In his classic The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the famous activist, sociologist, and historian W. E. B. Du Bois, tells of how Alexander Crummell told Du Bois that he had experienced “three years of perfect equality” under the tutelage of Rev. Beriah Green when a student at Oneida Institute in Upstate New York.
Crummell, along with Henry Highland Garnet and Thomas Sidney, found an educational haven at Green’s school. They had been admitted to the Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire, but outraged whites used teams of oxen to drag the academy building away. Crummell and his friends then journeyed to Whitesboro, New York, and enrolled in Green’s school. Du Bois said of Green that “only [a] crank and an abolitionist” would have dared to accept students of color such as Crummell at a time when African Americans were excluded from opportunities for higher education.
Beriah Green, a Presbyterian clergyman of New England origin, assumed the presidency of Oneida Institute in fall of 1833. Conservative trustees at Western Reserve College, Hudson, Ohio, had forced Green to resign his teaching post when Green used the chapel pulpit of the college to condemn slavery and its supporters. Green assumed leadership of Oneida Institute on two conditions. He must be allowed to advance the abolitionist cause without hindrance and admit students regardless of caste or color. Green served as the presiding officer at the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 in Philadelphia.
The Oneida Institute had been chartered in 1829 as the Oneida Institute of Science and Industry. Rev. George W. Gale served as the school’s first president. The school was situated on a 115-acre farm along the Erie Canal east of Whitesboro, New York and about four miles west of Utica. Operating on manual labor educational principles, students worked in fields and shops. After William Lloyd Garrison called for immediate emancipation, some Oneida Institute students, among them Theodore Dwight Weld, took up the abolitionist cause. Students at the Oneida Institute organized the first anti-slavery society in New York State.
Green’s arrival radicalized the school. He transformed the curriculum so that students might have a reform-minded practical education. Oneida Institute became a training ground for young abolitionists. They used the school’s printing press to turn out The Friend of Man, an important abolitionist periodical. Green urged his students to become evangelists for the freedom cause. He led by example, challenging pro-slavery advocates in public debate in area churches and communities.
The existing reports of Green’s school do not identify students by race. Amos Phelps, a Boston abolitionist, wrote Green in 1840 asking how many students of color were attending Oneida Institute. Green responded, “I know not what number of colored students we have had. We have at this time, including those of Indian blood, about 20.”
Josiah B. Grinnell (later a prominent Iowa politician and namesake of Grinnell College) recalled that when he was a student at Green’s school, the Oneida Institute had a “motley company” of “emancipator’s boys from Cuba; mulattoes removed from their sable mothers; a high tempered Spanish student [from the Island of Minorca]; an Indian named Kunkapot; black men who had served as sailors, or as city hackmen; also the purest Africans escaped from slavery, of a class like the elegant Garnet; sons of American radicals, Bible students scanning Hebrew verse with ease, in place of Latin odes; enthusiasts, plowboys and printers; also real students of elegant tastes, captured by the genius of President Green.”
As student rosters exist for only the first four years of Oneida Institute when under Green’s leadership and individuals are not identified by race, fourteen of the African Americans who attended have been identified to date. Henry Highland Garnet and Jermain Loguen are two individuals worth noting here. Both were fugitives from slavery while students at Oneida Institute, evidence that Green and his students supported the Underground Railroad. Garnet became a well-known Presbyterian clergyman, activist, and abolitionist. Loguen left Oneida Institute in 1841, most likely not graduating, and settled in Syracuse where he was so involved in aiding fugitives that he became known as “The Underground Railroad King.”
Oneida Institute when Beriah Green was president was far too radical for its time. Hostile to the school’s transformation into a “hotbed of abolition,” Presbyterian church officials and education societies withdrew funding. Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, New York, one of the wealthiest men of the time, had to cut back on his financial donations to Oneida Institute after the Panic of 1837. Green’s school had been a school for poor youth, so when external sources of aid dried up, many students had to leave.
Green felt increasingly isolated and bitter that his grand dream of a school that modeled a multi-racial and egalitarian America was coming to an end. To make matters worse, Beriah Green and family awoke at 5 am on a Saturday in late September 1843 to find their house in Whitesboro aflame. The family removed to rather spartan rooms on the Institute campus. On November 1, 1843, Green walked the short distance from his campus lodgings to the campus chapel. There he delivered his last valedictory address.
In reviewing the legacy of Oneida Institute under the ten years of his leadership, Beriah Green spoke on the theme of “Success” in his valedictory address in 1843. He candidly admitted “we are called onion-grubbers” and “the negro-school.” He noted that the “grim ecclesiastics” of the day spurned the school and patrons had stopped assisting Oneida Institute. The outside world might judge Oneida Institute a failure, he argued, but if “Success” meant maintaining principles and “training up a goodly number of young men, of different complexions, for stations of usefulness,” then, said Green, Oneida Institute’s radical experiment in egalitarian education had been a success.
A group of Free Will Baptists purchased the buildings and grounds of Oneida Institute in 1844 and founded Whitestown Seminary. None of the original buildings of Oneida Institute exist today. Green died on May 4, 1874. He is buried in Grandview Cemetery overlooking Whitesboro. The National Abolition Hall of Fame, Peterboro, New York, inducted Green in 2006. The Oneida History Center, Utica, New York, inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2021.
Illustrations, from above: Daguerreotype of Beriah Green, courtesy of John Baker, a descendant; Alexander Crummell, from Alexander Crummell, The Greatness of Christ: And Other Sermons. New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1882; Map showing location of Oneida Institute, segment of A. E. Rogerson and E. J. Murphy, Map of Oneida County New York. Philadelphia: Newell S. Brown, 1852; and Oneida Institute at the time of its sale, from D. Gordon Rohman, Here’s Whitesboro: An Informal History. New York: Stratford House, 1949, image follows p. 80.