Oberlin College Class Photo 1855
Oberlin College Archives
Oberlin College, originally called Oberlin Collegiate Institute until 1850, is a private liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio. In 1833, Presbyterian ministers John Jay Sipherd and Philo P. Stewart founded the institution as a college preparatory institute to promote Christian values. In 1835 it became the first predominantly white collegiate institution to admit African American male students and two years later it opened its doors to all women, becoming the first coeducational college in the country. Its motto is “Labour and Learning”. View of Oberlin College 1865
The town of Oberlin was a stop on the Underground Railroad with an intricate network of back road routes and safe houses that provided a refuge for slaves bound for Canada. Committed to the abolition of slavery, the town was a welcoming and safe environment for black students.
The photo shows Helen Ferris (later Mrs. Charles G. Bisbee) seated far right with the 18 students she taught in the Preparatory Department at Oberlin College during the fall of 1855.
In the back row, far right is fugitive slave Anthony Burns (31 May 1834 – 17 July 1862) Anthony Burns was born enslaved in Virginia. He became a preacher for the enslaved families that attended Falmouth Union Church in Falmouth, Virginia. In 1853 he escaped from slavery and reached Boston, where he started working. The following year he was captured and tried in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Act. Boston was largely against slavery; the case attracted national publicity, large demonstrations, protests and US Marshals were attacked at the courthouse. Despite these efforts, Burns remained enslaved. Federal troops were needed when Burns was taken to the ship that would return him to his owner in Virginia. Eventually his freedom was purchased by Boston sympathizers and they paid his fees for Oberlin College. Burns then settled in St. Catherine’s Ontario and again took up the call as a Baptist minister.
B.C. Black Pioneers who attended Oberlin College:
Three Jones brothers John Craven, William Allen, and Elias Toussant graduated in 1856, 1857 and 1859 respectively.
Maria (nee Alexander) Gibbs and her sister Louisa Lydia graduated in 1852 and 1854 respectively. In later years we see Blacks returning to the United States and/or sending their children to attend Oberlin. For example, Gibbs’ 5 children were born in Victoria and 4 attended Oberlin College.
William Edward Harrison who lived on Salt Spring Island is listed in the Oberlin College archives as being from Vancouver Island, graduating in 1879.