Elusive Equality Carol Lasser and Gary Kornblith, professors emeriti of history at Oberlin, released in December their book Elusive Utopia: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Oberlin, Ohio, an account of Oberlin—town and gown—and the rise and fall of an idealistic vision. Public historian Rebekkah Rubin ’13 talked to them about their findings. Below is a condensed version of their conversation, which can be found at go.oberlin.edu/elusive. Rebekkah Rubin: Did Oberlin’s commitment to racial equality change over time, and if so, how? And did Oberlin differ from the rest of the country in that regard?
Gary Kornblith: The objects of the Oberlin Anti-Slavery Society are “the immediate emancipation of the whole colored race within the United States, the emancipation of the slave from the oppression of the master, the emancipation of the free colored man from the oppression of public sentiment, and the 12
elevation of both to an intellectual moral and political equality with the white.” I would add that there are really two foundings of Oberlin and its communal or utopian vision. The first is when the colony is created in 1833 and the settlers arrive and they sign the covenant. The second is the re-founding, if you will, in 1835, after the so-called Lane Rebels—abolitionists who had been studying at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, but who have left that institution because it objects to their abolitionist activities—come to Oberlin at [John] Shipherd’s urging and as part of a larger agreement. Initially, many of the settlers and students are against the idea of admitting blacks, which is one of the conditions that the Lane Rebels establish. Shipherd is very much in favor of this, and it carries narrowly in the board of trustees meeting in February 1835. After the Civil War, particularly after the achievement of supposedly race-blind suffrage, many Oberlinians believed that the goals that were originally set had been achieved. But it’s also true that by 1870, only a small minority of residents of the town can actually remember the original events or even the famous Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. CL: That is that third plank: it’s a community committed to the elevation of black people to a white standard. That is not exactly how we
would understand cultural diversity today. There are presumptions of the superiority of whiteness that carry on and undermine racial equality in the later parts of the 19th century and into the 20th. GK: One of the key things to realize is there is no notion of culture in the 1830s. There is a notion of character, but not one of culture. What sets Oberlin apart from the rest of American society—north and south—is a firm belief in the natural equality of blacks and whites. Beyond that, the white notion of equality is finding your way into the Kingdom of Christ. They expect that everyone, once they’ve been able to shed the manacles of oppression, will, as free agents, be able to do this. RR: You assert in the book that Oberlinians originally believed the goal of abolishing slavery and eliminating prejudice could only happen through “peaceful and lawful means,” but then, in a space of a generation, you write they “forsook their faith in the efficacy of peaceful methods and embraced the use of coercive force to end human bondage.” What would you attribute this change to? CL: What’s particular to Oberlin is a mobilized
black leadership group, many of whom have
PRE V IS O US SPRE A D : Y E V HEN GULENKO, T HIS PAGE : TA N YA R O SEN -J ONE S ’ 97
Carol Lasser: Well, that’s the heart of the book, isn’t it? Oberlin changes. The people who make up Oberlin change, and their understanding of their relationship to racial equality changes. The interesting thing for us has been that in the beginning, Oberlin is quite different from the rest of the country and utterly willing to stand up for the ways in which it is committed to radical racial egalitarianism. Part of that is the strength of the Christian belief. And part of that is the strength of the abolitionist movement, which is gaining in intensity in the 1850s. After the Civil War, Oberlin needs to reevaluate its raison d’être, and it pulls back from that commitment to radical racial egalitarianism. Part of that may be a sense that emancipation has been achieved, so if the fight is against slavery, slavery has been eliminated. Over time, the people who have come to inhabit the town no longer see the job of eliminating prejudice falling to them. In that sense, they fall very much in line with other parts of the country. By the turn of the century, you see segregationist practices, discriminatory practices, a color line having an impact—even in Oberlin. They do not resist the outside world as they had once resisted it.