Tucked away between maple trees, shielding itself from the bustle of everyday Oberlin life, sits a relic of a simpler time.
The Little Red Schoolhouse stands just off of South Professor Street. Painted a deep red with white trim and measuring just 20 feet long by 24 feet wide, this quaint one-room schoolhouse was built in 1836, which makes it the oldest building in Oberlin.
It sits on the campus of the Oberlin Heritage Center, neighboring two other restored 19th century homes that contrast with the modern, gleaming silver of the nearby Kohl Jazz Building.
Stopping by the schoolhouse can transport a visitor back to the mid-1800s when children of all ages and colors came together to learn there.
A typical school-age girl would wake at 6 a.m. to the crow of a rooster and look out a frosty window at the family chicken coop. Children attended school during the dead of winter, as that was the only time when they were not needed on the family farm. Bundled tightly in itchy wool, she would collect eggs and return to help cook them, the sweet smell of mother’s porridge wafting through the kitchen. She’d then help assemble her lunch — some sweet corn bread and maybe a potato to be roasted over the imposing charcoal pot belly stove, the schoolhouse’s only source of heat.
With a tin lunch pail in hand, she might have sloshed down muddy roads, walking the two miles to school in the snow. She and the rest of the giggling little girls would line up on one side, unruly boys on the other, and file in without breaking formation to impress the teacher. They would plop down on wooden benches, pulling out their slates and pieces of chalk as the teacher rang the bell to begin the day.
Public schools in those days were not separated by grade, so children of all ages would help each other and learn together. Sometimes they would split into groups. The older children would read in the McGuffey Reader, an old textbook that taught children of different ages spelling and grammar, in addition to values through stories such as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” If a student were particularly well-behaved and finished all of her assignments, she could lounge in the rocking chair and dive into a story of her choosing. If a student failed to complete her work or was a disruption, she could be forced to sit on the dunce stool and wear the conical dunce cap, blushing as classmates pointed and laughed. This was a deeply shameful punishment, especially if news of it traveled to parents.
Recess broke the day up nicely. Students could bound outside to snatch the stilts and practice walking tall, or try with trepidation to cross the balance beam.
Upon returning inside, students would all dip the same ladle into the same bucket of water for a refreshing (and germ-laden) drink. The rest of the day might be spent competing in a spelling bee or learning arithmetic before it was time to journey back home and complete more chores before bedtime.
One student who followed a routine much like the one just described was Sarah Margru Kinson.
Her story demonstrates the ways in which the Little Red Schoolhouse represents Oberlin’s trail-blazing history in abolition and education. Kinson attended Oberlin Public Schools from 1846-1848, and while it is not absolutely proven that she attended school at the Little Red Schoolhouse (because several buildings were used as schools at the time), it is quite probable.
The fact that Kinson, an African student, was even allowed to study with white students makes Oberlin’s public school system exceptional for its time. Ohio’s “Black Laws” strictly mandated school segregation. The laws were intended to deter African-Americans from settling in Ohio.
Kinson arrived in Ohio after an extraordinary journey.
Born “Margru” (she later took the Christian name Sarah Kinson) in the Mende region of West Africa — modern-day Sierra Leone — she was sold into slavery at age six or seven. Ripped away from the joy of the lush countryside where she played with her siblings, Kinson was sold to Cuban masters. After traveling the Middle Passage in the unimaginably cramped and putrid hold of a ship, Kinson arrived in Cuba. She and 49 adults and three other children were then forced onto the ship “La Amistad.”
Four days into the ship’s journey, its African passengers mutinied. They intended to sail back to their home countries, but the ship somehow ran off course. It was sighted in the Atlantic Ocean by the U.S. government and taken to port in Connecticut.
After a sensationalized trial in which former President John Quincy Adams argued the case for the Africans’ freedom to the Supreme Court, they were freed to return to their homes. Kinson went with missionaries back to Sierra Leone.
Some of the missionaries were Oberlin College alumni, and in correspondence with Lewis Tappan, Oberlin benefactor and prominent abolitionist, they requested that he provide Kinson funding to come to Oberlin to study.
He granted that wish, and Kinson attended Oberlin Public Schools for two years before continuing on to the ladies’ department at Oberlin College.
The Little Red Schoolhouse hosted students like Kinson until 1851. At that time, it became obvious that the tiny, creaky wooden schoolhouse was insufficient to meet the demands of a growing population of school-age Oberlin children. A two-story, graded elementary school was built.
The Little Red Schoolhouse then endured a series of relocations before settling at its current home at the Oberlin Heritage Center.
The OHC now runs tours that relay the story of Kinson and what a typical school day was like in the mid-1800s. The Little Red Schoolhouse is also a stop on the center’s “Freedom’s Friends” abolition tablet tour. History enthusiasts entering the schoolhouse and reading about it on tablets is quite a contrast from 1800s students reading in a McGuffey reader and writing with chalk on a slate.
OHC collections manager Maren McKee believes it is essential that this piece of living history be maintained to enrich the historical perspective of Oberlin residents. “I think that having a physical connection to the past, tangible evidence of the past, is so important,” she said.
Each year, Oberlin third-graders get to see just how different that experience was.
Students and their teachers arrive for their foray into the past on a big yellow school bus, rather than walking miles to school like their 19th century counterparts. But they wear period clothing and must carry their lunches in metal tins because, as they learn, paper bags had not been invented then. They compete over who is the stealthiest stilt-walker and wobble across the balance beam.
Fortunately, they visit in June, so they do not have to endure the cold, huddle around the pot belly stove, or brave the slushy roads leading up to the Little Red Schoolhous.
But these third-graders get a little taste of what life was like in a much different time.
Jackie McDermott is a sophomore at Oberlin College and wrote this piece as part of a journalism course.
Jason Hawk | Oberlin News-Tribune The Little Red Schoolhouse can be found just south of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music off Professor Street.