Monday, April 13, 2009

Eleutherian College: The Oberlin of the Ohio River Valley

On my recent visit to Kentucky I decided to continue my travels another 150 miles or so to visit with my mother for Easter, and see my second hometown...Madison, Indiana. (I say second because I proudly claim Harriman, Tennessee as my original hometown since it is my place of birth and childhood years.)

When I was a teenager my older brother and I used to go out to the country to fish at one of his friend's farm pond. To get there we always passed through the little village of Lancaster, which is just off of Highway 7. I always noticed that on the left, and high a commanding hill, stood an impressive stone building. Way back then I didn't know the story of this old structure. I had heard the Eleutherian College briefly mentioned in my Indiana history class in school, but I never really understood its historical significance until a few years ago when its restoration efforts were making local news.

This past Saturday was a beautiful day so my mother and I went out to see the old building. We were surprised to find a small visitor's center open to help interpret the site. The visitor's center is a former 20th century residence that was built on what was once the foundation of the John Gill Craven House, a former "station" on the Underground Railroad. We were treated to a tour of the grounds and the college building that we both found quite interesting.

The Eleutherian College was founded in 1848 by Dr. Thomas Craven of Oxford, Ohio, and like the more famous (and still operating) Oberlin College in northern Ohio, it was opened to students regardless of gender or color. This might not sound impressive to our modern sensibilities, but in 1848 a co-educational and interracial institution was a very radical idea. We learned from our guide that the name Eleutherian is derived from the Greek "eleutherous," which means freedom or equality. Classes at Eleutherian were first conducted in an old meeting house, and then in 1856 the grand stone building pictured above was constructed. The building measures 65' x 42', has 3 stories, and features dual staircases from the first to second floors. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is also a listed National Historic Landmark.

The most fruitful years of the college was from 1856 to 1860. In 1856 the college included 18 African American students, 10 of who had formerly been slaves. In 1860 the school had 200 students, 50 of which were African American. The college was dissolved right after the Civil War and then became a teacher's training school in 1887. In 1897 the building was deeded to the town of Lancaster and was used as an elementary school until 1937. Our guide informed us that many of the African American students worked in a number of different trades to help pay for their education. One student made cabinets and a fine example of his work has survived the years and is on display in the visitor's center. Other students worked for local farmers and millers.

This immediate area was a hotbed of anti-slavery in the mid-19th century. Many of the community leaders had northern roots in Ohio and Vermont and they apparently brought their strong abolitionist sensibilities with them. A short distance from the college building is the Lyman Hoyt House, which was built in the 1840s. Hoyt and his wife Aseneth were conductors on the Underground Railroad. Lyman was also an officer in the local Neil's Creek Anti-slavery Society founded in 1839 there in Lancaster and actively supported the Liberty Party.

Largely due to the grassroots activism by local lovers of history such as Jae Breitweiser this site is being saved and interpreted to educate the public. It just goes to show you what the diligent efforts of a few determined people can accomplish for the greater good.

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