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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.

Oberlin Has Tie to “12 Years a Slave” Character

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

By David Fiske, Co-author of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, Praeger, 2013.

Though Louisiana is the primary setting for the film 12 Years a Slave, there is a connection between Oberlin and one of the characters featured in the movie. Harriet Shaw, admirably played by Alfre Woodard, was a real person, whose son Daniel Webster Shaw lived in Oberlin for several years, and is buried in Westwood Cemetery.

The role of Harriet Shaw is perhaps a source of confusion for some viewers of the movie. Why is a black woman, a former slave, living an easy life of comfort in the midst of a region full of plantations where other slaves were being worked nearly to death?

The film is based on the 1853 book, Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). Northup’s book did not say a lot about Harriet Shaw (in fact, in one place he mistakenly gives her first name as Charlotte), but he does say that she had been a slave to Mr. Shaw, who had taken her as his wife, and that there were several children in their household. Northup wrote that Harriet extended many kindnesses to poor Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o), being aware of Patsey’s difficult situation.

Though not typical, it was not entirely unusual for a slave owner to enter into a domestic relationship with a slave. Northup tells that, earlier in life fellow slave Eliza (Adepero Oduye) had lived with her master, who had broken off relations with his wife. Northup writes that Eliza had “resided with him…nine years, with servants to attend upon her, and provided with every comfort and luxury of life.”

Even the notorious Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), the slave trader who sold Northup at New Orleans, lived with a mulatto woman named Sarah Conner, who had been his slave but whom he had allowed to purchase her freedom.

Harriet Shaw existed in real life. The 1860 census shows that a 25-year-old black woman by that name lived in the household of a P. L. Shaw (his first name was probably Pleasant)–and not as a slave. The census listing shows a number of children in the household, their races given as “mulatto.” Some appear to be too old to have been the children of Harriet, but the younger ones certainly could have been.

One of the children, Daniel, was born about 1858. It seems very likely that this son of Harriet, whose full name was Daniel Webster Shaw, is the same man who, after obtaining a very impressive college education, was a prominent clergyman and writer. According to his death certificate and a record of the 1942 death, in Oberlin, of his son, Carl Clifford Shaw, Rev. Shaw was born in Eola, Louisiana. Eola is a village located on Bayou Boeuf, and the location of the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), to whom Northup and Patsey belonged. Though other records show that Daniel was born in 1859 or 1860, these dates are reasonably consistent with the information in the 1860 census listing. Eola is very small, and it seems unlikely that two different men named Daniel Shaw would have been born there around the same time.

Rev Daniel Webster Shaw r

Rev. Daniel Webster Shaw  
(Source: David James submission on Find a Grave)

Daniel Shaw attended a school not far from the plantation where his mother had lived (and where Patsey had visited her frequently). In a message sent by Rev. Shaw to a woman named Rosetta Ann Colt (who had gone to Louisiana after the Civil War to start schools for blacks), he recalled “I think of school days on the Tache [ “Teche,” for Bayou Teche, where Miss Colt had run a school] and all the kind ways in which you helped me to start out in life. If I could be permitted, how gladly would I again fill up the wood-box in your room and kindle the fire on your hearth,” and he credits his success to her help and advice. At the time he wrote this, he was the pastor of a church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Shaw continued his education at Baldwin University in Berea, Ohio (today known as Baldwin Wallace University), graduating in 1883–the first black person to do so. He also pursued studies at Boston University, Oberlin College, and later on, at Wiley University, where he was granted a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1900. As a minister he served congregations in Baltimore, Maryland; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charleston, West Virginia; Cleveland, Ohio, and in Oberlin, where he served the Rust Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1880s and 1890s. Rev. Shaw married Alice L. Bookram in Oberlin on January 23, 1888, and in 1896 the family resided at the Readie Brooks House at 60 North Park Street.

In addition to his pastoral duties, he at one point was on the faculty at Howard University, and authored many articles and pamphlets. Suffering ill health, the Rev. Dr. Shaw was forced to leave the ministry, and he returned to Oberlin in the summer of 1914, residing at 309 North Main Street. He passed away on September 28, 1914.

AUTHOR BIO:

David Fiske is a retired librarian who is a freelance writer and researcher in upstate New York. His interest in Solomon Northup began in the 1990s, and his research is included in a 2013 book he co-authored titled Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Marriage and death certificates referenced are available on familysearch.org.

Ohio Historic Inventory LOR-02073-21, Readie Brooks House, Ohio Historic Preservation Office. Contains some references to Rev. Shaw’s residence in Oberlin.

Daniel W. Shaw, The Second Emancipation of the Negro: An Address to the Colored Voters of West Virginia, 1900 [no publisher given]. Includes a biographical note about Shaw.

“African Missions,” Northern Christian Advocate [Syracuse, New York], October 26, 1905. Biographical sketch of Rosetta Ann Colt includes a quote from a letter sent to her by Rev. Shaw.

Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave. Originally published in 1853; many editions now available.

Dr. A.C. Siddall’s Life as a Medical Practitioner: Researching and Making History

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

by Michelle Myers, Leadership Lorain County Intern

Upon leaving my summer internship at the Oberlin Heritage Center and graduating from Swarthmore College in two years, I plan on going to nursing school and becoming a midwife. I have taken an interest in Dr. A.C. Siddall, an OB/GYN who practiced in the Oberlin Heritage Center’s Monroe House for twenty years, not only because of the feats he accomplished as a medical practitioner, but also for his engaging and vigorous writings. While looking through a file of his research papers, historical writings, and autobiographical keepings at the Oberlin College Archives, I came upon a paper he had written the year of his retirement, 1973, titled “From Practicing Obstetrician to Amateur Historian.” This paper reflects on his career and looks forward to a life of continuous medical curiosity. Now, as I look toward my future journey into the medical field, I find inspiration in what he has written. It is an example of what I may have to look forward to, as I pause and we both, Dr. Siddall and I, can breathe, reflect, and consider the wonderful medical history that had been laid before us.

A Clair Siddall, M.D., was a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology who practiced in Oberlin for 40 years. He developed the first hormonally-based pregnancy test in English literature, delivered 5,000 babies, and served as a medical missionary in China for nine years. He did all he could for the medical practice of Oberlin in his lifetime, ultimately co-founding the Oberlin Clinic and supporting the expansion of the Allen Memorial Hospital, now Mercy Allen Hospital. He lived an incredibly meaningful life, both by way of his own driving force and the inspirations of the past. He wrote paper after paper dealing with the medical history of Oberlin during his practice. In “From Practicing Obstetrician to Amateur Historian,” Dr. Siddall discussed just how much history inspired him and could inspire others, saying “…it is sufficient for this presentation to show how any physician can enlarge his horizon by more or less active interest in the history of his own profession.” Rather than viewing his retirement as a time of complete rest, Dr. Siddall used this free time to continue exploring his curiosity, as well as making up for lost time:

“So it is that now I can follow a beautiful schedule of working at my desk until noon every day then being flexible in the afternoon. Several subjects claim my attention now,
1. History of Chinese Medicine
2. Profiles of all physicians who have ever worked in Oberlin-includes the college
3. Eunuchism
4. Religious beliefs of the common man
[5.] Uninterrupted meals with my wife who has suffered interruptions and delays and cancellations for forty years, without complaint.”

Researching history inspired Dr. Siddall to reach higher standards of innovation in his own practice. He studied marvelous icons of medical history, including Hippocrates, Galen, Soranus, Sydenham, and others. He created an extensive guide of Oberlin’s history of medical practices and practitioners, which is now at the Oberlin College Archives. While he attended professional meetings on vacation, he made an effort to visit sites of medical innovation in the field of obstetrics. On one trip, he visited a monument of John L. Richmond in Newton, Ohio, who, in 1827, “carried out singlehanded, using only his pocket instruments, the first professional cesarean in the country.” Richmond performed this cesarean under the light of one candle in a log cabin. Dr. Siddall said of this character, “[s]uch courage stirs my imagination.” Dr. Siddall embraced a similarly courageous and self-assured approach in his own practice with the Pap smear, a screening test used for the detection of cervical cancer. He was one of the first individual practitioners to introduce cancer detection to the medical office. This was in the 1950’s, a point in history when physicians were skeptical of the American Cancer Association’s call for frequent cancer screenings. Because he was able to identify cancer early, Dr. Siddall was able to treat and save patients’ lives.


Dr. A.C. Siddall and his wife, Estelle.

Dr. Siddall was a historian, and at the same time, he was a medical practitioner who did things worth writing about. These factors resulted from each other, in a wheel of innovation. Medical practice is a result of medical history, and medical practice creates medical history. I believe this can be most emphasized by Dr. Siddall’s words: “So we learn that to make history takes precedence over and is more satisfying than to read history. However I never cease to be inspired by those who have gone before as pioneers in our specialty.” Indeed, these pioneers helped form Dr. Siddall’s practice and may continue to inspire medical practitioners of the future. For me, Dr. Siddall has been one of these moving pioneers in imagination. Studying medical history offers a clearer understanding to how the medical practices of today have developed. It also inspires a medical practitioner to come up with innovative and life-saving ways of handling his or her practice. I take historical research seriously because it has and will save lives.

Sources:

Siddall Papers, Oberlin College Archives.

“From Practicing Obstetrician to Amateur Historian”, Oberlin College Archives.

Profile of an Oberlin Soldier: Henry Whipple Chester, 2nd Ohio Cavalry

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Henry Whipple Chester was born on December 25, 1840 in Bainbridge, Ohio. His father was a farmer, innkeeper, and a postmaster, and an ardent abolitionist. Henry assumed many of his father’s traits and was himself a multi-tasking abolitionist. He entered the Preparatory Department of Oberlin College in 1858 and had just completed his course when the Civil War broke out. Like many boys in attendance at the college, he enlisted as a volunteer to fight at the age of twenty-one in the fall of 1861 in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry as a private. For the next four years, Chester fought in thirty-eight battles and skirmishes and travelled over 22,000 miles through thirteen states and territories. Eventually, he rose to captaincy of Company K in the 2nd Ohio. Making it safely through the war, afterward he lived in Kansas doing odd jobs, like selling sewing machines and working at a bank, married, and then moved to Chicago and formed a lumber company.  In the early 1900’s, he wrote a very detailed recollection of the war; it was published a few years before his death in 1918. His recollections display a lively and humorous personality and a war-experience that was at times harrowing, humorous, lively, and bitter-sweet. Below are some stories from his experiences as a soldier.

The 2nd Ohio spent much of the year of 1863 in the state of Kansas. While in Iola, Kansas, Chester recounts observing Native Americans playing “a ball game…called LaCross, I believe.” One of the chiefs would act as Umpire.

In the summer of 1863, Henry and the rest of the 2nd Ohio were charged with the task of helping to chase down the Confederate John Morgan and his close to 2,000 men who were raiding through the southern part of Ohio until the Battle of Buffington Island, in which the Confederate forces were defeated and many of them imprisoned. Chester received a furlough for his services and headed home to Oberlin. Dusty, weary, and not in uniform, Henry rode into town at sunset in July of 1863. The Lorain CountyNews, Oberlin’s local paper published an article on his arrival:

“On Wednesday of last week, just as the shadows of the evening were beginning to make objects obscure, a Cavalryman, armed and equipped a la regulation, and mounted on a beast which looked as if he had been either one of Morgan’s raiders or of the chase after Morgan, came into the town from the south. There was something in the lone horsemen’s style which excited suspicion, and as he rode directly through the village without pausing or conferring with anybody, it was surmised that he might be one of Morgan’s spies. Accordingly, there was a “mounting in hot haste” and hot pursuit. But the scare soon ended by the discovery that the worn and dusty dragoon was no other than our young townsman, Henry W. Chester.”

Chester was afterward warmly greeted by his parents and the rest of the town. He was also rewarded with his first bath in over a month.

Henry Chester during the 1862 Kansas and Indian Territory Campaigns. Apparently, his parents did not even recognize him in the photo.

In November of 1864, Chester was almost captured by Confederates in a skirmish in Virginia, which he described in a letter to his mother, “I found myself surrounded and a revolver on each side of my bared, hatless head.” Chester was asked to run alongside his Confederate captor’s horse; however, thanks to a charge by some of the rest of the 2nd Ohio, amid action Chester was able to grab a rock “the size of a coconut” and throw it at his captor’s side and escape. Stumbling along the road without a horse or weapons, he then ran into a Confederate in a similar situation.

“I stepped right in front him with my empty holster in my right hand and stuck it in his face so near that he could not see that it was not a revolver…it certainly looked like a gun. I ordered the man to surrender and give me his carbines. He did so at once. I then stepped back and began to laugh at him and showed him that I had no gun until I had secured his.”

He then proceeded to take the Confederate soldier prisoner and make his way back to camp. Luman Harris Tenney, another Oberlinian in the 2nd Ohio, wrote to The Lorain County News about the whole event and said of Chester, “Chester thinks it ‘better to be born lucky, than rich.’”

Five months later, Chester and the rest of the 2nd Ohio were at Appomattox Courthouse when the Confederate Lee surrendered to Grant—he wrote to his aunt a few days later in 1865: “My Dear Aunt: PEACE ON EARTH: GOOD WILL TO (NEARLY) ALL MEN! WHAT GLORIOUS NEWS! THE GREAT REBELLION CRUSHED!! SOUTHERN CONFEDERACY PLAYED OUT!!!”

Comments? Questions?

Email Karyn Norwood, AmeriCorps CW150 Leadership Corps volunteer at cw150@oberlinheritage.org.

Sources consulted:

Chester, H.W. Recollections of the War of the Rebellion: A Story of the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, 1861-1865. Wheaton, IL.: Wheaton History Center, 1996; Tenney, Luman Harris. War Diary of Luman Harris Tenney, 1861-1865. Cleveland, OH: Evangelical Publishing House, 1914. Image from Chester’s Recollections of the War of the Rebellion.

“Oberlin Knows No Crisis”: Local Happenings during the Presidential Inauguration of 1861

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011


On March 4, 1861, one-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated President of the United States of America. Only a few weeks before in Montgomery, Alabama, Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated provisionally as President of the Confederate States. With already seven states having seceded from the Union, Lincoln began his presidency of a fragile United States. Fittingly, his speech was entirely devoted to the “secession flurry.” The country was at a breaking point, he admitted—but it was unnecessarily and wrongly so.  “May his views of prerogative penetrate the nation,” Oberlin’s local paper, The Lorain County News states approvingly, “[but] whether the mild measures which Mr. Lincoln proposes will not excite civil war remains to be seen.”

While the federal government was in strife, small town life in Oberlin was not—“Oberlin Knows no Crisis,” the local paper comments. Yes, the country was in a tough spot, and certainly, Oberlinians were aware of it. Daily life in the village, though, very much like today, was ongoing. So, what was going in Oberlin 150 years ago? A perusal of the local paper finds out: a lot!

The weather in Wellington and Oberlin was mild these first two weeks in 1861, more like “May, instead of March.” Temperatures were recorded as being upwards of sixty.

The college’s student population was threatening to reach an all time high—700 enrolled, and perhaps, could reach 1000! This, despite the “crisis,” the editor of the paper notes. Oberlin College students had just participated in the “Day of Annual Fasting and Prayer for Colleges,” which entailed, as the title speaks of, fasting and prayer for Christian students and the colleges that endeavored to educate them.

Complaints were pouring in about the condition of some of the sidewalks in Oberlin: “One fourth of the walks in our otherwise moral and orthodox village are indecently dangerous! [They are] in a state hardly navigable for cats.” (To modern Oberlinians and readers elsewhere just coming ourselves out of a long and snowy winter: I think we can relate!)

A classified in the local paper reads similar to one we might find today for a car, “For Sale-A valuable Horse, and a first rate new Lumber Wagon, (single or double) cheap for cash. Call on R.J. Shipherd.”

An elderly woman wrote in to the paper and commented on Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “What a critter Mrs. Stowe is to write!” This was just after she had just finished another chapter of the book.

On impure drinking water, the local paper advises: “Set a pitcher of iced water in a room inhabited, and in a few hours it will have absorbed from the room nearly all the respired and perspired gases of the room, the air of which will have become purer, but the water utterly filthy. Hence water…should be often renewed.”

In retrospect, in the first days of March 2011,

Karyn Norwood

Questions? Comments?

Email: cw150@oberlinheritage.org

Source Consulted:

The Lorain County News, 6 March 1861, p. 2,3; The Lorain County News, 13 March 1861, p. 2.