Oberlin College president says ‘significant progress’ in investigating recent string of hate-speech incidents on campus (gallery)
on March 04, 2013 at 8:12 PM, updated March 05, 2013 at 7:25 AM
OBERLIN, Ohio — Tensions over a string of hate-speech scrawls at Oberlin College and an early-morning report of a person wearing Ku Klux Klan-like garb on the campus prompted the college to cancel classes today. (See earlier story.)
More than 1,000 students and staff gathered at an afternoon unity rally, at which college President Marvin Krislov said authorities believe a small group of people are behind the racial, anti-Semitic and homophobic epithets that began appearing over the last month.
There was no confirmation of a report that a person wearing something resembling a KKK hood and robe was spotted early Monday morning near the Afrikan Heritage House.
But the reported sighting prompted a sting of events today that drew more than one-third of the school’s 2,900 students.
They were clearly tense and fed-up with several incidents, including someone drawing swastikas and replacing the word “black” with a racial slur on Black History Month posters. “Whites only” was also written above a water fountain in one building.
“All these reports are being investigated thoroughly,” Krislov said during a late afternoon rally at Finney Chapel on campus. “We have made significant progress in the investigation of these instances.
“We believe these actions represent the work of a very small number of very cowardly people,” Krislov told students who had packed the 1,200-seat chapel. “I am shocked that this happened at our college, which I love. It hurts all of us.”
At the beginning of the rally, student Victoria Davis brought the crowd to its feet singing spiritual songs written by the late Moses Hogan, a black composer who studied music at Oberlin.
Krislov called for healing.
“Let this be an educational moment for all of us,” the college president said. “And let us be very clear, we stand united. We will not give into hate.”
Founded in 1833, Oberlin was one of the first colleges in the nation to educate women and men together, and one of the first to admit black students. Before the Civil War, it was an abolitionist hotbed and an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
On Monday, Elena Jackendoff, a sophomore from Pittsburgh, said she and some other students don’t feel completely safe on campus.
“Hate speech comes up every spring,” Jackendoff said. “We can’t ignore it anymore.”
Eliza Diop, a junior from Los Angeles who spoke at a 2 p.m. rally in front of Wilder Hall, the student union, said she was not deterred.
“I’m not nervous,” Diop said. “I’m feeling comfortable and supported.”
School security and the Oberlin Police Department were investigating the report from a student who claimed to see a person wearing a white hood and robe walking on campus at about 1:30 a.m. Monday. Krislov was called immediately, said college spokesman Scott Wargo.
Wargo said late today that the reported sighting had not been verified.
“We haven’t heard anything one way or another,” he said.
Before sunrise, the college had suspended classes and all “nonessential activities” to hold discussions on the “challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks,” the college said in a news release.
About 500 students met in front of the Afrikan Heritage House at noon and broke into smaller groups to discuss what happened and make suggestions for changes. Those suggestions, which included incorporating tolerance sessions into new student orientation, will be forwarded to the school’s administration, students said.
“The question is what to do tomorrow and the day after that,” said Cuyler Otsuka, a junior from Honolulu.
Several students said they had noticed hate-speech scrawled on bulletin boards and around the campus during the past several weeks.
Students later marched to the front of Wilder Hall on campus, escorted by a 26-piece New Orleans-style band playing “When the Saints Come Marching In.” They were joined by hundreds more for a crowd estimated at about 1,000 by campus security.
The event in front of Wilder ended with a rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” then students marched through downtown Oberlin chanting “enough is enough” before gathering at Finney Chapel.
Meredith Gadsby, the chair of Oberlin’s Afrikana Studies department, said she was hoping the people responsible would be caught so she could put faces to the acts of hate. “They don’t have a right to make us feel unsafe,” Gadsby said.