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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Ariana Abayomi was sound asleep in her dorm room at Oberlin College in Ohio, when a fellow resident advisor awakened her in the middle of the night.

Groggy with sleep, Abayomi struggled at first to comprehend what she was hearing.

Someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood … spotted on campus … right outside … emergency meeting in the lounge.

“I was standing there thinking, ‘KKK?'” she said. “‘At Oberlin?'”

Twelve hours later, it was still her question. Repeatedly, she apologized for stumbling over her words during our interview. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I haven’t had much sleep. A lot of us were up all night.”

When I asked why, she shook her head and said softly, “We didn’t feel safe enough to go to sleep.”

In the wee hours of Monday morning, a student reported seeing a figure cloaked in a white robe and hood standing near Oberlin’s Afrikan Heritage House — “A-House,” in campus parlance — where Abayomi lives.

Abayomi, who is black, grew up in Atlanta. “Georgia is inherently more racist,” she said. “This has had a bigger impact because it’s a smaller community. I never thought it would happen here in Oberlin.”

It was the latest in a series of recent hate-related acts of vandalism that have left the Oberlin community reeling. The word “black” was scratched out on Black History Month posters, replaced with a racial epithet. Freshly etched swastikas and “Whites Only” hovered over a water fountain. Anti-Semitic and racist fliers peppered the campus. A student reported a stranger uttering a racial slur before pushing him to the ground. So far, no one has been charged.

The incidents are a jarring new reality for Oberlin College, located about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland. Founded in 1833, Oberlin has a long history of progressive activism. It was a crucial stop on the Underground Railroad. It was also one of the first colleges to educate men and women together and to admit black students.

Sean Decatur, dean of arts and sciences, said he is saddened by these acts, but not surprised.

“Oberlin is a place I respect for both its history and its standards,” said Decatur. “On the other hand, it’s part of the world. These incidents are not out of the realm of possibility because it happens everywhere.”