Photo credit Kevin G Reeves
A Presbyterian minister and a missionary founded Oberlin in 1833. The duo, the Rev. John J. Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart, became friends while spending the summer of 1832 together in nearby Elyria. They discovered a mutual disenchantment with what they saw as the lack of strong Christian principles among the settlers of the American West. They decided to establish a college and a colony based on their religious beliefs, "where they would train teachers and other Christian leaders for the boundless most desolate fields in the West." They adopted some of the ideas of the man who inspired them: Alsatian pastor John Frederick Oberlin, who pioneered educational programs, established schools, built roads, and introduced the trades of masonry and blacksmithing throughout poor communities in France.
With their own labor and faith, combined with funding from several wealthy sources, they established the town and the college on about 500 acres of donated land with about 40 other individuals. In spring 1833, the first settler, Peter Pindar Pease, built his log house at the center of Oberlin. That December, 29 men and 15 women began classes as the first students in the Oberlin Collegiate Institute.
The college soon adopted the motto, “Learning and Labor.” In those days, tuition was free because students were expected to contribute by helping to build and sustain the community. The concept attracted many bright young people who would otherwise not have been able to afford tuition. Eventually this approach was discontinued, although the motto remained.
Shipherd and Stewart soon gained the support of Charles Grandison Finney, one of the great revivalists of the 19th century. Finney's reputation as a fiery and outspoken preacher attracted many to this fledgling community, and he later served as the second president of the college after social reformer and abolitionist Asa Mahan, who served from 1835-1850.
The college and community thrived on progressive causes and social justice. Among Oberlin’s earliest graduates were women and African Americans. While Oberlin was coeducational from its founding in 1833, the college regularly admitted African American students beginning in 1835, after trustee and abolitionist, the Rev. John Keep, cast the deciding vote to allow them entry. Women were not admitted to the baccalaureate program, which granted bachelor's degrees, until 1837. Prior to that, they received diplomas from what was called the Ladies Course. The college admitted its first group of women in 1837: Caroline Mary Rudd, Elizabeth Prall, Mary Hosford, and Mary Fletcher Kellogg, although Kellogg did not complete her degree in 1841 along with the others.
The college experienced financial difficulties in its early years. Shipherd went on several fundraising tours out East, while trustees John Keep and William Dawes journeyed to Britain to generate financial support. Keep and Dawes lectured about Oberlin in private homes, meeting houses, and church halls, raising funds primarily from the abolitionist community. After 18 months, they returned with $30,000 in gold, the equivalent of 640 million dollars in today’s terms. Those donations saved Oberlin.
In 1850, Oberlin Collegiate Institute became Oberlin College. The name reflected a gradual shift in the curriculum and educational focus, which transitioned the institution from a preparatory, manual labor, and theology-based program to one that offered formal instruction and coursework in the classics, sciences, the fine arts, and music, among other disciplines. The conservatory became part of the college in 1867, two years after its founding as a private school.
Oberlin had a reputation as a center for abolitionist activities and many of the college’s presidents embraced these efforts. Oberlin was a key stop along the Underground Railroad, an informal network of back-road routes and safe houses used to harbor escaped slaves seeking freedom in the Northern states and Canada. In 1858, a group of Oberlin and Wellington residents rescued a fugitive slave, John Price, from U.S. marshals, and took him to Canada. The liberators were jailed in Cleveland for violating the Fugitive Slave Act and for their part in the rescue but eventually gained release. The case drew national coverage. Years later, the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue became known as the incident that set the American Civil War in motion.
The town and college continued to grow, adding academic divisions, modern public facilities, a water and sewage system, postal service, and such campus buildings as Peters Hall, Talcott Hall, Baldwin Cottage, Carnegie Library, Severance Chemical Laboratory, and Wilder Hall. These thick, stately constructions were made of blocks of rough-textured buff Ohio sandstone, removed from a site just six miles north of Oberlin.
Intercollegiate sports made their way to Oberlin in 1891. The following year, former intercollegiate soccer and football player John William Heisman became the college’s first professional football coach. The Cleveland native led the team to a 7-0 record in his second year. Heisman’s successful career at Oberlin and other schools prompted Oberlin alumni and friends to create the John William Heisman Club to strengthen the college’s athletics program. Upon Heisman’s death in 1936, a national collegiate award given to the most outstanding college football player was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy (Heisman Award).
Oberlin, though progressive in many ways, also had a history of temperance. This position led citizens to establish the Anti-Saloon League, which sought to keep the community tobacco and alcohol free. The group became one of the most effective single-issue lobby organizations in American political history and was active in the national drive for the Prohibition Amendment of the 1920s.
During the 1950s, students campaigned for alternatives to the college’s food service. They developed a business plan for a cooperative residence hall for men and women. College faculty approved the plan and Pyle-Inn became one of the first student-run co-ops in the country.
Efforts throughout Oberlin's history to build and sustain a strong liberal arts curriculum paid off in 1957. The Chicago Tribune, after a national survey, named Oberlin the number one coeducational liberal arts college, ahead of such institutions as Swarthmore, Carleton, Reed, Lawrence, Kalamazoo, and Hope. The paper cited the college’s exceptionally high standards of scholarship and teaching and its record of producing one of highest rates of graduates who go on to earn doctorate degrees. Oberlin continues to produce more eventual PhDs than any of its peer institutions.
Now, more than 175 years later, the town is a thriving community of businesses, public and safety services, restaurants, a theater, museums, schools, community parks and bike paths, and other amenities. Along with the city, Oberlin College reflects the early dedication to high intellectual standards, liberal education, excellence in teaching, and social and moral commitment.