Oberlin History

young woman walking across brick pavement.
A student walks through Tappan Square considered the gateway between the college and city.
Photo credit: William Bradford


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.’’

Stewart and Shipherd 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 of 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. 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 black people. While Oberlin was coeducational from its founding in 1833, the college regularly admitted black 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.

In 1844, George B. Vashon became the first black student to earn a bachelor’s degree from the college, followed by Mary Jane Patterson, who in 1862 completed studies in the Department of Philosophy and the Arts, becoming the first black woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from an American college.

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 Leadership

Throughout the college’s history, the role of an Oberlin College president has been to provide academic and civic leadership to the college and the community ripe for development, eager for change, and driven by a noble desire to make a difference. From Henry Brown (1834), the first acting president; to Henry Churchill King (1902-1927), the longest serving; to Nancy Schrom Dye (1994-2007), the first woman; each has offered reasoned initiatives and a unique style of leadership to address the demands of the time.

In May 2017, Oberlin’s Board of Trustees appointed Carmen Twillie Ambar as the college’s 15th president. Ambar, the first African American and second woman to lead the institution, began her tenure September 1.

Browse History of Oberlin Presidents


Founding: December 3, 1833, as Oberlin Collegiate Institute by Rev. John Jay Shipherd and Philo Penfield Stewart

First Settler: Peter Pease

First in Academia: Oberlin was the first college in America to adopt a policy to admit black students (1835) and the first to grant bachelor’s degrees to women (1841) in a coeducational program.

Motto: “Learning and Labor”

Official colors: cardinal red and mikado yellow

Mascot: Yeomen and Yeowomen

Alma mater: Ten Thousand Strong (Oberlin, Our Alma Mater), 1913, words and music by Jason Noble Pierce

Alumni: 40,000 and counting

Location and Campus

  • Oberlin, Ohio, population 8,300; 35 miles southwest of Cleveland, Ohio
  • 440-acre residential campus
  • Architecture by Cass Gilbert, J.L. Silsbee, Clarence Ward, Wallace Harrison, Minoru Yamasaki, Hugh Stubbins, Warner, Burns, Toan & Lundy, Robert Venturi, Bostwick Design Partners, Krill Company Inc., Westlake Reed Leskosky


Carmen Twillie Ambar, president
Leadership and Administration


Total: 2,900
College of Arts and Sciences: 2,300
Conservatory of Music: 600
Double Degree: 175

Average enrollment figures courtesy of the Oberlin College Office of Institutional Research.


  • 54 percent women; 46 percent men
  • 20 percent students of color
  • 92.8 percent domestic of which 9.1 percent are from Ohio; 7.2 percent are international, representing nearly 40 countries 


Student-faculty ratio

  • 11:1 in the College of Arts and Sciences
  •  6:1 in the Conservatory of Music
  • 70 percent of classes have fewer than 20 students

Most faculty are active researchers and are among the foremost authorities in their fields. U.S. News & World Report recognized Oberlin faculty for their commitment to undergraduate teaching in Best Colleges 2019 guide; Oberlin ranked 16th in the nation among liberal arts colleges.

In the past five years, 95 percent of Oberlin’s natural science faculty members received grants for research, equipment, or curriculum development. Recent grants have come from the National Science Foundation, NASA, Research Corporation, and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, among others.

Academic Divisions

College of Arts and Sciences
• Established in 1833
• 50 academic majors, 42 minors and concentrations

Conservatory of Music
• Established in 1865
• Oldest continuously operating conservatory in the United States
• Eleven divisions, Eight majors and 42 areas of private, applied study 

Academic Programs

College of Arts and Sciences

• Curriculum includes study in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics
• Four-year undergraduate program leading to the BA degree
• Five-year Double Degree Program leading to both the BA and BM degrees

Conservatory of Music

• Four-year undergraduate program leading to the BM degree
• Five-year Double Degree Program leading to both the BA and BM degrees
• Two-year programs leading to a Performance Diploma (undergraduate) or an Artist Diploma (graduate)

Degree Designations

• Bachelor of Arts (BA)
• Bachelor of Music (BM)
• Double Degree (BA and BM)
• Master of Music in Historical Performance (MM)
• Master of Music (conducting, opera theater, performance on historical instruments, MM)


• Artist Diploma
• Performance Diploma


• 21 varsity teams
• North Coast Athletic Conference, Division III
• 30 percent of students participate in intramural and club sports


• 175 active student groups
• 1,200 students annually participate in service programs
• 75 percent of students have some type of international or service experience during college

Arts and Culture

The Allen Memorial Art Museum was established in 1917 and has collections that place it among the top five college art museums in the nation.

The Apollo Theatre, one of the few continuously running, single-screen movie houses in the country, was established in 1913.

The Mary Church Terrell Main library in Mudd Learning Center, and three other campus libraries specializing in music, art, and science, house more than 2.4 million items.

The college and conservatory sponsor more than 500 concerts and recitals, about 40 theater and dance productions, and two operas each year.

Oberlin College Lanes is the only bowling center in northeast Ohio that is an alcohol-free and smoke-free facility.


North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, Higher Learning Commission