So Many Reasons to Keep Returning to Keep
Sitting demurely in the shadows of Stevenson dining hall, Keep Cottage rarely attracts much attention. Many students know it to be the cozy home to both room and board co-ops. To outsiders, it might appear to be a rather large house, like a normal four-bedroom blown grossly out of proportion.
But those who linger to smoke a cigarette on the porch or knead bread dough in the kitchen may not be aware that Keep stands on the same ground as the former home of “Reverend” John Keep. The current building was built in 1912 after Keep’s death, funded largely by his granddaughter, Elizabeth Keep Clark.
Keep Cottage was the last of a series of Oberlin buildings built by architect Normand Patton, who also designed Oberlin’s Warner and Carnegie Halls. According to the late Professor Geoffrey Blodgett’s book, Oberlin Architecture, College and Town: A Guide to Its Social History, the College instructed Patton to “make it a fireproof, homelike residence for 50 women, with pleasant social space on the first floor for mixing with the 30 men who came for meals.”
Although the house is now co-ed, its “pleasant social space” is frequented by members of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association enjoying a meal. Its roomers and boarders, though, may not know the significance of the man behind their building’s name.
In 1835, John Keep moved from Cleveland to the town of Oberlin after he was appointed to be head of the Board of Trustees.
He had met Charles Finney when he was preaching in Homer, New York, and remained friends with him thereafter. Robert Samuel Fletcher, in his book A History of Oberlin College, describes Keep as an “ardent Finneyite,” supporting the College leader in many controversial decisions.
According to Blodgett, Keep was “ranked among the most revered of Oberlin’s early patriarchs.” An ordained minister, Keep had attended Yale and looked after the spiritual well-being of the new Oberlin colony. He was also known to be on the forefront of progressive thought in areas such as coeducation and abolition.
Keep was responsible for casting the tie-breaking vote to admit black students to the College in 1835. According to Fletcher, the decision took place after two grueling meetings, the first of which was “riotous, turbulent and filled with detraction [and] slander.” The fighting had not been confined to those meetings. At one point, Keep considered resigning from the Board as the disagreements had gotten too ugly. He stayed on, however, and as Head of the Trustees placed the final vote, tipping the scale against racial discrimination.
To add to what was already a tremendous amount of responsibility to Keep’s load, College founder John Jay Shipherd left the financial well-being of the school in Keep’s hands when he left Oberlin with the intent of founding other colonies and schools like Oberlin. Although one may believe that the College lacks funding today, in 1839 it was in serious trouble, facing its closing if it did not raise a significant amount of money.
With this in mind, Keep joined William Dawes in making a trip to England to “Oberlinize” the country. The trip was intended not only to raise funds for the school, but also to spread word of the school abroad. The trip was successful, collecting what was equivalent to $30,000 when Fletcher published his book in 1943. Keep also took the opportunity to speak at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London.
While he resided in Oberlin, Keep housed female boarding students in his home. At the time, students were placed with families in town, in whose homes they ate their meals and slept. Keep was a father figure to the girls living in his home. By instituting such a system of family groupings, the College hoped to emulate the stability and nurturing environment of the home. Keep helped hold the Oberlin community together, both at home and in his travels.
Keep also had a taste for the dramatic. Once, while giving a speech in Glasgow, he held up a “deadly looking knife of American manufacture” and used it to impress upon the crowd the danger of being an abolitionist in the United States. He described slavery as a “scaley and slimey monster,” and was so effective that he inspired poetry.
One listener wrote the following after his speech: “America needs you, ye heroes arise and gird you anew for the strife, / For her falls have re-echoed the groans of the slave, her rivers have swallowed his life, / The forests & prairies no refuge afford, excepting one holy spot: / ’Tis Oberlin’s walls; the only retreat where the white man injures him not.”
It is no wonder that Keep residents feel at home in his namesake cottage.