Celebration of John R. Blackburn [H1861]
Wabash College honored the life and legacy of John R. Blackburn, the College’s first Black student, in a series of events Feb. 5-6, 2024, which marked the start of Black History Month.
“The story of John Blackburn’s time at Wabash teaches us many important lessons,” said Wabash President Scott Feller. “While we are proud of our long tradition of providing access to an excellent liberal arts education to students traditionally underserved by higher education, we must understand that our history is full of stories like John’s. Many students throughout our history have had difficult paths to and through Wabash, and by understanding those challenges, we become a stronger, more welcoming institution.”
Seventeen of Blackburn’s descendants gathered on the Wabash campus to celebrate and honor his legacy.
Timothy Lake, Associate Professor of English and Black studies at Wabash, gave a keynote address about John R. Blackburn’s life on Monday, Feb. 5.
Wabash President Scott Feller introduced Lake and the Blackburn story, saying, "Tonight, we gather as a community to honor and celebrate the life and legacy of John R. Blackburn. Many of you probably know by now that John was the first African American student to enroll at Wabash when he arrived on campus in 1857 in the preparatory school. So, it seems like an obvious and reasonable thing to celebrate him as we start Black History Month on our campus.
"But through Reverend Doctor Tim Lake’s painstaking, decade-long research, we know that John Blackburn’s story – our Wabash story – is complicated. As a college, Wabash was in its 25th year and Crawfordsville was still very much on the edge of the frontier when John arrived in the early days of 1857. While there were divisions aplenty across our country, the Civil War wouldn’t begin for another four years."
"For a century and-a-half it was widely believed that the citizens of Crawfordsville chased John Blackburn away from Wabash," Feller said. "But Dr. Lake will provide many additional details to give us a clearer picture of what really happened to young John Blackburn during his two weeks at Wabash – and in the 80 years that followed. He lived a very full life and was dedicated to education right up until his death in 1937.
"How is it that a young, Black man who was asked to leave his college because of racial tensions would devote his entire career – indeed, his entire life – to education? The story of John Blackburn’s time at Wabash teaches us many important lessons."
"While we are proud of our long tradition of providing access to an excellent liberal arts education to students traditionally underserved by higher education, we must understand that our history is full of stories like John’s," said Feller. "Yes, we take pride in the first Black man to graduate from Wabash – John W. Evans, Class of 1908. Yes, we are proud of the nation’s first Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies, which formed on our campus almost 55 years ago. Yes, we can take pride knowing that we will soon be home to a Latino Community Center. But we also must acknowledge that many students throughout our history – men of color, gay men, and men who came here penniless – struggled during their time at our College. Like John Blackburn, they had difficult paths to and through Wabash. It is by understanding those challenges, that we become a stronger, more welcoming institution."
John R. Blackburn arrived at Wabash in January 1857 to begin his study in the preparatory department. Because of racial tensions on campus and in town, he was asked to return home two weeks later. While there have been scant details about his experiences for 167 years, Lake spent 15 years researching Blackburn’s early life and legacy.
Records show that news of Blackburn's attendance at the College did not reach the local community until weeks after the whole affair had ended on campus. By the time the first news article appeared in the Crawfordsville Review, Blackburn was already back in Cincinnati and two white students had been expelled from the College.
Lake’s research discovered that Blackburn was a pioneering educator throughout his life. After leaving Wabash, he returned to Cincinnati and resumed his preparatory studies with private tutors. He studied Greek and Latin with students from Lane Theological Seminary. In 1859, he was admitted to Dartmouth College.
Ron Dostal ’92, director of alumni and affinity group engagement, presented the following:
"Representing our 15,000 living alumni, the National Association of Wabash Men is empowered to honor and recognize individuals by designating them Honorary Alumni of Wabash College. These honors are given to men and women who truly personify the spirit and commitment that set Wabash, its students, and the Wabash community apart from all others. The Honorary Alumnus designation is the highest honor the Association can bestow … as we celebrate the people who have made our Alma Mater so special and her impact so far-reaching. As today’s program – and his entire life – have demonstrated, John R. Blackburn deserves our recognition and celebration."
"...And so today," Dostal continued, "on behalf of the National Association of Wabash Men, it is my honor to confer upon John R. Blackburn the title of Honorary Alumnus of Wabash College. In so doing, we welcome John into the brotherhood of Wabash alumni, and we are proud to recognize him as an honorary member of the Class of 1861. Mr. Blackburn, welcome home."
Rite of Return Service
A rite of return service was held Feb. 6 at the Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church.
"The Presbyterian Church of Crawfordsville organized in 1824 and eight years later, those same Presbyterians founded Wabash College," Van Nuys said. "Church members served as college trustees and faculty, many of whom were preachers at and ministers for this church. Some of the names of those founders are remembered in the stained glass windows around us."
Van Nuys concluded, "As a Wallie and as a townie, as a Presbyterian and as a Hoosier, my prayer is this: That as inheritors of history that we cannot change, that we will all do our best to bend the trajectory of hat history toward better and more blessed ends. Tonight is a blessing for which I am grateful. Tomorrow is an opportunity for which I am responsible. I hope we will remember this history so that so we can change this history. Working with God and each other, I know we can create a brighter future that is more just, loving, and good. May it be so."