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Minority Student Records at Oberlin College


A History of Recording Black Students at Oberlin College
and the Story of the Missing Record

Roland M. Baumann

Oberlin College admitted "colored" students for the first time during the fall term of 1835. The first two students were James Bradley (Spring 1836) and Charles Langston (1835, 1841-44). Black female students enrolled, for the first time, in 1842. The first to enroll was Sarah J. Watson Barnett. George B. Vashon was the first black male student to graduate with an A.B. degree in 1844. Lucy Stanton (Day/Sessions) became the first black woman to earn a four-year degree (Literary course of study) in 1850. However, in 1862 Mary Jane Patterson was the first black female to receive the AB degree. She was also the first in the United States to do so.1

By 1900 Oberlin had graduated 128 black students. This figure represented one-third of the national total of 390, from predominantly northern white colleges and universities.2 In addition Oberlin College can rightfully claim to have admitted approximately 836 black men and women during the span of 65 years.3 Black students made up four to eight percent of the total student body during these six decades.4 A large number of these black Americans attended Oberlin College's Preparatory Department (a secondary school).5 W.E.B. Du Bois rightfully declared that Oberlin was "the great pioneer in the work of blotting out the color line in colleges."6

Oberlin College was conscious of the role it played in black education throughout the nineteenth century. Professor Henry Cowles, who joined the faculty in 1835, prepared the first unofficial list of black students in 1862.7 He constructed from memory a list of 200 names of black students who had studied in the Preparatory and College departments at Oberlin from 1835 to 1862. Several other members in the academic community may have assisted Cowles in preparing the "Catalogue and Record of Colored Students in Oberlin, 1835 to 1862." This small manuscript volume maintained by him only measures 6-1/2 by 7-3/4 inches. It is found in Series V. Account and Memoranda Books, 1835-81, of the Henry Cowles' personal papers held by the Oberlin College Archives.8

Covering the period 1835 to 1862, Cowles' list is among the earliest primary sources documenting black enrollment at Oberlin.9 Professor Cowles was an abolitionist and an Oberlin perfectionist in his theology. He compiled the list probably because he held a personal stake in early equal educational developments. Not only was he a personal witness to Oberlin's commitment to educate colored people, Cowles also had a penchant for thorough record-keeping. Thus, Cowles—the long-time editor of The Oberlin Evangelist and a member of the Board of Trustees—became the unofficial chronicler.

Cowles did not find an immediate successor to maintain his list of enrolled black students. Consequently, no separate list of names exists for the black students who attended Oberlin for the period of 1862 to 1899. The only explanation offered is that no reason existed to keep a separate listing at that time. According to William E. Bigglestone, College Archivist from 1966 to 1986, Oberlin administrators concluded at the time that "negros should be considered the same as other students and not as individuals in a minority group and so there was no reason to keep a separate listing of them."10 In 1899, when Oberlin College participated in Atlanta University's "Fifth Conference for the Study of Negro Problems" held in May 1900, this situation changed. Newly appointed Secretary of the College George M. Jones, in 1899, submitted as requested Oberlin's list of Negro students to corresponding secretary W.E.B. Du Bois. Corporate Secretary Jones wrote: The list contains the names of men and women "of whom we are proud."11 Although from that year forward Oberlin kept accurate lists of black student enrollments, a record of black non-graduates, from 1862 to 1899, existed only for those who held a scholarship.

In August 1906 the Prudential Committee of Oberlin's Board of Trustees authorized Secretary Jones to compile and publish a seventy-fifth anniversary catalogue.12 To assist him in the project the College employed and assigned clerks to produce 5x8 cards on former students (non-graduates). To gather the necessary information the Secretary's Office apparently sent questionnaires to 35,682 former students (white and black). For the most part individual cards already existed for those persons who had graduated from Oberlin College. Now, an accurate, official record was also in place for formers (students who had not graduated), including the identification of black students, before 1899.

After the publication of the 1187-page Seventy-Fifth Anniversary General Catalogue of Oberlin College in April 1909, the Secretary's Office continued work started a decade before. Staff created index cards for graduates and non-graduates for subsequent catalogues.13 Then as before, the clerks noted on the cards when the student was "colored," a "Jew," or "Chinese" or "Japanese." Then, too, the Secretary's Office created and maintained for all graduates and formers individual folders, measuring 7-1/2" x 9-1/8", in which were deposited newspaper clippings, completed alumni questionnaires, and assorted biographical material.14

Oberlin College would continue this clerical work of identifying its minority students until 1971, when it was no longer fashionable to publish such catalogues. Further, it was deemed inappropriate in higher education circles to keep official records on race and to separate ethnic designations for classes of students. Before the College shelved statistical record files the Admission's Office created a [232-page] typescript master list that listed all black graduates and formers who had attended all of the College's academic divisions: College of Arts & Sciences, Conservatory of Music, Preparatory Department, Ladies Department, and Graduate School of Theology. This multi-layered archival document containing several subsets of unnumbered pages bears the name of "Catalogue and Record of Colored Students." This title replicates the title used in the mid nineteenth-century by Henry Cowles for the initial listing.15 Sixteen years later, in August 1988, this important file maintained in a 3-ring binder was accessioned into the College Archives and classified with the records of the Office of the Secretary (RG 5).16

The "Catalog and Record of Colored Students in Oberlin" (typescript) is available from the Office of the Secretary Records (RG 5). The Oberlin College Archivist, with important assistance from Diversity Intern Maria Paz Esguerra, class of 2002, and Administrative Secretary Tammy Martin, created an addendum to this "Catalog and Record" to cover the missing years of 1862 to 1899. We found 391 new names in the "General Catalogue." This particular copy, with markings, probably came to the College Archives in the mid-to-late 1960s from either the Registrar's Office or Secretary's Office. Following the death of Gertrude Jacob '29 (a former Assistant Archivist, 1966-74, and a Volunteer-in-Research, 1975-89) in 1989, I found this specially marked "Catalogue" in her desk drawer. It is likely that Miss Jacob had received this copy in 1986 upon the retirement of William E. Bigglestone.17 In any event, in the left-hand margin of each column, one or more College employees had marked, with green pencil, the Oberlin students he/she identified as black students.18 Using this copy of the "Catalogue" Maria Paz Esguerra extracted or pulled out the names of black students and entered them for me in a word processing document to create this 1862-99 addendum. During this time 77 black students had received a Charles Avery scholarship.19 Eighty-four (84) students graduated with a degree. For the names of these black students (male & female), users will need to visit the separate lists that are part of the overall listing of "colored" students. It is important to note that the newly created addendum underscores one key point (namely that many more black Americans attended than were graduated from Oberlin College).20

All in all, the staff of the Oberlin College Archives expects that in making these lists available, including the recently crafted addendum for 1862-99, we have added to the growing body of African-American documentary resources on the World Wide Web, and enhanced its access.

Roland M. Baumann

Emeritus Archivist, Oberlin College


The author would like to extend thanks and acknowledge the assistance of Diversity Intern Maria Paz Esquerra, Oberlin College Class of 2002, and Administrative Secretary Tammy L. Martin of the Oberlin College Archives. Maria Paz Esquerra's time was underwritten by an ILMS curriculum grant, administered by the Oberlin College Library.

1. Readers will find individual Alumni Records folders for each of the graduates referenced here. For additional detail see Roland M. Baumann, Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College: A Documentary History, 1834-2001 (forthcoming); William E. Bigglestone, "Oberlin College and the Negro Student, 1865-1940," The Journal of Negro History 56 (July, 1971): 198-219; Ellen Henle and Marlene Merrill, "Antebellum black coeds at Oberlin College," Oberlin Alumni Magazine (OAM) 75 (Jan./Feb., 1980): 18-21; Ellen N. Lawson and Marlene Merrill, "The Antebellum "Talented Thousandth": Black College Students at Oberlin Before the Civil War," Journal of Negro Education 52 (1983): 142-55.

2. W.E.B. Du Bois, editor, The College-Bred Negro; Report of a Social Study Made Under the Direction of Atlanta University. . . (Atlanta, 1900), pp. 38-39. Du Bois points out that, before 1900, 1941 blacks graduated from "Negro Colleges" mostly located in the south (pp. 41-42).

3. The number is based on counting the graduates and non-graduates from the "Catalogue and Record of Colored Students, 1835" (typescript), Office of the Secretary, along with the number of black students identified in the 1908 General Catalogue of Oberlin College for the period of 1835-99.

4. For percentages over each decade, see Bigglestone, "Oberlin College and the Negro Student," pp. 198-99.

5. Instruction on the preparatory level included the scientific course, before 1875; the teacher's course; drawing and painting (art); and physical education, before 1900. The College changed the name of this department in 1892 to The Academy. In 1916 it was discontinued.

6. Du Bois, The College-Bred Negro, pg. 29. See also Juanita Fletcher, "Against the Consensus: Oberlin College and the Education of American Negroes, 1835-1865," Ph.D. dissertation, The American University, 1974.

7. The contributions of Henry Cowles are fully developed in Robert S. Fletcher's A History of Oberlin College from Its Foundation through the Civil War, 2 vols. (Oberlin, 1943).

8. Under Series V. Account and Memoranda Books, 1835-81, in the Henry Cowles Papers, Box 10, OCA. A typescript copy was made by Robert S. Fletcher, and it appears in the folder "Students: Negro, 1833-1908," in the Robert S. Fletcher Papers, Box 13, OCA.

9. In the Fletcher Papers is "A list of names of the Colored persons studying in Oberlin, made out at the request of Rev. J.M. Keep by J.E. Green, Oct. 22, 1852," Box 13, OCA. The two-page list contains 44 names. It is unknown whether Cowles was aware of this list.

10. Bigglestone-quoted material appears in a record note written by Rachel Powers, dated August 18, 1972. A longtime employee of the College's Admissions Office, at the time Powers worked in the Office of the Registrar.

11. Quoted in Du Bois, The College-Bred Negro, p. 31.

12. For this history see the "Preface" to the 1908 Catalogue. . ., (Int. 7)-(Int. 9).

13. These catalogues appeared in 1916, 1926, 1936, 1948, and 1960.

14. The Oberlin College Archives houses approximately 45,000 individual folders on deceased graduates and formers, which are found in over 1,100 five-inch hollinger boxes.

15. Rachel Powers, in the Office of Admissions, probably compiled the list.

16. Accompanying the transfer of the transcript were a set of index cards containing names, matriculation dates, and sometimes career information on black students at Oberlin College from 1835 to 1969/70. The Office of the Registrar continued the index and maintained the list of black students after June 1970.

17. I acknowledge the assistance of Oberlin Affiliate Scholar Marlene D. Merrill in developing the history of the green pencilled markings in the 1908 Catalogue. . .. Merrill to Roland M. Baumann, December 5 and 6, 2001, e-mails.

18. Only on Monday, February 4, 2002, did I learn from Marlene D. Merrill that she had copied the green pencilled markings and placed them in her own copy of the 1908 Catalogue. . . in the early 1980s.

19. Rev. Charles Avery, founder of the Avery Institute in Pittsburgh, Pa., left a specific bequest to Oberlin College to aid " ‘indigent and worthy' colored students" in 1864. Previously, as early as 1849, he gave $1,000 for this purpose. The first beneficiary was Amelia Freeman. Individual entries of scholarship aid can be found in the Journals of the Records of the Office of the Treasurer. On Avery, see Stanton Balfour, "Charles Avery: Early Pittsburgh Philanthropist," Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 43 (March, 1960): 19-22.

20. According to Bigglestone, in extending educational opportunity to black Americans Oberlin College followed the lead of founder John J. Shipherd "in deed if not in word. Distortion of the past," he adds, "only dulls the luster of a proud record." Bigglestone, "Irrespective of Color," OAM (Spring, 1981): 36.