February 2, 2024

First Black student at Wabash College honored after years of forgotten name, mistold story

John R. Blackburn was the first African American student to attend Wabash College. In January 1857, he began class but only finished two weeks before the administration asked him to leave due to racial disturbances on campus. - (Photo provided by Tim Lake)

John R. Blackburn was the first African American student to attend Wabash College. In January 1857, he began class but only finished two weeks before the administration asked him to leave due to racial disturbances on campus.

(Photo provided by Tim Lake)

Wabash College will honor its first Black student, John R. Blackburn, by hosting a series of events and inviting his descendants to attend.

Blackburn was admitted to Wabash in 1857. He was prohibited from living on campus because of his race, so he lived with a local Black family in Crawfordsville. He began attending classes in January of that year. He would only finish two weeks before the administration asked him to leave due to several racial disturbances on campus.

For over a century, Wabash would continue to tell the story of the first African American student at the school, saying his leave was voluntary and his name could not be found.

“He was dismissed from the college physically, and then he was dismissed from the memory of the college,” said Wabash English Professor, Tim Lake.

Lake searched for over 15 years to find out more about the school’s first Black student, including his name.

He said inviting the family to the campus is the first step to reckoning the college's past and retelling Blackburn’s story more truthfully.

“Now we can engage in narrative justice, filling in the gap and calling his name,” he said.

Who was John R. Blackburn

Blackburn was born a slave in Virginia in 1841. His father, who owned him, his mother and his other 10 siblings, freed the family in 1849. The family later relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Blackburn was well educated, he was able to read and speak several languages including Latin and Greek. He attended Cincinnati's Colored Public Schools and received private tutoring from the city’s leading physician. A recommendation from the physician led to Blackburn’s admittance into Wabash.

After being asked to leave Wabash, he was admitted into Dartmouth College, but had to leave there because the Civil War began, his father died and his mother got sick.

In 1861, Blackburn became the principal of Colored Education in Xenia, Ohio. In 1883, he was awarded a degree at Dartmouth. He would spend 62 years in education.

Descendants of Blackburn

Around 20 of Blackburn’s descendants plan to attend the series of events at Wabash.

Mariska Williams, Blackburn's great-great-granddaughter, is honored to attend.

“For them to come to us and say, we want to reconcile, is actually a sign of the times that African American people are actually being recognized, noticed, and honored for their accomplishment,” she said.

Christina Smith, another descendant of Blackburn, said it's a blessing her family learned the truth about Blackburn’s experience at Wabash.

“Being a descendant of slaves, it is extremely difficult to know our historical roots,” she said. “A lot of documents were deleted, and I think John Blackburn is an example of that.”

Smith said the truth can help heal the past so all parties can move forward.

The oldest descendant that plans to attend the event is Blackburn’s 103 year old granddaughter, Jeanne E. Blackburn Burch.

Professor Lake is currently writing a manuscript about Wabash College's racial past, including Blackburn’s story.

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