The story goes that he was the first Black student at Wabash College.
The story goes that he was dismissed because the community did not want him there.
“No one even knew his name until I finally found it in 2022,” said Timothy Lake, an associate professor of English and Black studies at Wabash College.
“I started working here years ago, and when I first heard the story, the historian in me was curious to learn more. His story is the result of more than fifteen years of research, and we are finally acknowledging how the real story goes for John R. Blackburn.”
Born into slavery in Essence County, Virgina, on April 1, 1841, John R. Blackburn was the child of William Blackburn, a white slave owner and Virginia planter, and Fanny Randall, a slave.
He was the tenth child out of eleven children.
In 1848, William Blackburn started to emancipate Fanny and his recognized children, and by 1850, they were all living together in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Fanny took on the last name of Blackburn.
William paid for John’s education through the colored school system and two local physicians who served as private tutors. John also received lessons in Latin and Greek from local seminary students.
Wabash College’s first Black student
“He applied and was admitted to Wabash College in 1857 as a 16-year-old. He was only able to stay for two weeks before he was sent away,” said Lake.
“The story goes that he was sent away because the presence of a Negro in the college being educated with white students was too much for the local community to take. The racial backlash was intense.”
After 15 years of research, Lake discovered that was not how the story goes.
While there have been scant details about his experiences for 167 years, Lake has researched John Blackburn’s early life and history and unearthed new information.
Instead of residing on campus, Blackburn stayed with James Askins, a barber and esteemed colored citizen of the time.
The town did not get wind of Blackburn’s presence on campus until four weeks after he had already left, based on the discovery in two local newspaper stories at the time.
This indicates it was the students at Wabash who objected to an integrated education.
“We don’t know the trigger event that happened to cause him to be dismissed. His name is not mentioned in the faculty minutes or board of trustees notes about this disciplinary act.
That’s not how the story goes…
There was nothing other than a catalogue of students that showed he was not there,” said Lake.
Through his research, Lake 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. His father’s death, mother’s illness and the start of the Civil War forced him to leave Dartmouth. In 1861, he took the position of principal of colored education in Xenia, Ohio.
In 1883, Dartmouth College awarded him a Master of Arts degree. He spent 62 years in education.
Wabash College is honoring John Blackburn as the first Black student that arrived on their campus.
The story goes…
“It took two summers of researching archives across the country, and I discovered some living descendants. I wrote them a letter. They were eager to learn more, and we invited them to our rite of return service highlighting John as our first Black student at Wabash,” said Lake.
Mariska Williams, the great-great-granddaughter of Blackburn remembers the phone call Lake made to her and her sister, Tiane Jones.
The sisters grew up in Bloomington, Indiana.
“Our great grandmother, Martha Jane Blackburn, is his daughter-in-law. She just so happened to be the first African American woman to graduate from Ohio University. They named a gym after her. We come from a family of educators,” said Williams.
“She was barred from the dorms then because she was Black. There’s so much rich Black ancestral history behind so many of these universities that Black Americans were not credited for, so we can either open the door and give them the recognition or we close the door and hide it.”
Rite of return service
Williams appreciates Wabash College, its president and Lake for honoring her great-great-grandfather.
“We’re thankful that Wabash is saying he was here and they’re making amends with the rite of return event to honor him. He was recognized at Dartmouth, but this is the first time we’ve been invited to a university to present with his impact,” said Williams.
Jones said their grandmother, who is still alive and 104-years-old, always told their family that their ancestors and family were free. Her grandmother had original emancipation papers and receipts that they gave to the college to archive.
“I was thrilled to hear from Professor Lake because we had heard these oral stories about the Blackburn’s being very smart and reaching for the stars. My grandmother still remembers her granddad. Professor Lake is really reaping the harvest of his hard work,” said Jones.
“He met our grandmother and just sat in awe because for the last 15 years he researched her family.”
John R. Blackburn
Wabash College honored the life and legacy of John R. Blackburn in a series of events Feb. 5-6 to mark the start of Black History Month.
Lake gave a keynote address on Blackburn’s life Monday, Feb. 5, in the Fine Arts Center’s Salter Hall. A rite of return service was held Tuesday, Feb. 6, at Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church.
Seventeen of Blackburn’s descendants gathered on the Wabash campus to witness and learn more about his life.
Contact staff writer Jade Jackson at (317) 762-7853 or by email JadeJ@IndyRecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @IAMJADEJACKSON.