Student Activism at CWRU


The Western Reserve of Ohio was strong in anti-slavery sentiment in the early 1830s. Faculty, students, and trustees at the young Western Reserve College (established in 1826) were colonizationists and abolitionists. Colonization was the gradual emancipation of the enslaved people and included sending them to Africa. Abolition was the immediate emancipation of the enslaved people.

Anti-slavery activism, specifically abolitionism, is the first documented activism in the university’s history. The college president, two faculty members, and many students became abolitionists.

According to past University Historian Frederick C. Waite, President Charles B. Storrs was the first college president to publicly advocate for abolition. Storrs was originally a colonizationist until sometime in 1831 when he began to support the abolitionist cause. Student Isaac Bigelow was largely credited with his change of mind, after he brought a copy of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, to campus.

In 1831/32 the enrollment at the college was 35. In 1832/33 the enrollment was 57. There were three professors (in addition to the president), one instructor in 1833/34, and 3 tutors.
In the summer of 1832 faculty member Elizur Wright, Jr. published a series of letters in the Ohio newspaper, Observer and Telegraph. These letters supported the abolitionist cause and denounced the colonizationists. The first letter, "Is there any such thing as a conscience?," signed by E. W., appeared on page 3 of the 8/2/1832 issue. Wright's articles appeared weekly through November and stirred up colonizationists who also had letters appear in the Observer and Telegraph. In late November the editor ceased publishing the letters of Wright and his opponents, chiefly "O.C." - who was presumed to be Oliver Clark, a Hudson businessman and colonizationist. Wright continued his writing and it was published in The Liberator. His Observer and Telegraph letters, with some revision, were published in 1833, The Sin of Slavery, and its Remedy; containing some reflections on the Moral Influence of African Colonization.

Wright's colleague, Beriah Green, preached a series of sermons in 1832, held 11/18, 11/25, 12/2, 12/9, in the College chapel also denouncing the colonizationists. (The chapel was located on the first floor of the South College building at the time.) Green's argument that you could not be a good Christian if you were a colonizationist angered local colonizationists including some trustees and local citizens. These sermons were published in January 1833. There were attempts by some trustees to remove or censure Green that failed. Twenty-five students wrote, signed and submitted a petition supporting Beriah Green. Among the signatories was John Sykes Fayette, the college's first documented African American student. This petition is the earliest evidence in the CWRU Archives of student activism.

Many of the College's students became abolitionists. They were encouraged by Wright and Green to speak in the surrounding communities for the abolition cause. Some were harassed by abolition opponents. Isaac Bigelow was almost tarred and feathered by a mob after one such lecture.
Amos P. Hawley, class of 1834, delivered a colloquy, The Recaptured Slave, at the 1832 or 1833 commencement. According to Hawley, he was asked by Professors Wright and Green to write the colloquy. "It was, I think, in the Summer of 1832, that Profs Green & Wright, sent for me & wished me to prepare a Colloquy - it was more a Drama - to be spoken at the ensuing Commencement, and gave me the subject of it, viz. 'The Re-captured Slave.' Why they selected me, I was never able to determine, especially as I could have named many others better qualified. But so it was, & it may be self-esteem in me, but I think it was nobilly [sic] done. It was performed at the proper time and was successful."

The students formed the Western Reserve College Anti-Slavery Society in December, 1832.

Much had changed by the beginning of the 1833/1834 academic year. On May 8, 1833 President Storrs gave a 3-hour long sermon on the subject of abolition; after which he became extremely ill. He took a leave of absence and traveled to his brother's home in Braintree, Massachusetts, where he died from tuberculosis on September 15, 1833. In June, Beriah Green resigned to take a position as president of Oneida Institute. Elizur Wright, Jr. resigned in August. He began full-time abolition work as editor for several abolitionist publications and secretary of domestic correspondence for the American Anti-Slavery Society. He eventually became insurance commissioner for Massachusetts and is remembered as the "father of life insurance." Some students left the college for the then new Oberlin College (established 1833), others left for other institutions. Many of the remaining students continued their abolition work.

The abolitionist efforts continued, and the Western Reserve College Church, of which many faculty and students were members, passed an anti-slavery resolution on 7/27/1835.

The votes were: in favor 29; against 9; 4 people voted yea to the first 2 and nay to the last.

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