Eric R. Jackson, Guest Editor of our Spotlight on Cincinnati, is an Associate Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University. Dr. Jackson is the author of several books including Cincinnati's Underground Railroad, with Richard Cooper, and Northern Kentucky, a part of the Black America Series. Here he discusses the often overlooked African American history of Cincinnati.
African Americans through Cincinnati's History
African Americans in Cincinnati have played a vital role in the history of the Queen City. Struggles for racial equality, social justice, and economic opportunities have taken place in the city's streets, homes, churches, schools, governments, and workplaces, and these efforts been woven into every fabric of Cincinnati's rich historical tapestry. However, the role of African Americans in the region's history remains largely neglected by scholars and writers, an issue that many modern historians are trying to correct.
1788–1860: Racial Tensions and Racial Segregation
The village of Cincinnati—located on the Ohio River—linked the North, South, and West, presenting a wealth of economic opportunity for thousands of immigrants to the region during the nineteenth century. By the mid-1820s the city had begun to emerge as a force in the manufacturing industry, becoming the nation's leader in pork packing (giving the city its other nickname, "Porkopolis") and steamboat construction. Individuals seeking better jobs and economic opportunities left the Northeast and upper South for Cincinnati in large numbers. In about a forty-five year period, the Queen City had been transformed from a small, relatively unknown village to a booming metropolis, rivaling more established Eastern and Midwestern cities. By the 1850s, Cincinnati had become the sixth largest city in the United States, with a population of about 115,000. Its African American population also increased to about 3,200, making it one of the largest communities of Black Americans in the nation during the antebellum era. (Taylor, 2005, pp. 1–2)
For many of its new residents, Cincinnati was the Promised Land. However, for many African American Cincinnatians that promise never materialized. Although Cincinnati was located in a free state, its African American residents had very limited rights and freedoms. Despite the Ohio state constitution prohibiting slavery in 1802, the passage of a series of legal codes, known as the Black Laws, enacted in 1804 and 1807 respectively, left little doubt about the real views of most of the state's white politicians about the presence of persons of African descent. These laws prohibited the migration of African Americans into the state of Ohio without a $500 "bond guaranteeing good behavior." (Taylor, 2005, pp. 2–3). These laws also required persons of African descent to register with the local state clerk office as well as produce a certificate of freedom upon of the request of any white Ohio citizen. (Taylor, 2005, pp. 32–33)
During the decades that followed a series of additional laws were enacted that denied African Americans the right to testify against whites, serve on juries, and vote in several Ohio counties. Indeed, most African Americans were relegated to an inferior status throughout the state. In Cincinnati, African Americans were plagued by the frequency of racial violence throughout most of the 1800s. In 1829 an urban race riot erupted when a gang of whites targeted a group of African Americans for walking down the street. This event occurred, in part, as result of the growing population of African Americans in the city and the perceived competition for various semi-skilled labor jobs by the majority of white middle-class Cincinnatians. In the end, the attacks resulted in some Black Americans moving to Canada where they created the free Wilberforce settlement Several years later, in 1841, one of the worst urban race riots in American history broke out when a group of dockworkers, mostly Irish, attacked a group of African Americans in downtown Cincinnati. Fifty-six people were killed and two hundred were injured. More race riots occurred in Cincinnati throughout the 1840s. Only Philadelphia experienced more urban upheavals during the same period in American history. As a result, Cincinnati began to be known by many as "Queen City of Mobs" (Taylor, 2005, pp. 2–3).
Despite such a harsh racial climate, African Americans in Cincinnati ultimately established several thriving communities during the antebellum years. The impact of the Underground Railroad in the city helped to build valuable bonds between both fugitive and free Americans within various communities. Compared to the development of African American communities in other cities at the time, where the church was typically the most important institution, in Cincinnati African American schools were the center of Black American life and community growth. Though its schools were segregated, Cincinnati nevertheless led the way in establishing educational institutions for black students. African American public schools not only provided the community with a political, social, and an educational space to thrive. They also became the centers of protests and activism throughout the antebellum period. Several private all-Black high schools were formed during these years, including Gilmore High School for Negroes, whose graduates included John I. Gaines, an African American abolitionist and a highly regarded intellectual in Cincinnati during the antebellum years, and Peter H. Clark, a vocal African American politician, educator, and community activist in the "Queen City" during the 1800s. (Tenkotte, 2014, pp. 41–42). In 1852 the Independent Colored School System was established, which eventually led to the creation of an all-Black public school, Gaines High School.
1861–1954: The Development of Several Local Civil Rights Organizations and Community Leaders
Cincinnati's history of race riots, which started during the antebellum period, but continued during the 1860s, demonstrated the resiliency of many African Americans, including John M. Langston, William Ellison, and George Cary, who helped to maintain and mobilize various African American communities despite the continuous episodes of racial violence. The 1862 race riot in particular marked a major turning point in the history of African American life in the Queen City. This incident was a result of the perceived loss of jobs for Irish and German immigrants in favor of African Americans in Cincinnati. More importantly, after this event, the economic gains that many African American workers had made during the previous decades nearly vanished. The thirty percent employment rate that African American laborers in Cincinnati experienced during the 1860s, in various commercial industries, was almost cut-in-half by 1870. Despite this economic downturn, and the elimination of the Independent Colored School System Board in 1874, the all-Black Gaines High School had already graduated more than sixty students per year by 1878, which helped to fortify the emerging African American middle class in the city. (Tenkotte, 2014, pp. 41 - 42)
As in many American cities, racial segregation became codified in Cincinnati following the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. Moreover, the local government's clumsy dismantling of the Independent Colored School System during the 1880s' clearly demonstrated that the city's white leaders aimed to not only separate the races, but to undermine the collective political power of the city's black population. By 1910 the only black high school that was still in operation was the Elm Street School in Walnut Hills, which had been renamed the Douglass School. All of the other schools were eliminated. By 1912 only seven African American teachers were employed by the Cincinnati Public School System to teach less than 300 African American students, which was a major decline from eighty-seven African American teachers and almost 3,800 African American students in 1870. (Taylor, 2005, pp. 2–3)
In 1914 a young African American teacher named Jennie D. Porter convinced the Cincinnati School Board to allow her to operate an all-Black school in the old Hughes High School building in the West End. It was renamed the Harriet Beecher Stowe School. As an admirer of Booker T. Washington, Porter contended that segregated schools would offer a greater cultural awareness and job opportunities to both African American teachers and students. However, some local African American leaders, such as newspaper publisher Wendell P. Dabney, disagreed with Porter's educational philosophy. The first president of the local branch of the NAACP, Dabney published several editorials and articles in his paper titled The Union that criticized Washington's emphasis on vocational training as the chief means of political empowerment (Tenkotte, 2014, pp. 73–74).
Within this highly segregated environment several local African American-led civil rights organizations were founded. One of the first was the above-mentioned Cincinnati branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1915, with only about twenty members, the Cincinnati NAACP chapter was formed; established six years after the national organization. One of its earliest victories was the elimination of segregated public schools in the city. Several prominent local African Americans served as president of the organization, including Dabney; Theodore "Ted" Berry, who was president of the organization from 1932 to 1946, as well as later the first African American mayor of Cincinnati; and Reverend L. Venchel, who served as president and chaired a highly successful membership campaign that started in 1954.
Another African American-led civil rights organization that started in a similar fashion was the Greater Cincinnati Urban League (GCUL). Known by several different names, such as the Negro Civic Welfare Committee of the Council of Social Agencies and the Negro Civic Welfare Association Department of the Council of Social Agencies, the League, was founded in 1948 as one of Cincinnati's Community Chest Agencies (Mjagkij, 1993, pp. 280–281). A major focus of the League during its initial years was the development of employment opportunities for Cincinnati's continuously expanding African American workforce. In 1948, no African Americans were employed by any of the Cincinnati companies employing at least 1,500 workers. To correct this, the League developed several industrial relations and job training programs and fostered numerous relationships with leading company executives, all of which led to the hiring of hundreds of African Americans in several local businesses such as Shillito, Ben's, and Max Department Stores over the next few years. (Mjagkij, 1993, pp. 282–283)
During these same years, a small but influential group of African American community leaders and political activists were emerging. Several of the individuals were directly involved in various local efforts to fully integrate the city's public school system. They were especially active after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which called for an end to the use of segregated public schools across the country. Some of the most significant people active in this period were Virginia Coffey, Theodore "Ted" Berry, Frank A.B. Hall, William L. Mallory, Sr., Wilber A. Page, Marjorie Parham, Fred L. Shuttlesworth, and Marian Spencer. With the assistance of the local NAACP, they helped to organize a campaign, to end segregation at Coney Island, a local amusement just outside of downtown Cincinnati. All these individuals would play a vital role in the budding Modern Civil rights movement in Cincinnati during the next few decades.
1955–2015: Triumphs and Tragedies
African Americans in Cincinnati experienced both triumphs and tragedies as they organized various political, social, and economic campaigns to improve their daily lives. Thousands of African American Cincinnatians, especially those who lived in the West End, had to deal with being relocated to other communities, particularly to Mt. Auburn, Walnut Hills, and Over the Rhine, as a result of the city's 1948 urban renewal plan. After numerous budgetary and management issues, the plan was enforced in1960, and did not include an adequate relocation component for the over 40,000 people that were displaced. This plan also did away with numerous African American institutions in the West End, such the Ninth Street YMCA and the Cotton Club, a dance and music hall, as well as several African Americans churches. (Tenkotte, 2014, pp. 120–121)
African American Cincinnatians also had to deal with the city's lasting racial segregationist tactics. While Cincinnati's numerous public facilities were not legally segregated, most local African Americans knew that there were customs that unofficially reinforced the wishes of white private property owners who sought to prevent African Africans from entering their hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks. For instance, not a single African American worked as a manager at any of the city's major hotels or restaurants. In July 1965, the local Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter began a work stoppage and a sit-in in the Federal Building in downtown Cincinnati that drew national attention on the issue of racial discrimination. As a result, the city started a federal assistance job training program for African American males. However, very few individuals took advantage of the program.
During the 1970s and 1980s most individuals who were involved in the local Civil rights movement concentrated their efforts on the areas of business development, access to quality public education, and the creation of integrated neighborhoods. During the 1970s Virginia A. Coffey led several community groups in the fight to create more integrated neighborhoods throughout the city. Several years later, during late 1970s and early 1980s, a group of local African American parents, backed by the local NAACP, pushed for the city to finally end the use of the remaining unofficially segregated public schools. The 1981 Bronson case forced the complete integration of the city's public school system immediately as a result of several law suits by a number of local African American families. These types of community-based Civil rights activities continued throughout the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s. By this time, the city's racial problems began to be linked a clear class divide within Cincinnati and the surrounding county which made trying to mobilizing groups of citizens much more difficult.
Despite these limitations, some progress was made during the 1990s. Specifically, various neighborhoods took the lead in the improvement of race relations and the plight of African Americans in the city. For example, Avondale attempted to rebuild itself starting with the transformation of many empty, former Jewish synagogues into active Protestant churches. Although this part of the city lost more residents than any other area of the city, non-profit companies, such as the Uptown Consortium, invested about the $20 million into redevelopment of the neighborhood. In addition, the corporation financed extra police protection throughout the neighborhood.
In 2001 another riot took place, this time in response to the shooting of an unarmed African American teenager, Timothy Thomas, by a white police officer in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Following the riots, black activists led an economic boycott of the city. The ACLU and the Black United Front continued to pursue a lawsuit filed before the shooting alleging racial profiling, and the settlement led to The Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, a plan to improve police relations with the community. The agreement took several years to enact, following intense negations between the police, black leaders, business owners, and community members. Though tensions still exist, the years since the riot led to a more transparent relationship between the law enforcement and the community.
Today the city continues to change with regions of the city, such as Over-the-Rhine and the riverfront (now known as "The Banks") in a new redevelopment phase. Though some believe this is an "'urban renaissance'", others have raised concerns of gentrification and the displacement of poor, often African American, neighborhoods.
Mjagkij, Nina. 1993. "Behind the Scenes: The Cincinnati Urban League, 1948 - 63." In Race and the City: Work, Community, and Protest in Cincinnati, 1820 - 1970, by Jr Henry Louis Taylor, 280 - 294. Urbana: University of Illinois Press
Taylor, Nikki N. 2005. Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati's Black Community, 1802 - 1868. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Tenkotte, Daniel Hurley and Paul A. 2014. Cincinnati: The Queen City - 225th Annnersary Edition. San Antonio: HPN Books.