- Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College: A Documentary History
Few scholars of the American experience have explored race relations outside the South, and even fewer have examined race relations in higher education in the North or South. Written and compiled to a large extent with the Oberlin community in mind as its primary audience, Constructing Black Education nonetheless promises to make, and does in fact make, a substantial contribution to the broader subjects of higher education, and the impact of race in education on both U.S. history and the history of the North.
Editor and archivist Roland M. Baumann brings to light and makes accessible some thirty documents (and fifty-six photographs) illustrating the history of the black experience—and of the institution’s experience dealing with racial considerations—at a small liberal arts college in Ohio, notable for its academic excellence, and notable too for its beginnings as an outpost of institutional abolition, a school that from early on downplayed either race or gender as a basis for exclusion, although for many years after its first half-century it bent to the broader currents of racism in American society.
Each document, or cluster of documents, gets an introduction to place it in its institutional context, and each of the five chapters gets a longer essay to set the documents in their institutional and broader contexts. The editor has done his work well, albeit he leaves to others some of the placement of these documents (especially those on the nineteenth century)—and the revised history of race at Oberlin that they facilitate—in the broader context of race, higher education, and the general currents of American social, political, and cultural history. Appearing only in an endnote, for example, is a recent quotation from Dr. George Maxwell ’38—a white student with a black roommate, who switched partners at a school dance and thereby [End Page 104] earned a reprimand for mixed-race dancing—that African American students were “integrated only in the classroom” (331).
Errors creep in, as when freeborn John Mercer Langston gets described as an “emancipated Virginia slave” (30). Of greater concern is the way that names make only a fleeting appearance, people whose roles and stories cry out for more sustained attention, here or in another work emphasizing Oberlin’s historical significance in the long story of race in America: Anthony Burns, Fleet Walker, Vernon Johns, or two members of the class of 1884, Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper. Oberlin had a tremendous effect on American life, from the Civil War era through the age of segregation, and we get only glimpses of that here. We also get glimpses of more recent graduates of Oberlin, and its influence on them, people who each had considerable impact in their professional lives in the second half of the twentieth century—journalist Carl T. Rowan ’47, Spelman president Johnnetta Cole ’57, historians Leslie H. Fishel Jr. ’43, August Meier ’45, and Allan H. Spear ’58.
Despite the important foundational period in the middle third of the nineteenth century, fully half of the documents date from the last third of the twentieth century. That second half of the book, beginning with the chapter “Reclaiming Equal Educational Opportunity, 1960–1985,” provides the editor an opportunity to track the efforts through those years and issue a valedictory anthem pointing the way forward from the present.
Oberlin College has had a history of being in the vanguard of racial progressivism in American life. And in degree it maintained such an identity, especially but not only during its first half-century. So the documents in this book, which often underscore the on-campus issues the institution and its leadership faced along the way, suggest again how challenging the nation’s interracial project really has been—and remains. [End Page 105]