Uncovering Oberlin’s Sacred History

Book collaborators Phyllis Yarber Hogan (sitting) and Professor of History Carl Lasser inside Rust United Methodist Church.
photo by Al Fuchs

“Now, this is when churches had balconies,” says Phyllis Yarber Hogan, admiring the unpretentious upper level of the Rust United Methodist Church in Oberlin. Professor Carol Lasser, shaking the winter air from her clothes, steps up for a closer look.

Nearly two years ago, the written his-tory of some of Oberlin’s African American churches was limited to scattered notes. Members of the Oberlin African-American Genealogy and History Group discovered as much in 2003 while organizing a lecture series on church history. Many of the parishes had no written accounts of their history, nor the necessary resources to compile them. Hogan, an Oberlin resident and vice president of OAAGHG, asked Lasser about involving students enrolled in her history of Oberlin course that fall.

A town-gown partnership soon blossomed, leading to publication this year of the student-written book Oberlin’s Sacred Heritage: The African-American Tradition. It’s the first book to explore the historical connection of several of the churches in a single volume.

Armed with cameras and interview questions, Lasser’s 21 students were divided into groups and sent to seven parishes to collect written materials, take photo-graphs, and talk to church members. “I learned a great deal about the history of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the role it’s played in the community over the years as a center of worship and a gathering place for activism,” says Alison Dennis ’04.

Senior religion major Mark Simmons, who plans to attend Hebrew Union College with hopes of becoming a reform rabbi, researched the Christ Temple Apostolic Church. Its colorful history includes the story of a police officer in the early 1900s who was so mesmerized by a church service that he couldn’t lay a hand on the the minister he had come to arrest for disturbing the peace.

“This project was an approach to history I had never experienced before,” Simmons says. “My previous classes had been about studying history as an observer. In this class, I was a participant. I wasn’t just watching history unfold, I was making it.”

Lasser, who edited the book, says the project was ideal for her Oberlin History as American History course, a class that works best when rooted in the community. “This was among the most exciting projects I have been involved with,” she says. “It encompassed a true College-community partnership and one in which teaching, learning, student-faculty research, and community service all came together.”

Oberlin’s Sacred Heritage is available for viewing and purchase at www.oberlin.edu/EOG.


Frances Walker Slocum ’45 (r)
photo by Al Fuchs

Paying Tribute
Showcasing the work of black composers is a primary function of the Conservatory’s Black Musicians’ Guild, whose concert during Black History Month expanded the tradition. This year the group paid special tribute to Emerita Professor of Pianoforte Frances Walker Slocum ’45, a longtime supporter of the guild and mentor to many African American Conservatory students. A much-loved teacher and role model, Slocum’s students have achieved renown in a variety of musical careers.

Provost Heads Back to Class
Oberlin Provost Clayton Koppes, a nine-year administrator who served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and vice president for Academic Affairs, will retire as provost this June 30. A member of the College faculty since 1978, Koppes will take a leave before returning to the history department and “resuming one of the best jobs in the academy—being an Oberlin professor.” Just before OAM went to press, President Nancy Dye announced the appointment of Al MacKay, a longtime professor of philosophy at Oberlin, as Koppes’ successor.

Alumni Director Retires
Margaret Sahs Erikson ’62, director of on-campus alumni activities since 1989, retired in December after more than 22 years at the College. The mastermind of such major annual events as Reunion weekend and the fall meeting of the Alumni Council, she also organized dozens of alumni awards presentations and lectures given by visiting alumni each year. Erikson was recognized by the executive board of the Alumni Council in March.

Alumni-Elected Trustee Update
Danette DiBiasio Wineberg ’68, the candidate receiving the most number of votes in the fall 2004 Alumni Trustee election, will join the Board of Trustees for a full six-year term beginning this July. Robert J. Frascino ’74 was also invited to join the Board, effective last fall, to fill the unexpired term of Lawrence Gladieux ’65, who resigned in September for health reasons. Frascino received substantial support from alumni in the election, and he now fills a seat that would have otherwise remained vacant for more than a year.