Oberlin History Frequently Asked Questions and Timeline

Oberlin History Timeline (1833-Present)

View a timeline of major events in Oberlin's history, compiled by the Oberlin Heritage Center.


Where does the name "Oberlin" come from?

Oberlin was named after John Frederic Oberlin (1740-1826), a minister and social reformer in the Alsace region of France. He was passionately committed to universal education and imposed on his parish a universal tax to support free public education. Among other things, he also improved existing transportation infrastructure and advocated business and vocational training for men and women. He worked to improve agricultural knowledge, importing new breeds of livestock and experimenting in horticulture and and grafting "standard" varieties of fruit trees onto local indigenous plants. He encouraged village residents to be trained in medicine and midwifery, promoted good hygiene and sanitation, including litter collection, and, when it became available, made the smallpox vaccine obligatory for residents of his parish.


Which came first, the town or the college?

They were both founded at the same time. The year was 1833. The first residents of Oberlin and signers of the Oberlin Covenant wanted to found a Christian perfectionist settlement away from the sinful world. Part of their mission included education, which they considered a necessary part of proper living. The Conservatory of Music was "officially" established in 1865; before that, it was part of the College.


Was Oberlin the first co-educational college?

Effectively, yes. Women were invited to enroll when the college was first founded, although they were allowed to apply to only two of the college’s four departments (they were excluded from the full college and seminary until 1837). The first three women – Mary Hosford (later Fisher), Elizabeth Smith Prall (later Russell), and Mary Caroline Rudd (later Allen) – to earn and receive their bachelor's degrees in the United States got them from Oberlin College in 1841. A fourth woman began her work toward the B.A. with these three women, but she ended her studies early. Collectively, however, these women are sometimes known as "the Oberlin Four."


Was Oberlin the first college to admit African-American students?

Actually, it was not. Oberlin was the first college to have a policy of not discriminating against African-Americans – race-blind admissions, if you will, beginning in 1835. It was also the first college to grant a degree to an African-American woman: Mary Jane Patterson, OC 1862.


Was Oberlin College a church affiliated school?

Oberlin College had a theological seminary until 1964 which was non-denominational.


Were there underground tunnels and secret passageways in Oberlin for fugitive slaves?

Probably not. The Underground Railroad was "underground" in the sense of "secret" or "hidden," not literally below-ground in most cases. Though sometimes tunnels were part of the Underground Railroad, to date, no records or reminiscences dating to the 19th century mention tunnels in Oberlin. The Underground Railroad was not so much a physical thing as an everchanging network of individual freedom seekers aided by abolitionists. Oberlin's story is more about community action and the courage of freedom seekers than it is about hiding places.


Where did fugitive slaves hide in their flight to freedom?

Many African Americans, including some who had escaped from slavery, lived openly in the community, especially before the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act. Since the entire town was known as a safe place and a hotbed of the abolitionist movement, it is unlikely that many homes had secret hiding places. Most stories involve people hiding in spare rooms, barns, within wagons, in the woods, or not hiding at all. Not many homes from the pre-Civil War era survive and many that do have undergone extensive alterations. Of course, any house in town built before the Civil War could have been part of the Underground Railroad.

Oberlin was the home of many ardent abolitionists, both African American and Caucasian, and many of them were active in the Underground Railroad in various ways.  John Mercer Langston, the Evans brothers, John Watson, James Fitch, and James Monroe were among the community’s most prominent abolitionists.

Visitors are encouraged to check our Event Calendar to take part in a Freedom’s Friends History Walk and hear stories about Oberlin’s participation in the Underground Railroad.

Several books about this history are available for sale in our Museum Store and online shop.


Was Oberlin Station 99 on the Underground Railroad?

No. Current research strongly suggests that this term came into use in the mid 1900s. It is misleading. The Underground Railroad was not a set route with fixed stops -- it was an ever changing network. Safe houses, participants, and paths were always changing to avoid suspicion. Very few people ever traveled the exact same path and therefore stations and safe houses were not numbered. Although the entire community of Oberlin was certainly a popular haven for many men, women, and children travelling north to freedom, no contemporary records have been found calling Oberlin “Station 99”. 


Is the Oberlin Underground Railroad Center (OURC) / Oberlin Gasholder Building open?

The OURC (operated by the City of Oberlin) had a Grand Opening on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 and featured historical materials from the Oberlin College Special Collections. At this time, there are no public hours to visit the Center; however, there may be special programs and exhibitions on display in the building from time to time. The original grave marker for Lee Howard Dobbins also has a new home at the OURC. 


Was Oberlin a dry town?

Yes. Oberlin has a strong tradition of temperance, beginning with its founders in 1833. The Anti-Saloon League was founded in Oberlin in 1893 and later moved to Westerville. In the mid-1900s city directories occasionally list taverns, which perhaps sold beverages with lower alcohol content, such as 3.2% beer.  Only beginning in the 1980s and 1990s were a few restaurants licensed to serve hard liquor.


Was aluminum invented in Oberlin?

Not quite. Aluminum has been recognized as a metal for several centuries. Before 1886, however, it was extremely expensive to produce. Charles Martin Hall, an Oberlin resident and OC alumnus, invented an inexpensive and (relatively!) easy way to produce aluminum – the same process we use today. Hall founded ALCOA (The Aluminum Company of America), produced a lot of aluminum, and made quite a fortune.


What is that big stone monument in Tappan Square?

Oberlin College originally included a Theological Seminary. Many of the graduates of the Seminary worked as missionaries in all regions of the world. One "hot spot" for Oberlin-trained missions was China, particularly the Shansi (Shanxi) province of China. In 1899, a group of Chinese nationalists (the "Boxers") wanted to purge their country of foreign influences, including missionaries.  The "Memorial Arch" in Tappan Square is a monument to the Oberlin-trained missionaries who were killed in the Boxer Uprising/Rebellion. More recently, a plaque has been added to the Arch to honor the Chinese nationals who also were killed in the violence.


Why is the town square called Tappan Square?

The square in Oberlin was named Tappan Square in the 1940s, in honor of Arthur and Lewis Tappan, wealthy merchants of New York City who supported Oberlin College in its early days and who were ardent abolitionists. The square was previously known as College Park or the Campus. Until 1965 it held the Historic Elm, under which John Jay Shipherd and Philo Stewart were said to have knelt and prayed to God and on which spot they decided to found the town.  The square held college buildings for many years, including a five-story brick college classroom and men’s dormitory called Tappan Hall. As the buildings on the square grew older, the area was cleaned up as a green space for the community, in accordance with the provisions of the will of Charles Martin Hall. 


Why are there painted boulders on Tappan Square?

The two largest boulders were placed on the square in 1897 and 1933. The Oberlin College Class of 1898 removed one boulder from Plumb Creek and put it on the square in 1897. The plaque reads “Glacial boulder of granitoid gneiss from eastern Canada, excavated from 10 feet below the surface of the northwest corner of Professor and Morgan streets and placed here by the class of ’98 during the night of Dec. 3 1897.”   The other, known as the Founders Boulder, was taken from Erie County and reads “In Memory of John J. Shipherd, Philo P. Stewart, Dedicated June 17, 1933.” 

Plaques on the boulders have been covered by hundreds of layers of paint and are barely legible. The rocks became public billboards in the 1960s and soon even college officials joined in the tradition of painting the rocks. Today, anyone can paint them on a first-come, first-served basis. Visit oberlinrocks.com to see more images of the painted rocks.


Where are there “other Oberlins”? 

In addition to Oberlin in Ohio, there are communities named Oberlin in Alsace-Lorain, France and in Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. Various other places bear “Oberlin” names including Oberlin Beach on Lake Erie, where some Oberlin families maintained summer homes. There is an Oberlin neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina that began in the Reconstruction era as a community for recently freed blacks. 

In November, 1910, an “Oberlin” sequoia tree was designated in Yosemite Park by then Superintendent of the park, George W. Hinman (OC, 1893). As of 2001 it still stood, west of the Museum (or cabin), though it now bears a large fire scar. There is also a mountain and waterfall in Glacier National Park named Oberlin; a small water inlet in the Georgian Bay area of Ontario named by Oberlin summer residents. Check out the article on other Oberlins in our Resource Center written by Richard Lothrop for much more detailed information. 


Do you have another question that you think should be a part of the Oberlin History FAQ?  Or, do you have additional information you’d like to share on these topics? If so, email it to [email protected].

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