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Remembering Oberlin’s History: The 160th Anniversary of John Brown’s Raid

by Ben Richman

[originally published 11/15/19]

Only a few weeks ago Oberlin celebrated the 160th anniversary of John Brown's raid, an event that not many people realize included Oberlin Students. The 1859 raid on a U.S Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia was meant to incite a slave revolt across the United States, yet it resulted in the death of most of the people involved and the hanging of John Brown himself. This violent enterprise, that many in the time regarded as foolish and destined to fail, had its roots in Oberlin.

The Oberlin of the mid 1800’s was a hotbed of abolitionism. Along with Oberlin housing stops on the Underground Railroad, black and white Oberlin students and residents also participated in violent and dangerous acts in order to fight for abolition and help the escape of freed slaves. Oberlin students were involved in the battle over whether Kansas should legalize slavery, an event known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Even a few months before the raid on Harpers Ferry, Oberlin celebrated the release of residents who broke the fugitive slave act and prevented an escaped slave from being sent back down South in what was called “The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.” These events made Oberlin a perfect recruiting location for John Brown, who was joined by three black residents and students who were all later killed fighting to end slavery.

The three men: John Copeland, an Oberlin student and carpenter who was active in Oberlin’s anti slavery society, Lewis Leary, a harness maker who also participated in “The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue,” and Sheilds Green, a former slave and close friend of Frederick Douglass, all of whom found their way to Harper’s Ferry with the hopes of changing the world by any means necessary. They saw violence as an appropriate means to fight the far more violent system of slavery and were unabashed in their radical methods that ended up costing them their lives. Those three men are commemorated on a 144 year old faded statue in Martin Luther King Park on the corner of Vine and S. Pleasant St. The worn obelisk is difficult to read and even more difficult to notice in the back of the small park.

The monument’s subtlety is made even more apparent when compared with the Memorial Arch on Tappan Square. That large, beautiful monument, which fills Oberlin brossures and stands proudly in the center of campus, celebrates Oberlin student missionaries, only 40 years later, who died in the Boxer Rebellion in China. This monument to Oberlin’s involvement in America’s colonial practices in China reveals the flipside of Oberlin’s historical coin. The same religious trend in Oberlin’s history, which influenced much of the radical abolitionism of the 19th century, also influenced violent colonial practices, which involved missionary work around the world.

In Oberlin’s mixed bag of progressive and destructive historical moments, how do we remember events like these? Often times the radical and progressive moments overshadow not so radical trends in Oberlin’s history. The acceptance of women and black students tend to overshadow the violence that many black students faced, just as the radical abolitionism of Oberlin’s past tends to overshadow the great awakening-inspired practices of Oberlin’s students that don’t fit in with our current progressive values. When looking around at the names of campus buildings and monuments, you would think that Oberlin was extremely proud of our religious history (i.e Finney Chapel, Tappan Square...etc). This discrepancy in Oberlin’s physical memorials and the historical narrative that Oberlin forms on its brochures shows the inaccuracies in Oberlin’s chosen historical narrative, one that is common across many colleges. Though Oberlin is beginning to change this trend through the renaming of buildings like Terrell Library, it is still important when looking at Oberlin’s history to take into account all perspectives, and look at the moments that Oberlin might not want to advertise along with those progressive moments that don’t get enough advertisement.

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