Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Oberlin Weekend, Part III: Past & Future

The Underground Railroad monument in Oberlin.

Oberlin was founded by evangelical Christians who were committed to the cause of abolitionism. The college's second president, the fire-and-brimstone lawyer-turned-preacher Charles Grandison Finney, wrote in his memoirs: "I had made up my mind on the question of slavery, and was exceedingly anxious to arouse public attention to the subject. In my prayers and preaching, I so often alluded to slavery, and denounced it, that a considerable excitement came to exist among the people." In Oberlin, that excitement came to a head in 1858, when a group of citizens rescued a fugitive slave from slave catchers in the nearby village of Wellington. The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue helped to galvanize anti-slavery opinion in the North, and moved the United States closer to civil war.

Oberlin was an important station on the Underground Railroad, and had a significant population of free blacks. Three Oberlin residents (one a runaway slave) participated in John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry in 1859—one died there, and two were later hanged. And while some Oberlinians were pursuing violent means to end slavery, Oberlin also produced one of Ohio's most prominent anti-slavery legislators, James Monroe.

Oberlin's Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Studies Center.

175 years after its founding, Oberlin is at the forefront of a new push for urgent change. Oberlin is an increasingly green campus since the opening of its innovative environmental studies center in 2002. The building strives to be a closed system that draws no energy except from the sun and produces no wastes that aren't recycled or composted. The design of the building incorporates passive solar heating (from south-facing windows), a geothermal heat exchange system, solar-generated electricity, and a Living Machine that processes and recycles waste water. Other campus initiatives, such as SEED House (Student Experiment in Environmental Design), have recently been featured in the national media. Below is the massive photovoltaic array above the parking lot outside the environmental studies center.


Lanterns on Tappan Square in Oberlin on Illumination Night, the night before commencement.

Oberlin's reunion weekend is also the weekend of commencement. Alumni return to campus and welcome the newest class to swell their ranks. On Monday morning, we listened to a commencement address by Fareed Zakaria that was full of optimism even in the midst of these uncertain and troubling times. And it seems to me that if anyone can justify that optimism, it's the graduates of places like Oberlin.

2 comments:

Hannah said...

Dear Rob:

Your posts about your visit to Oberlin brought back a lot of good memories. (It was nice of you not to dwell on the late February slush storms.) Like you, "I felt as if my mind were expanding by orders of magnitude" for the first few years of college. Oberlin is a very special place, and its history is a big part of that. From time to time I'm reminded that Swarthmore College didn't integrate until 1945 -- 70 years after the Civil War -- and only then with great reluctance. So much for the progressive east.

In any event, you might enjoy reading John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65 (U. Illinois Pr.), by William and Aimee Lee Cheek. Mr. Langston was a fascinating guy, and much of the book is about Oberlin.

Have a good summer.

- Paul Bech
Oberlin '82
father of Nate Bech (one of Clara's current students at Carleton)

Rachel said...

Dear Rob, Check out the Underground Railroad conference in Michigan. website on google www.gvsu.edu/ugrrdecade.
The conference is a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Michigan Freedom trail commission and the National Network to Freedom. It would be great if researchers and people from Ohio who are interested in the stories of freedom seeker using the UGRR, would come to the conference. As a researcher in Grand Rapids, Mi, I have found documents concerning the brothers, daughter and son of know abolitionist and UGRR conductor, Laura Smith Haviland. DR.Sala B. Smith was an Oberlin graduate,abolitionist,Civil war doctor and a member of the Wesleyn Methodist church.After the war he lived in Grand Rapids, MI. His brother Rev. Samuel B. Smith was a know abolitionist,a Wesleyn Methodist circuit minister and apple orchard farmer. He bought his farm in Grand Rapids in the early 1850's. I have more information then space allows. The more I read about Oberlin, the more I plan to make a visit. Oberlin Sweet Oberlin. Rachel

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