The Amazing History of Wilberforce, OH

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As theatres around the world share the true story of William Wilberforce, a British statesman who dedicated his life to ending the slave trade, residents in one small Ohio town say they need no reminding.

"Wilberforce did not require a rediscovery or reawakening from our students or our community because we never forgot who he was," Marshall Mitchell, executive vice president of Wilberforce University said.

"So it's amazing for us to watch now as many people, evangelicals, people from Britain, people in America, blacks, whites rediscover or discover for the first time who William Wilberforce was. We never forgot many of the principles that he stood for that have been abiding at the university for 151 years."

Edna Diggs, curator of the National Afro-American Research and Cultural Center agrees. When Wilberforce died in 1833, Africans in America mourned the passing of a man who worked so hard to help them gain their freedom. In fact, blacks in churches across the country held memorial services and wrote eulogies for Wilberforce.

"It's only fitting," Diggs said of the name. "There were seven stations on the Underground Railroad in this town -- one of which is the Col. Charles Young House, which still stands."

Where Exactly is Wilberforce, Ohio?

Tucked away in central Ohio, far away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, throngs of people and heavy traffic sits the small town of Wilberforce.

With a population of about 2,000, the community has a post office, a museum and miles of farmland. There is no mail delivery. There are no shops or restaurants. Much of the charm you would find in a town this size is missing.

But it has a big heart and is full of history.

Wilberforce University is the country's first, private historically black college and the first college or university that was sponsored by a religious order or denomination in America.

"When Wilberforce got the abolition of the slave trade through the British parliament, American black communities were celebrating him… and it was in his honor that they named Wilberforce University," James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, said.

Wilberforce is about an hour south of Ohio's capital, Columbus. If you blink, you might miss it. The town was founded before the Civil War.

"Planters would come from the Deep South and they would bring their extended family… and their slaves and servants," Diggs said. They would visit Tawawa Springs, a health resort, complete with cottages and a hotel as well as mineral rich water that was said to contain healing powers.

The area attracted runaway slaves and freed men, and eventually became predominately black.

When the resort went under, it was made into an elementary school for children the planters had with their slave mistresses.

According to historical records, the land was eventually purchased by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), and in 1856 Wilberforce University was established.

High Society

"Some of everybody who was anybody during the 1800s, 1900s and early 20th century came through Wilberforce," Diggs said.

Renowned African-American leaders and innovators like Douglas Turner Ward, Hallie Quinn Brown, Martin Delaney, Leontyne Price,Nancy Wilson, Mary Church Terrell, and Charles Young either attended Wilberforce University, taught at the school or lived in the area.

Influential scholar W.E.B. DuBois landed his first real job at Wilberforce University where he taught Greek, Latin, German and English.

In fact, at a commencement speech in 1940 he said, "I refused an offer of $1,050 at another institution for the $800 offered here, because Wilberforce meant something to my imagination.... I married a Wilberforce girl; I made here life-long friends like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Charles Young..."

During the early 1900s, the town was full of life. It had a school, hotel, cleaners shop, restaurants. Those businesses eventually absorbed into the school. What is left is what you see today.

"There were a lot of black towns sprouting up in Ohio during this time, but Wilberforce is one of the few that has remained," Diggs said.

Most people who live in the small town, drive five miles over to the nearest town Xenia to do all their shopping.

"People live here because they love it," said Diggs who lives about 30 minutes away from the tiny town. 

The town is also the home of Payne Theological Seminary, the country's first religious school for blacks and Central State University.

In These Hallowed Halls

Currently 1,100 students attend Wilberforce University. In keeping in line with the AME Church and the principles Wilberforce found so dear, university officials have worked hard to create a Christ-centered environment.

"Christ tells us we should be imitators of Him. You can't be an imitator if you're compelled to do it," Marshall, a Baptist minister, said. "So what we try to do is create an environment where God will be present even when His name is not called.but it will be present in the value system that is described by everyone there."

Students agree.

Annjeanette Marie Tyson, a communications major, understands the history of the school and how it relates to her life.

"I am a member of the AME church. Wilberforce has a lot of history within my church and my family," she said. "I wanted to continue the tradition, and live the legacy that my family cherishes."

It's a legacy that many say will never be forgotten.

 

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