Racial episodes shake Ohio’s Oberlin College
OBERLIN, Ohio (AP) — Scrawls of racially offensive graffiti and, more recently, a report of someone wearing what looked like a Ku Klux Klan-type hooded robe on campus have shaken students at historically liberal Oberlin College, one of the nation’s first universities to admit blacks.
Two students are being investigated for possible involvement in the graffiti and are facing discipline by the college, but no criminal charges have been filed, said Oberlin city Police Chief Thomas Miller. It wasn’t clear, he said, whether the culprits were pranksters or genuinely motivated by bigotry.
The college canceled Monday’s classes after an early morning report of someone in a white, hooded robe. Investigators were trying to determine whether the sighting was reliable or related to a separate sighting of a person wrapped in a blanket.
Classes resumed Tuesday, though the atmosphere was still tense. The police department has stepped up patrols around the campus at the request of the college.
“I just really feel uncomfortable walking alone anywhere,” Modjeska Pleasant, 19, a first-year student from Savannah, Ga., said Tuesday.
Pleasant, who is black, said she became upset after hearing a few white students suggest that the racist graffiti first found a month ago and anti-Semitic and racist fliers and other messages left around campus since then were just a prank to get out of classes.
In an open letter, President Marvin Krislov and three deans told the campus they hoped the ordeal would lead to a stronger Oberlin. Students and professors gathered Monday afternoon to talk about mutual respect.
Hate-filled graffiti and racially charged displays are not unusual on college campuses. But what makes these episodes so shocking is that they happened at a place tied closely with educating and empowering blacks.
Oberlin began admitting blacks nearly 180 years ago. Among its graduates are one of the first blacks elected to public office and the first black lawyer allowed to practice in New York state. The city itself was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The college, with nearly 3,000 students, remains a liberal oasis in the middle of northern Ohio, surrounded by conservative farming towns and rust belt cities. Cleveland is about 30 miles away.
Isaac Fuhrman, a psychology major from Lexington, Mass., said the episodes were upsetting, especially for black students.
“I guess for them, Oberlin doesn’t seem like such a safe haven perhaps,” said Fuhrman, who is white.
The incidents began the first week of February, according to a police report that detailed the defacement of Black History Month posters with the N-word, a “whites only” sign written above a water fountain, a swastika drawn on a science center window and a student knocked to the ground by a person making a derogatory comment about ethnicity.
Some of the graffiti and fliers also included homophobic slurs, the police report said.
Joshua Blue, 18, a first-year student from Naperville, Ill., who is black, said the reports have cast the historically tolerant Oberlin community in a different light.
“We believed that there was what people call the ‘Oberlin bubble,’ which is the idea that we’re in this area where hate and anger and stuff like that doesn’t exist,” he said after phoning his mother to assure her he was safe.
“It’s a wonderful idea to feel safe and accepted,” Blue said. “But the recent event was a reality that we’re still part of the world and the issues of the world are also our issues, and you can’t avoid that.”
Blue, who is studying vocal performance, said he has begun riding home from evening rehearsals with classmates for safety.
Francis Bishop, 83, who lives near the campus, said he couldn’t remember similar race-related incidents on the campus and speculated it was done by someone trying to cause a stir.
“It’s so much of an isolated thing, in the long run I don’t think it’s going to make a hill of beans,” Bishop said while walking his dog near the picturesque town square, lined with shops and college buildings.
Oberlin has no fraternity or sorority houses, and sports aren’t a big part of campus life. Instead, students come to study music, art and creative writing.
Notable recent alumni include Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO series “Girls” — a show featuring several characters who met at Oberlin.
Dunham wrote on her Twitter account Monday that she was saddened by the news from her alma mater.
“Hey Obies, remember the beautiful, inclusive and downright revolutionary history of the place you call home. Protect each other,” she wrote.
Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo contributed to this report.