Oberlin Should Be Proud of Main Library Naming

To the Editors:

Mary Church Terrell (OC ’1884, MA 1888, HON 1948) was one of the first black women to earn a four year degree in the United States. Typifying how “one person can change the world,” she became a prominent suffragette, educator, and civil rights leader, serving as a founding charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and National Association of Colored Women. Both of these organizations remain at the vanguard of social justice and civil rights efforts in America.

Mary also believed in the transformative power of academic libraries for democratized learning and informal dialogue. Consequently, she gifted the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, to several academic libraries and mentions in her autobiography, A Colored Woman in A White World, how she enjoyed staying in constant communication with college librarians.

Mary was a frequent speaker at Commencement Reunion Weekend and joyfully wrote of her times visiting Oberlin. And, in the difficult periods when Oberlin disappointed her, Mary remained committed to our principles and held our institution’s leadership accountable to co-create a better Oberlin for future generations. In recognition of her commitment to civil rights and to Oberlin, she was awarded an honorary degree in 1948.

It is for these reasons that our trustees voted with enthusiasm to name the Main Library in honor of Mary Church Terrell, by recommendation of alumni, Dr. Pam Brooks, and Dr. Carol Lasser and with my endorsement. I am so particularly honored as the first person of color to serve as director of libraries at this special time in the history of our institution. The official act of naming the Main Library took place Oct. 6, 2018 as a part of the historical occasion of President Ambar’s inauguration.

It was momentous that President Carmen Ambar elected to elevate the Main Library’s naming ceremony at the same time in which we celebrated her appointment as our first person of color to hold the position of college president. The emotionally moving program included a donation of love letters between Mary and her husband Robert Terrell from her descendants to the College Archives. We are the only institution in the world to have this treasured collection. The Friends of the Oberlin College Libraries, the Oberlin Alumni Association of African Ancestry, and the libraries jointly endowed a book fund in honor of Mary Church Terrell that expands the libraries’ resources in civil rights, cultural diversity, community leadership, and social justice.

Yet, this incredible occasion received very little mention in the Review last year, which surprises me given the fact that she served as an editor for the newspaper.

The libraries and archives are exploring Mary’s life through four lenses of achievement: learning, labor, leadership, and legacy. We created scores of beautiful educational materials, including a traveling exhibition celebrating Mary’s life that hit the road this year with current viewings at The College of Wooster and Butler University — a striking digital exhibition — and bookmarks with QR codes that are being distributed throughout our library system.

In an era where controversy and conflict ensues regarding the names of buildings and spaces on college campuses, Oberlin has asserted our leadership in naming our institutional heart — the Main Library — after this esteemed alumna.

The nation has taken notice. We have received commendations and inquiries from several institutions seeking to follow our lead. Naming our Main Library after Mary Church Terrell should constitute as a very proud moment for all of us, as she is one of us.