Otterbein Honors Juneteenth and Supports the Movement for Racial Equity 

Posted Jun 15, 2022

Americans across the country will celebrate Juneteenth this Sunday, June 19. Juneteenth marks an important event in our nation’s history — one that has been overlooked by many Americans for 150 years.  

Juneteenth Flyer
Otterbein’s Juneteenth Celebration Event June 18

In school, generations of children have learned about the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863; about Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, essentially ending the Civil War; and about the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, which was passed by Congress on Jan. 31, 1865.  

What many children did not learn was that the Confederate state of Texas ignored all orders to free enslaved people and, in fact, became a safe haven where enslavers from other Confederate states resettled to continue to benefit from the oppressive system.  

Most enslaved people in Texas did not know they were legally free until June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to ensure that all enslaved people be freed. This was a full TWO AND A HALF YEARS after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  

Juneteenth honors the end to slavery in the United States and is considered the longest-running African American holiday. Last year, it was finally recognized as a federal holiday. 

Otterbein was founded 175 years ago — before the Civil War — by Abolitionists who believed in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our history includes many instances in which our community excelled at living those values, along with times when it failed to live up to them. That’s why knowing our history is so important — only by confronting the mistakes of our past can we make positive changes for a better future. 

Here are some highlights from Otterbein’s history: 

  • William Hanby, one of Otterbein’s founders, was the third generation of his family bound by indentured servitude. When he escaped from an abusive master at the age of 19, he dedicated his life “to the attainment of the blessings of religion, of education, and human freedom.” Hanby became a United Brethren bishop and, with Rev. Lewis Davis, founded Otterbein. The men were active members of Underground Railroad along with Hanby’s son, Benjamin, who wrote the anti-slavery ballad “Darling Nellie Gray.”   
  • Otterbein’s first Black student, William Hannibal Thomas, enrolled in 1859 but left in 1860, after suffering discrimination and abuse. This regrettable time in the University’s history is something that inspires continued reflection today.  
  • In 1861, many male professors and students left Otterbein to fight for the Union Army in the American Civil War.  
  • In 1893, William Henry Fouse became the first Black student to graduate from Otterbein. Fouse was welcomed on campus, where he took an active role in student life. He played clarinet in the music ensemble, served on the editorial staff of the student newspaper, and gave a commencement speech, “A Plea for the Afro-American.” He went on to a distinguished career in education. In 1937 Otterbein awarded him an honorary doctorate degree.  
  • In 1896, the first international student enrolled. Joseph Hannibal Caulker was born and raised in Sheng, Sierra Leone, West Africa. He was an exemplary student, active in music, arts, and the YMCA. In addition, he placed second in the state oratorical contest and set a record of 10.25 seconds in the hundred-yard-dash. Caulker died in a tragic oil stove explosion in 1900. He is buried in the Otterbein Cemetery. In 1995, Otterbein awarded him a posthumous degree. More than a dozen Caulker descendants were among over 30 students from Sierra Leone to attend Otterbein.  
  • In 1928, Viola Burke of Columbus, Ohio, became the first Black woman to graduate from Otterbein. She earned a bachelor’s degree in music and became a respected music teacher in several schools throughout the Midwest. 
  • In 1969, the first Black student group, SOUL, was formed on campus. In 1987, the African American Student Union was established on campus “to promote unity and cooperation among all students with similar interests and backgrounds.” AASU is still active today, along with other racial equity groups, including Sisters United and the Black Student Athlete Union. 
  • In 1993, Otterbein established the Office of Ethnic Diversity and the William Henry Fouse House of Black Culture, which serves as a meeting, social and living space for African American students.  
  • In February 2020, Otterbein was selected by the Association of American Colleges and Universities as one of 23 universities across the United States to host Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Centers. Otterbein was the first institution in Ohio to receive this recognition. As a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Center (TRHT), Otterbein will work with its own campus community as well as the Columbus City and Westerville City school districts to create positive narrative change about race; promote racial healing activities; and erase structural barriers to equal treatment and opportunity. 
  • Desmond Fernandez ’21 organized peaceful Black Lives Matters marches in Westerville in summer 2020 when he was a senior theatre major. “What I thought was going to be maybe 50 people was almost 1,000 people,” he said. “It was inspiring. Not only was I protesting with my classmates, I was protesting with my teachers.” 
  • In spring 2022, Otterbein students voted the first Black male president of OUSG into office. Timmy Wotring will lead the student government during the 2022-2023 academic year.  

If you would like to learn more about Otterbein’s connection to the Abolitionist Movement, we invite you to watch a 34-minute video recording of “Lewis Davis, Otterbein, and the Underground Railroad,” a presentation by Otterbein Archivist Stephen Grinch.