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Schultz: Oberlin: Acts of hate, meant to divide, unite

Published: Friday, March 8, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

Ariana Abayomi was sound asleep in her dorm room at Oberlin College in Ohio, when a fellow resident adviser awakened her in the middle of the night.

Groggy with sleep, Abayomi struggled at first to comprehend what she was hearing.

Someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood ... spotted on campus ... right outside ... emergency meeting in the lounge.

“I was standing there thinking, ‘KKK?’ ” she said. “ ‘At Oberlin?’ ”

Twelve hours later, it was still her question.

Repeatedly, she apologized for stumbling over her words during our interview. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I haven’t had much sleep. A lot of us were up all night.”

When I asked why, she shook her head and said softly, “We didn’t feel safe enough to go to sleep.”

In the wee hours of Monday morning, a student reported seeing a figure cloaked in a white robe and hood standing near Oberlin’s Afrikan Heritage House – “A-House,” in campus parlance – where Abayomi lives.

Abayomi, who is black, grew up in Atlanta. “Georgia is inherently more racist,” she said. “This has had a bigger impact because it’s a smaller community. I never thought it would happen here in Oberlin.”

It was the latest in a series of recent hate-related acts of vandalism that have left the Oberlin community reeling.

The word “black” was scratched out on Black History Month posters, replaced with a racial epithet. Freshly etched swastikas and “Whites Only” hovered over a water fountain.

Anti-Semitic and racist fliers peppered the campus.

A student reported a stranger uttering a racial slur before pushing him to the ground. So far, no one has been charged.

The incidents are a jarring new reality for Oberlin College, located about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland. Founded in 1833, Oberlin has a long history of progressive activism.

It was a crucial stop on the Underground Railroad.

It was also one of the first colleges to educate men and women together and to admit black students.

Sean Decatur, dean of arts and sciences, said he is saddened by these acts, but not surprised.

“Oberlin is a place I respect for both its history and its standards,” said Decatur. “On the other hand, it’s part of the world. These incidents are not out of the realm of possibility because it happens everywhere.”

Still, not everywhere deals with this kind of hate like Oberlin College.

Within hours of the alleged KKK sighting, the administration canceled classes and convened a “day of solidarity,” which included a teach-in, a rally and a public forum. Nearly half of Oberlin’s 2,800 students showed up.

Decatur expected nothing less. “I have faith in our students that their response to canceled classes would not be, ‘Let’s go back to bed.’ ”

Over the years, Oberlin College has carved out a special place in my heart. In 2007, I was commencement speaker. I’ve delivered a number of such addresses, but only at Oberlin did so many graduates stop onstage to offer on-the-spot reviews.

I also have covered a wide range of speeches on campus, fueling my appreciation for Oberlin’s commitment to build unlikely bridges.

Students and faculty extended the same gracious welcome to Republican strategist Karl Rove, for example, as they did to Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Rove endured a more rigorous Q-and-A, but the audience was respectful.

On Election Day in 2004, voters in Oberlin had to stand in line for hours to cast their ballots.

The college and the town joined forces to deliver food and drinks. Students performed music and magic tricks for the children in tow.

Anything to make sure people stayed to vote.

True to its legacy, the Oberlin community responded Monday to attempts to divide it by drawing closer. “We are here,” students chanted throughout the day. At the rally, a trio of students led the crowd in singing “We Shall Overcome,” a famous anthem of the civil rights movement. One of the singers shouted out the lyrics so that everyone could join in.

Looking around at people bundled against the cold, I noticed that many of the white students appeared to need the prompts to sing, particularly after the first verse.

Most of the black students I saw needed no such help.

They belted out the song from memory, some of them blinking back tears.

In that cold, crisp moment of good intentions, a single song illuminated the difference between people who need reminding and those who never have the luxury to forget.

• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.

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