Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America by J. Brent Morris (review)
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Reviewed by
J. Brent Morris, Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 352pp. $34.95.

In this detailed and consistently engaging account of Oberlin’s antislavery history, J. Brent Morris places the Ohio college and town at the center of western reform activism. Morris aims to tell the full story of Oberlin’s influential antislavery actions and activist reputation. His excellent opening passages establish antebellum Oberlin’s fiery reputation, and he sets out his argument in a well-organized series of chronological chapters that integrate an impressive amount of research.

Morris explores how Oberlin’s idealistic origins and goals pervaded the community; people there pushed back against extensive northern and national [End Page 157] racism as they sought to become “a multiracial and genuinely democratic utopian community” (9). Morris ably depicts the town’s deep roots in eastern reform circles and challenging beginnings in the statewide context of prejudice in law and public opinion. The college admitted African Americans and women, and benefitted from abolitionists’ shared interests in having a school aligned with their principles, even as they fought among themselves about other issues. African American students at Oberlin found their status there imperfect, but far ahead of most other places in their time.

Overall, this book is more effective in its use of primary sources than it is in engaging with historiography. Morris’s argument centers around his claims that Oberlin activists set the tone of midwestern abolition; the “Oberlin approach” was an “independent,” influential, and practical blend of antislavery methods that largely avoided eastern antislavery schisms (3, 114). While Morris eloquently states his case, this argument lacks novelty. The West indeed was a “critical” abolition region, but Morris is just one voice in a lively conversation about midwestern abolition and activism that he mostly ignores (5). Other voices include Leslie Schwalm’s Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest (2009); H. Robert Baker’s The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War (2006); Stacey Robertson, “Hearts Beating For Liberty”: Women Abolitionists in the Old Northwest (2010); and Dana Elizabeth Weiner, Race and Rights: Fighting Slavery and Prejudice in the Old Northwest, 1830–1870 (2013). These books also indicate that western abolition was nationally important and less fixated on organizational factions. Rather than being a phenomenon specific to and originating in Oberlin, as Morris argues, this practical orientation was a more general characteristic of midwestern activism.

Morris’s historiographical limitations recur in his argument about free discussion in Oberlin. He argues that there was much debate on reform issues, but little silencing. This was only true up to a point, for while radical antislavery lecturer Stephen Foster spoke in Oberlin in 1846, demonstrating that even controversial male antislavery lecturers could obtain a platform, this openness had its limits for women. While Morris briefly recognizes that local women—or as he dubs them, “ladies”—were fully engaged in the abolition cause, he nevertheless glosses over their accomplishments and their activist challenges (73). Censorship was present even in Oberlin, as other scholars have discussed in reference to Abby Kelley Foster and Oberlin alumna Sallie Holley. Morris’s discussion of freedom of speech is overly optimistic; [End Page 158] it lacks attention to both the censorship of women lecturers and to female abolitionist historiography. Morris mentions Holley, but omits her return to the town in 1853 when the college faculty tried to halt her antislavery lecture; they feared giving the impression that they supported women’s rights (Robertson; Weiner; Beth A. Salerno, Sister Societies: Women’s Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America [2005]). Historians recognize that women were important antislavery organizers in the Oberlin and the West, and it is unfortunate to marginalize data that complicates the picture of the community’s inclusiveness.

Oberlin may not be as unique or as utopian as Morris argues, but he nonetheless makes a number of persuasive points about the town’s importance. From the 1840s through the 1860s, Oberlin played a part in the development of political abolition, and religion and moral arguments against...