By Alex Posa
Jerry Greenland Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s, Liz Phair, Ed Helms, and even Charles Martin Hall, Oberlin’s commonly named alumni, are nothing compared to Eduardo Mondlane, Tommie Smith, or the members of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, our badass forgotten alumni.
Eduardo Mondlane graduated in 1953 and went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. Sixteen years after graduating from Oberlin, he was assassinated via a letter bomb likely sent by the Portuguese secret police. Mondlane founded the Mozambique Liberation Front, or FRELIMO, and started the Mozambican War of Independence. Yes, the man who started the Mozambique Revolution graduated from Oberlin College. Sadly, if I hadn’t researched Mozambique and socialism for my modern African history course, I would never have known this. Maybe Oberlin doesn’t broadcast Mondlane because he led a bloody war, but I would put him on the front page of our recruiting packet.
Former faculty member, Tommie Smith, the winner of the men’s 200 meter gold medal in the 1968 Summer Olympics, taught Sports Sociology and coached the track team in the 70s. After setting a world record that would stand for nearly 11 years, Smith, along with bronze medalist John Carlos, raised his fist in a black power salute at the medal ceremony. They both suffered immediate backlash; the International Olympic Committee ordered they be suspended from the US team and leave the Olympic village. After the US team refused, the I.O.C. threatened to suspend the entire U.S. track team. The U.S. broke and sent Smith and Carlos home. They both received death threats because of their actions.
In a news conference after the event, Smith said, “If I win, I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro.’ We are black, and we are proud of being black.” We should all aspire to reach his level of courage.
Four men involved in the raid on Harpers Ferry, including John Brown (a white man) himself, had strong ties to Oberlin. The raid, which took place in 1859, was a failed attempt to start a massive slave insurrection. John Brown’s father sat on Oberlin’s board of trustees. Three black men from Oberlin died as a result of the raid: Lewis Sheridan Leary, John Anthony Copeland, Jr. and Shields Green. Green was the only Oberlin graduate, though Leary’s wife, Mary, graduated in 1864 and was the maternal grandmother of Langston Hughes.
While Oberlin is getting rid of our beloved new slogan, there is some truth to it. These men had chutzpa. Mondlane was instrumental in the Mozambique War of Independence and the members of Harpers Ferry raid surely knew there was a good chance they would be killed. Even Tommie Smith put himself in harm’s way by using an international platform to raise his fist for human rights. I can’t imagine believing in something so strongly that you are willing to die for it, and these guys weren’t just willing to die–they created situations to die in.