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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.

Oral History: Christmas Traditions

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

(Part Three of a Three-Part Holiday blog series) by Melissa Clifford, 2014 Kent State MLIS graduate student

 

While scouring through the oral history transcripts, I have stumbled across quite a few stories about Christmas in Oberlin’s past. To me, Christmas has always been a two-part celebration. First there is the religious celebration/observation that occurs but there is also a celebration of family and the spirit of giving. Of course, I cannot forget the fabulous decorations either! I worked at a shopping mall for six years, and during that time my favorite time of year was always the Christmas holiday. I remember being amazed at the joy people obtained by finding that perfect gift for a loved one, although there was the occasional Scrooge who seemed to be dissatisfied with everything. More than anything, though, I loved the decorations that were put up in the mall. I must admit, however, that I am glad that some Christmas decorations have gone out of fashion, I’ll let Delores Carter explain why.

 My early Christmas trees you put candles on. I remember in one of my wild exuberant Christmas moments I flew down to get a package, I bent down and my hair caught on fire. I lost my hair, my eyebrows, and my eyelashes. I was lucky—I could have lost much more. But that was an exciting experience. I haven’t seen trees with candles clipped on in many years. I don’t care if I ever do. That was a bad experience.

speaker-clip-art1–Delores Carter, January 24, 1987

Another thing I fondly remember of my childhood Christmases was the way that my brother would snoop out every single one of his presents ahead of time. He was always able to find my parents’ latest hiding place, and even if the presents were wrapped he could still tell you what the package was. In fact, even at 26 years old my brother still has an uncanny ability to “see” through wrapping paper! It is such a problem that our family has to go to extra lengths to try to surprise him because he can guess all of his gifts before he opens them. While reading transcripts I learned that peaking at Christmas presents really isn’t a new tradition at all:

 One Christmas we were at my grandparents and the cousins were there, which meant there were three boys and I was the only girl. And the doors to the din-, to the living room would shut with sliding doors here and sliding doors over on this side and we couldn’t see anything. Mother took pity on us, she let us peek through that door. Oh, I saw the doll—the baby doll I still have upstairs—and I knew it was mine. And then she felt rather guilty and she said, “Well you know, it might just belong to somebody else.” [laughter] So I had to eat my breakfast all up before we could go in and really have things around the Christmas tree. speaker-clip-art1–Stella Dickerman, January 17, 1987

As some of the other oral history interviewees described in their interviews, sometimes the best part of opening gifts is not the gift itself but the process you go through opening it. In my house my brother and I always opened our presents side by side, and sometimes he would have a few very large gifts and I would have much more smaller gifts. My husband had a much different experience because his parents always made sure that each child had the exact same amount of presents. Some families try to match up number, while some match value. Some children open their gifts at the same time, and some take turns. I found a few very interesting stories about these types of traditions that I would like to share with you.

 Usually sometimes on Christmas Eve and sometimes on Christmas that we would just have all the gifts wrapped and under the tree. That we would have sort of a ritual. Our son Bill likes to give out the gifts and one at a time so it takes a very long time. That person opens his gift and everyone admires it before another one is passed out. Sometimes it actually gets pretty tiring by the end of several hours of opening a series of gifts. But the nice thing about it is everyone tries to get gifts that they feel have meaning or something this person would particularly want. As well as fun things, like maybe bubble pipes and little children’s games that everyone gets. It seems as though everyone enjoys everyone else’s Christmas so much. Because everyone is so aware of what everyone else gets. speaker-clip-art1–Millie Arthrell, February 21, 1985

 

Well, one time when we got up our stockings were hanging on the top post of the chair and my sister found money in theirs. I didn’t find any and I put my stocking on and shoes and oh my shoe hurt me! I took it off and there was money in there after all. We went to my grandmother’s for Christmas and here my great-aunt had given myself and my cousin that was my age a doll that would open and shut its eyes and had a bisque body and it was jointed so it would sit up or stand. I thought, oh a nice doll, and it fell off the chair and cracked down the neck! But they fixed it with glue and my sister who liked to sew made some new clothes for it so I thought that was a wonderful doll and now my sister has it for her grandchildren. speaker-clip-art1–Mabel Brown, April 17, 1984

Much like Thanksgiving, stories of Christmas are not complete without some descriptions of food. What I have found out about Christmas dinners is that they all seem to have one element in common (and it isn’t food): family. I was pretty lucky growing up, I spent Christmas Eve at my aunt and uncle’s house where we would open up presents and have a delicious dinner. On Christmas morning, my grandparents would typically come over and we’d have another huge dinner. I had two parties in two days for Christmas! Looking back, holidays were one of the few times that my family would sit down at eat dinner together. It was difficult to get everyone in one place at the same time because both of my parents worked.  Sitting down and having a big family meal was a treat. I found a story in our interview collection that I’d like to share because I feel like it truly explains the Christmas spirit, from the idea of family, celebration, and surprise.

 And I remember particularly one year, when my cousin Earl was a Santa Claus, and whether we really didn’t recognize him, or pretended that we didn’t, I’m not sure, but that afternoon we had been to his home and had our supper there and I think that that was the first time that I had ever had pressed grapes. Now, they were not raisins; they were like pressed grapes and his mother had served them in connection with the dinner and so this was to throw us off so that we wouldn’t know, you know, and then we came on home and he followed afterwards and did his part. Another thing that was followed all the days, I think, that as long as my grandmother lived, on Christmas Eve she would always be at our house for supper and we always knew what was going to happen. The plates would always be turned over, and when we sat down at the table, we had to lift our plates up to be served and under each plate there would be a silver dollar. And that was our surprise and we were all surprised, even though we knew what was going to happen. speaker-clip-art1–Mildred Haines, November 23, 1982

 

SPOILER ALERT: Do not continue reading if you are a believer in Jolly Old Santa Claus!

Finally, to end this blog post I have some new information to share with you. Recently we received information from Marianne Cochran who used to own and operate the Ben Franklin Store in downtown Oberlin. She shared with us the history of Santa in Oberlin. Did you know that since 1940 only 5 different people have portrayed Santa Claus in Oberlin’s Christmas festivities? It is true and here is a summary of those gentlemen.

1940-1941: John A. Cochrane

1942-1948: John Van Bloom who started the tradition of Santa arriving via train in Oberlin

1949-1969: John Maclaughlin who was also known as Mack the Birdman due to his talking parrot Polly who would call out for Mack while children were visiting Santa.

1970: John R. Cochrane

1971-1980: Art Salo

1989-Present: John Cole as Santa along with a Mrs. Claus portrayed by Patti Brubaker

Thus concludes my holiday Oral History blog series. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed researching and writing it! Happy holidays to you and your family from all of us here at the Oberlin Heritage Center.

Oral History: Thanksgiving Traditions

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

(Part Two of a Three-Part Holiday blog series) by Melissa Clifford, 2014 Kent State MLIS Museum Studies graduate student

*Please note that all speaker-clip-art1 icons are actually links to sound files so that you can hear our Oral History interviewees tell their own stories!*

I’ve been working on oral history digitization for over a year now. In that time, I’ve been fascinated by the stories that are contained on our small plastic cassettes and I’ve been eager to share them with others. I grew up in an age where computers were fairly common in homes and grocery stores were sure to carry the things you needed for a new recipe. Through listening to people tell their stories of growing up in Oberlin, I have learned that it wasn’t too long ago that it was common to raise your own livestock and grow your own vegetables. Along this same investigation, I’ve been looking into how holidays have changed. I’ve learned that it was probably quicker to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner in the past than it now is. You didn’t have to thaw your turkey for days, and you probably didn’t have to go to the grocery store to pick up vegetables!

My first job after college was at a research lab, and I’ll never forget that our “holiday bonus” every year was getting a frozen turkey to take home for Thanksgiving. These turkeys were literally as hard as a rock and took at least a week to thaw out before they were useful. Because I’ve never had to raise my own turkey, I wasn’t too aware of just how difficult wrangling these large birds could be. Luckily for me, Oberlin’s Oral History Project has left us with a great story of the perils of farming poultry:

We had chicken and then when Mama started raising turkeys of course we had turkey.
BT: Tell me about the turkeys that you raised.
MC: It’s an odd thing about turkeys. They look strong but they are very delicate. Mama had to give each one of them a pill to keep them from having worms. She would hold their heads and slightly press in on their neck so they had to open their mouth to breathe and then she’d put this pill down their neck. They had to be brought in when it was raining. We would go out and drive them in the brooder house. She had to keep the temperature at a certain degree all the time and you couldn’t have chickens when you had turkeys because the chickens would give the turkeys diseases and they would die. They didn’t kill the chickens but they did the turkeys. That is how we finally paid off the mortgage on the farm, with turkeys. They were very demanding though—you had to be home all the time.

speaker-clip-art1–Magdalene Cox (as interviewed by Betty Thomas), November 24, 1982

 

Magdalene makes me very glad that I never had to raise my own turkeys! I do remember that my Grandma was always sure to make at least one thing that each of her grandchildren liked. For example, my cousin really liked a particular biscuit and I preferred jellied cranberry sauce from a can. After we all ate our feast, we then would sit around sharing stories but it wouldn’t take too long before the adults started becoming sleepy. My mom always blamed it on the tryptophan in the meat. As she began talking about tryptophan, my thoughts often drifted like the ideas that Marion Dudley’s cousin had:

We would have family gatherings. I remember my cousin after Thanksgiving day, we were all together at that home and after dinner she came into the living room, looked around and said, “I wish I didn’t have such a sleepy bunch of relatives.” Because here was this uncle there asleep and another uncle someplace else. My father always took a nap after dinner, 15 minutes. Then he was ready to go back to work. The rest of the family, more or less of that. 

speaker-clip-art1–Marion Dudley, January 23, 1987

Since my grandparents passed away, my Thanksgiving traditions have changed quite a bit. I’ve gotten married so I have in-laws to please, my parents have moved, and my uncle and cousins have also moved. While my new Thanksgiving plans aren’t the same as what I used to experience, it is still a very special time. I think this last oral history quote I am leaving you with is the best way to describe this holiday. Millie reminds us to look past the struggle of cooking a 20-lb turkey or making a roaster full of stuffing. She best describes the reason why Thanksgiving is such a popular holiday and will continue to be a favorite for years to come.

Our Thanksgivings are something like that. They’re smaller celebrations but it’s intimate family and it’s always the same Thanksgiving dinner with the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, squash, lima beans, things that certain people say, “Don’t forget.” Also rolls and pumpkin pie. To me Thanksgiving is almost the ideal holiday. It’s a beautiful time of the year. It’s the time of harvest or beyond harvest. There is lots of good fellowship and good food without the expense and the hassle of buying and wrapping lots of gifts. This is just a wonderful family time that is very relaxed and comfortable to be together.

speaker-clip-art1–Millie Arthrell, February 21, 1985

One last thing I’d like to leave you with is a more recent story of Oberlin’s past at Thanksgiving time. It was just twelve years ago that the quiet streets of Oberlin were terrorized by a ferocious turkey. Please enjoy the following news articles that include such headlines as “Foul-tempered turkey not meant for Thanksgiving feast” and “Large turkey tormenting town residents”. Happy Thanksgiving!

Oral History: Halloween Traditions

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

(Part One of a Three-Part Holiday blog series) by Melissa Clifford, 2014 Kent State MLIS Museum Studies graduate student

*Please note that all speaker-clip-art1 icons are actually links to sound files so that you can hear our Oral History interviewees tell their own stories!*

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I can’t for sure tell you why, but I love everything about the costumes, neighborhood activity, horror movies, essentially everything that makes Halloween the event that we know today. This got me thinking, though, how has Halloween evolved? We hear every year that “Christmas is becoming too commercialized,” and “Remember the reason for the season.” This makes me question if the same thing has happened to Halloween.

Growing up, my Halloween consisted of finding the perfect Halloween costume each year (I’m not going to lie, it was a mermaid costume nine times out of ten). Then my classroom would have a Halloween party where we got to dress up in school. On Halloween night we’d wait until almost dark and then run up and down our cul-de-sac roads scooping up as much candy as we could before our neighbors ran out. I’m realizing now that some of these traditions have evolved, and it hasn’t been that long since I was the child participating in the Halloween festivities.

10399518_520063741751_3791658_n

 (Alright, I’m not always a mermaid– but then again, this costume wasn’t for Halloween!)

For some context into the evolution of Halloween throughout the years, I consulted the Oberlin Heritage Center’s oral history transcripts. I was hoping that I could find a good story that illustrates what Halloween was like in the years before I was born. As I’ve already described, my Halloween memories consisted of seeking out the biggest stockpile of candy that we could amass. Often times this quest meant seeking out the houses that left their candy unguarded. From these candy bowls we would take huge handfuls of candy to fill our pillowcases. As Patty Stetson described in her interview with Lisa Goodman in 1984, there was a time when children had a little more self control when it came to a heaping bowl of unattended candy:

I think another typical example of Oberlin youth is the lady on Morgan Street who was able to leave her basket of goodies for trick or treat night. She was going to be away, and she wanted the children to be able to have a treat. She didn’t want any tricks, so she just left a great big basket out on her front step with a note saying that she was very sorry she was out of town, but she wanted to make sure that all the children received their treats, and our children came home so thrilled that night that when they got to her house, there was a good supply left, and everyone just helped themselves to one a piece. And this was about an hour into the trick or treat [time] on Halloween night, so no one had bothered to dump them or steal them or fill their pockets. They just all took their share and went on their way.
speaker-clip-art1–Patty Stetson, January 18, 1984

 

Patty then goes on to describe another Halloween tradition: pranks. Today I think our most common Halloween pranks are pumpkin smashing and toilet-papering a house. These are fairly harmless pranks, but Patty tells a story of a less harmless Halloween prank that happened to her mother in the past.

Surprisingly enough, we very rarely hear of any pranks. I remember my mother had a terrible prank played on her. The gal, to this day—she lives in Colorado now—and this was when she was a little girl. Every time she comes back to town, she reminds me of the time she burned my mother’s wooden yard furniture… she and her two brothers. They just had decided—they all lived on East College Street, and they just decided it would be very funny to start a barn fire, and they were going to use this wooden furniture out near the [South] Park Street playground… the only prank I ever really remember. Unfortunately, they were punished, I am afraid, by the police. But it isn’t often, I think maybe twice that I can remember, out of all the years I lived here, have I gone downtown and seen soaped windows, which seemed to be the common thing to do on Halloween.
speaker-clip-art1–Patty Stetson, January 18, 1984

 

Another Halloween tradition that I fondly recall from my childhood was the events that took place after our Trick-or-Treating was done. While the adults spent time talking, myself, my brother, and our neighborhood friends would run around our backyards playing a game we called “Scare”. The game basically played like Hide and Seek except the main goal was to jump out and scare your friends once they got close to your hiding spot. Eventually once we were done playing we would then go to one of our houses and have some hot chocolate and start digging into our candy. From the next clip in our oral history collection, you can see that frightening or annoying your neighbors and then getting to spend quality time with them is a pretty old Halloween tradition:

MH: Halloween—we always put on some sort of mask and some kind of ridiculous costume and made the rounds of the neighborhood, but we were never distrusted. We didn’t have beggars’ night as they do now; the night before Halloween proper, we called it Tic Tac night; we would take a spool and notch the edges of it and put a pencil or something through it—a piece of wood—and a string around it and draw that over a window, and this made a sort of frightening sound and that was as far as we went to annoy our neighbors.
MA: And there were no handouts …
MH: And there were no handouts. And sometimes, I remember Mrs. Bear, who lived on Elm Street, would often let us come to her house, and we might have cider and donuts after we had made our rounds on Prospect, but that was fun. 

speaker-clip-art1–Mildred Haines (as interviewed by Millie Arthrell), November 23, 1982

 

As I finish up this post, I would like to leave you with a reassurance from years gone by. As we all know, and probably complain about, it seems that our holidays are starting to run together. Our back-to-school supplies are sold in retail stores alongside our Halloween decorations. Our Halloween candy is displayed right next to this year’s latest and greatest turkey roasters, and even our Christmas decorations can be bought before Thanksgiving is even over. Every year I’ve felt that our holidays are coming earlier and earlier so while researching for this post, I came across this short clip that made me a lot more comfortable with our current state of holiday planning. As it turns out, Frank Zavodsky noticed that Christmas was seeping into Halloween decades ago, so maybe this is a holiday trend that isn’t so unfamiliar after all!

Before Halloween is over or before Halloween gets here, they are starting to play Christmas music in the stores. This just turns me off.

speaker-clip-art1–Frank Zavodsky, January 29, 1987