Black History Month Special: Oberlin’s Celebrated, But Difficult History - Higher Education
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Black History Month Special: Oberlin’s Celebrated, But Difficult History

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by B. Denise Hawkins

After nearly a decade of reviewing hundreds of sources, including slips of paper tallying Oberlin College’s historic vote to admit  students “irrespective of color” photographs of young Black students like Johnnetta (Betsch) Cole and luminaries like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr striding across campus to deliver the 1965 commencement address, Dr.Roland M. Baumann delivers a story worth telling in Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College: A Documentary History.

In his new book, the Oberlin emeritus archivist and professor of historypainstakingly unravels clues of how the college faced the challenges of establishing a racially and culturally diverse institution from 1835 up to 2007. Diverse talks with Baumann about his book, which chronicles a story of fractured progress and unleashes the voices of African-American students and alumni who celebrate and chastise the educational experience that transformed their lives.

Q: Why was it important to chronicle the history of Black students at Oberlin?

Baumann: I did not believe that the Black education legacy story had received appropriate attention, even among our best historians here. I think a lot people would have perceived this as being parochial history. I saw it as an opportunity to tell a case study about what higher education was like at one liberal arts college in the United States that was a pioneer. We were not the first institution, probably the fifth institution to first admit Blacks, but no other school in the 19th century, as W.E.B. Dubois found out in his Atlanta Study, admitted and graduated more (Black students) than Oberlin College.

By 1900, one-third of all African-American professionals in the United States had an Oberlin undergraduate degree. That’s a striking comment about how an Oberlin education helped to set the way in which one could break the barriers in society and create social change, and create a ripple effect.

Q:  What kind of impact do you think your book will have on the Oberlin community as it celebrates its 175th anniversary this year?

Baumann: I chose this story because it was worthy of telling. Not everyone is going to be happy with this book because the evidence is going to say things that some people don’t want to hear. My task was to take the evidence and let it lead to the truth. I try to show the power of relationships that existed within the Oberlin College community and how it was that minority students had to deal with those in terms of creating the gains they sought in terms of their own position within that wider academic community.

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I’m hoping that in covering 175 years of Oberlin’s Black education legacy, it will compel others to look at Oberlin in the 21st century. Oberlin has devoted a good bit of its time to contemplating, what I call, its historical navel. The golden period. The story that’s so good and easily told because it was the high point in our commitment to inclusiveness and access and opportunity for minority people, in this case, Black students.

Q: What were some other particular challenges you had writing this book. You mention in the preface that writing a book on Oberlin’s Black educational experience has been your desire for more than a decade?

Baumann: My interest in writing this book began very early on in my career at Oberlin. The college’s Office of Development asked me to produce a four-page brochure on Oberlin’s unique African-American heritage for a fundraising campaign. My predecessor had done the most important article on African-American history (at Oberlin) from 1840-1940 which is cited in my book. But few people have said much about how Oberlin was able to carry out its initial commitment. My book deals with how Oberlin ultimately made the decision in 1835 (to admit Black students), the forces behind it, how it implemented it, how it lost it after 1875 (and) how it reclaims this commitment. As a Caucasian, I didn’t want anybody to think that I was writing the last word. I was preparing a platform, on which others might follow me to tell this larger story. 

Q: Coverage of those phases of the Black student experience at Oberlin, would you say that those elements distinguish your book from others that have been written about Black education at Oberlin?

Baumann:  I don’t know if there is any other book that can compare mine. I try to take a comprehensive approach. Secondly, I focus on how the commitment we (Oberlin College) make in 1835 to admit students irrespective of color had really become a heavy yoke for Oberlin to carryon into the late 19th century and on into the 20th century. Oberlin had great difficulty matching its money with its principles plus moral commitment. I also point out that Oberlin was far less homogeneous in terms of its opinions on this whole question than has typically been presented by other historians. There has been the sense that everyone was for it (admitting Black students). There were many citizens who were really afraid that Oberlin would become a school for the “colored,” to use the words of the time. This was also true in the 1970s when Oberlin recommits itself. When Black separatism or self-determination appears on campus and African Americans seek to have their own curriculum, their own student support services, many other members of the college were very much threatened by all of that. 

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We made things happen. Initially, by one vote (to admit African Americans) we go forward believing in an egalitarian society for three decades or so. We lose touch with that reality. We begin to mirror the rest of society and embraced some subtle forms of Jim Crowism though there were students and alumni slapping the hands of the high administration that this was not right.

Q: One thing I found interesting about Oberlin’s early years is what you write about the number of Blacks who bypassed Black colleges and universities to attend Oberlin.

Baumann: That was pretty much the case until the last 20 years or so. If you wanted to get ahead in 1940, 1950, and thereafter, you often would send your son or daughter to a White majority school to get the best possible education.

Q: When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed Oberlin’s 132nd commencement, he credited the college for being the gold standard when it came to educating Black students. King also challenged the audience to never become “silent onlookers” or “distracted spectators” but to “participate in the struggle to make justice a reality.” Today, would King say his message was headed or fell on deaf ears? 

Baumann: That’s a real good question. American society has made a lot of progress. Oberlin College was a continuing participant to advance inclusiveness and pay attention to affirmative action. The thing that troubled Oberlin by the late 1960s was that we had become a little bit complacent…we had been No. 1. We had done so much. We weren’t very nimble in understanding the forces around us that were at work in ways to supplant the No.1 position that we had.

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Oberlin goes through some turbulent times during the 70s and gets its act together. At the same time, it has to work to assume social responsibility….It is being asked to do more for one subset of the community and to identify the kinds of financial aid in ways that it had not had to do before.

Q: In the 1800s, Oberlin was often referred to as a safe and welcoming place for Black students to live, thrive, and be educated. What’s the calling card for many of today’s Black students attending Oberlin?

Baumann: Well, that’s a good question for the Oberlin admissions office. Oberlin continues to be a welcoming place. The attraction for African-American students is the small-town atmosphere. We had to struggle with that over many decades, especially when you are drawing a great number of students from urban centers. One of the things I didn’t put in the book and should have is that from 1982 to 2009, 60-70 percent of the senior class presidents at Oberlin have been minority students. Inclusiveness is very important at this institution.

At times, White majority students don’t understand what African-American students go through just to enroll in a place like this, let alone, all of the other pressures that are hidden from view.

Q: As majority institutions continue to wrestle with moral and legal ramifications of race and admissions and what it means to have a diverse campus, should Oberlin be looked to for guidance?

Baumann: I’m not a sociologist. Other institutions have often looked to Oberlin, not only as the pioneer school, but as a model to consider when they contemplate making newer and bigger strides in diversity education. As a consequence of the U.S. Supreme Courts’ 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, the court affirmed the manner in which Oberlin College was doing admissions and its effort to promote campus diversity. We’ve been very cognizant that we follow the letter and spirit of the law.

Oberlin is committed to the belief that if we admit students to this institution, it is of great benefit to both White and Black students. There are associated educational benefits that come out of a diverse or inclusive environment.

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