Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


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Digitizing the Oral History Archive: Winter Term 2013

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

For a few years, I have conducted a self-designed research project using oral histories and the Oberlin College Archives. Never before had I considered working on the other side of the archive, or to be the person who preserves these historical documents. After a month of serving as an oral history processing assistant at the Oberlin Heritage Center, I now better understand the process of preserving the history I’ve been studying for so long. I have always viewed historical research as one big puzzle where I find little pieces of a story that seem unrelated, but then I find links that tie them all together. I never saw archiving as a puzzle, or even like research, until I started working at the Heritage Center. One month later, I really regret my dismissive attitude toward the hard work and problem solving that preservation and archiving entail.

My Winter Term project consisted of taking the oldest tapes of Series I of the oral history archive and digitizing them so they can be preserved much longer than they can be on tapes. Over the month, I digitized all of the tapes from 1979 and 1982, as well as some of the 1983 collection and an occasional later tape. I spent each day playing the entire oral histories in a converter that created a digital file from a cassette tape. Afterward, I edited the file to take out large breaks between the sides of the tape and in the beginning of the interview. Some days, this task went smoothly. On other days, I regretted thinking it was so simple. There were a few days that I spent trying to solve a mystery, like tracking down tapes or finding out if an interview was really only 8 minutes long or why a tape stopped playing after so many minutes. I quickly realized that archival work was not just a mundane task that was necessary so that researchers could do their work. It is its own kind of research and problem solving; there are still pieces to fit together.

In addition to better understanding preservation of oral histories not recorded in digital format, I also learned more about Oberlin’s history. Although I have been researching Oberlin for a few years, my topic is very specific. With little time to finish my research project each summer before I must present it, I haven’t had the luxury of learning a lot of historical context, especially about the town. My project has always focused heavily on Oberlin College rather than the town, and only in the 1960s and 70s. I have learned some things about businesses in the town from alumni with whom I’ve spoken, but never about the 1950s or earlier. Listening to the Series I oral histories at the Heritage Center allowed me to learn more about Oberlin life, such as dating, racial tensions, and the depression, which helped me situate how and why the 1960s happened as they did—though perhaps, I’ve gotten even more confused and need to do more research!

A 1982 interviewee, Mildred Haines, said that when she left in 1920 and returned in 1975, one of the biggest changes was the appearance of the students, but that underneath, they were just as smart and dedicated as they were decades before. After only hearing the students’ side to the story, hearing a town impression of Oberlin College students was really interesting and highly relevant to my own interests even before I came to the Heritage Center. My research emphasizes that Oberlin’s history reflects and contributes to American history. After listening to oral histories of about 30 residents, I have a much more holistic—but hardly complete—view of Oberlin’s history. I used to think that an archivist’s job was to aid researchers. Now I realize that there is so much more to archives and places like the Oberlin Heritage Center and that they have a very rightful place next to researchers.

Brittany Craig, OC ’13

A Tale of Two Abolitionist Towns

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Earlier this Fall I had an opportunity to visit the little abolitionist town of Ripley, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River about 50 miles southeast of Cincinnati. As an avid history buff, this was a visit I really looked forward to. And as a docent on the Oberlin Heritage Center’s “Freedom’s Friends” tour, I couldn’t help but contrast these two very important abolitionist towns. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts and experiences.

I started out on a tour of the home of Reverend John Rankin, the spiritual leader of the Ripley abolitionist community. It’s believed that most of the estimated 2,000 freedom seekers who came through Ripley found shelter in his house or barn. The house itself is quite small. It certainly would have been cramped quarters for Rankin and his wife, Jean, and their 13 children, their several “foster” children, and whatever freedom seekers happened to be staying with them at the time. The house is a National Historic Landmark. It’s nice to see the meticulous work that’s being done to preserve it and restore its antebellum character.

Rankin House

Rankin House, Ripley, Ohio

The house sits atop a 540 foot high bluff overlooking the Ohio River. Reverend Rankin built a set of stone steps leading all the way down to the riverfront streets below so that freedom seekers could have “easy access” to his house after crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky. One of the highlights of my visit was descending, then climbing, these steps. (What can I say? I get into that kind of thing, lol.) A large section of the steps has since been replaced with a wooden stairwell, which undoubtedly made the climb easier than it would have been back in the day. It certainly would have been a difficult climb at night, possibly carrying a child, after a long hard journey through Kentucky and across the Ohio River to get there in the first place.

Rankin stairs

Rankin stairway overlooking the Ohio River

Rankin stairs

Rankin stairs from the bottom

Reverend Rankin was an “evangelistic abolitionist”, much like Oberlin’s spiritual leader, Reverend Charles Finney. Both believed that slavery could and should be ended through moral reform and prayer. However, where Reverend Finney felt that Underground Railroad activity was a distraction to the real work at hand, Reverend Rankin was one of the most active Underground Railroad conductors in the country. Rankin would also eventually come to take a more political stance, becoming a member of the Liberty Party (an abolitionist political party that would be a precursor to the Republican Party) in 1843. Rankin, however, was only the leader of Ripley’s anti-slavery element, which was only a small minority of Ripley’s overall population. Finney on the other hand was a spiritual leader of Oberlin as a whole, where the vast majority of the population was anti-slavery.

After visiting the Rankin House, I went down the hill for a visit to the John Parker House, on the riverfront street appropriately called Front Street. John Parker was born into slavery in Virginia, but eventually was able to purchase his freedom and move to Ripley, where he became a very successful businessman and industrialist. He was also one of the most daring of all conductors on the Underground Railroad. His house is now a museum. I enjoyed the many fine exhibits there and the informative presentation the staff gave about John Parker and his exploits. Parker has an Oberlin connection in that he sent two of his sons (Hale Giddings Parker and Cassius Clay Parker) to Oberlin College.

John Parker House

John Parker House

What was most unique about Parker is that unlike the other Ripley Underground Railroad conductors, he would actually cross the river into Kentucky to help freedom seekers escape from slavery. In this way he assisted hundreds of people to their freedom. His story brought to mind the story of Calvin Fairbank, an Oberlin College student who went to Kentucky and helped dozens of enslaved people find their way to freedom. Interestingly, both the Oberlin and Ripley abolitionist communities were uncomfortable with these exploits. It was extremely dangerous work, it violated Kentucky law, and many considered it provocative. Fairbank was caught and spent a total of 16 years in Kentucky prisons, enduring numerous beatings and whippings. Fortunately Parker was never caught. Being a black man, he undoubtedly would not have gotten off so “lightly”.

After leaving the Parker House I took a walk along Front Street and read some of the historical markers that line that road. One highlights the journey of an enslaved woman who crossed the thin ice of the Ohio River with her two year old child and became the inspiration for the story of “Eliza” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This too has an Oberlin connection, for in the book (but not in real life), Eliza was married to a man named George Harris, who also escaped from slavery and joined her in Ohio. The George Harris character is said to have been inspired by Oberlin resident Lewis Clarke, who is buried in Westwood Cemetery.

While in Ripley I bought a book called Beyond the River, by Ann Hagedorn. The book gives an outstanding description of the abolitionist history of Ripley, much like Nat Brandt’s The Town that Started the Civil War does for Oberlin. One of the things that really stuck out for me in reading this book was the detailed accounts of the “Lane Rebels”, who would play such an important role in abolitionizing Oberlin. These were students at the Lane Theological Seminary, in nearby Cincinnati. Some of the Lane students shared a similar background with many of the abolitionist founders of Ripley – Southerners who had been born and raised with slavery, but came to question it and even abhor it. In a series of 18 public debates in 1834, attended by Reverend Rankin and other Ripley abolitionists, a group of Lane students debated the question: “Ought the people of the slaveholding states abolish slavery immediately?” At the end of the debates, their answer was a unanimous YES. But the surrounding community wasn’t happy with this, or with the other anti-slavery/civil rights work the students were involved in. Eventually a mob even threatened to tear the school down. As a result, the trustees of the school prohibited any further anti-slavery activity or discussion, which prompted dozens of the students to quit the school in protest. Many of these so-called “Lane Rebels” would come to Oberlin the following year and become the seed of the abolitionist movement here.

But Ms. Hagedorn’s book also highlighted a major difference between Ripley and Oberlin. In Ripley, like in most abolitionist towns, the abolitionists were a small minority of the overall population, a situation aggravated by its close proximity to Kentucky. Oberlin, however, was quite unique among abolitionist towns in that its abolitionists formed the vast majority of its population ever since the arrival of the Lane Rebels in the second year of its existence. In Ripley, the abolitionists had to operate in top secrecy, and they were frequently subject to raids by mounted posses of slavecatchers who would storm into town, pound on their doors at any time of the day or night, and demand to search the premises, often at gunpoint. In Oberlin, by contrast, the abolitionists could be relatively open about their activities, and it was the slavecatchers who had to operate in secrecy. A freedom seeker coming to Ripley generally could not stay more than a day, for fear of being found in one of the few abolitionist homes. But the estimated 3,000 freedom seekers who came to Oberlin had many more options of where they could stay, and often would stay for months, years, or even “for keeps”. In Ripley and the surrounding area, there were many instances where pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist mobs burned down schools, churches, barns and homes, and even abducted abolitionists and people believed to be fugitives from slavery. In Oberlin, when the mobs gathered, they were mobs of abolitionists (and much less violent). Oberlin mobs might surround a house that was being staked out by slavecatchers and help the inhabitants escape undetected. Or, in the case of the “Oberlin -Wellington Rescue”, an Oberlin/Wellington mob even stormed a hotel to free a man who was being held by slavecatchers.

In closing, I have one final observation that came to me as I was doing some independent research. In an interview in the 1880s, John Parker said of Ripley, “The town in its simple way goes on unheeding its valiant men and their deeds.” In the decades following the Civil War, it would appear that Ripley, like Oberlin, lost sight of its abolitionist heritage. Fortunately both towns have long since rectified that. And thanks to dedicated organizations like Ripley Heritage, Inc., the John P. Parker Historical Society, the Ohio Historical Society, and our own Oberlin Heritage Center, the proud heritage of both towns will continue to thrive and flourish.

Ron Gorman
Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

Sources consulted:

Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

Oberlin Heritage Center “Freedom’s Friends” history walk

Duke University collection of John Parker autobiographical notes

John P. Parker, Stuart Seely Sprague, His Promised Land

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.

Young Scholars Defend Research

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

By Donna Marie Shurr, Teacher Oberlin High School

For the eleventh year, Langston Middle School and Oberlin High School students have represented Oberlin at District 3 National History Day.  On Saturday, March 19, students traveled to Case Western Reserve University to present their work before panels of judges. The 2011 contest included 400 students.  This record number of entries made for a very exciting day.  Students prepared original exhibits, historical papers, creative performances, media documentaries and imaginative web sites.

Representing Oberlin High School for her fifth and final year, senior Katherine Cavanaugh presented her original, individual performance entitled “ Roe vs. Wade: The Life Saving Debate .”  One of Cavanaugh’s judges commented, “Your final scene was very powerful.” Freshman Julia Robinson defended her paper, “Passion: John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry” before a panel of three judges who asked scholarly questions. Sophomores Madeline Geitz and Hannah Kim dramatized a group performance entitled, “Emma Goldman.”  Geitz and Kim were recognized for their research into local history by the Early Settlers of the Case Western Reserve.  They received certificates and a check for their work.

In the Junior Group Division, four Langston Middle School students also submitted their projects on the theme of “Debate and Diplomacy in History.” All 8th graders wrote a research paper for English class on a National History Day topic of their choice that fit into the theme. Those who wanted to do the projects for the competition worked on them during NHD club time on Wednesdays during the 21st Century Program.

Max Annable and Schuyler Coleman presented their group documentary, American Isolationism before WWII.  Ian Sweet defended his individual documentary, The Hetch Hetchy Dam Debate and Tong Li explained an individual exhibit, Nanking Massacre, the Forgotten Holocaust.

Alison Smith, eighth grade language arts teacher explains, “I am very pleased with the quality of work that all of the 8th graders produced for their research projects and I am very exited about these NHD projects. It’s exciting to see students excited about research and history and to see them take on these projects as their own. THEY chose and researched their topics so they are highly invested in the content matter. This is IB at its best- student directed and student initiated projects.”

LMS teacher Alison Smith and OHS teacher Donna Shurr are the History Day advisors for Oberlin district students.  Bravo to all of the student participants for their hard work and for representing Oberlin and the Oberlin school district!

“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.