Small Town Awakening

Nestled in the verdant hills of Southwest Ohio a cluster of turn-of-the-century red brick and limestone buildings stands loosely at attention across a sprawling quad. Cars and sidewalks seem almost to have sprung up piecemeal in and around the former campus of the Western College for Women. Before it was incorporated into the body of Miami University in 1973, for over a century Western College for Women was an internationally recognized liberal arts college, a haven for women’s rights and women’s education, and the setting of some of Oxford’s richest and resonant histories.

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Western Female Seminary, 1906

Equidistant from both the Indiana and Kentucky borders, Oxford, Ohio was an ideally positioned refuge for runaway slaves on their way to urban centers like Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. In 1853, Mount Holyoke Women’s College appropriated three hundred and fifty acres of land, land that had once been the ancestral home of the Miami Native American Tribe before 1818. In relation to the East Coast women’s institutions on which it was modeled, it was truly a Western Female Seminary. When Old Miami closed its doors in 1873, the women’s college remained open. In 1964, over one thousand young volunteer from across the country, ninety percent of whom were white, reported to their largely black activist organizers on Western College’s leafy campus. The Freedom Summer was an awakening for small towns across the country,

beginning in Oxford, Ohio.

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Freedom Summer volunteers sing “We Shall Overcome” before boarding busses to Mississippi. Most were students under the age of 25 and completely naive to the dangers attached to registering black Americans to vote in the deep south.

Western College had always been a self-contained institution with a reputation for challenging barriers, but the Freedom Summer had made the name Western College and the town of Oxford synonymous with activism. In 1974 when Western College for Women was finally incorporated into the body of Miami University, Western Campus remained a resource for women and a hub of local student activism. Peabody Hall, the first building ever constructed for Western Female Seminary, was the first site of the Miami University Women’s Resource Center and a meeting place for feminist groups on campus. One such organization, the Oxford-Miami Chapter of the National Organization for Women, brought integral change and awareness to Miami’s campus and the Oxford community. Members saw themselves as an extension of the larger women’s movement, a second wave of feminist activism that was sweeping the nation, as well as representatives of the values and goals of the National Organization for Women.

 

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