The integration of K-12 education is held as an extremely important time of change for the education system in America. This wave is centered around the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps less known is the integration of colleges and universities, which in Ohio began almost a century earlier.
To look at the history of integration in higher education, we need to go back to the late 19th century and post-Reconstruction. After the Civil War ended, there was an influx in Black Americans’ demands for more rights. Among these were the right to an education. Before 1840, Ohio’s K-12 education was largely unregulated and when it became regulated, Black and biracial students were not legally allowed to attend. This created more hoops to jump through in order to qualify for admittance into higher education. Many colleges require students to take qualifying assessments to attend colleges. Some of these tests required payment, an additional obstacle for Black students.
Let’s look at how integration played out in some of Ohio’s universities and how they took different steps towards integrating their student population.
The Ohio State University, located in Columbus, was founded in 1870 as an agricultural facility. It was not until 1889 that the school admitted its first Black student, Frederick Patterson. He did not graduate for “unknown reasons” and later went on to be the first black American to own and operate an automobile company. The first Black student to graduate from OSU was Sherman Hamlin Guss in 1892. Guss went on to dedicate his life to education by teaching in West Virginia, first as a principal and then at the West Virginia Colored Institute that was created under the Morrill Act of 1890. To learn more about the experiences of these Black students at OSU, please check out the Carmen Collection.
Oberlin College, in Lorain was founded as a Christian college by Reverend John Shipherd and Philo Stewart who wanted to teach the Presbyterian belief system. The school began to regularly admit Black students in 1835, just two short years after the school’s founding. Oberlin is thought of as an important stop on the Underground Railroad and credited in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. In 1858, some of its residents rescued John Price, an enslaved man fleeing from the south and capture by U.S. Marshals under the Fugitive Slave Law. He hid in James Harris Fairchild’s home, a future president of Oberlin College, before continuing his journey to Canada.
However, not all colleges and university readily admitted Black students. Some private universities and colleges maintained that it was still within their rights to bar Black students from attending. For example, Xavier University in Cincinnati, was founded in 1831 and did not have a Black student on record until the 1940s. The university allowed Black Americans to work at the college before they allowed Black students to attend the university.
Nearly 150 years later, there is still work to be done. While today all colleges admit Black students, they still experience barriers like violence and the inability to pay for college. Often, students of color experience more financial hardships due to generational poverty. This means that Black students who can get into these colleges and universities may not be able to attend due to lack of funding. The struggles for Black and other students of color go beyond admission and campus experiences. On a national level, we are debating whether their stories should be told at all.
To keep this history alive and learn from it, it is important to get an active understanding of the topic. Below are some source materials that will allow you to explore the topic and a lesson plan that has guidelines for discussion with your American History students.
Check out this lesson plan on the integration of Ohio colleges created by our Ohio History Connection educators!
- “The Morrill Act”, National Archives
- “Tracing Black History at Ohio State”, The Lantern
- “Desegregation in Higher Education”, The University of Southern Mississippi
- “A Ruckus on High Street: The Birth of Black Studies at The Ohio State University”, The Journal of Race & Policy
- “First Black Ohio State graduate dedicated his life to education”, WOSU
- Timeline “The OSU 34” The Carmen Collection
- “Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College A Documentary History”, Ohio University Press
- “Historic Icons”, Ohio University Division of Diversity & Inclusion
- “A Glimpse into the Turbulent History of African Americans in Athens”, The Post Athens
- “Afro-American Affairs Newspapers”, Ohio University Libraries Digital Archival Collections
- Timeline “An Outlet for Black Student Self-Expression”, The Carmen Collection
- Article “Oberlin College and the Negro Student, 1865-1940”, The University of Chicago Press Journals
- “Ohio State football’s history with race source of both shame and pride”, Buckeye Extra
- “Students design Black History of Ohio University Tour for Black Alumni Reunion”, Ohio University Ohio News
- “Claiming an Education: Early Black American Humanists”, Ohio University Ping Institute
- “Civil Rights, Black Power, and Anti-War Actions: Orangeburg, Kent, and Jackson, 1960-1967”, Kent State University Special Collections & Archives
- “Class President, Football Player, Horton Society Member—And Son of an Escaped Former Slave”, The Carmen Collection
- “Northwest Ordinance”, National Archives
- “Anti-Racism at Xavier”, Xavier University
- “Anti-Racist Resources: The Unlearning of Racism and White Supremacy” University of South Florida
- “The Hidden History of Ohio State’s Black Student Body“, The Ohio State University Office of Diversity & Inclusion
Blog Image Citation: “Oberlin Rescuers photograph.” Photograph. 1859. From Ohio Memory: Wilbur H. Siebert Collection. https://ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p16007coll98/id/609/rec/27 (accessed March 14, 2023).