House of History
The school was built in 1836 and, from the very beginning, it defied Ohio’s “Black Laws” by allowing all children to learn side-by-side in the one-room school.
One of Oberlin’s first black students was Sarah Margru Kinson. Kinson was one of 53 captives from Mendiland (modern day Sierra Leone) on the infamous slave ship Amistad, which was headed for the sugar plantations of Cuba when it was taken over by its passengers. The ship ended up off the coast of Long Island, where it was seized by the U.S. brig Washington on Aug. 24, 1839.
After a long legal battle, the ship’s passengers were allowed to return to Africa. They were accompanied by a group of missionaries, including two from Oberlin. Seven weeks later, in July 1842, the ship dropped anchor outside Freetown.
Kinson quickly earned a reputation as a bright child at the mission and, seven years after the capture of the Amistad, she returned to the United States. Historical records are unclear as to exactly how it happened, but Kinson somehow made her way from the East Coast to Oberlin, where she began her formal education in the public schools before going on to study at Oberlin College.
“There was no better place for her to be,” declares Oberlin Heritage Center docent Carl Jacobson, who leads tours of the Little Red Schoolhouse.
Indeed, letters from the time show that Kinson was thriving. Her teacher, Lauretta Branch, wrote the following in a letter to a friend in October of 1847:
“Whatever study she undertakes she seems to find no difficulty in mastering it thoroughly — indeed, I have never had a more thorough and successful Scholar. She has gained the love and esteem of all her schoolmates.”
Kinson once again changed courses when she returned to Africa to work as a missionary in November of 1849. She married fellow missionary Edward Green in 1852 and, three years later, they began their own mission station. That’s when Green was “summarily dismissed, for alleged intemperance and for seducing girls at the mission school.”
It is unknown what happened to Kinson after that, although one can hope that her innate courage and Oberlin education carried her past that challenge and onto new adventures.
As for the Little Red Schoolhouse, it was outgrown shortly after it was constructed and, in 1851, a larger public school was built. The old schoolhouse was used as a house and a tailor’s shop over the years before being slated for demolition in 1958.
Local businessman Cliff Barden successfully campaigned to save the structure, which was reportedly built for $200. It was moved in 1968 to its current site and is open for tours, along with two historic houses, through the Oberlin Heritage Center on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Visitors can sit on one of the wooden benches that line the room and imagine what a day was like in the simple wood frame building, which measures 20 by 24 feet and is the oldest surviving structure in Oberlin. There’s a stool and a dunce cap in one corner, sacks for racing and an assortment of walking stilts for playtime. ■
Oberlin Heritage Center, 73½ S. Professor St., Oberlin, 440-774-1700, oberlinheritagecenter.org