Early Black Collegians and the Fight for Full Inclusion

(Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

This July 7th will mark the 181st anniversary of the formation of the first Black student organization in American higher education. In the summer of 1841, John Mifflin Brown, Charles Henry Langston, and George Boyer Vashon, three African Americans studying at the predominantly white Oberlin Collegiate Institute, declared themselves the “Committee in behalf of Colored Students.” Their purpose in convening was to issue a statement about Oberlin to British abolitionists who had recently saved the college from bankruptcy. Rather than simply praise their school and its donors, however, these Black collegians seized the opportunity to share the full truth. In words that echo in the present, their “Expression of Sentiments” critiqued the college as well as commended it.1

The Black collegians’ proclamation denounced “the cruel prejudice that would make color instead of character the ground of our reception” to colleges and universities. Brown, Langston, and Vashon applauded Oberlin faculty and administrators for taking a stand “on behalf of the colored Americans” by admitting them “to equal privileges with the whites.” Six years earlier, in February 1835, the institution had become the first in American higher education to adopt (by a single vote) an official colorblind admissions policy. Charles Langston and his brother Gideon matriculated a few months later. By the summer of 1841, the arrival of Brown, Vashon, and others brought Black enrollment to twenty, or about 3.5 percent of the student body. 

The Committee noted that British abolitionists funded Oberlin primarily because it educated African Americans. By reiterating the fact, these Black collegians underscored their importance to their alma mater’s welfare. It was the college that depended on them, not the other way around. Were it not for their enrollment, Oberlin’s commitment to racial reform would ring hollow to prospective donors. Moreover, as African Americans, they were best qualified to judge whether Oberlin was “conducted upon such principles” as it professed. The Committee affirmed that the college pursued a “firm and righteous course,” deeming Oberlin’s leadership “worthy of our confidence…and that of the British public.” But the trio added that not everyone at the institution shared its ideals.

Oberlin’s foreign benefactors had, to date, only heard flattering reviews of the college. A circular written by the white abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld praised the school as “the only Institution in the United States in which the black and colored Student . . . is fully and joyfully regarded as ‘A man and a brother.’” These Black collegians, however, reminded British reformers that a college campus is not inevitably collegial. Indeed, Brown, Langston, and Vashon wrote that racism remained a reality on campus. They had “reason to believe, that there are a few persons even here, who would rejoice to see us excluded from its privileges, on account of our complexion.”

The historical record supports their suspicion. Fifty-five percent of white students surveyed ahead of the trustees’ desegregation decision voted against “the practicability of admitting persons of color under existing circumstances.”2 The president of the trustees, who had cast the deciding vote, sought assurances that the idea behind racial coeducation was not to “congregate such a mass of negroes at Oberlin as to darken the whole atmosphere.”3 The college’s co-founder, who championed desegregation, promised the intention was not to “fill up with filthy stupid negroes.”4 Racism persisted after the policy took effect. A white student who enrolled the same semester as the Langstons published an exposé in 1837 that derided the college for “glorifying and deifying the negro species.” In 1843, another white student was expelled for calling a classmate a “black n****r.”

Whenever racism arose at Oberlin, Black collegians rose to refute it. A year after co-writing the “Expression of Sentiments,” George Vashon was among the speakers at a First of August celebration organized by Black students and townspeople. Besides commemorating the emancipation of the British West Indies, the event became an annual opportunity for African Americans at Oberlin to assert their full belonging in the community. So did graduation, when Vashon (Oberlin’s first Black graduate), Lucy Ann Stanton (Oberlin’s first Black female graduate), and others used commencement addresses to demonstrate their race’s equal capacity for education and eloquence. Many honed their rhetorical skills through participation in campus literary societies. In my recent bookDegrees of Equality: Abolitionist Colleges and the Politics of Race, I find that by 1860, 100 percent of eligible Black men and women joined one of these speech and debate clubs compared with 65 percent of white men and 21 percent of white women.

The written word remained a powerful tool of Black collegians as well. When rumors of prejudice at Oberlin appeared in the press, African American students responded. Editorialists like Fanny Jackson Coppin, who went on to become the nation’s first Black woman principal, sought to convey to the nation the whole truth of their college’s character. Like the Committee of 1841, Coppin and others neither wholly congratulated nor wholly condemned their alma mater. Instead, their writing captured what I term the “degrees of equality” at abolitionist colleges—the disconnect African Americans experienced between being equally admitted as students and being equally accepted as people.

That gap widened as the distance from emancipation grew. Without a shared cause in abolition and civil rights, whites’ commitment to interracial camaraderie waned. A color line grew up in its place. In the spring of 1882, a professor publicly objected to an African American rooming with a white classmate. By that fall, white students were refusing to share tables in the dining hall. Black collegians once again stepped forwarded to rebuke affronts to Oberlin’s purported values. An ad hoc committee petitioned the faculty in protest of the professor’s interference. Another group of Black students wrote the college newspaper deploring discrimination on campus and calling their community to conscience. The spirit of reform at Oberlin could only be rekindled, they said, if all members recommitted to the work of anti-racism. Unfortunately, their appeal fell mostly on deaf ears. By the turn of the twentieth century, to the anguish of its African American alums, Oberlin had become a de facto segregated institution.

Although their alma mater increasingly failed to live up to its principles, Black collegians carried those egalitarian values with them into the world. Of the Expression’s co-authors, John Mifflin Brown became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charles Langston served as a Freedmen’s Bureau superintendent in Kansas, and George Vashon was appointed Howard University’s first Black professor. Many of the civil rights leaders who succeeded them also studied at Oberlin, including Anna Julia Cooper, Reverdy Ransom, Mary Burnett Talbert, and Mary Church Terrell. The mix of opportunity and adversity they had encountered as college students positioned them for careers as activists. Oberlin taught Black collegians to hold institutions to account when they fell short of their ideals. Protesting the gap between rhetoric and reality on campus prepared them to join the larger Black freedom struggle and advocate for the full equality they deserved. 

  1. See “An Expression of the Sentiments of the Colored Students of the Oberlin Institute,” in Roland Baumann, ed. Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College: A Documentary History (Athens, OH, 2010), 43.
  2. See “Students Certify Their Views to Admit Persons of Color, 1834,” in Baumann, Constructing Black Education, 20-21.
  3. See John Keep to Charles Finney, March 10, 1835, Charles Grandison Finney Presidential Papers, Microfilm Reel 3, Oberlin College Archives.
  4. See John Shipherd to Board of Trustees, January 19, 1835, Robert S. Fletcher Papers, Box 9, Oberlin College Archives
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John Frederick Bell

Dr. John Frederick Bell is an Assistant Professor of History at Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts. His research interests include nineteenth-century African American history, the history of education and social reform, and the Civil War and Reconstruction. His new book is Degrees of Equality: Abolitionist Colleges and the Politics of Race (LSU Press, 2022). Follow him on Twitter @anotherjohnbell