Education and Abolition

Education and Abolition

Holly McNeil

Education of all Americans regardless of race was a central component in the promotion and success of abolition. This co-dependence of education and abolition was demonstrated by figures within the abolitionist movement, the physical path to freedom, and co-educational schools.

Firstly, the co-dependence of education and abolition was demonstrated by the figures within the abolitionist movement. People from both sides of the Canadian-American border assisted in promoting abolitionist ideals and helping enslaved peoples escape to freedom. Many of the people who aided in the effort were educators, or would go on to become educators in post-reconstruction America. One of these people was Adolphus Judah. Adolphus Judah was an African American immigrant who, “rapidly rose to prominence through his dedication to the causes of education and self-sufficiency for the African-Canadian community.”[1] Judah was active in supporting Anti-Slavery through the Association for the Education and Elevation of Coloured People. This association was a continuation of the previous provincial plan, and aimed to, “provide education for the coloured youth of the country.”[2] Judah continued to demonstrate his belief in education as an important aspect in the abolitionist movement when he eventually moved to Chatham in order to aid in the establishment of the Buxton Settlement. Another example of a figure involved in the abolitionist movement was Mary Ann Shadd. Shadd was a free black woman who moved to Windsor, Ontario to open a school for fugitives, and established the newspaper The Provincial Freeman, which spoke out against slavery. In her book Doers of the Word Peterson suggest that Mary Ann Shadd’s newspaper poses questions such as, “what are the advantages of crossing geographical boundaries and writing from the provinces…? What are the possibilities of living as a “freeman” in a nation where racial indifference has no jure existence?”[3] These questions bring up the need for the distinction between boundaries and borders. To cross a boundary is to cross a physical line, whereas to cross a border is to cross over into a different ideological space. This demonstrates the fluidity of slavery as an ideology that was not set in a fixed location in order to show how the system effects Canada as well even though she did not have slaves. Peterson also discusses Shadd’s writing during her tour stating, “while her columns emphasize the importance of discourse, and…they also affirm the impossibility of separating the text from the occasion that has produced it”.[4] This statement suggests that Mary Ann Shadd is not the all-knowing source on the issue of abolition, but rather her writing demonstrated another experience. It was the collection of such experiences that produced a stronger defense for the cause of abolition. Mary Ann Shadd’s undeterred writing demonstrated her view that people must continue to learn and think for themselves in order to produce a sense of agency within the emancipation effort.

Secondly, the co-dependence of education and abolition was demonstrated by the physical path to freedom. Just as there was a physical path to freedom, there was also a physical path to education that would produce a form of freedom. The text Going West to College in the Thirties is a collection of letters from Oberlin College students who travelled to the school specifically writing about their journey to Oberlin, Ohio from 1834-1839. The letters detail the difficult situations that students had to overcome in order to get to the town, thereby highlighting the significance of abolitionist efforts in Oberlin because people were willing to risk everything in order to be a part of the initiatives. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 there was a rush to the Canadian border in order for formerly enslaved runaways to obtain safety and avoid being sold back into slavery. In observing migration patterns of African Americans for his book The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 Campbell confirms this statement writing, “ an estimated 3000 fugitive slaves crossed the border into Canada within three months after the Fugitive Slave Law was signed.”[5] A difference in public opinion on the law opinion within the states is demonstrated when Campbell writes, “although majority opinion in northern Ohio was avidly anti-slavery, the prevailing opinion in the southern part of the state was quiescent on the slavery question.”[6] Campbell equates this divide in seemingly progressive Ohio to, “the high percentage of first and second generation southerners” living in the state.[7] The division of belief even in what seemed to be a state highly supportive of the anti-slavery movement signalled the need for formerly enslaved people to move further north out of the United States in order to gain freedom. Education facilitated a physical path to freedom when it was provoked by the Fugitive Slave Law during the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. As news broke in the town of Oberlin of the kidnapping of John Price the college and town itself almost nearly became vacant as everyone rushed to save the captured man. In a recount of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Campbell recalls the participation of members of Oberlin College writing, “among those indicted were the Reverend Henry Peck, a professor at Oberlin College…several theological students…and thirty other citizens including whites, blacks, and mulattoes.”[8] The indictment of members of the college connected the school directly with abolitionist efforts. This effort by the school and surrounding college community gave a sense that education informs abolition and an understanding of the need for education as essential in abolitionist efforts. The effort of multiple races to save John Price also set an example of the effects of co-education, a system that Oberlin was revolutionary in implementing.

Thirdly, the co-dependence of education and abolition was demonstrated by co-educational schools. In his text From Evangelicalism to Progressivism at Oberlin College, 1866-1917, Barnard discusses the college’s originality from it’s foundation in 1833 writing, “Oberlin, however, acquired some unusual features such as coeducation, a policy of admitting Negros, [and] an intense and constant support for abolition.”[9] Oberlin College has always demonstrated the positive outcome of mixing intellectual ideas and abolitionist concepts. The college was one of the first to allow co-education of black and white students with Bernard writing, “the welcome given to Negro students testified to a determination to practice as well as proclaim Christian brotherhood.”[10] This mixing demonstrated Oberlin’s persistence to prepare students for the real world where they would be in an interracial society by placing them in an interracial learning environment. This stance taken by the college suggested that abolition and equality were the progressive way of the future. Therefore, if they were eventually to be viewed as equals, both sides had to be educated in order to be prepared and productive members of society. While Oberlin was revolutionary in it’s co-education system, it was not the only college in support of abolition. Amherst College in Western Massachusetts formed the Amherst College Auxiliary Antislavery Society on July 19, 1833, making it one of the first of it’s kind. In a discussion of colleges that shaped the abolitionist movement Slater provides the minutes of a meeting explaining the goal of the society to, “endeavour by all means sanctioned by law, humanity, and religion to effect the abolition of slavery in the United States; to improve the character and condition of the free people of colour…and obtain for them equal civil and political rights.”[11] In his book Barnard discusses the unusual atmosphere of the school stating, “learning…was the weakest element of the evangelical college.”[12] This lack of emphasis on traditional learning suggest that Oberlin places more significance on learning from experiences, rather than what could be read in a textbook. This was another concept that was ahead of its time. Bernard recalls a student writing that Oberlin, “treated Negro students on an equal basis” adding further that the student wrote, “hardly could there be found another place in the union where a white man might walk arm in arm down the street with a negro and still retain his respectability.”[13] This students experience demonstrates Oberlin’s unique insistence on equality outside of the classroom in order to create the best possible co-educational dynamic inside the classroom.

A recent trip to the town of Oberlin, Ohio, aided the impression that this co-dependence of education and abolition was demonstrated by figures within the abolitionist movement, the physical path to freedom, and co-educational schools.  The trip provided the opportunity for photos of various physical paths and monuments. The purpose of these photos was to provide a visual in connection with a concept to make the efforts of abolitionists seem more real rather than historical facts. Photographing a physical path to education may seem cliché, however it highlights the simplicity that history is all around us if we take the time to look for it. Photographs are an appropriate end to a textual document because they remind us that history is not a compilation of thoughts, but rather a combination of actions that continue to shape our lives every day. The following photos demonstrate how the paths that we walk are the same as those that abolitionists walked both physically and metaphorically in order to make a change, and thereby still carry with them the same responsibility to promote equality.


Diverging Paths

For the formerly enslaved the only way to move was forward, whatever that may mean. Along that forward moving path there is a divergence. This represented the choice that a formerly enslaved person could make when they arrived in Oberlin, to stay or to carry on further North. We cannot see the end of either of these options, demonstrating the uncertainty of both. However, we can see the end of the forwardly advancing path that heads towards a building of the college, thereby suggesting that education is the final step in securing abolition and freedom.

To Education in America

This path leads to an education center that was once used as a college building, but is now used to educate tourists about the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. This demonstrated how the path to education is always being re-established in order to better understand the past. As well, at the end of the path there was an American Flag. This is symbolic because it demonstrated that a better America is at the end of slavery, which is achieved through education.

Endless Paths

The various paths represented the various approaches that one can take when learning about the past. The Mudd Center is the home to the Oberlin College Archives, and therefore, these paths are the ones that we walk in order to understand the past. This educational building contains documents and artifacts relating to the abolitionists efforts to end slavery. Therefore, this was a path to education about slavery and freedom. This demonstrates the idea that history is constantly changing, but the tools for understanding remain the same. Just as abolitionists used education to end slavery, we not use our knowledge of the of slavery in order to remember the injustices and ensure that they are not repeated or rebirthed in a highly racialized system.





Barnard, John. From Evangelicalism to Progressivism at Oberlin College, 1866-1917. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1969.

Baumann, Roland M. “Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 67 (2010): 88.

Campbell, Stanley W. The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972.

Fairchild, James Harris. Oberlin: Its Origin, Progress and Results: An Address, Prepared for the Alumni of Oberlin College, Assembled August 22, 1860. Oberlin, Ohio. Shankland and Harmon, 1860.

Fletcher, Robert Samuel. Going West to College in the Thirties: Selections from Letters Preserved in the Oberlin College Library. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College, 1930.

Peterson, Carla L. Doers of the Word: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880). New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Shadd, Adrienne, Afua Cooper, and Karolyn Smardz Frost. The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto!. Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2002.

Slater, Bruce Robert. “The American Colleges That Led the Abolition Movement.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (Sep 30, 1995): 95-97.

Smardz Frost, Karolyn, Bryan Walls, Hilary Bates Neary, and Frederick H. Armstrong.  Ontario’s African-Canadian Heritage: Collected Writings by Fred Landon, 1918-1967. Toronto, Ontario: Natural Heritage Books, 2009.

Waite, Cally Lyn. “Permission to remain among us: Education for Blacks in Oberlin, Ohio, 1880-1914.” Master’s thesis, Harvard University, 1997.

[1]Adrienne Shadd, Afua Cooper, and Karolyn Smardz Frost, The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2002), 66.

[2] Karolyn Smardz Frost, et al., Ontario’s African-Canadian Heritage: Collected Writings by Fred Landon, 1918-1967 (Toronto, Ontario: Natural Heritage Books, 2009), 173.

[3] Carla L. Peterson, Doers of the Word: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 104.

[4] Ibid., 107.

[5] Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), 63.

[6] Ibid., 57.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 165.

[9] John Barnard, From Evangelicalism to Progressivism at Oberlin College, 1866-1917 (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1969), 3.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11]Bruce Robert Slater, “The American Colleges That Led the Abolition Movement,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education no. 9 (1995): 95.

[12] Barnard, From Evangelicalism to Progressivism, 33.

[13] Ibid., 114.