Question of the Month:

First College to Admit Blacks

June 2010

Q:  I hope you can settle an argument about which college was the first to admit Blacks. I say it was Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio in 1835.

-- Plashi Nadari - South Bend, Indiana

A:  You are near the truth. Oberlin Collegiate Institute (which later became Oberlin College) was founded in 1833, by a Presbyterian minister, John Shipherd. The fledgling college benefited from a divisive decision made by a nearby college, Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. In 1835, the trustees at Lane passed a policy prohibiting its students from discussing slavery. One of the Lane trustees, Asa Mahan, was incensed over this denial of free speech. He left Lane and, accompanied by a professor and several students, went to Oberlin where Shipherd offered Mahan the opportunity to become Oberlin’s first president. Mahan agreed and Oberlin became, at least in policy, an institution where faculty and students were free to express controversial ideas.

Although Oberlin was not the first college to admit blacks, it was the first to admit students without respect to race as a matter of official policy. Under the leadership of Shipherd and Mahan, Oberlin’s trustees adopted a resolution that read, “Resolved: That the education of the people of color is a matter of great interest and should be encouraged and sustained at the institution.” This resolution, which, passed by only one vote, represented a radical experiment: the racial integration of higher education in the United States. It also helped cultivate the image of Oberlin as a home for visionary zealots. Some, but not all, of the faculty, staff, and students at Oberlin were passionate abolitionists, believing that the enslavement of Blacks in the United States was an evil that insulted God. They were committed to ending slavery and achieving equal opportunities for African Americans.

Predictably, many African Americans moved to Oberlin, Ohio. The public elementary school in Oberlin was open to all children. There was also a school called the "Liberty School" where adults learned to read and write. Blacks and Whites worked together to build First Church, and they sat side-by-side and listened to the sermons of Reverend Charles Finney, a White minister of national renown. There were many free Blacks in Oberlin, Ohio, and they lived, as much as was possible in an otherwise slave-holding nation, as equals with Whites. Not surprisingly, all of this was radical and threatening in a society where some men, women, and children were masters and other men, women, and children were slaves. Also not surprisingly, Oberlin was a busy stop on the Underground Railroad. The radical abolitionist, John Brown, whose father was one of the members of Oberlin’s board of trustees, found strong support among the students and town’s residents.

By 1900, Oberlin had produced one-third of all African American college graduates in the United States, including many who attained national prominence and historical significance such as Blanche Kelso Bruce, an ex-slave, the first Black American to serve a six-year term in the United States Senate; Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first Black player in professional baseball; Sarah Woodson Early, the first African American female college faculty person; and, John Mercer Langston, Ohio's first Black lawyer. At the start of the Civil War, Oberlin enrolled more Black students than any other American institution of higher education.

In the years since the 1835 resolution, Oberlin was not oblivious to the cultural norms that relate to race. It is most certainly true that the College was a pioneer in the education of Black people; for example, Oberlin was the first college to grant a degree to an African-American woman, Mary Jane Patterson in 1862. That said, in the first half of the 20th century, paternalism and even some informal discrimination at Oberlin crept in that mirrored Jim Crow thinking. This is hardly surprising, given that a college is comprised of people, and those people are reared and socialized in a society. If race-based thinking is normative in that society, then the people throughout the society -- even the ones who are “progressive” in their views about race relations -- will sometimes capitulate to the dominant patterns of acting, thinking, and feeling. Sadly, the reform spirit of its founders was sometimes lost by Oberlin administrators. But to be fair, Oberlin’s history has been characterized, more often than not, by a willingness to talk honestly about race relations and, equally important, a willingness to address the “racial wrongs” that occur in the larger society and at the College.

My favorite Oberlin story is about haircuts, or more accurately, the inability of Black students in the 1940s to find barbers who could service a Black clientele. In 1944, Oberlin students and faculty formed a cooperative, buying in at $1 a share, to purchase a local barbershop so that Black students could get their hair cut. This act may seem mainly symbolic to outsiders, but I believe that it sent a powerful message to anyone listening that Blacks were welcome at Oberlin. Making people feel welcome at an institution has to be intentional.

I just realized that I have been ranting so much that I forgot to answer your question. Maybe I ranted so long because I cannot, with certainty, identify the first college to admit Black students -- or to admit a single Black student. It is even hard to gain consensus on which African American was the first to receive a college degree. In 1823, ten years before Oberlin was founded, Alexander Lucius Twilight, received a bachelor's degree from Middlebury College. A Black person graduating from college in 1823, even in the relatively liberal environment of Middlebury, Vermont, would certainly constitute quite an accomplishment. Mr. Twilight was an educator, minister, politician, and designer; indeed, he designed and built Athenian Hall, the first granite public building in Vermont. Some researchers claim that Edward A. Jones, who received a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College in 1826, was the first Black college graduate; others argue that John B. Russwurm, who received a degree from Bowdoin College in 1826, was the first. In any event, there were Blacks attending colleges before Oberlin passed its resolution in 1835; nevertheless, Oberlin was the first college to admit students without respect to race as a matter of official policy.

June 2010 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum


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