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Oberlin College to pay $36.59M to bakery owners who claim they were falsely accused of racism

<i>Dake Kang/AP</i><br/>The lawsuit said the
Dake Kang/AP
The lawsuit said the "defamation

By Chuck Johnston and Ray Sanchez, CNN

When three Black Oberlin College students were accused of shoplifting by the owners of an Ohio bakery, the small liberal arts school that was once a stop along the Underground Railroad supported the students and called for a boycott.

The owners of Gibson’s Bakery took the matter to court, claiming they had been defamed in 2016 when Oberlin professors and deans joined the student protests — in some cases handing out fliers that read, “DON’T BUY.”

“This is a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION,” the flier said, according to the 2017 lawsuit.

On Thursday, Oberlin College and Conservatory said it would pay a $36.59 million judgment to Gibson Bakery after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on August 30 not to take up the college’s appeal of a lower court ruling that upheld the judgment.

“The power of truth has enabled the Gibson family to survive Oberlin’s onslaught,” attorney Brandon W. McHugh, representing the bakery owners, said in a statement. “Truth Still Matters, David can still overcome Goliath.”

Oberlin, in a statement, said it would not pursue the matter further and called the decision disappointing.

“This matter has been painful for everyone,” the statement said. “We hope that the end of the litigation will begin the healing of our entire community.”

The case stems from the November 2016 arrests of three Black Oberlin students at the bakery and market near the college’s campus in Oberlin, Ohio.

One student, Jonathan Aladin, was accused of attempted robbery for allegedly trying to “steal wine or otherwise illegally obtain wine” from the bakery, according to the defamation lawsuit. He would eventually confess in a written statement to trying to buy alcohol illegally.

The two other suspects were arrested and accused of misdemeanor assault, court documents state. Oberlin staff members later tried to discredit the family-owned bakery, according to the lawsuit.

The suit said Oberlin’s then Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo and other college staff members “handed out hundreds of copies” of the accusatory flier to the community and the media stating that Gibson’s Bakery and its owners racially profiled and discriminated against the three students.

The flier listed 10 of the bakery’s competitors and urged customers to shop there instead.

In November 2016, the lawsuit stated, Oberlin College said it severed its business ties with Gibson’s Bakery. The shop had provided baked goods for the school’s dining services through a third-party company.

Though business ties were reinstated three months later the shop had already suffered severe consequences, according to the suit.

The suit said the “defamation, boycotts, demonstrations, and refusal to do business with Gibson’s Bakery was having a devastating effect on Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family.”

In August 2017, nine months after the three students were arrested, Aladin and Endia Lawrence pleaded guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespass, court documents state.

The third student also pleaded guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespass. Her case has been expunged, Traci Orlando, civil secretary for Judge John R. Miraldi, said in 2019.

In a written statement released that same year, Aladin confessed to using a fake ID to try to buy alcohol when a shop clerk tried to detain him.

“This unfortunate incident was triggered by an attempt to purchase alcohol,” Aladin wrote, according to court documents.

“I believe the employees of Gibson’s actions were not racially motivated. They were merely trying to prevent an underage sale.”

Oberlin, in Thursday’s statement, said: “We value our relationship with the City of Oberlin, and we look forward to continuing our support of and partnership with local businesses as we work together to help our city thrive.”

Oberlin prides itself on being progressive and inclusive. In 1844, George B. Vashon became the first Black student to earn a bachelor’s degree from the college, according to the school website. In 1862, Mary Jane Patterson earned a BA degree in education and became the first black woman to earn a degree from an American college.

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CNN’s Holly Yan contributed to this story.

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