- Elusive Utopia: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Oberlin, Ohio by Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser
Oberlin is renowned for two periods in its history, both firmly associated with the ideologies of the left. From the 1830s until the end of the Civil [End Page 295] War, it was the most racially progressive place —both college and town (interchangeably used herein unless noted otherwise)—in the United States. In the 1960s, Oberlin College was at the leading edge of the so-called counterculture, which has almost uniquely survived there, and even intensified, to this day. Many readers, if pressed, will recall something about Oberlin’s anti-slavery history. Almost everyone will recognize it as the alma mater of hbo personality Lena Dunham, and the place where students protested the inauthenticity of Asian dishes in the dining hall as instances of “cultural appropriation.”
If Oberlin’s reputation for contemporary political correctness is exaggerated, its involvement in the abolitionist movement is beyond question. Beginning in 1835, the Oberlin Institute (as the college was then known) was committed to the admission of students “without regard to color,” making it one of the first two integrated colleges in the United States. For the next thirty years, Oberlin faculty, students, and townspeople were at the forefront of the struggle against slavery, welcoming fugitives, resisting slave catchers, and eventually taking up arms. Two Oberlin African Americans fought and died with John Brown in Virginia.
The stories of Oberlin’s heroic past are repeated and celebrated today, as though school and town have always been models of progressivism (even if nowadays in a caricatured incarnation), but that portrait is not actually true. As Kornblith and Lasser relentlessly document, Oberlin became increasingly segregated—sometimes de facto and sometimes intentionally—from the end of Reconstruction until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-twentieth century.
Kornblith and Lasser write affectionately about Oberlin (they are emeriti professors there) while unflinchingly exposing the extent of its biased past.1 None of the many episodes would be particularly surprising in another locale—say, Cambridge, Evanston, or Palo Alto—but it is truly upsetting to read about them in Oberlin. For example, the Oberlin Kindergarten Training School graduated 711 teachers from 1894 to 1923, of whom only 6 were African American, and none of whom was ever hired by the Oberlin public schools (221). In 1913, Henry Churchill King, president of the college, endorsed residential segregation and encouraged an early form of redlining by a local real estate firm (236). Even the dormitories and student activities were sometimes segregated, often at the insistence of white students (248).
Kornblith and Lasser pile incident on incident, leaving no doubt that Oberlin strayed badly from its egalitarian mission, beginning in about 1880. The Oberlin public schools had no black teacher until 1939, and the college did not appoint an African-American professor until 1948 (244). The accounts of prejudice are so many and so convincing that they almost become numbing. The authors might have done [End Page 296] better by omitting some of the details; we do not need to know the names of every person who endorsed each petition or attended each meeting.
Elusive Utopia is less convincing when it comes to explaining Oberlin’s transition to segregation. It seems undeniable, as the authors point out, that some of the change was related to the nature of Oberlin’s dwindling black population, as many of the most successful African Americans relocated after the Civil War, when economic opportunities became more widely available elsewhere. Yet, it is harder to credit their claim that the town leaders’ increased involvement in the temperance movement led to a diminished commitment to racial justice. The fact that the two phenomena were clearly concurrent does not imply causation. Nonetheless, it is bracing and important to read the full story of Oberlin’s history in Kornblith and Lasser’s impressively researched and closely argued book.
Allen and Temperance Jones, freed slaves who fled North Carolina with...