A Stroll Through Oberlin History
October 7, 2009
Ma'ayan Plaut ’10
Welcome to another in the saga of Ma'ayan's unexpected but awesome semester in classes: Oberlin History as American History, where history comes alive.
A preface: I took a history class at community college my senior year in high school. It was free-form "learn the part of history you find interesting" class, and I did learn, but just not conventional history. This worked perfectly well for me, though, since my brain's capacity for memorizing dates maxed out when I did academic team in middle school and part of high school. As I mentioned before, I learn best when things are hands on, and in history, this translates to making history vibrant and personal, rather than something you read in books.
Enter Carol Lasser's Oberlin History class, which I ran across during the fateful add-drop period. Oberlin, in conversation or class title, is a buzzword for me, and I will be lured into classes I never would have thought to put on my scheduling lists, much less actually sign up for. But if being an Oberlin student has taught me anything, you will be pleasantly surprised by the options available and the subsequent decisions made because of them, and tout their lessons from that day forward. Also, I got so many positive recommendations of classes, and that's the second thing I have learned since coming here: take advice on professors and classes and it will serve you well.
Today marked a very exciting day for this class, since we were going on a walking tour through Oberlin's past. We have been learning about Oberlin's beginnings, and its broader relationship with the history of America at the time. Oberlin was started as an institute to train missionaries and teachers, and the town and college began simultaneously, to support and help each other, as a part of the Great Awakening. Among other landmark decisions, Oberlin was founded on learning and labor (Look! Our motto!) and equal opportunities for peoples of all genders and colors.
Fall mornings in Oberlin are gorgeous, but you're usually not expected to walk through them. It was chilly.
We started our walking tour in King, everyone a bit fuzzy and tired and clutching coffee. We had a paper due for this class at midnight the night before, and for once, I managed to turn it in early! I went to bed late for other reasons involving photos and birthday parties. From there, we headed out the eastern side of King into the chilly but sunny fall morning, through the Memorial Arch and onward.
The Memorial Arch has a number of stories associated with it; there used to be a legend that if one walked through it before graduation, the student wouldn't graduate; only at commencement would students pass through. Even then, there was a segment of students who would bypass the arch, because of its implications of the inferiority of the East. Commencement is now held on the far side of Tappan Square, avoiding the Arch issue altogether.
The college used to be situated on Tappan Square, now the nice green square on the eastern part of campus, jointly used for college and community events. The former Tappan Square had living and dining establishments as well as buildings for learning, which Oberlin's students called their home. A spot on the square was also designated the pitching spot for Charles Grandison Finney's revival tent, a prominent location in the small campus's setup. The surrounding land was not the beautiful trees and grass that are currently there, but rather swampland.
Finney's revival tent in Tappan Square. To me, it looks like the circus came to town! (Photo courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.)
After Tappan, we veered north to First Church of Oberlin. It was, in fact, the first church to be built in Oberlin, and as Carol pointed out, was built to hold a churching mass of 1500... but was built when the current population was only 500. Even in its humble beginnings, our founders had illusions of grandeur. Good thinking, guys.
The outside of First Church is reminiscent of a schoolhouse, and the inside is like a revival tent: seats curved around the pulpit, from which there is a perfect 270 degree view. No one could escape the view of Charles Grandison Finney, and rightly so. Look at his eyes. They're piercing. Finney is like the great-great-great crazy grandpappy of Oberlin, and lends his name to Finney Chapel as well. I could go on about him, but I'll leave Carol Lasser to that.
Carol Lasser, head of the History Department, and queen of Oberlin. Just kidding. The pulpit at First Church makes everyone seem like the top of the world.
First Church, on the outside. It's a stunning building but not oppressive.
Great-great-great grandpappy Oberlin, Charles Grandison Finney. Note that photos back then took upwards of 15 minutes to take, and his eyes are completely sharp and clear. This means he never blinks, and is always looking at you. Be very afraid. (Photo courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.)
Finney's original bible still stands at the head of the sanctuary... it's ancient and smells delightfully of old book.
In a room right off the sanctuary, there are portraits of all the preachers who had been at First Church. On the far left is our piercing-glare Finney, for whom the church was built.
I love First Church, for similar reasons that I love Finney Chapel. There is no religious paraphernalia around the sanctuary, and its intimate internal setup, controlled acoustics, and amazing light make me feel calm and as about as religious as I can get in my heathen state. The internal architecture is meant to mimic the encircled feeling of the old revival tents.
We then walked by the "gateway" dedicated to Oberlin's acceptance of women. It's not so much a gateway as a small sculpture of sorts, that now leads to the art building. As someone in the class noted, "That doesn't seem like much of a gateway if it leads nowhere." Despite its physical placement, the memorial commemorates an important step in female education.
We continued south on Main Street and ended up at the New Union Center for the Arts, which contains the FAVA gallery and art spaces. The FAVA gallery looks much more church-like, with a steeple and bell tower and curved arching windows. I think the difference between First Church and the education center at the New Union Center lends itself to the relationship between the importance of education and religion, part of the college and town's original missions, and that they are both very much alive still in Oberlin today.
The New Union Center for the Arts is modelled more after a church, though it serves as an educational center. Up until last year, I thought it was a church. My mistake, but an honest one.
We then passed behind the Oberlin Public Library (which Carol noted that it's "the most successful supermarket-turned-public-library" she's ever seen) and walked behind it to see the memorials to the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers and the obelisk-like statue dedicated to the Oberlin individuals who lost their lives at Harper's Ferry. Condensed versions of these stories: The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue occurred when a group of Oberlinians prevented fugitive slave catchers from capturing John Price, and later helped him escape to Canada, and there were two Oberlinites who raided Harper's Ferry with John Brown (whose father was an Oberlin Trustee), though the plaque adds a few extra names.
Memorial dedicated to the group of Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers.
The Harper's Ferry Memorial obelisk. We sure love statues here in Oberlin.
We then headed east to the War Memorial, commemorating people of all colors for their service in several wars and conflicts. This memorial, unlike one of the memorials on campus, is dedicated to community members who lost their lives protecting their country. At the time of the memorial's construction, it was rare that black service members would be placed on the same memorials.
The War Memorial, much like the New Union Center, mimics church construction, with the curved windows and plain brick construction.
We then headed to the statue of Giles Waldo Shurtleff, advocate for colored people in the military. We shared a few closing remarks before a number of us sprinted back to campus for our 11am classes.
What's he pointing at? Class consensus: the future!
I can only begin to touch on how cool Oberlin history is in this post, so I'm sorry if I've just made you antsy to take Carol's class, even before you've applied to here. It's something to sit in on when you come to visit; we meet Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9.30 to 10.50am.
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Responses to this Entry
As someone who is about to graduate in December, I couldn't think of a better class to have in my final semester. While both you and I are now beginning to understand just how complicated (but fascinating!) this school's history is, the content of the course, our classmates' enthusiasm, and our wonderful professor (Queen Lasser de Oberlin!) all make me incredibly proud that I went to Oberlin.
Posted by: Melissa on October 7, 2009 6:36 PM
I'm amused that you caught a picture of me nerding out over Finney's bible and that you brought up his crazy eyes. He's clearly the inspiration for all those Scooby-Doo paintings with terrifying eyes.
Posted by: Brandi on October 7, 2009 6:59 PM
Great post, Ma'ayan! Sometime you should write one about the cemetery, which is (literally!) full of Oberlin history. You can play spot-the-Oberlin-landmark-names (Dascomb, Barrows, Hall, Rice...).
1. Having been around Oberlin a long time, I've actually never heard of "a legend that if one walked through [the Arch] before graduation, the student wouldn't graduate; only at commencement would students pass through." I'm guessing this may be an urban-legend legend, recently invented. It sounds to me like a conflation of (a) the tradition of not walking through the Arch at graduation, and (b) the traditional prohibition against stepping on the plaque honoring Charles Martin Hall at the center of Tappan Square. (The plaque has now been relocated.)
2. The building now known as the New Union Center has had a long history. It was built as a public school in 1873, then served as Oberlin's primary humanities classroom building (known as Westervelt Hall) until King was opened in 1961. For more, see http://www.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/UnionCenter/UnionCenter.html .
Posted by: David on October 7, 2009 8:37 PM
I took this class my sophomore year (Fall 2006), and it was every bit as amazing then as you write about now. It was definitely one of my favorite classes in my four years at Oberlin. I'm so jealous that you're taking it now.
Posted by: Ezra '09 on October 7, 2009 11:52 PM
@Melissa - I love how many awesome people are in the class. Goes back to how it makes history feel even more alive :)
@Brandi - I have a couple more of you geeking out, but this was the coolest shot I had in regards to people looking at the Finney bible. Booknerd :P
@David - Actually, when Carol brought it up on the walk, apparently it was started when you (and my dad) were here, because so many students didn't know what to think about graduation when there was a war going on, and superstition led to urban legend. I first heard about it in my first few weeks of my freshman year. I do know about the plaque, too, but I thought there was some other curse associated with it. Don't remember that one, though.
I would love to go to the graveyard! That would be amazing! I've had two friends shoot films in the graveyard, and I still haven't been there. Living history? More like dead history... (Poor joke, I know.)
@Ezra - The number of responses I got from people on Twitter when I said I was thinking about taking this class helped me decide to keep it. Thank you for the positive support!
Posted by: Ma'ayan on October 8, 2009 1:59 AM
This post is great - I loved that class.
Posted by: Schaffer on November 11, 2009 10:35 PM
I am looking for information on my family from Oxford Ohio in the 1800's. Dr Robert Brooks. Dr. Peter Brooks, John Brooks.
any information you have would be helpful.
Karen Brooks Wright
Posted by: KAREN WRIGHT on May 25, 2011 5:01 PM
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