On Sunday, an Ohio Historic Marker was unveiled on the lawn of First Church in Oberlin in memory of Antoinette Brown Blackwell. It is the eighth marker in Oberlin, the thirtieth in Lorain County, and the one nearest to my heart. I’ve said time and again, what makes Oberlin so dear to me is its history–not just the black-and-white faces that stare eerily out of weathered daguerreotypes, but the sheer abundance of spaces in which those people come alive again.
When Antoinette Brown came to Oberlin in 1846, she found a school not yet ready for her dreams of becoming a minister. More concerned with the reputation of their female students than their aspirations and potential, Oberlin still ridiculed and (to some extent) feared women who wished to speak in public. One young woman, Lucy Stone, had already been pushing back against the administration for years when Antoinette Brown arrived, a fresh-faced youth of twenty. Lonely and ostracized for her Garrisonian beliefs, I imagine meeting Nette was like a breath of fresh air for Lucy. Suddenly, she had someone to talk to, someone who shared her ideas (and who wasn’t afraid to debate if she happened to disagree). They would sit with their arms around each other “& talk & talk of…ten thousand subjects of mutual interest till both our hearts felt warmer and lighter for this pure communication of spirit.” (ABB to LS, June 1848)
How difficult, then, for the two to be separated after graduation! When Lucy Stone left Oberlin to join the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society as a lecturer, her dreams were coming true, but she had left her kindred spirit behind. Now Nette was the one facing institutional admonition for her beliefs. Without Lucy as an instant confidant, it must have been hard for Antoinette to hold her head high and remain confident in her abilities. Unable to protect the younger woman, Lucy Stone also suffered. What few letters survive from Lucy show a deep concern and anxiety for her friend’s well-being. In the winter of 1848, Stone wrote to Brown that she felt “dreadfully” about her decision to study “musty old theology.”
Yet my very own dear Nette is spending three precious years of her life’s young prime, wading through that deep slough, from the stain of which she can never wash herself, and by which I fear, her vision will be so clouded that she can only see men through creeds, while her ear, will only hear God’s voice speaking in the written Book, unconscious of the unwritten revelations so grand and glorious which stand out, in ‘living light’ all over God’s creation—Your heart, it cannot spoil I know… Your heart will ever feel after the heart of its fellows—to drop healing where sorrow’s wounds are made—to purify, where Crimes viper brood nestle—to cheer where adversity lowers—and to banish hate by its Love… I dread to see these noble qualities trimmed, and your generous soul belittled to the defence of an outgrown creed—O Nette it is intolerable and I can think of it with allowance only when I think that the loss of what is invaluable in you will purchase apparatus to battle down the wall of bible, brimstone, church and corruption, which has hitherto hemmed women into nothingness—The fact that you have entered a field forbidden to women, will be a good to the sex, but I half fear it will be purchased at too dear a rate. Sometimes I think that you will leave Oberlin with the same free spirit which which you entered it, and blame myself for ever thinking otherwise, then it creeps over me again, like the cold sense of ‘coming ill,’ that you will be only a sectarian…”
Needless to say, Lucy Stone had a much less positive view of Oberlin and theology than her younger friend. Where Lucy’s spirit felt suffocated by the stale, prohibitive atmosphere at Oberlin, Nette was able (eventually) to thrive. Despite the efforts of Professor John Morgan, whose conscience never allowed him to accept Antoinette Brown as a theology student, she made significant gains with the rest of the faculty. Only months after Lucy’s anxiety-ridden letter, Nette responded with self-assurance. “The cause of woman is moveing along finely here,” she reported, proudly.
You know the Theological students are all required to tell their religious experience before Prof Finney. Once or twice when he called for those who already had not done so Teft mentioned Lettice & I think he looked as though he did not know what to say & the next time said ‘O we dont call upon the ladies.’ They had all told me we should have to speak & I felt so badly at what he said that I just began to cry & was obliged to leave the room. It was the first & last time that I have cried about anything connected with this matter this spring but it came so unexpectedly. After I went out they talked over the matter & it seems Prof Finney did not know we were members of the department in any other sense than the other ladies are who go in to hear the lectures… He said he was willing any lady should speak if she wished to… I went over to see him & he certainly seemed to forget that he was talking with a woman. We conversed more than an hour sometimes upon the gravest subjects of Philosophy & Theology & he expressed himself freely upon the true position of woman. Said he did not care how much she was educated that her education had been fundamentally wrong—that though he did not think she was generally called upon to preach or speak in public because the circumstances did not demand it—still that there was nothing right or wrong in the thing itself & that sometimes she was specially called to speak—that he would not only permit us to take part in every exercise in his classes but would aid & encourage us in doing so &c. &c… So this ball is rolling steadily steadily steadily.
When Antoinette Brown completed her theology coursework, she was not awarded a degree and ordination like the men in her classes. Despite her love for Oberlin, she would return home to New York. There, she was ordained in 1853 by a socially progressive minister, the first U.S. woman to receive such an honor. In recognition of her achievements (and an indication of the changing times), Oberlin awarded Antoinette Brown Blackwell an honorary degree in 1878 and 1908. Although Nette would eventually break with the conservatism of the Congregationalist clergy, she continued to preach and crusade for equal rights until she was well into her nineties. She died in 1921, at the age of ninety-six, twenty seven years after Lucy Stone, and one year after the 19th Amendment mandated universal American suffrage.
When I think of the history Antoinette Brown Blackwell experienced–when I think of all the history Antoinette Brown Blackwell made–I am filled with pride. On Sunday, as I sat in First Church, the very building where she worshiped and prayed for courage, I couldn’t help but feel invigorated. It wasn’t just historians who gathered in the church to celebrate Nette, it was a community of men and women that profoundly identified with her struggles and achievements. Together, we sang hymns that she would have sung as a student. The building swelled with energy as our voices joined the voices of generations past, and, as I looked down at the program in my lap, I thought I could see a little color in the cheeks of that prim and proper face staring out of the daguerreotype.
In 1846, Antoinette Brown traveled to Oberlin to fulfill a dream. In 2014, a town gathered to celebrate the memory of a woman who, despite the odds, refused to give up. As I sat there, moved to my very foundation, I remembered Nette’s words of reassurance and smiled.
“The cause of woman is moveing along finely here…So this ball is rolling steadily steadily steadily.”