Oberlin had been a major terminus of the Underground Railroad and a hotbed of abolitionist activity in the nineteenth century. The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, a key event in the national abolitionist movement, has even led one historian to dub Oberlin “the town that started the Civil War.” In the late 1950s and 1960s, while African American students made up no more than 3% of the student body, the civil rights movement rekindled these early commitments and galvanized the Oberlin community. As early as the late 1950s, white Oberlin students began attending semesters at Southern “Negro Colleges,” and in the early 1960s large numbers of students participated in Cleveland sit-ins, picketed segregated Ohio businesses, and participated in fund drives to send money to the South.
LGBT narrators who devoted themselves to the civil rights movement felt, in retrospect, that they had special reasons for doing so. The movement profoundly impacted the way these Oberlin students and faculty understood their stigmatized sexual desires, and ultimately helped pave the way for political action based on a minority model of LGBT identity.
Allan Spear (OC 58), a white, Jewish history major, enrolled at Oberlin in part because of its activist reputation. He soon joined the campus NAACP and participated in pickets of local barbershops and bars that discriminated against African Americans. For a semester during his junior year, he attended Fisk University, a primarily African American liberal arts institution in Nashville, Tennessee, and came back to Oberlin “all fired up about civil rights,” he recalled. During his senior year, he took what he believed was one of the first African American history courses offered at a predominantly white college and he went on to write his graduate school dissertation in African American history.
His involvement in the civil rights and, later, the anti-war movement “certainly did have an impact [on] how I later viewed myself when I came out as gay in a political context,” Spear said. “I began asking questions about myself and began to relate my activism to growing awareness of my own homosexuality, and the fact that this was not a pathology, but it was a minority status.” In 1974, Spear became the first openly gay male legislator in the nation. He served for many years in the Minnesota Senate, ultimately as President, and was the chief Senate author of Minnesota’s 1993 GLBT rights bill, extending protection from discrimination in employment, education, and housing to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Minnesotans.
Jeffry Piker (OC 62) became involved with civil rights activism as a high school student in Cincinnati, and it remained a major focus for him at Oberlin. He also attended Fisk University for a semester in 1960, during the time of the Nashville sit-ins. In retrospect, Piker felt he had unique reasons for participating in the movement. “One basis of at least some of my strong personal commitment in that area,” he wrote, may have been an “internal displacement of my personal worries and fears about my own marginality [or] ‘abnormality’ based on sexual orientation.” It was “at exactly the same time when I started to realize that I was sexually attracted to other boys and that this was not…a ‘good’ idea [that] I was also taking up the cause of fighting discrimination against black people,” he recalled. Decades later, when he “came out” in a gay political context, he also began to organize in his local LGBT community, “much as I had done over many years in race relations issues.”
In this way, white LGBT students unable to speak out about their own oppression may have taken up the cause of others—in this case African Americans, and primarily those in the South. White LGBT students’ participation in civil rights activism was also complicated by the sexual politics surrounding the movement. White supremacists had historically justified segregation by characterizing African Americans and, to a lesser extent, their white supporters, as sexually suspect. Historian John Howard has shown how white supremacists fabricated cultural stereotypes such as the “lusty Jezebels” and “hypersexualized black male rapist,” and branded white liberals as “traitors to the race” prone to race mixing, miscegenation, and sexual deviancy. White LGBT people may have felt a special affinity to African Americans and their supporters in this context. Additionally, as in the cold war era, the stigmatized identities of “homosexual,” “Communist,” and “civil rights activist” often bled into each other, and white supremacists used these associations to discredit the movement.
Ken Sherrill experienced this rhetoric first-hand as a graduate student involved in marches, sit-ins, and voter drives at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the early 1960s. “Imagine,” he said, “a 20-year-old kid from New York marching down a street in North Carolina as some people in a crowd shouted, ‘New York Jew-nigger-loving-commie-queer!’ This, literally, happened.” Sherrill, a gay, Jewish, New York native, recalled being “stunned at how they could know a total stranger so well” and “shuddered at the sheer hate that was invested in each of those words.” As a government professor at Oberlin from 1965-67, Sherrill and a small group of white gay and bisexual faculty occasionally talked about the fact that they were fighting for the rights of others but not for their own. Gay activism “was not something that anybody was optimistic enough about to contemplate taking political action,” he recalled, though “some of us were talking about doing something about it one day.”
African American LGBT students’ relationship to the civil rights movement was perhaps even more complicated. Starting in 1963, the Special Education Opportunities Program, though a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, began working to increase the enrollment of people of color for the first time in Oberlin’s history. The numbers of African American students steadily increased through the end of the decade, which made possible, among other things, a more cohesive black campus community.
For François Clemmons (OC 67), raised in a working class black family and a predominantly African American community in Youngstown, Ohio, arriving at the overwhelmingly white Oberlin was still a “cultural shock.” A voice major at Oberlin, Clemmons also threw himself into civil rights organizing, participating in protests at Woolworth’s lunch counters and other segregated spaces in Elyria, Lorain, and Cleveland with fellow students, both white and African American. He also met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during one of the three times King spoke at Oberlin in the 1960s, which Clemmons remembered being “one of the most influential moments” of his life.
A young, gay African American man in an overwhelmingly white environment, Clemmons felt less estranged from Oberlin’s “close-knit” black community than he did from the primarily white gay worlds he encountered, witnessing racial discrimination at some Cleveland gay bars and subtle racism among white gay Oberlin students. On the other hand, the religious community in which he was raised characterized homosexuals as immoral and weak-minded, and Clemmons had internalized their belief that “gay people could not be very bright or brilliant…or artistic leaders of their community.”
In this context, Clemmons’ friendship with Glover Parham (OC 67), a fellow African American voice major active in the campus black community and widely known to be gay, was crucial. Raised in an upper class, educated family in Birmingham, Alabama, and the valedictorian of his high school class, Parham was “erudite in his ways,” Clemmons remembered; “I always felt like a disciple.” Parham introduced Clemmons to gay African American writers such as Langston Hughes and made him aware of the Harlem Renaissance “and all of the writers that turned out to be gay.” They also “talked an awful lot about writers like James Baldwin who had traveled all over the world, who had been involved in the civil rights struggle with Dr. King [and] that this great man was gay.” The friendship did much to dispel the anti-gay beliefs with which Clemmons had grown up, and nurtured both his black and his gay identities.
Clemmons became even closer with Glover as an upperclassman, and later visited his family. “Once [Glover] opened his arms and his heart to me, his whole family did,” Clemmons recalled. “His family was the dream family I had hoped for.” Parham himself called Clemmons “my devoted friend and my family’s ‘adopted son.’” Glover, one of the founding members of Oberlin Lambda Alumni, died of complications related to AIDS in 1995.
Martha Shackford (OC 69), a white music education major at Oberlin, also felt she had special reasons for participating in the civil rights movement. The daughter of two English teachers who were both “extremely liberal” and active in the civil rights movement, Shackford applied to Oberlin “because it was the first college to accept women and because it was the last stop on the Underground Railroad, and it didn’t have sororities or fraternities,” she recalled. “So you can see there’s something else working there [laughs].”
Shackford felt she was “incredibly naïve” about her sexuality at Oberlin. “I had no words for it at all,” she recalled. “I was in major turmoil about it, but I didn’t know what it was. All I knew is that I was falling in love with the wrong people.” When she “came out” to herself at the age of twenty-five, while teaching in a lower income black area in Philadelphia, “it suddenly became very, very clear to me why I was obsessed with the whole black thing,” she recalled. “It was because I myself felt oppressed, but didn’t know why.”