From Templeton to Garner: How Civil Rights have shaped Ohio University

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Left: Students protesting fee increases, 1970. Right: Students hold 'die-in' in 2015

Left: Students protesting fee increases, 1970. Right: Students hold ‘die-in’ in 2015

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Ohio University students have never been afraid to let their minds be heard. Above, you can see two very similar photos from two vastly different eras. The first was taken in the 1970s, when students held a protest in Cutler Hall over the rise of fee increases. On the right you can see a photo by Will Drabold depicting the ‘die-in’ protest, which occurred in 2015 after the Eric Garner grand jury decision was announced. In order to fully understand the issues facing Ohio University and United States Citizens in general, it helps to look back at the history of Civil Rights. Both Civil rights and student activism has a strong history at Ohio University, but how far back does it go? Almost to the very beginning.

Much of the national discourse as we reach the middle of the decade is focused on Civil Rights, most recently framed around the treatment of black individuals by police officers — specifically Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray. Students at Ohio University have taken part in the national outcry following these injustices, but what did students of past generations at Ohio University do when their brothers’ and sisters’ rights were being violated?

One of the largest issues African Americans have historically faced in Athens was a lack of housing. Throughout the early 20th century, many places did not want to rent to African Americans students, and the university viewed integrating housing as a last resort. Slowly, things began to improve, especially during the 1960s. While the nation watched as the Civil Rights movement gained traction, victories were won at Ohio University as well. E. Curmie Price became the first black faculty member in 1963. Also created in the 1960s was the Black Studies Institute, which offered classes that represented the African American experience in “a fully rounded way.”

Other African American individuals have also had a profound affect on Ohio University, so much so that one of the largest buildings on campus, the Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium is named after two black graduates of Ohio University, John Templeton and Martha Jane Hunley Blackburn.

The Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium as it looks today.

The Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium as it looks today.

John Templeton was born a slave in 1805 and freed in 1813 at the age of eight by his slave owner’s will. He attended Ohio University and lived with President Wilson in the Silas Bingham House, which still stands next to the Richland Hocking River Bridge. His graduation in 1828 marked him as the fourth African American college graduate in the nation and the first in the Midwest. Templeton used the skills he learned at Ohio University to help others of African descent, an act which would lead to him being arrested in 1835. He eventually settled in Pittsburgh, where he became the first teacher and principal of the city’s first African-American school.

The Silas Bingham House, wherein Templeton resided.

The Silas Bingham House, wherein Templeton resided. Photo credit: Julia Moss

Not much is known about Templeton’s daily life while attending the university. It is known that he worked to pay the expenses of residing in the President’s home. He was accepted into the Athenian Literary Society, which suggests that there was not an overly hostile attitude towards African Americans. He also spoke at his commencement ceremony with a speech titled “The Claims of Liberia,” which one of his classmates went on record saying that it was “very well composed.” After Templeton, James Carter Corbin was the next African American to graduate from Ohio University.He graduated in 1853, more than twenty years after Templeton, and would go on to a career in journalism and education.

Nearly 100 years after John Templeton, the university had its first female African American graduate. Martha Jane Hunley-Blackburn graduated in 1916 and also lead a life of education. She spent her career using her prowess as a seamstress to teach home economics in Ohio and West Virginia.

Martha Jane Hunley Blackburn's senior portrait in the 1916 Athena yearbook.

Martha Jane Hunley Blackburn’s senior portrait in the 1916 Athena yearbook.

Even today important discussions continue about the status of African Americans in the nation. The high profile case which occurred near the beginning of the 2014-15 school year was the Michael Brown case, where a young black man named Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The first day of classes at Ohio University students participated in a protest titled ‘Hands Up Walkout’ where they walked around the campus holding signs and demonstrating anger towards the actions of the city officials in Ferguson. When it was decided that the police officer implicated in the shooting of Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, would not be indicted on Nov. 24, students gathered on the fourth floor of Baker University Center. They stayed there for hours, forcing the university to keep the doors open hours later than the building would normally be operating.

Students occupy Baker University Center following the Mike Brown killing grand jury decision.

Students occupy Baker University Center following the Mike Brown killing grand jury decision. Photo credit: Will Drabold

A similar protest took place following the grand jury decision to not indict an officer implicated in the killing of Eric Garner, a black man who was strangled to death on Staten Island. Protesters marched down Athens’ main strip Court Street, held a ‘die-in’ in Cutler Hall, and eventually ended up demonstrating once again on the fourth floor of Baker University Center.

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