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.
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