The Past as Way Forward: Finding a “Useful History”

Steve Volk, March 13, 2017

Reparation-and-ReconciliationA group of faculty, staff, and students sat down together the past two Mondays to discuss Christi Smith’s Reparation & Reconciliation: The Rise and Fall of Integrated Higher Education (University of North Carolina Press, 2016). Smith is a visiting assistant professor in sociology at Oberlin, and, of course, she took part in the conversation. Her book examines three colleges (Oberlin, Berea, and Howard) that early on placed interracial coeducation at the center of their institutional missions. The book examines what impelled the colleges to make this choice and why, by the end of the 19th century, all three eased away from that goal. By the turn of the 20th century, Howard dedicated itself to the task of educating the black elite, Berea focused on Appalachian whites, and Oberlin, finding itself, as with the others, in a competition for donors and students, sought advantage by marketing itself more as an elite Eastern institution, and less as an avatar of interracial progress.

There is much to relate about the book and the discussions it generated, but I will limit myself to three topics. While these issues are of particular importance for Oberlin, I have no doubt that they will be relevant for many other institutions which, prodded by student protests and national conversations, are seriously considering the role that race and racism played in their institutions’ history and how these factors continue to shape their present.

Mary Jane Patterson

Mary Jane Patterson, first black woman to be granted a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. (Oberlin College, 1862). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

“Reparations” is the first topic and I enclose it in quotes as it had a different meaning when used by those who worked to integrate the three colleges at the center of Smith’s study. The second topic is the way that our institutions’ histories – and here I’m most interested in Oberlin’s history – inform our identities:  i.e., how the stories we tell ourselves about our past either advance or hinder the work of justice we consider crucial on our campuses today. And, finally, I’m interested in how cross-campus discussions can provide a generative space in which the college community can both listen to and hear each other. The three themes, I would suggest, are linked through the concept of responsibility. Understanding that not everyone reads history the same way, I am nonetheless interested in how we can be responsible to, and take responsibility for, our past in the way that we carry out our work in the present, whether that work is learning, teaching, raising money, admitting students, connecting with alumni, or all the other things we do on our campuses.


Reparation & Reconciliation explores the role of the American Missionary Association and its connection to the drive for what they called “coeducation” in higher education, by which they meant racial integration. The AMA was founded in 1846, 13 years after Oberlin took root in the swamp lands of the western frontier. The organization was led by Protestants who preached the ending slavery and fought for the education of African Americans. Among the 11 colleges the AMA founded (or co-founded) were Berea, which had close ties to Oberlin, and Howard. The institutions that it founded, many of which became part of what would later be called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), dedicated themselves to “breaking down the barrier of caste [race].” And they saw the “obliteration” of the sense of racial superiority and entitlement of the “people who believe they are white,” to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’ terminology, as central to that task.

College and universities would play a central role in breaking down “caste” barriers in the nation as a whole. The AMA saw this as a moral obligation and, for that reason, argued for it to be taken up by individuals and not relegated to the government. They sought a profound transformation which could only arise, so they reasoned, through interpersonal transformation. And what better place for this to occur than then in the hinterlands, far from corrupting influences. It was in these remote spaces (Oberlin and Berea in particular) where, students who “pray[ed] together and stud[ied] together” would learn to live respectfully with one another. These interactions, rather than laws, policies, or rules from above, would fuel the transformation required not just to end slavery, but, radically, to undermine racism.

Carter Godwin Goodson, Berea class of 1903

Carter Godwin Woodson, Berea class of 1903

As we noted in our discussions of Smith’s book, such an approach was wildly optimistic about the role that education (in general) and a few colleges (in particular) could play not just in bringing slavery to a halt, but in “dismantling” the “American caste system.” There is something deeply attractive (and highly problematic) about seeing oneself as the central player in such an struggle. But, of course, to do so is not just to give schools an impossible task, but to misrepresent the very nature of the problem. Writing in 1959 in an otherwise troubling essay, Hannah Arendt wondered why we “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve.” As Cory Robin (who referenced the Arendt essay) recently observed in Salon, “race or race privilege is indeed constructed…not merely by words and symbols, but by laws, taxes, wealth and institutions.” Neither K-12 nor higher education can “solve” the legacy of slavery and racism outside a deeper systemic and institutional  reformulation on a massive scale. But that doesn’t mean that educators have no part to play in this struggle for justice, and that brings us to the first theme, “reparations.”


The concept of “reparations” has been in the news in the last few years, specifically in the context of higher education. On March 3, 2017, more than 500 people gathered at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study to explore academia’s ties to slavery and in what ways, financial as well as intellectual, this history should be addressed. The speakers included Craig Steven Wilder, author of the agenda-setting study, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities (Bloomsbury, 2014), Adam Rothman, a historian at Georgetown University, a school which recently offered preference in admissions to the descendants of 272 enslaved people who were sold in 1838 to keep the university afloat, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who authored an influential article in 2014 in The Atlantic on “The Case for Reparations.” Mr. Coates was unequivocal on the need for economic reparations. “I don’t know how you conduct research showing your very existence is rooted in a great crime,” he remarked, “and then you just say, ‘Well, sorry’ and walk away.”

In her study, Smith suggests that the concept of “reparations” for the American Missionary Association derived from a different understanding, one that sprang from the word’s origins, reparare to “repair” or “make ready again.” It was in this spirit, Smith argues, that “members of the AMA argued forcefully that white Americans owed former slaves for past wrongs, and that their work would help repay an incommensurable debt. If slavery created a logic of race as a marker of status inequality,” she continues, “the AMA viewed its reparative work as correcting that imbalance; they viewed education as essential to secure mutual respect” (p. 13), offering a “vast debt yet unpaid to…ex-slaves…” Speaking at the 1872 Berea College commencement, William Brown, himself a former owner of enslaved people and a Kentucky State Legislator, told the audience that “to slave labor he owned his education, his wealth…and that there was a solemn obligation resting upon him to repay, as far as possible, the debt he owed the race” (p. 14).

Rev. Traci Blackmon (l); Rabbi Susan Talve (r)

Rev. Traci Blackmon (l); Rabbi Susan Talve (r)

The notion of “reparations” as “repair” is central to the way many Jews understand tikkun olam, to “heal, repair, and transform the world,” as the journal of the same name puts it. I was reminded of this as I heard the truly transformational discussion at Oberlin last week between the Reverend Traci Blackmon, the Senior Pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, and Rabbi Susan Talve, of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. Their conversation about Ferguson, titled “Solidarities in Difference and Faith,” was not formally about “repair,” and yet it was all about repairing as an act of healing needed if one is to come into justice in the world.

The discussion of reparations as Ta-Nehisi Coates raised for the Unites States, or even at the level of colleges and universities, as in the case of Georgetown, i.e., payments for wrongs done, is an important one to engage. But, Blackmon and Talve seemed to suggest, just as we had raised in our own discussions, that the responsibilities of reparation as repairing is not necessarily (or only) to be found in its transactional aspect. Rather, repair (“reparations”) also demands that we “wrestle with ourselves in difficult circumstances,” as Rev. Traci put it, and that we struggle together when we find ourselves in places of disagreement.

So what can that mean concretely? One part of coming together, to extrapolate from Blackmon and Talve, is to engage in work that begins at what they called the “soul level,” and what I would see as coming to know ourselves through our history, and not necessarily the stories that we always tell ourselves about who we are as an institution. Oberlin’s history is a different one from that of Georgetown, Yale or Brown, and in many ways we can be rightly proud of it. Yet, as a reading of Smith’s book discloses, Oberlin is not a case apart: it, too, inhabits a complicated and compromised past, one that contains troubling aspects as well as bright moments. Perhaps, then, reparation in the sense of “repairing” the institution requires that we come to terms with that actual history in the hopes of moving from a “mythical” narrative to a more “usable” history, as Renee Romano, chair of the History Department, put it.

Toward a Usable History

The early history of Oberlin is well known. It was founded on the western frontier in 1833 as a “peculiar” commune devoted to a rather strict interpretation of Protestantism (no dancing, drinking, tobacco, etc.). Oberlin’s place in history would change a year later when a group of “rebels” from Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary, students and faculty who supported abolition and racially integrated education, traveled north to join the new commune. Though nearly half of Oberlin’s students objected, the trustees – then as now willing to buck student demands! – resolved “that students shall be received into this institution irrespective of color.”

Arthur (r) and Lewis (l) Tappan, abolitionists, financial backers of Oberlin, founders of the American Missionary Association

Arthur (r) and Lewis (l) Tappan, abolitionists, financial backers of Oberlin, founders of the American Missionary Association

While the action cost Oberlin some enrolled students and the vitriol of conservative pro-slavery forces, it also brought much needed financial support from New York’s Tappan brothers, Arthur and Lewis, wealthy abolitionists in England, and those who shared the cause of abolition elsewhere. Even in its initial state as an imagined utopian community, Oberlin was nevertheless dependent on the wealth of supporters who believed in its mission. For the first part of Oberlin’s history, then, the moral concern for interracial coeducation aligned with the interests of its financial supporters.

Oberlin College Women's Graduates, class of 1855. Courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Oberlin College Women’s Graduates, class of 1855. Courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Yet even in its first decades, through mid-century and beyond, black enrollment at Oberlin remained in the 5-10% range and efforts to seek a more fully integrated campus were more limited than at Berea, for example. Nevertheless, black and white students shared classrooms, chapel activities, and work duties, and Oberlin produced a significant number of the nation’s black women college graduates. In 1865, the Chicago Tribune proclaimed that Oberlin had “solved the social problem of the nation.” One could only wish!

Edmonia Lewis (Albumen print, c.1870), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain

Edmonia Lewis (Albumen print, c.1870), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain

This is a significant history. We would do well not to forget that the same year Oberlin was founded Georgia passed a law forbidding any person from teaching a slave or a free black to read or write. Still, the history of Oberlin’s first century, while one we can affirm, is also uneven and certainly complex. The historical narrative, while read fully, underscores the fact that Oberlin’s founders acted from conviction, but also out of necessity; that Oberlin’s commitment to interracial (and gender integrated) education was sincere, but also not as fully immersive in practice as what was carried out elsewhere; and that many student welcomed their black classmates, but others didn’t, as the case of Edmonia Lewis among others can attest to. In the end, Oberlin (then as now) became a lightning rod for those who hated the principles that defined the institution, but the college in reality was a small, complicated institution that enrolled a relatively few black students while struggling to find its way in a world where ideals didn’t pay the bills.

This becomes even more evident by the end of the nineteenth century, as Smith’s history recounts. While Oberlin, Berea and Howard all placed interracial coeducation at the center of their institutional missions, by 1900 all three had largely shifted to different concerns. Howard increasingly focused on shaping a black elite, Berea turned to the education of Appalachian youth, and “Oberlin modeled itself on elite universities… [drawing] upon its moral heritage to cast [itself] as ideal preparation for leaders in the burgeoning U.S. colonial empire” (p. 6). There were many factors that led these institutions in different directions and away from what had been central concerns. Smith points in particular to the rise of competition among the growing number of institutions of higher education and the need for individual colleges to stand out in this challenging environment. For Oberlin, the result was that, while never backing away from its commitment to educate African Americans – no small promise, let us remember, at a time when the Klan’s largest local chapter, some 50,000 strong, prowled about in nearby Summit County – it shifted its focus to other priorities and away from its earlier pledge to provide a community where daily experiences would help build the foundation for a “multi-racial social and political union.”

 Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C. , 1900. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. Public Domain

Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C. , 1900. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. Public Domain

In the end, what occasioned this transition was in large part the same imperative that solidified Oberlin’s commitments at an earlier moment of choice in 1834: funding. Then as now, Oberlin needed to pay its bills and, given that such a large number of its alumni were teachers and preachers, not exactly well remunerated fields, the search for donors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was considerable. And, as opposed to the earlier years of its history, these people were less driven by social beliefs about race, and more interested in what would attract students to the cornfields of Ohio. As well, it should not be surprising that, as Smith writes, “one consequence of its increasingly national applicant pool was that students no longer necessarily shared Oberlin’s beliefs about race and social equality…On campus, a small group of white Oberlin students even protested sharing dining tables and dormitories with black students” (p. 179).

So what does this history mean to us? How do we digest it in a manner that in useful in the present?

A recent article by Paul A. Kramer, a historian at Vanderbilt, in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review asks what history can teach us in a “time of crisis.” He quickly dispatches the troubling and troublesome idea that historians, all knowing as we are, should be murmuring “the lessons of history” into the receptive ears of policymakers (as a recent argument put forward by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in favor of the creation of a “Council of Historical Advisers” suggested). The anodyne notion that those who “cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” (George Santayana) met a similar and well-deserved dismissal. If only it were so easy!

So what is history good for? “Historians seeking a democratic and egalitarian society,” he writes, “have crucial roles to play…they must make the case for history itself – for the ways current distributions of power, privilege, and resources emerge from and are inseparable from the past.” Fundamental to this argument is his contention that even as historians are disrupting legitimating myths, they can “set themselves to the imaginative work of historical re-creation.”

What I think many of us engaged in the discussion of Smith’s book found useful was precisely this process of digging through the narratives of Oberlin’s more “mythical” past in order to find a complex but useful history that can be leveraged to bring the whole community into conversation as we construct a “useful” history. That conversation, about what, in actuality, we were, needs to inform the dialogue about what we want to be going forward as a community founded on the principle of interracial coeducation.

Writing more recently of the upsurge of student activism confronting issues of racism on college campuses, including Oberlin, Harvard Law Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin observed that the critique of campus life put forward by the current generation of students “poses a profound challenge to those who have never seriously contemplated how inclusion might or should change institutional practices inside the classroom and outside of it.”

By taking up these new challenges in light of our “useful” past we can find one way to do the work of “reparations,” of repairing what is broken.

So, how do we engage in the reparative conversations about a shared history that can move us forward as a community?

Cross Campus Conversation

Surely the basis, and the resources, for such a discussion exist. And who should be included in that conversation? Everyone. Faculty and students engage in educational conversations all the time, or at least I hope we do! More rare is it to have conversations that bridge all offices on campus. You can imagine how interesting it was for those of us discussing Smith’s book to talk about Oberlin’s need to find donors who would support it mission over time with colleagues from the Development office, to talk about what brought students to Oberlin in past centuries with folks from Admissions, and to discuss with students how Oberlin’s founders believed that this kind of education was capable of transforming a nation – even if they were mistaken.

Lewis Sheridan Leary, an Oberlin harness maker, accompanied John Brown on the raid of the Harpers Ferry arsenal Oct 1859 and participated in Oberlin Wellington rescue Sept. 1858

Lewis Sheridan Leary, an Oberlin harness maker, accompanied John Brown on the raid of the Harpers Ferry arsenal Oct 1859 and participated in Oberlin Wellington rescue Sept. 1858. Courtesy Oberlin College Archives.

The work of creating a usable narrative about the actual history of interracial coeducation at Oberlin, one that can help shape our community in a moment of challenge, is of much importance. The conversations that we need to have are only possible, in a sense, because of what Oberlin’s founders set in motion. But the terms of that conversation have to be on the basis of what Brown-Nagin (among others) have suggested, and must look at history, as Jelani Cobb wrote in a recent New Yorker article, “for what it is.” Speaking broadly, he argued that “Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.”

Perhaps the national challenge of this current moment, a challenge that is hardly new to African Americans in particular, as Cobb and others have pointed out many times, is precisely what is needed to propel us into conversations about our past and the responsibilities we have to repair what has gone asunder. These are not easy conversations, but they are essential. And, as Reverend Traci and Rabbi Susan advised, “When you run into difficult places and you disagree about things, it’s better that we struggle together.”

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