Document 2: Segregation in Oberlin College Dormitories

Author: Mary Church Terrell   

Recipient: Henry Churchill King

Date: 26 January 1914

Location: Henry Churchill King 2/6, Box 72, O. C. A.

Document Type: Typed Letter


This document is a typed letter written by Mary Church Terrell to President Henry Churchill King. As seen in Document 1, Terrell normally wrote to President King on Board of Education letterhead, but likely because of the length of this letter, she wrote on copy paper. It is part of a larger correspondence between Terrell and King concerning the segregation of women’s dormitories at Oberlin College after she had graduated. This document is integral to understanding Terrell’s activism as an Oberlin College alumna.

Despite graduating from Oberlin College thirty years before writing this letter, Terrell continued to fight against the Jim Crow policies of an institution to which she felt connected, since the institution had given her high expectations of moral conduct. The letter references a conversation between Terrell and Secretary George M. Jones about ways to improve race relations on Oberlin’s campus, in particular, desegregating dormitories. Terrell rejected Secretary Jones’ assertion that he had acted justly given the “difficult situation,” and insisted that the exploitation of Black people at Oberlin College was one of the many handicaps her race must endure.

King’s resistance to Terrell is surprising, given her previous appreciation for his work. She wrote on 2 November 1903 that “No man who has ever graduated from Oberlin so perfectly represents what is called ‘The Oberlin Idea’” as King. Their relationship did not completely sour after this correspondence, either. Whether in cordiality or not, President King wrote an unsolicited letter to Robert H. Terrell, Mary’s husband, congratulating him on the confirmation of his appointment as Judge.1


Oberlin Ohio

Jan. 26 Nineteen Fourteen

My dear President King:

Your letter just received was a great surprise and shock to me.

Surely Mr. Jones does not accuse me of telling a deliberate falsehood in reporting the sentiments he expressed most positively to me concerning his opinion of the treatment which should be accocorded Colored students in Oberlin College.2 You say “I am quite sure you had not altogether understood each other. I am confident that his fundamental position is not what it seems to you to be, tho he does not look at some things quite as I do.”3

It was utterly impossible for me to misunderstand Mr. Jones’s position in the matter. He did not try to conceal his views in any way, shape or form. It would never have occurred to me to misquote Mr. Jones, and even if I had had the inclination to misrepresent hi<m,> I would not have the ingenuity, skill and imagination to have concocted any such statement with reference to Oberlin’s duty to Colored students as he gave me. I went to Mr. Jones feeling sure tha<t> [he] must regret the segregation of Colored students and the recrudescence of feeling against them, and was rendered almost speechless<,> when he expressed himself so strongly against allowing them to board in any of the college dormitories and thus be brought into social contact with white students.4 Every word that he said concerning his own personal feeling toward Colored people was quoted to you absolutely correctly. It was impossible for me to misunderstand Mr. Jones. He did not want me to do so, or he would have been a bit vague in his statements, but this was not the case. I am forced to believed that Mr. Jones’s <“>fundamental position” is exactly what he represented it to be to me. Moreover, I am constrained to believe that there are others here who know how he feel<s> with reference to Colored students, for when I discussed the matter with one of the professors, refusing to reveal the name of the college official who had made such statements to me, he said immediately “I am sure that Jones said all that.” He certainly must have expressed himself at least to this professor. If he had not, he could not possibly have guessed it was he, for I gave him absolutely no clue. Neither did I admit it was Mr. Jones, even after this professor had so correctly guessed the name of the man who had so expressed himself.


You say “the problem is a difficult one, and I should be sorry to have it made more difficult in any way.”5 I quite agree with you that the problem is a difficult one. Ever since I have been here I have kept away from the Colored students, so that I should not say or do anything which would make their already difficult position any harder. I said nothing to the young man who was refused admission into one of the societies,6 until after he had decided upon the course he intended to pursue himself. No one would regret taking any step which would make the Colored student’s lot any harder that<n> it is more that<n> I would. Sometimes, however, it is well to discuss difficult situations to see if things can not be improved, particularly when the opportunities, privileges and advantages of a heavily handicapped group of human beings are involved.

And n<n>ow, I wish to express the deepest regret that there are only two of the dormitories for girls in which Colored girls may be found. One of these is a substitute for the old Stewart Hall, as I understand it. There is not a single Colored girl in Talcott or Baldwin, or Keep Cottage7 and Keep Cottsge [sic] is named for the man8 who on Feb. 9th <1835> gave the casting9 [sic] vote which admitted Colored students to Oberlin College. If Colored students are to be segregated at Oberlin with such a wonderful record as it once made for itself even in the dark days of slavery, it seems to me it would be wiser and kinder to exclude them altogether.


After I left your office, I began to think about what you said concerning my association with my white college and classmates. You thought that perhaps I had associated so much with the white girls that I might not have gained the right point of view, while I was a student here. When I began to review my record, I discovered that I had so many close friends among the Colored girls that <it> was strange I found time enough to associate with white girls at all. In the first place I roomed for a whole year with a Colored girl, when I entered Oberlin as a senior preparatory student. That girl and I were great friends. Her name was Ida Bishop,10 and she would be the last person in the world to say that I was not very cordial and friendly with her. The next year I roomed alone. The year after that I boarded with a Colored family after the first term of the school year. I am not sure whether I boarded with Mrs. Robinson, the Colored woman, thru my Junior year, or not, but I am i inclined to think I did. If I did not, I roomed with a Colored girl at the La<dies> Hall. In my Senior year I roomed with one of <my> class mates [sic] at Ladies Hall. By the way, this Colored girl and I were clas<s> mates [sic] from the time I entered the 8th grade (then called the A Grammar) <of the Oberlin Public School> till we received our degree of A.B. Surely no two girls were closer and better friends tha<n> Ida Gibbs and myself, and we are just as good friends to day [sic]. The first <three> years of my sojourn in Oberlin were spent with Colored people, for I boarded with Colored families. One year I boarded with Mrs. Peck,11 the widow of a former professor in the college. Out of the nine years spent at Oberlin therefore, six of them were spent in close association with Colored people. Altho I regretted exceedingly that some people thought a Colored church was a necessity in Oberlin, still<,> since there was one here, I volunteered to teach a class in Sunday School, and held it for a long time at great sacrifice of both time and strength, for I was none too strong some of the <t>ime I was in college. During the vacations, (for I never went home during the Easter or Christmas vacation) I always attended the functions given by the Colored students, and visited the Colored families here, altho I did not make any visits during the term, as a rule. I attended all the U. L. A. lectures and concerts with Colored students. During the Senior Preparatory year I was invited to attend a social function by Perry Scoville,12 a white class mate [sic]. Principal White13 gave the Senio<r>s a <p>arty at the end of the year and the young men invited the young women. My classmate, Miss Gibbs<,> had no company, so I de<c>lined Mr. Scoville’s invitation. He wrote me urgently severa<l> times to permit him to accompany me, but I would not accept his invitation, because Miss Gibbs would not have had any company, at least I feared she would not, and I was unwilling to run the risk o<f> having her feel that she must not or could not attend the party for that reason. You see, if I have stated the facts in the case, that there was no reason why I was unable to get the right point of view, because I associated so little with Colored people.

But I am glad to say that in spite of that association with Colored people I had very dear and intimate friends among the white girls. From the moment I entered the Public Schools in the 8th Grade till I graduated from College I had intimate friends among the white girls. Janey Hayford (Packard)14 and Lutie Langdon (Burrell)15 and myself were close friends thruout [sic] the High School and College. We are good friends to day. I am glad that nobody ever impressed me with the fact that segregating myself or allowing myself to be segregated was an evidence of “self respect.” When I think what the friendship of those fine young white women meant to me in college, and what it has meant to me thru the many trying years<,> when I have been beaten and buffeted about by American race prejudice, how their former kindness, courtesy and breadth have at times almost preserved my faith in the white man’s Christianity, I am glad I did not have the kind of self respect which induced me to associate exclusively wit<h> Colored girls. I am sure, on the other hand, that no white girl with whom I associated ever accused me of “forcing<”> myself upon her. The mother of one of my friends, Mrs. Hayford,16 went of her own free will and accord and secured permission for me to spend every afternoon at her house for a whole term. The atmosphere must have been entirely different then from what it is now, because it was quite possible to conceive of a white girl’s having a genuine friendship for a Colored girl/ [sic] without the latter’s having to force herself upon the former for recognition. A great deal depends upon the atmosphere of a place. It is one thing for a teacher to advise young people to pursue a certain course, but it has been my experience that it is quite another thing to see that they do it. Of course that z is a most difficult thing.

You seem to be under the impression that there was an unwritten la<w> even in my day that there should be only two Colored girls in Ladies Hall. I assure you that this was not the case. I am certain that there were at least six in the Hall/ [sic] when I was there, if not more. If Mrs. Johnston17 finally reached the point of reducing the number of Colored girls to two, it was simply because she was deferring to a sentiment developed, I am glad to say, after I left Oberlin. Altho I try to be optimistic in this wicked and cruel country, in which everything is done to crush the pride, wound th<e> sensibilities, embitter the life and break the heart of my unfortunate race, nothing has come so near forcing me to give up hope, and resigning myself to the cruel fate which many people are certain awaits us, than the heart-breaking back-sliding of Oberlin College.18 If there had not been brave and generous-hearted men who believed in opening the door of opportunity and hope to Colored people, there would have been no Oberlin College at all.19 I talked with a young Colored girl to day, and she told me that she had never known a Colored girl <to> be a member of one of the Literary Societies here. Two seniors almost fought to get me into the societies, when I was a Senior Prepz, <Ida> Beagle,20 then a Senior<,> happened to get to me first, so I joined Aelioian.21 I hear the Colored girls do not apply for admission, because they are afraid they will be rejected, and they do not want to be embarrassed in that way. It is very disheartening to me to see that some od [sic] the Colored students have been really persuaded to believe that by flocking together all the time and never mingling at all with the white students, they are exhibiting a tremendous amount of “self respect.” I have often observed that when our enemies want the Colored man to pursue a course of conduct in deference to their race prejudice, they cunningly devise some phrase or shrewd saying, which will appeal to the Colored man’s vanity and cause him to act as they wish him to, while he thinks he is demonststrating great strength of character on his own account.


In reference to your statement about Colored girls who have attende<d> Oberlin and refused to associate with Colored girls, I want to say that altho I lived in Oberlin nine years I never heard or knew of such a case. Some members of my own family lived here22 for quite a little while after that and I heard of just one boy who attempted it. I have heard of one Colored girl brought up by a White woman, among White people and who knew nothing about Colored people/ till she came to Oberlin. She was, therefore, an isolated case. She was the victim of her environment, and I dare say a great many things were laid at the door for which the poor child was not at all respo<n>sible. Sometimes Colored people accuse members of their own race of wanting to <“p>ass [undecipherable what letters underneath were written over] for white,<”> because they think white people like to hear them express themselves strongly against such a course. My poor, heavily ha<n>dicapped, much-perplexed and harassed race is beset behind and before by unwise counselors, who take pleasure in giving them foolish advice.


When you see Colored students injuring their race by acting as did those who, you say, monopolized the pool tables, I wish for the sake of the race as a whole, you would see to it that [they] are forced to behave with some judgment and common sense. One such thoughtless act that is sufficient to last those [sic] who dislike us anyhow on general princi<p>les f<o>r a long time. They will use an exa<m>ple like that to prove an pany point against us they wish to make. We have abused this one privilege, ergo, we are likely to abuse every one we can lay hands on by fair means or foul. What one Colored person does is laid at the door of the whole race, if it is silly or criminal, whereas the good deed done by thousands of reputable, sensible, reliable Colored people are forgolttten. What a blessing that other races are not judged in this way. This is a long letter, but I felt it to be my duty to express myself fully to you about the matters we discussed. I do not want to make the situation any more tense than it is, but I want to be loyal to my race.


Very sincerely yours,

<Mary Church Terrell.>

Transcribed by Natalia Shevin

1 King wrote on 5 May 1914, “I have felt, with many others, indignant that it should have been held up so long, but I am glad that certain southern Senators have not been able to prevent this final confirmation. It is a just tribute to the high quality of your own service.” In response, R. H. Terrell wrote on 12 May 1914, “I think it was a very fine thing that both Democrats and Republicans united in the purpose to defeat the unholy cause fathered by Senator Vardaman. If I had failed in this fight there is no telling what the next step in Negro baiting would have been. Mrs. Terrell joins me in kind regards for yourself and Mrs. King” (Henry Churchill King 2/6, Box 72, O. C. A.).

2 George M. Jones (1870-1948), Secretary of Oberlin College from 1901 to 1938. He is also referenced in Terrell’s poetry (see Document 3).

3 Terrell is quoting President King’s brief letter from 24 January 1914 to her in which he only says that they misunderstand each other, and implies that Secretary Jones is more hesitant to comply with her demands, saying that “he does not look at some things quite as I do.” The letter in its entirety can be found in RG Presidents, Henry Churchill King: Correspondence, Henry Churchill King 2/6, Box 72, O. C. A.

4 Terrell’s dismay at racially segregated dormitories came while her two daughters, Mary Louise and Phyllis, attend Oberlin. In a letter to Florence M. Fitch in October 1913, Dean of the College Women and teacher from 1904 to 1920, Terrell wrote, “I do not want my daughters segregated at Oberlin College. I believe segregation is unchristian, unjust, and unkind … segregation of colored students is a badge of inferiority placed upon them” (Roland M. Baumann, Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College: A Documentary History. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2010).

5 Terrell is continuing to quote President King’s letter from 24 January 1914.

6 There were multiple instances of Black men being refused membership in literary societies. Terrell could be referring to two possible cases: In 1904 Alpha Zeta Society members only admitted a Black man because of alumni pressure. In 1910, Phi Delta, the men’s literary society, openly debated admitting a Black man into their society. (W. E. Bigglestone, “Oberlin College and the Negro Student, 1865-1940,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 1971): 198-219).

7 Talcott, Baldwin, and Keep Cottage were women’s dormitories all constructed after Terrell graduated Oberlin. The construction of each building began in 1886, 1886, and 1911 respectively. John Keep donated the money for Keep Cottage as a “property to be used as a home for indigent women students” (Building Files, O. C. A.).

8 John Keep (1781-1870) was the Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1834 to 1835 and from 1850 to 1852, during which he cast the deciding vote to admit African American students in 1835.

9 Likely meant to write “deciding” vote.

10 Ida Bishop, enrolled in the Oberlin Conservatory from 1879 to 1881, from Lima, Ohio.

11 Likely the wife of H. E. Peck, Professor of Sacred Rhetoric and Adjunct Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy from 1851 to 1865. He died in 1867.

12 Oliver Perry Scovell, Jr., enrolled in the preparatory from 1878 to 1880, and the college from 1880 to 1882, from Lewiston, New York.

13Possibly Principal George H. White.

14Janie Fitch Hayford (Mrs. Arthur T. Packard) received an A.B. degree from Oberlin College in 1884, and was from Oberlin, Ohio.

15 Lucy Althea Langdon (Mrs. Edward B. Burrell) also received an A.B. degree from Oberlin College in 1884, and was from Oberlin, Ohio.

16 Janie Hayford’s mother, Hannah Vera Hayford.

17 Adelia Field Johnston (1837-1910) was the first woman professor on Oberlin College faculty while simultaneously fulfilling the position of Principal of the Women’s Department. She fundraised for buildings, including Baldwin, Talcott, Lord, Dascomb, Allen, and Warner, all of which are still standing today. After her retirement she started the Oberlin Village Improvement Society, asking individuals to give land to the city in order to preserve and beautify it. See Adelia Field Johnson mini-edition. [Hyperlink this later].

18 This sentence is the most memorable to Secretary Jones and President King, as recorded in the President’s summaries of his correspondences. The notes read, “Mrs. T. brought charges to H.C.K. against Mr. Jones for his biased attitude toward colored students. H.C.K. does not agree with Mrs. Terrell and she writes a long letter regretting the ‘backsliding’ of Oberlin toward the colored race, with many personal references, showing her own happy experiences at Oberlin, compared with present day situations. H.C.K. answers her letter clearly and defensively” (Donald M. Love, Henry Churchill King, of Oberlin (New Haven: Published for Oberlin College by Yale University Press, 1956)).

19 J. J. Shipherd wrote in 1835, “The men and money which would make our institution most useful cannot be obtained if we rejected our colored brother. Eight professorships and ten thousand dollars and subscribed upon condition that Rev. C G. Finney become Professor of Theology in our Institute, and he will not unless the youth of color are received. Nor will President Mahan nor Professor Morgan serve unless this condition is complied with. And they all are the men we need, irrespective of their anti-slavery sentiments” (J. J. Shipherd, “Pastoral Letter,” New York: 27 January 1835. Web address, accessed 14 July 14).

20 Ida Beagle received an A.B. degree in 1880, and was a close friend and correspondent after graduation with Terrell.

21 Ladies’ Literary Society (Aelioian, L.L.S.) was founded in 1835 as the first college women’s debate society in the United States, with the purpose of developing the moral and intellectual skills of its members. Aelioian had to compete with the Female Moral Reform Society, and their male literary society counterpart, the Young Men’s Lyceum. The college disapproved of Aelioian’s mission, claiming that “public speaking by women was an anathema” (Oberlin College, Administrative History, Web address, accessed 15 July 2015).

22 In a letter to President King on 25 September 1904, Terrell writes that her young sister Annette will be attending Oberlin Academy that year. In the General Catalogue of Oberlin College 1853-1908, Robert Reed Church Jr. is recorded as enrolled in the academy from 1900 to 1902.