by iampunha | 9/02/2008 08:08:00 AM
In 1833, your average black American was working in a field, learning about farming, maybe working in someone's home. Certainly not reading or discussing poetry. Things were getting worse in Virginia in the aftermath of Nat Turner's unsuccessful slave revolt.

But in a college in Ohio, blacks would be admitted two years later.

In 1833, your average white female American with good social and/or financial prospects was marrying for money and expected to bear at least a few children. Education beyond household chores, social graces and some foreign languages was, we are so often told, seen as a waste of time.

But in a college in Ohio, women would be admitted four years later.

In an age in which rich white men dominated most of life (and 170 years later, that's still the case in most places in this country), female and black students were bettering themselves in the classroom.

On Sept. 2, 1833, Oberlin College was founded.

For Pierre de Coubertin, who died on Sept. 2, 1937, but not before helping revive the Olympics.

For J.R.R. Tolkien, who died 35 years ago today, and whose legacy informs and guides people from emergent readers to decades-sharpened scholars.

For Viktor Frankl, who saved lives in and out of concentration camps for more than 70 years.

And for my mother, class of Oberlin '78, who raised her children on the principles that have been taught at Oberlin for the last 175 years.

Along the way in my Todays in History, I have encountered Oberlin College more than a few times.

This is not because of the number of learned people I have studied, the number of artists of all sorts (writers, musicians, painters etc.) I have covered but because of the number of black people and civil rights stories and issues I have read about.

Here is one reason why:

For Oberlin, the first shard of evidence of the town's involvement in the Underground Railroad comes a private letter about an 1837 event. At that time, there were few, if any, black families in Oberlin, and only a handful of students of color in the college and its preparatory department. But one Saturday, a former Oberlin student brought a wagon load of escapees through Oberlin; they took supper in the college dining hall, where students crowded around them. On the Sabbath, they rested in Evangelically correction Oberlin, and on the following Monday were sent on their way with a guard of students assuring their safe passage.

I could fill this diary with individual instances in which the people of Oberlin the town or Oberlin the college displayed their love of freedom and humanity over what the rest of the country was (and still, in more'n a few places, is) still displaying.

Instead, having given considerable attention (and all duly so) to the black community of recent, and after a few more nods to Oberlin before Brown v. Board, there are some other things you should know.

I'm an atheist, but I think I'd find kindred spirits of humanity here.

I'd have lunch with this preacher any day of the week. Encouraging a rape victim to confront her rapist in court, even though everyone knows the man will be acquitted, gives a body and mind a chance to heal that would likely not otherwise have presented itself.

I can think of no better segue into the meat of my diary than this page of students who took Oberlin's supportive personal and academic environment and built themselves up as Allan Spear did:

In 1974, Spear became the first openly gay male legislator in the nation. He served for many years in the Minnesota Senate, ultimately as President, and was the chief Senate author of Minnesota’s 1993 GLBT rights bill, extending protection from discrimination in employment, education, and housing to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Minnesotans.

When I saw that Oberlin had been founded on Sept. 2, 1833, I knew I had to write about it. That's A) because of where I've run into it before and B) because my mother went there.

So you know I have stories from her:

I went to a gay dance there once -- the first memorial Anita Bryant Gay Dance. Had fun. Nobody pressured me to do anything, which I liked. [My mother was raised in a military family, and socialization was often ... encouraged regardless of if one was going to have any fun doing it.]

Lots of flamingly gay men there -- especially organ majors, who seem to be gay almost everywhere. One of the other classics majors (which counts Greek, Latin, and classical civ. as classics) wore a button that said "How DARE you assume I'm heterosexual?"

It's still known as being academically very selective, but I don't think it's as selective as it used to was. It's huge on minorities, unless of course you're a Christian or pro-life or something; then you're kind of suspect. Same for Republicans. Straight people are okay.

There's a rock in Tappan Square (center of town, edge of campus) that people paint when they feel strongly about something. But that's probably pretty standard. Lots of places have that kind of thing. The college came before the town; the town exists because of the college. Still, there's the usual town-gown tension. But it's not as bad as it could be, because students aren't allowed to have cars on campus without a really great reason, like "I have to go to a psychiatrist in Cleveland every week."

And the town is probably still dry -- you can check that out. So there's a restaurant about .25" north of town that serves liquor, where of course my dad always had to take us. Anyway, you need to be friends with somebody over 21 and with a car to get liquor. Booze wasn't hot when I was there. Pot was. I remember I put some soil in a potted plant I had (a hoya plant) and after a few weeks, pot grew!

[My mother took the plant home, with the help of her boyfriend and his very, very conservative parents, who didn't know it was pot.] My mother used to not water it and hope it would die. And then she'd take pity on the poor wilting plant and water it, and it would perk right up again. You understand, I never smoked pot, but it was everywhere at Oberlin.

And I really never did smoke it, honey, but I'm one of about 10 people in my generation who didn't. Considering the drugs I'd been on for asthma, with their scary side effects, I wouldn't do drugs. It wasn't worth it for me. I wonder if they're big on drinking now, as every other college seems to be

My friend Alvin was the one who was taking tennis but had bad hand-ball coordination. He was gay. He'd tell people three things within 20 minutes of meeting them: he was gay, high church Episcopalian, and a fiscal conservative.

This gay-friendly culture was in place in the 1970s.

For part of the 1970s, the APA still designated homosexuality as a mental illness.

Oberlin didn't.

We do not need gay havens as we did back then, fortunately. Where I went to college, in a fairly conservative part of Virginia, there was a fairly active (though by no means huge) pride alliance. There was also a collection of right-wing nutjobs at the school paper. When one of them wrote an article many people thought was advocating that readers go out and kill the campus' gay population, there were protests.

But the work on gay safety is still not done. As I have written about before, and as many of you have probably seen for yourselves, too many people and places are not as progressive as Oberlin was 30 years ago.

But there are places we can go and learn how to fight for ourselves (as people, not as black, white, Latino, gay, disabled, whatever) and command the respect we are and should be due.

And Oberlin has been such a place for 170 years.