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Celebration of John R. Blackburn [H1861]

星空无限传媒 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 星空无限传媒 teaches us many important lessons,” said 星空无限传媒 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 星空无限传媒, and by understanding those challenges, we become a stronger, more welcoming institution.”

Seventeen of Blackburn’s descendants gathered on the 星空无限传媒 campus to celebrate and honor his legacy.

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President Feller (far right) presents the Honorary Alumni award to members of the Blackburn family.

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Keynote Address

Timothy Lake, Associate Professor of English and Black studies at 星空无限传媒, gave a keynote address about John R. Blackburn’s life on Monday, Feb. 5.

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The celebration brought relatives of Blackburn and friends of Dr. Lake from near and far.

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星空无限传媒 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 星空无限传媒 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 星空无限传媒 story – is complicated. As a college, 星空无限传媒 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."

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"For a century and-a-half it was widely believed that the citizens of Crawfordsville chased John Blackburn away from 星空无限传媒," 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 星空无限传媒 – 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 星空无限传媒 teaches us many important lessons."

a man standing at a podium speaking into a microphone

"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 星空无限传媒 – 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 星空无限传媒. It is by understanding those challenges, that we become a stronger, more welcoming institution."

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Seventeen of Blackburn’s descendants gathered on the 星空无限传媒 campus to celebrate and honor his legacy, including Mariska Williams (third from right).

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Lake enjoys a light moment before his keynote address.

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Jordan Thomas '24, chariman of the Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies, introduces Dr. Lake.

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John R. Blackburn arrived at 星空无限传媒 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.

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Blackburn was born in Essex County, Virginia in 1841 to his owner William Blackburn and enslaved mother Fannie Randol (or Randall). William freed Fannie and their eight children in 1849 and relocated them to Cincinnati.

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John was educated in the Cincinnati Public Colored Schools and received private tutoring by the city’s leading physician, Israel Stone Dodge. It was Dodge’s recommendation that brought him to 星空无限传媒 College. 

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A large crowd filled Salter Hall for Lake's address.

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Instead of residing on campus, Blackburn, then 16 years old, stayed with James Askins, a barber and esteemed colored citizen of the time. After two weeks, he was “sent away” from the College.

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Studnets paid particular attention to Lake's telling of the Blackburn story.

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From Lake's investigation of the record, it is now known that the trouble whilch led to John's departure from the College did not come from local residents, as had been previously reported. Rather, it came from the student body.

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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.

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星空无限传媒 historians knew that there had been a Black student on campus in 1857, but his name and what became of him after leaving Crawfordsville was unknown.

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Lake’s research discovered that Blackburn was a pioneering educator throughout his life. After leaving 星空无限传媒, 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. 

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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.

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Lake chats with an audience member after the keynote.

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Ron Dostal ’92, director of alumni and affinity group engagement, presented the following:

"Representing our 15,000 living alumni, the National Association of 星空无限传媒 Men is empowered to honor and recognize individuals by designating them Honorary Alumni of 星空无限传媒 College. These honors are given to men and women who truly personify the spirit and commitment that set 星空无限传媒, its students, and the 星空无限传媒 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."

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"...And so today," Dostal continued, "on behalf of the National Association of 星空无限传媒 Men, it is my honor to confer upon John R. Blackburn the title of Honorary Alumnus of 星空无限传媒 College. In so doing, we welcome John into the brotherhood of 星空无限传媒 alumni, and we are proud to recognize him as an honorary member of the Class of 1861.  Mr. Blackburn, welcome home."

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Jeanne Blackburn Burch, 103-year-old granddaughter of John R. Blackburn (front right, in wheelchair) reacts to her family's acceptance of John R. Blackburn's Honorary Alumni award.

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Steven Jones, director of Malcolm X Institute, introduces a guest speaker, Roni Ford.

 

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Ford, deputy regional director and minority outreach liaison for Senator Todd Young, delivered a proclamation from Indiana's senior senator.

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Kim King, assistant director of Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies, unveils a portrait of Blackburn.

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The Blackburn family on the Salter Hall stage. From left: Joseph Smith, Jeanne Blackburn Burch (in wheelchair), Mariska Williams, Michael-Alexander Williams, Tiane Jones, Isaiah Williams, Karen Quarles, Christina Smith (with child), and Alex Smith (with child).

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The Blackburn family with President Feller (far left) and Dr. Lake (back row, fourth from left).

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Feller and Lake share a laugh following the presentation.

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Members of the Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies pose with the Blackburn portrait.

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The Blackburn portrait.

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Rite of Return Service

A rite of return service was held Feb. 6 at the 星空无限传媒 Avenue Presbyterian Church.

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The Rev. Dr. John Van Nuys '83, pastor at 星空无限传媒 Avenue Presbyterian Church, welcomed attendees.

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Blackburn family member Christina Smith listens to Van Nuys' remarks.

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"The Presbyterian Church of Crawfordsville organized in 1824 and eight years later, those same Presbyterians founded 星空无限传媒 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."

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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."

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Lake leads a libation ceremony.

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Derek Mong, associate professor of English, wrote and read a poem specifically for this event.

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The poem, "The Return of John R. Blackburn to 星空无限传媒 College," was wrtiiten in two parts.

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King participated in the rite of return service, as well, and spoke very passionately to the assembled audience.

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The title of his address, Sankofa, comes from an African word of the Akan tribe in Ghana with a translation that means “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”

 

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Blackburn family member Cornelius Jones listens intently.

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Blackburn family member Alex Smith.

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Blackburn family member Karen Quarles.

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Lake listens to King's address.

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Soloist GorDon Martin

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Lake offers the meditation.

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There was plenty of opportunity for thought and reflection.

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One of the great-great-great grandaughters of John R. Blackburn.

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Lake makes a point.

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Rev. Darla Goodrich, senior pastor at the Frist Christian Church, offered the benediction.

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Alan White, 星空无限传媒 Avenue Presbyterian Church pianist provided the postlude.

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Blackburn family member Tiane Jones shaes a laugh with Anne Bost, assistant teaching professor of biology (left).

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Jeanne Blackburn Burch, 103, is pictured following the ceremony.


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