Oberlin Oral History Project


Hear stories of Oberlin from the townspeople themselves: graduates, shopkeepers, residents, community leaders, and more. Over 200 interviews have been completed and represent town and gown, black and white, city and country, male and female perspectives. They include memories of downtown, college life, local industries, world events, politics, entertainment and daily life from the early 1900s to the present. Please contact history@oberlinheritage.org to access the collection or if you would like a pdf copy of an interview transcript. Sound files are also available.

When citing an interview, please use the following language: Oral History Interview with [Name] by [Name], [Date of Interview]. Oberlin Oral History Project, held by the Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, Ohio. If you wish to publish a significant portion of a transcript or sound file, contact our office to obtain permission.

 

History of the Oberlin Oral History Project

The Oberlin Oral History Project officially began in 1981 with a proposal from Marlene Merrill, a member of Oberlin's Historic Preservation Commission. Merrill and Ellen Lawson had been working for several years on the "Oberlin College Antebellum Black Coed Project" that identified the earliest black female students who enrolled at Oberlin College and the Preparatory Department before the Civil War. Their work had also included attending a number of scholarly conferences that focused on African American history. At these meetings, oral history scholarship was becoming important as a way of documenting the personal histories of black men and women in their local communities. As they continued their research they discovered that a number of black students who enrolled in Oberlin College before the Civil War had moved to Oberlin with their families, many of which continued to remain in Oberlin well into the 20th century.

Merrill soon expressed her growing concern that the Historic Preservation Commission needed to do more than preserve Oberlin's historic properties, and that there was an urgent need to begin preserving personal histories of Oberlinians who had and were still shaping the history of Oberlin's black community, especially those who were elderly and who had family links to pre-Civil War African American families. The members of the Historic Preservation Commission supported Merrill's call for a city-sponsored oral history program and asked her to write a proposal, which they unanimously supported and submitted to the city for approval. This was soon granted and emphasized creating a small group of active participants and featured training in oral history methods, learning about periods of Oberlin history, how to use audio recorders, selecting the criteria for who to select as the interviewees, and locating trained transcribers who would double check the finished transcripts. The City provided some startup funds and the program was then designated as "The Oberlin Oral History Program."

Merrill left Oberlin for a year in London and with the start-up funding a team of community volunteers formed. The resulting program operated differently from that proposed in that it featured a large number of community volunteers and they determined who would be interviewed and who would do the interviewing. Allan Patterson, a local middle school teacher with a deep interest in history, led the program and was assisted by Mildred Arthrell, a teacher at Eastwood elementary school who also had deep interest in community history. The volunteer team began conducting interviews in 1982. Around February of that year, Stanley Garfinkel, an oral historian at Kent State University, began advising and working with the team. The last interviews from this period were done in 1988, by which time volunteer commitment had considerably waned. The committee and City eventually transferred the interview cassettes and transcripts to the Oberlin Heritage Center to ensure their preservation. Later on, a small number of oral history interviews that had been conducted by other individuals or agencies, such as Youth Service, Inc. of Elyria, were added to the collection of interviews.

In the 1990s, under the guidance of Executive Director Pat Murphy, a new oral history committee formed to undertake the lengthy task of checking and correcting the existing transcripts, organizing files and release forms, and archiving this large collection in order to make it available to historians, scholars and the general public. These earliest interviews, approximately 100 in number and dating from 1979 to 1988, are collectively called Series I of the Oberlin Oral History Project.

Series II of the oral history project began in 2001 when a revitalized volunteer team generated a new list of prospective interviewees. Chairs of the committee included Marly Merill, Dina Schoonmaker, and Priscilla Steinberg. OHC Financial Assistant and former librarian Pat Holsworth was instrumental in organizing and archiving the collection. As of 2016, volunteers and staff have conducted over 100 new interviews, including several "story-circles" that are focused on a specific topic of discussion, and numerous interviews conducted by Dr. W. Jeanne McKibben in her effort to document the history of medicine in Oberlin. Oral history work is ongoing, as volunteer time allows.

Sharing the Stories
One of the outgrowths of the project was the acclaimed Wallpaper Project, a theatrical production based on oral histories that incorporated parts of the Oberlin Oral History Project into dramatic presentations as part of a statewide tour in celebration of Ohio's bicentennial in 2003. Excerpts of interviews have also been featured in public presentations such as: “Fun in Oberlin, Past and Present,” "Vignettes About Growing up in Oberlin, 1900 to 1940," "Civil War to Civil Rights," and "From Depression to War." In 2014, the Oberlin Heritage Center published "Bonnets to Boardrooms: Women's Stories from a History College Town." This book includes the recollections of fifty-two Oberlin women from a great variety of backgrounds and experiences.

The Oral History Committee plans future programs and projects to continue to bring this important and multi-dimensional record of our community's rich and diverse history to the public. 2015 marked the end of a multi-year project to make digital copies from the cassettes for preservation and accessibility.

The long-running Oberlin Oral History Project is a vital part of our mission to preserve Oberlin's unique history. A group of wonderful volunteers continue to make up the Oral History Committee, who working hard to record and share Oberlin residents' many stories and memories. New volunteers are always welcome!