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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.

Behind the Scenes – Oral History Digitizing

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

by Eileen Telegdy, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer

I am Eileen Telegdy and in October of 2014 I retired, sold my home and moved to a condo in Oberlin. I responded to an ad Liz Schultz, the Museum Education and Tour Coordinator of the Oberlin Heritage Center, placed in the local paper in January of 2015 seeking volunteers to join the Oberlin Oral History Committee. I joined and volunteered to help digitize the cassette tapes from the Series II phase of the project (2000 to the present).

 

Eileen Telegdy digitizing an oral history cassette

 

Digitizing the tapes is done in the basement of the Monroe House, which is teeming with activity by employees, interns, students and volunteers. The space is well utilized and surprisingly quiet, interrupted only by phone and doorbell rings and soft spoken conversations. Everyone is friendly, welcoming and helpful. Once an interview is completed it is painstakingly transcribed, saved to files on the computer and also printed and placed in a binder. A preface is also written, cassette labeled and cataloged in inventory. The quality of the tapes varies.

To digitize, the cassette tape is played on a converter connected to the computer with a USB cord. As the converter plays the tape, a free program called Audacity records it and then converts it into a WAV (sound) file. The results in a more efficient method of storage and improved preservation and availability. I found listening to the interviews captivating and compelling, so much so that I wanted to be in the basement of the Monroe House with earphones on four mornings a week for a couple of months. I listened to the interviews as they were recorded and simultaneously read the transcripts to check for any discrepancies. The chronicling from childhood to retirement years of multiple generations of residents who experienced all the conflict and challenges that faced our nation during the last millennium to the present is illuminating and hearing their stories in their own voices adds an invaluable dimension.

Since most interviews are not focused on one specific subject, information on various issues is revealed in an anecdotal manner in numerous interviews of different individuals, providing insight and understanding of very diverse positions on a multitude of issues. For example, the interviews explain the obstacles encountered and the procedures required that eventually brought Splash Zone, the industrial park, fair housing, Kendal, and the FAA to Oberlin, plus the beginning of Head Start and averting what was the apparent imminent closure of the hospital in Oberlin. This is not a comprehensive list; only a representation of some of the subjects discussed. All benefited from the perseverance and diligent efforts of hard working motivated individuals who believed in the betterment of the city for all ages and races. I think hearing the voices increases understanding of the transcripts exponentially. The voices provide intent, emotion and inflection that are lacking in the written word. It is my sincere hope this method will keep the interviews available for many years. Presently, all the cassette tapes in inventory have been digitized. It was a pleasure and privilege to contribute to this project.

Juneteenth – the “extinction” of legalized slavery in America

Friday, June 12th, 2015

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

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first “Juneteenth” – June 19, 1865 – a day which has come to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.  Since Juneteenth is such an important day in modern Oberlin, and the fight against slavery was such an important part of Oberlin’s early history, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write a blog describing how American slavery ended, how Oberlin reacted to it, and why Juneteenth has been chosen as the day to celebrate it.  None of it was as straightforward as one might think.

Most people are aware that  American slavery was ended by the Civil War, and that specifically President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had something to do with it.   But the actual demise of slavery was in fact a complicated process, as might be expected of an institution that had become so deeply ingrained in the American social, political and economic landscape throughout the first “four score and 7 years” of this nation’s existence.

When President Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, seven slaveholding states had already declared themselves seceded from the Union and were in the process of arming themselves for potential war.   “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended,” Lincoln said in his inaugural address, “while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”   And he meant it.  Three months earlier, when slaveholding states began to call for secession conventions in response to Lincoln’s election, President-elect Lincoln told a colleague in a private dispatch: “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery… Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than later.”   But while Lincoln always maintained that stopping the expansion of slavery would put it on “the course of ultimate extinction”, he also reassured slaveholders in that same inaugural address that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” [1]

Most abolitionists and Oberlinites concurred.  Initially, that is.  But surely, they thought, when the Confederate states opened fire on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, President Lincoln would use the opportunity to eradicate slavery forever.   After all, former President John Quincy Adams, who as a Constitutional lawyer successfully argued the Amistad case before the U.S. Supreme Court, had told Congress twenty years earlier that “under a state of actual invasion and of actual war… not only the President of the United States but the commander of the army has power to order the universal emancipation of the slaves.”  But even as Lincoln called up troops to put down the rebellion, he held fast to both his promises – he would not compromise on the extension of slavery into new territory, but he also would not interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed.  In fact as combat operations began, he censured those military commanders who took it upon themselves to emancipate the slaves in their jurisdiction, and supported military commanders who returned escaped slaves to their owners.  More than a year into the war, Lincoln would still insist that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union”, and that although his “personal wish” remained “that all men every where could be free”, he would use his war powers to free the slaves only insofar as he believed it would “save the Union”. [2]

Perplexed on how to proceed, the citizens of Oberlin called a series of public meetings during commencement week, in August, 1861, to discuss the situation.  The meetings drew not only local dignitaries, but such nationally recognized figures as the renowned abolitionist Reverend Edward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) from Massachusetts, and U.S. Representative James Ashley from Toledo.   (Ashley was himself a former Underground Railroad conductor who was portrayed, not altogether flatteringly, in Stephen Spielberg’s recent movie “Lincoln”.)  Speaking just weeks after Union forces had suffered a major, humiliating defeat in Virginia, Representative Ashley told his Oberlin audience:

“I am now on my return homewards from Washington.  I saw President Lincoln but the day before I left.  He said to me – Can you tell me why it is that one Secessionist [soldier] is equal to five Union men?  I said, Yes.  The reason is that the Secessionist has an idea; the Union men have not.  The former knows what he works and fights for.  The latter don’t know.  They must save Slavery and yet must fight it; and in this everlasting perplexity and conflict of aims and interests, they cannot have energy, or will…

 

Now, friends, if you will speak out, and if the people of the Great West will speak out, our rulers will obey.  And for myself I am not willing to give such favors to rebels as the policy of our Government thus far seems to accord them.”

James Ashley

Reverend Beecher resolved that “By virtue of the present treason and war, we have a legal right to strike Slavery down”, and “If this is not done, a dark mist of uncertainty hangs over the issue of this war.”  These sentiments resonated with the locals.  Cleveland Reverend James Thome (a former Oberlin College Professor and Lane Rebel) proclaimed, “We who have spoken out all along thus far, ought to speak out now.  Our Government needs and perhaps desires just this expression from us.  If ever there was a time when courage and unswerving boldness were in season, that time is now.”

Edward H. Fairchild, Principal of the Oberlin College Preparatory Department, took it a step further.  Not only should the slaves be freed, they should be armed and allowed to fight: “Let the blacks, bond and free, be marshalled for this contest, and come up to strike for Freedom, and to smite down this rebellion.  When armed and disciplined, let them sweep the Gulf States, take possession, and hold the country.  It is legitimately theirs.”  And according to the Oberlin Evangelist, “All agreed that, through a specially kind Providence, Slavery had put itself into a position where it may be smitten down, and that it is in the highest degree wise for the Federal Government to exercise this war power as fast as it can be done to purpose.” [3]

Jame Thome, E. H. Fairchild

But it would be more than a year later before Lincoln was finally ready to act.  And even then it wouldn’t be the “universal emancipation” that John Quincy Adams had envisioned two decades earlier.  Lincoln insisted that the Constitution only gave him authority to free the slaves in regions that were in rebellion, and thus his Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, freed only those “persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States.”  Fully aware that slaveholders in those rebellious regions would not feel the least bit bound by the President’s proclamation, some abolitionists cried foul – insisting that the proclamation didn’t free any slaves at all.  But in Oberlin it was generally cheered.  The Proclamation in fact freed thousands of slaves immediately, some of them right in Oberlin, who had escaped from the rebel states and had ever since lived in constant apprehension of recapture and return to slavery.  And it was understood that with each advance of Union arms many more slaves would be freed, and many of them in turn, would “be marshalled for this contest, and come up to strike for Freedom” themselves, as Principal Fairchild had advocated more than a year earlier.  And so the Oberlin Evangelist jubilantly proclaimed: [4]

“We shall account this proclamation as the great and glorious decision.  It fixes a policy.  It is a mighty word for freedom.  Its echoes will gladden four millions of hearts where little joy has found place for many generations.  We hope the watchword as the tidings flash from one plantation to another all the way from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, will be Pray and wait.  The God of the oppressed is surely coming!”

5th USCT
5th USCT troops

And that’s exactly how it happened.  As Union armed forces made their slow but steady advance into the Confederate interior, the tidings did indeed flash from one plantation to another.  In 1864 the tidings were carried to coastal North Carolina and Virginia, as the 5th United States Colored Troops (USCT),  a regiment of “blacks, bond and free” with a strong Oberlin presence, conducted raids into rebel territory, freeing slaves as it went.  (See my Battle of New Market Heights blog.)   Hundreds of miles away the tidings flashed to Eliza Wallace, in Natchez, Mississippi, who with her three children was helped on the road to Oberlin and freedom by Oberlin resident and alumnus, Chaplain Sela Wright of the 70th United States Colored Infantry.  Nobody knows how many thousands of slaves were freed between Natchez and the Virginia coast, but it’s estimated that 130,000 of them served in the United States army.  And ultimately, after much praying and waiting, the tidings did indeed make it all the way to the Rio Grande, but not until weeks after Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, President Lincoln had been assassinated, and many considered the war to be over.  And so it was that on June 19, 1865 Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas with a proclamation that “all slaves are free” and with the military power to back it up. The promise of the Emancipation Proclamation was now complete. [5]

Sela Wright

Reverend Sela Wright, in later years

(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

But wait!  We seem to be forgetting something.  Recall that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed those slaves in regions “in rebellion against the United States”.  What about the hundreds of thousands of slaves held in regions where the rebellion had already been suppressed, or slaveholding states which had remained loyal right from the start, like Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware?  Well, the Lincoln Administration didn’t forget about them either.  In fact it employed a carrot and stick approach to entice these regions to abolish slavery voluntarily, which most of them did by the time General Granger landed in Galveston.  And for the last stubborn holdouts – Kentucky and Delaware – the Lincoln Administration had also been using a carrot and stick approach to pass a Constitutional Amendment, originally introduced into Congress by none other than Representative James Ashley (mentioned above), that would ban slavery nationwide and forever.  That amendment was finally ratified on  December 18, 1865, becoming the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, making institutional, legalized slavery extinct everywhere in the United States of America.

So why do we celebrate June 19, 1865, a date that really only affected the slaves in Galveston, Texas?  Probably for the simple reason that they and their descendants kept the memory alive, year after year after year.  Today we might be more inclined to see January 1 (the date the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect) or December 18 (the date the 13th Amendment was ratified) as more appropriate for a national celebration.   But the vast majority of slaves were freed between those two events, and with a bloody Civil War and a strife-filled Reconstruction in progress, the freed men and women had all they could do to make the difficult transition to freedom, without trying to organize a national day of commemoration.  It wasn’t until the civil rights era of the 20th century that Galveston’s celebration garnered national attention, and the idea spread slowly across the country.  In 2004 the City of Oberlin officially joined the throng by designating “Juneteenth, the Saturday in June that falls between the 13th and 19th of June each year, as an Officially Recognized day of Commemoration and Celebration.” [6]

So please join us in celebrating the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth this Saturday, June 13th, in Oberlin.  Enjoy the many cultural festivities, stop by the Oberlin Heritage Center’s booth on Tappan Square, perhaps even sign up for one of our historic tours.  But as you’re enjoying the food, music and fun, remember too the millions of Americans who endured the bitter hopelessness of this awful institution, and remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, who fought for freedom – some, like Gordon Granger, Sela Wright and the men of the 5th USCT, who freed slaves outright, and others who fought to preserve a Union that would finally bring slavery to its “ultimate extinction”.  And remember too that while institutional slavery is indeed extinct, the racial prejudices and mistrust that propagated it and were perpetuated by it are not.  But that’s our battle.

Happy Juneteenth (and go Cavs)!

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Discussion on Slavery and the War”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Sept. 11, 1861, p. 4

“Legal Notice of Coming Emancipation”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Oct. 8, 1862, p. 3

“The Emancipation Proclamation”, National Archives & Records Administration

History of Juneteenth“, Juneteenth.com

Oberlin Resolution (R01-06-CMS),  Oberlin Juneteenth, Inc.

Abraham Lincoln, First inaugural address, March 4, 1861

Abraham Lincoln to William Kellogg, December 11, 1860, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol 4

Abraham Lincoln reply to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1861, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol 5

Worthington Chauncey Ford and Charles Francis Adams,  John Quincy Adams: His Connection with the Monroe Doctrine (1823)

Oberlin News, June 12, 1893

Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895

Abraham Lincoln, “Mr. Lincoln’s Reply”, Third Joint Debate at Jonesboro, IL, Sept 15, 1858

“Wright, Sela G.”, Soldiers and Sailors Database – The Civil War, National Park Service

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

General catalogue of Oberlin college, 1833 [-] 1908, Oberlin College Archives

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] First inaugural address; Kellogg; Jonesboro

[2] Ford, Adams, p. 77; Greeley

[3] “Discussion”

[4] Emancipation Proclamation; “Legal Notice”

[5] Oberlin News; “Wright“; General catalogue; Finkelman, p. 394; “History

[6] “History“, Oberlin Resolution

My SHA Experience

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

By Liz Schultz, Museum Education and Tour Coordinator

I wish to thank the staff, board, and supporters of the Oberlin Heritage Center for encouraging and supporting my participation in the three week workshop “Developing History Leaders @ Seminar for Historic Administration,” which ran from November 1 to November 22, 2014 in Indianapolis. Organized by the American Association for State and Local History, “SHA” is widely regarded as an exceptional training experience for individuals in the history museum field. For me, the experience was both informative and inspirational. I returned to the Heritage Center with a better understanding of the wider history museum field, the Heritage Center’s capacity to have a meaningful impact on individuals and the community at large, and my own abilities and responsibilities within the organization.

Black and White Group Shot

SHA Class of 2014

There were twenty-one participants in the seminar who came from varied history institutions, large and small, independent and government supported. It was a unique opportunity for me to share ideas and discuss challenges among peers. Daily morning and afternoon sessions were led by over 30 visiting leaders in the field, including CEOs of museums and managers of national organizations, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Council on Public History. It was amazing to meet so many passionate, experienced leaders. To a person, they were approachable and more than willing to answer questions and teach from their own past successes and failures.

The sessions were varied and intense. I include a quick list, although it does not do justice to the depth of our discussions:
Week 1: History Relevance Campaign, Changing Demography of America and Museum Visitation, Technology Trends, Models of Leadership, Strategic Thinking and Managing Change, Object-Based Experiences
Week 2: Exhibitions and Community, Fundraising and Boards, Earned Revenue and Entrepreneurship, Advocacy, Evaluation, Live Interpretation
Week 3: Engaging Communities, Financial Sustainability, Leadership & Followership, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, Historic Preservation, Service to the Field

As much as I learned from the classroom sessions, I have to admit that the occasional evening dinners with the speakers and the few field trips we took were a welcome change of pace. (After all, I do work in an informal education setting). Either through the seminar or on our own time, I visited the Indiana Historical Society, Indiana State Museum, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indiana Children’s Museum, Indiana Landmarks, Indiana Medical History Museum, Indiana War Memorial, and Conner Prairie Interactive History Park’s Follow the North Star UGRR program. (Okay, I also visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.)

I came back with Powerpoint copies, journal articles, and a notebook full of notes, but what I really came back with is less obvious. I return with new understanding gained from the materials, talking with peers, and discussing multiple case studies. My professional network increased exponentially and I now know that whatever challenge I am facing, someone out there has the know-how to help out. I have color-coded lists of ideas – things I need to do, things I would like to see the Heritage Center try, ways I can improve my work habits and project planning, and lists of books I should read.

I also returned with a new frame of mind. I particularly enjoyed our sessions discussing the necessity of organizational flexibility and change, balancing different leadership strengths, and the need to step back and look at larger goals. I think it was great that I was able to participate in this just as the Heritage Center prepares to review its five-year strategic plan and launch into development of a new plan. I especially hope to weave in my new thinking about reaching new audiences and re-examining our interpretive goals and what exactly we want visitors to leave with.

The experience also gave me new perspective on the impact of historical organizations, and the Heritage Center in particular. There were many moments I was able to think to myself, “Ha! We’re already doing that.” Of course we’re not supposed to rest on our laurels, but it was still very encouraging knowing that we are already an organization that plans for long-term stability, tries new projects, realizes the importance of professional development, collaborates with community partners, shares significant stories, strives to be transparent, and is driven by community-minded, caring people.

Thank you to everyone who supported my participation in this program, whether through financial support, allowing me work time to go, taking on my daily duties, supervising projects, and leading tours in my absence.

I hope you are all able to attend my public program on December 17, 2014 (7:15 p.m., at Kendal at Oberlin) about my SHA experience and highlights of what I learned. I also had the opportunity to be a guest blogger during the SHA experience and you can read my post, “Ready for Change,” as well as other posts about the seminar.

A Medal of Honor and a Holy… euchre deck?

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob Dolson Cox
Jacob Dolson Cox [12]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steele tombstone

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

SOURCES CONSULTED:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOOTNOTES:

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

[2] Phillips, pp. 220, 234

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

[4] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[5] Stanley, pp. 196-197

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

[7] Stanley, p. 204

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

[9] Stanley, p. 205

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

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

[12] “Jacob Dolson Cox (1828-1900)

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

[14] “The Voice of Oberlin”

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

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

[17] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

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

[19] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”