In my last post, I told you about how I was able to learn more about Oberlin’s past thanks to finding a yearbook from 1945. This felt like a crazy coincidence, because earlier that same day, I had the opportunity to learn more about Oberlin’s past thanks to a class I’m taking for my East Asian Studies minor, The Long War in Modern China. We took a visit to the Special Collections of the College Archives on the top floor of the Mary Church Terrell Main Library, otherwise known as Mudd. I was surprised to learn of Oberlin’s historical connections to China and marveled at the opportunity to look at real documents from Oberlin’s past in person.
Our class visit was prompted by our study of the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising that took place at the turn of the 20th century. The uprising was initiated by a group of trained martial artists against the foreign Catholic missionaries that had come to China. A group of missionaries from Oberlin were located in Shansi at the time, and some were killed in this revolt. The Memorial Arch that stands on Tappan Square was built in their memory. The monument has garnered debate over the years, since many argue that it honors imperialists who encroached upon Chinese land, and that many Chinese people had been killed as well. A plaque recognizing the Chinese people that died in the rebellion was later added to the arch.
Because of this history, the College Archive had many documents from this time, such as letters missionaries sent back home from China. We also looked at books that detailed about the ‘Oberlin Band’ in Shansi, seeing pictures of the group dating back to the early 1900s. We also saw news articles from over the decades of the debates surrounding the Memorial Arch. One of the most interesting things that the Special Collections had was building plans and a miniature model for a “second Oberlin” that the missionaries wanted to build in Shansi. Oberlin’s connection to China is where the Shansi program originated, which nowadays allows students to travel to East Asian countries to study abroad, start a career teaching English after graduation, and more. As a prospective East Asian Studies minor, I’ve always been interested in these opportunities, and now I know their history and why they are unique to Oberlin. We also had fun playing around with pictures of China in the early 20th century that become 3D when you look at them through a type of glasses or scope. The College Archives are an excellent place to conduct research, as it's rich with primary sources and valuable collections, and it's just a great place if you want to learn more about the college’s history. Our visit was very illuminative and truly helped widen our class’s understanding of the war and get a closer look into what the time was actually like.
It’s true that the Memorial Arch is controversial, but I think the fact that we as a community are willing to discuss it and learn more about it (there was even a class on the history of the Memorial Arch some years ago) shows one of Oberlin’s greatest qualities. We don’t shy away from difficult topics and are always open to debate. In this way, the Memorial Arch is fond to Oberlin less because of its history and original meaning and more so because of the conversations it incites.
I hope you enjoyed this brief series of taking a dive into Oberlin’s past!