The Success of a Failed Institution: The Differences Between Knox College and Oneida Institute

Education, in all its provisions, influences, and tendencies, must be adapted to the same basis as the peculiarities of the gospel and the decisions of the final judgment. Beriah Green, second President of the Oneida Institute, 1841.[1]

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Sketch of Oneida Institute, 1841

Ten years before George Washington Gale began Knox College and Galesburg, he founded Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York. Knox College and the Oneida Institute had many similarities, represented by the passage quoted above. They believed that “sons must be taught to study human nature in the constitutional forms and moral features which are the natural results of the divine arrangements”.[2] And that “To man, as man, guilty, needy, wretched, exposed to eternal death, and yet capable of everlasting life, they must be taught to extend their cordial sympathies and assistance.”[3] Those who are of God must follow God's guidance in teaching and in learning. Centered on religion, education, and manual labor, these institutions shared many of the same goals and general structure.  Despite the fact that George Washington Gale was involved in both colleges, only one is still standing. But why? I searched to find how the institutions were planned and run. I looked through annual reports of the Oneida institution, Trustee minutes, and letters between founders of both institutions to see how each institution was planned, structured, and run. What factors led to the success of Knox College, and the downfall of Oneida Institute? What differences were there that led to their different outcomes? Oneida was a poorly planned experiment, while Knox and the surrounding community was planned and funded two years in advance. The founders of Knox College used the experiment of Oneida institute to plan every aspect of Knox College and the surrounding community before they established the College.

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Second Annual report of the Oneida Trustees

Oneida Institute was founded in 1827 by George Washington Gale, who served as its president for the first six years that it ran. It began with little planning, and was consistently referred to as an ‘experiment’ by its trustees.[4] This institution carried the main principles of 1) educating its students on the gospel of the Lord 2) making each student perform manual labor for 3-4 hours daily to the benefit of the institution 3) College attendance is only permitted if manual labor is performed, and all other rules are followed 4) the material taught in classes must align with Christian ideals.[5] Overall the main idea was that the institution would be religious with Christian students who would help maintain the college for pay, reducing the cost of attendance and maintaining particular values. Initially the students were to work for 3-4 hours total, with their work split to be twice daily, but later changed to be once daily for 3.5 hours in the morning. Students would arise at four in the morning to go work in the fields. The hours of labor worked were documented and compensated, often going towards housing, tuition, and donations to the college. Oneida used the students’ manual labor to save money as well as donations and subscriptions to help fund their institution. Some of their board members and their families were the largest donors.[6] The requirements to attend this institution is as previously stated, but additionally, students of color were permitted to enroll. Many Black students, particularly freed slaves, went to Oneida.[7] Oneida’s Board of Trustees considered the Institution a success, but ultimately, it eventually failed.

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Third Annual Report of the Oneida Trustees

George Washington Gale considered Oneida a success, however, he saw room for improvement and did not make Knox College a carbon copy. He left Beriah Green as the president of Oneida and carried on with planning his next institution. Oneida was built and planned as they went along and as they got funding, but Knox College was extensively planned before the founders got on the scene. Oneida did not have many of their structures built before students began attending, and still did not have all the housing they planned to build 4 years years after it started.[8] Knox’s first building planned to be built was lodging.[9] After Gale left Green as president, things began to change. Green was more earnest of an abolitionist leader, and “sought to establish a truly biracial society, not simply put an end to slavery” and began enrolling Black students.[10]

The planning of the school's structure was not the only thing that was done differently. Oneida Institute was erected in a town that already existed, and was near another large city. Although many people were religious, and those in positions of power had people practicing christianity, having large cities still made it difficult to ensure that everybody had the same values to keep everybody in harmony.[11] George Washington Gale planned a town that had the college at its heart and center. He planned the town, farmlands, and community as a whole around the College and its goals of religious practice and values. This made it easy to have many people have the same beliefs and keep people in harmony. The lack of community unity in values contributed to some of the trials and tribulations that Oneida faced. Since Oneida taught many Black students, which posed a risk for support from people in the surrounding community. In New Hampshire, a school that taught Black students was not supported by the community, and many rallied together to drag the school into a swamp with their oxen.[12] This, and many other experiences of protest may have been a contributing factor to what led Knox College to be hesitant to enroll Black students. 

Something from Oneida that Gale continued at Knox was the manual labor aspect. Initially Knox was known as Knox Manual Labor College. It was believed as a part of their religion, that manual labor is your duty, and that you are more likely to give kindly and conscientiously if you work for your pay. It was also a strong belief that manual labor kept students physically healthy, and helped them to be able to focus on their studies.[13] The practice was new to the founders of Oneida and testing out the workability of it was one of their main goals. Being a manual labor college, especially in its formative years, was very helpful for saving on costs to erect structures necessary for the institution.

Although Oneida was eventually retired as a College, it was not necessarily a total failure. In the years that it was active, those running it claimed that they saw it as a success. They had to turn away many prospective students because there were so many applicants. Not all students who began their studies at Oneida stayed. Those who left were not considered a loss though, the board saw them as “prepared wholly or in part from them at this institution… and have the ministry in view”.[14]

Both Institutions were founded by abolitionists, but Knox had its first Black student (Barnabas Root) graduate in 1870.[15] Root was not African American though, he was an international student. Many white abolitionists believed that “slavery had debased Black people morally, intellectually, and socially”.[16] It was thought that people who were enslaved were degraded spiritually and intellectually, so they viewed a difference between Africans vs African Americans. Oneida had been instructing freed slaves before the civil war when it was illegal to do so.

George Washington Gale was a part of both institutions and was inspired by Oneida in how he planned Knox. Although Oneida eventually closed, it was considered a success and was more of a success as an abolitionist Institution than Knox. The differing ways that the communities surrounding the schools were united had an influence on the support that the Colleges had. Despite this, Oneida continued instructing Black students. Although the experiment of Oneida was considered a success, in comparison to Knox, the beginning in planning and building was a lot slower and not well thought out. Knox is still standing today, but Oneida has its legacy of being a great abolitionist institution.

The Success of a Failed Institution: The Differences Between Knox College and Oneida Institute