Problematic College Histories Unacknowledged

On Jan. 1, 1835, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute Board of Trustees held a meeting regarding the admission of students of color. Minutes from the meeting indicate that Reverend John J. Shipherd introduced the idea, but the proposal was turned down by the trustees, who did not feel prepared to respond until they had more information, saying they “wish[ed] that this institution should be on the same ground in respect to the admission of students with other similar institutions of our land.” Of course, Oberlin did eventually decide to admit students of color, and before its peer institutions, as the College loves to tout. 

The latter part of this story — the part where Oberlin becomes the first college in the country to admit Black students — is told again and again by College communications, skipping over the nuanced and complicated course of history. We intentionally forget that crucial first part — that the instinct of our founders and original trustees was to stay in line with everyone around us, at the expense of progress and justice. The “About Oberlin” web page jumps to the end of the story, when Reverend John Keep cast the deciding vote on the matter. Absent is the fact that said vote happened in February, not in January at that first meeting. Sure, the rest is history, but the omission of the struggle for justice that no doubt ensued over that month has essentially been codified in our history. It’s a small, maybe even innocuous omission, but placing it in the context of the broader selective communication of our history leads to more problematic storytelling.

In order to tell nuanced and authentic stories, it is essential to include not only the happy, glowing moments but also mistakes and moments of strife. Most Obies will be quick to tell you that history is grossly whitewashed, but that doesn’t mean the solution is merely to share the highlight reel of People of Color. Historical narratives should not merely tell the best and brightest moments, but must also acknowledge the journeys it took to get there. The tradition of storytelling that Obies and administration alike have indulged in for almost two centuries is one where those journeys are forgotten. Here we hope to remember and highlight a few. 

Take, for example, the story of Edmonia Lewis, who was commemorated by the United States Postal Service in January with a stamp and for whom the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People was named. As reported by Contributing News Editor Nikki Keating in the Review on Jan. 14 this year, Lewis was a sculptor, recognized for pieces like The Death of Cleopatra. Between 1859 and 1863, Lewis attended Oberlin — during which time she was falsely accused of poisoning her roommates and subsequently beaten by a mob during the trial. Though she was acquitted, Lewis was barred from completing her studies at Oberlin when she was accused of stealing art supplies in her final year. The horrors of her Oberlin experience led Lewis to Boston, where she began her successful career as an artist. Her story is complex, with overlapping racial and gendered persecution. Now consider the egregious disservice of reducing that experience to the description of the Edmonia Lewis Center on Oberlin’s website: “The house is named for famed artist-sculptor Edmonia Lewis, an Oberlin student from 1859–1863.” This description at best fails to acknowledge any part of her struggle, most critically the role Oberlin played in it. Even a short write-up by the Oberlin Communications Team in 2017 after Lewis was commemorated by a Google Doodle conspicuously omitted the fact that she was asked to leave the College, preferring instead to tell a version of the story that allows Oberlin to take credit for her success.

A perhaps lesser-known instance of anti-Blackness at Oberlin took place as recently as the mid-1960s. As Al Wellington, OC ’70, writes in his 2011 book, Oberlin Fever: A Championship Spirit in Black and White, he and 25 other Black students were required to attend a summer-long preparatory course in advance of their first semester at Oberlin in 1966. The program focused on English literature and composition and involved morning classes and afternoon chores to maintain the campus grounds and dining halls. Wellington wrote that the impetus for this summer program came from the College’s nervous anticipation of a recent increase in the admission of Black students. Although Wellington graciously credits the program with acquainting him with Oberlin’s campus and allowing him the opportunity to make friends in advance of the school year, the entire scheme was blatantly racist — clear evidence that the College truly believed that Black students were not as capable as their white peers. 

Fast forward to this year, when the Admissions Office is celebrating the most racially diverse enrolled class in our history at 28.7 percent U.S. students of color. Yes, this is a moment to celebrate, but by no means a reason to boast. Admissions panels preach positive and diverse racial environments — purposefully rose-tinted alterations to our reality — and students of color are paraded at every opportunity to emphasize the College’s progressiveness. The institution’s overwhelming rhetoric around advancement presents an uncomplicated history of frontrunning and positivity. We’re not recommending that the College disparage itself — we merely want to complicate how it tells its history. 

This is not the fault of any one party; instead, is a matter of culture. We are able to understand the complications of our institutional history thanks to the archives, and to the faculty willing to teach it. The Center for Racial Justice and Equity will, no doubt, be a space for research and discourse that participates in this work, and we hope it receives the significant financial backing this deserves. We need to reform how we talk about our history on admissions brochures, communications briefs, and advancements calls. This responsibility also falls upon the Review: as the paper of record of the town, not only do our archives capture the history of this place, but our continuing editorial decisions impact how people will look back on this moment. Individuals and institutions in isolation can make history, but the responsibility of preserving and abiding by their legacy rests on us all.