksonWilberforce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WilliamHowardDay

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

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

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

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

 

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

Stone-August1st

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

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

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

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

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Catalogue of Oberlin College: 1833- 1908

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

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Kenny, pp. 55-56

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

[3] Oberlin Evangelist, August 17, 1842

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

[5] Barnes

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

[7] Calhoun; Hammond; Hale

[8] Oberlin Evangelist, July 30, 1862

Celebrating 20 Years of Community Service

Monday, April 27th, 2015

By Laurie Stein (Oberlin College 2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBlissman+LStein+TBoster - blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lincoln Assassination: 150 Years Ago

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent and researcher

[Warning – the following text contains some racist language in its original, historic context]

In the evening mist of April 11, 1865, Oberlin’s African American political leader, John Mercer Langston, stood among a crowd on the White House lawn and listened to the words of President Abraham Lincoln as he delivered, by candlelight from a second story window, a “grave and thrilling” speech.  In it, Lincoln outlined his general philosophy for Reconstruction of the Union after four years of bloody civil war – a policy made imminent by the surrender two days earlier of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.   Acknowledging that his Reconstruction plan was a work in progress, Lincoln nevertheless defended it against critics who saw it as too lenient and conservative.  “It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man,” the President confessed.  “I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers. . .The colored man, too, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end.  Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them?”  It might not have been everything that Langston, an elected public official himself, hoped for.  But in contrast to what any American President had ever said before, Lincoln’s words struck him as spoken “like a prophet, reminding one of the ancient Samuel as he called the people to witness his integrity.”  Not far from where Langston stood, however, another listener had a very different reaction to Lincoln’s words.  “That means nigger citizenship,” he hissed to his companions.  And he added a vow: “That is the last speech he will ever give.”  His name was John Wilkes Booth and, sadly, he was right about that. [1]

LangstonLincoln

Meanwhile, back in Oberlin, the air was electric with the flush of victory and the promise of peace.  A new term had just begun at Oberlin College, but students were finding it difficult to concentrate on their studies amid all the excitement of the recent news.  First the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia had fallen on April 2nd, then Lee’s army surrendered on April 9th.  The long, bloody rebellion, like the Confederacy itself, was in its death throes.  Oberlin College student Lucien Warner described the atmosphere:

“In the spring I returned to Oberlin to complete the last six months of my college course.  We had hardly commenced our term when Petersburg and then Richmond fell, and the terrible four years’ war was ended.  Victory rang through the nation, and people everywhere celebrated it in the most extravagant ways they could invent.  Everything that could make a noise was called into commission, from horns and tin pans to old anvils.  Such rejoicing comes to a nation but once in many generations.  The whole land took on new light and hope, and we felt that we really were again one nation.” [2]

Ohio Governor John Brough proclaimed an official day of Thanksgiving to be observed on Good Friday, April 14th – the four year anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter which had signaled the start of the Civil War.  Oberlin went enthusiastically about the business of preparing for the celebration.  When the appointed day arrived, there was something for everybody, as described by the Lorain County News:

“The day was opened by the firing of a salute at 6 A.M.  At half past ten the people gathered at the First Church to join in religious exercises and listen to addresses.  Prof. [James H.] Fairchild, Prof. Morgan, and Principal [E. Henry] Fairchild each delivered brief, appropriate, and eloquent addresses, and at the close of the meeting a liberal collection was taken up for the Christian Commission.  In the afternoon a prayer meeting was held in the First Church, and exercises were also held in the Second Church.  The rejoicings were opened in the evening by the firing of a salute and the ringing of the bells.  A general illumination of the College buildings, stores and private dwellings soon followed, and a procession representing beautiful designs, mottoes, transparencies of almost every description, moved through the principal streets, preceded by martial music, and brought up on Tappan Square, where patriotic speeches by citizens and students were listened to, fire-works and balloon ascensions were witnessed, and a huge bon-fire brilliantly lit up the entire square.  Not an accident or disorderly act occurred to mar the spirit of the occasion, and although every one seemed to celebrate and rejoice with a hearty good will, there was observable a mingling of serious earnestness, and quiet joy, which is rarely seen on such occasions.” [3]

 

WarnerTransparency

Lucien Warner described the festivities in a letter home to his mother:

“Last Friday was appointed by the Governor of this State for public Thanksgiving.  All businesses were suspended and every one rejoiced as best he was able.  In Cleveland every one rejoiced by getting drunk, but we remained sober and rejoiced.  In the evening almost every house, tree and door-yard was illuminated, and flags, banners and transparencies were without number.  There were about ten thousand candles burning all at once in the illumination.”  [4]

Oberlin went to bed that night and slept in a state of blissful peace.

But while Oberlinites slept, the telegraph did not:

Washington – April 15, 12:30 A.M.  The President was shot at a theatre to-night and is perhaps mortally wounded.

——————————————————————–

Washington – April 15, 3:00 A.M.  The President is not expected to live through the night.  He was shot at a theatre. Secretary Seward was also assassinated.  There were no arteries cut.  Particulars soon.

——————————————————————–

WAR DEPARTMENT, WASHINGTON, April 15
To Maj Gen Dix;
Abraham Lincoln died this morning at twenty-two minutes after seven o’clock.
EDWIN M. STANTON, Sec’y of War [5]

——————————————————————–

There was no daily newspaper published in Oberlin at that time, so the awful tidings traveled by word of mouth the following morning.  The sudden shock of the tragic news, in contrast to the jubilation of the night before, was still vividly recalled by Reverend Roselle T. Cross,  then an Oberlin College student, 28 years later:

“Who that was present can forget the rejoicing of April 14th?  Who can forget the illuminations of that night, or the great bonfire in Tappan Square, around which four thousand people were gathered.  And who can forget the awful shock of the next morning when news came of Lincoln’s assassination; all day it rained; recitations were suspended.  All day we walked the streets aimlessly, scarcely recognizing our friends when we met them.  All day long the college bell tolled.” [6]

The Lorain County News described the mood in its next issue, published the following Wednesday:

“But who will attempt to describe our feelings on the reception of the crushing news early on the following day?  At first it seemed incredible.  The sudden transition from overflowing joy, and praise and gratitude to God, to the overwhelming grief which the terrible tidings brought upon us, was too much for the great heart of the people to bear, and all sank beneath it like a crushed reed.  The stars and stripes were lowered half-mast, the chapel bell tolled solemnly and mournfully throughout the long, weary day, recitations were suspended in the Institution, crowds hurried to the [train] depot, to get a sight of the morning paper, business was nearly suspended, the land was overshadowed with dark and weeping clouds, and all nature seemed to mourn.” [7]

Lucien Warner, who had seen President Lincoln in person the year before while serving a 100 day enlistment in the Union army defenses of Washington, D.C., learned the news at the end of his morning recitation:

“The next morning at nine o’clock we received the sad intelligence of the assassination of President Lincoln.  It was as though a clap of thunder had stunned every person.  The news was brought to our class at the close of a recitation.  For nearly five minutes we sat motionless, forgetting that the class had been dismissed.  I have loved other public men, but the death of no one could have affected me like that of President Lincoln.  Ever since I looked upon his honest, genial countenance I have loved him like an intimate friend; and so I suppose did every loyal man.  I think there were but few in this town but that shed tears on that day.  Further study was out of the question.” [8]

Throughout the day, as the chapel bell tolled and the students “put on crepe”, details trickled in about the assassinations. The President had been shot in the back of the head by an actor named John Wilkes Booth.  Secretary of State William Seward had been the victim of a savage knife attack at approximately the same time by another assassin – one of Booth’s companions at Lincoln’s final speech, it would turn out.  Later that Saturday morning the telegraph brought news that Secretary Seward had also died.  It wouldn’t be until Monday that it was learned that Seward had survived, to the relief of “the overburdened public mind”. [9]

The assassinations would be the main topic of two sermons delivered the next day, Easter Sunday, by Reverend Charles G. Finney at First Church.  Finney was one of those who believed that “Mr. Lincoln was a man so intensely kind & accommodating that many of us felt that he might be induced to leave the power of the great slave holders unbroken, by too lenient an exercise of the pardoning power.”    And now  he told his congregation: “We must show the world that rebellion is a fearful, terrible thing. The President was an amiable man, tender, kind-hearted, but perhaps he stood in God’s way of dealing with the Rebels just as they ought to be dealt with for the good of the nation, and for the good of humanity.” [10]

John Mercer Langston was still in Washington, D.C. when John Wilkes Booth made good his vow – three nights after Lincoln delivered that fateful speech.  Langston had gone there before the surrender of Robert E. Lee with a bold proposal (for that era) – requesting a colonel’s commission and the command of a combat regiment of United States Colored Troops (USCT).  Just months earlier, Sergeant Milton Holland, one of several men Langston had recruited into the 5th USCT infantry regiment,  had been denied a promotion to captain because the War Department was reluctant to appoint African Americans as combat officers. (See my Battle of New Market Heights blog.)  But with the hearty endorsement of Ohio abolitionist General James A. Garfield (who himself would be assassinated as President sixteen years later), Langston received an encouraging reception from Secretary of War Stanton, and Langston and Garfield left the interview “with the belief firmly settled in their minds” that Langston’s proposal “would receive the sanction and approval of the authorities.”  With the surrender of Lee, however, the army immediately began to scale down, and Langston noted that “the department very properly concluded not to adopt the measure”.  On the heels of this came what Langston called “the horror of horrors” – “the assassination of the immortal Abraham Lincoln.”  While it was no secret among abolitionists that Lincoln himself shared some of the racial prejudices of his day, Langston saw him as “a statesman without an equal; a leader, as grand in the immense proportions of his individuality as Moses himself; an emancipator of a race.” [11]

Another Oberlin political leader, James Monroe, didn’t learn of the assassinations until more than a month after the fact, having been appointed by Lincoln as U.S. consul to Rio de Janeiro.  When the news finally reached Brazil of the “monstrous crimes”, Monroe declared: “Our strong men wept, and every one felt that he had experienced a great personal calamity.”   Back in 1861, Monroe had had the honor of accompanying President-elect Lincoln on part of his railroad journey from his hometown of Springfield, Illinois to his inauguration in Washington, D.C.   But by the time Monroe learned of Lincoln’s death, the Lincoln funeral train had already retraced the inaugural route back to Springfield, including a stop in Cleveland where thousands of mourners paid their final respects.  Among those mourners were some from Oberlin, including Oberlin College student John G. Fraser, who recorded in his diary: [12]

“The crowd was the largest I ever saw and by far the most quiet and orderly. The very skies seemed to be weeping for the good man’s fall. I looked upon his face three times. It has a quiet, peaceful look upon it, as though he were at peace with his God, himself and all the world. How could an assassin have the heart to kill such a man?”

LincolnFuneralCleveland-cro

Lincoln funeral reception – Cleveland

Some in that mournful throng may have recalled back to the inaugural train journey of four years earlier and a brief, impromptu, perhaps prophetic speech President-elect Lincoln delivered in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the nation was born.  But when Lincoln spoke there in 1861 the nation’s survival seemed uncertain, with several slaveholding states having declared themselves seceded from the Union because, as their own newly elected President, Jefferson Davis, explained it, “the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.” [13]  Speaking on Washington’s birthday, with the prospect of civil war looming and rumors of assassination plots abounding, President-elect Lincoln re-affirmed his commitment to that “sacred Declaration”: [14]

“I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence… which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it…

My friends, this is wholly an unexpected speech… I may, therefore, have said something indiscreet.  I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by and, if it be the pleasure of Almighty God, die by.”  – Abraham Lincoln, February 22, 1861

 

 SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Oberlin Local: The Thanksgiving and Celebration”, Lorain County News, April 19, 1865, p. 2

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

David Herbert Donald, Lincoln

Lucien Calvin Warner, Personal Memoirs of Lucien Calvin Warner

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College From its Foundation through the Civil War, volume 2

“Last Public Address”, Abraham Lincoln Online

“Assassination of President Lincoln and Secretary Seward”, Lorain County News, April 19, 1865, p. 2

Rev R. T. Cross, “The Fourth Decade”, The Oberlin Jubilee 1833-1883

Charles G. Finney to James Barlow, June 22, 1865, The Gospel Truth

“Address in Independence Hall”, Abraham Lincoln Online

“Jefferson Davis’ Farewell Address”, The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Senate Chamber, U.S. Capitol, January 21, 1861

“The Great Sorrow”, Lorain County News, April 19, 1865, p. 2

James Monroe, Oberlin Thursday Lectures, Addresses, and Essays

“Building Erected for the Reception of the Body of the President at Cleveland”, Library of Congress

“Lincoln Parade Transparency, 1860”, Smithsonian: The National Museum of American History

Catherine M. Rokicky, James Monroe: Oberlin’s Christian Statesman and Reformer, 1821-1898

William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom: 1829-1865

Jacob Henry Studer, Columbus, Ohio: Its History, Resources and Progress

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

General Catalogue of Oberlin College: 1833- 1908

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Langston, pp. 220-221; “Last Public“; Donald, pp. 581-588
[2] Warner, p. 45
[3] “Oberlin Local”
[4] Warner, p. 45
[5] “Assassination”
[6] Cross, p. 220
[7] “Oberlin Local”
[8] Warner, pp. 45-46
[9] Fletcher, p. 883; “The Great Sorrow”
[10] Charles G. Finney; Fletcher, p. 883
[11] Langston, pp. 219-223
[12] Monroe, pp. 206-207; Rokicky, pp. 65-66; Fletcher, pp. 883-884
[13] “Jefferson Davis’ Farewell Address”
[14] “Address in Independence Hall”