African Americans have been woven into every fabric of Cincinnati’s rich historical tapestry. However, their part in the region’s history has seldom been told this way.
African Americans in Cincinnati have played a vital role in the history of the “Queen City.” Their struggles for racial equality, social justice, and economic opportunities have taken place and continue to take place in the city’s streets, homes, churches, schools, governments and workplaces.
1788 – 1860: Racial Tensions and Racial Segregation
In this first era, which began in 1788, the village of Cincinnati, located on the Ohio River, linking the North, South and West, presented a wealth of economic opportunity for thousands of immigrants to the region during the 19th century. By the mid-1820s, the city had begun to emerge as a force in the manufacturing industry as well as had become the nation’s leader in pork packing (which led to the city also being called “Porkopolis”) and steamboat construction. Individuals who were seeking better jobs and more economic opportunities left the Northeast and upper South for Cincinnati with great hast.
In about a 45-year period, the Queen City had been transformed from a small, relatively unknown village to a booming city, rivaling older, 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 had increased to about 3,200, making it one of the largest Black American communities in the nation during the antebellum era. (Taylor 2005, 1-2).
For many of its new residents, Cincinnati was the promise-land. However, for African American Cincinnatians that promise turned into a nightmare. During most of the 19th century, African Americans in the city began to fully comprehend that although Cincinnati was located in a free state, most of its African American residents had very limited rights and freedoms.
Despite the framers of the Ohio state constitution prohibiting the existence of the system of enslavement in 1802, the passage of a series of legal codes, known as the Black Laws, enacted in 1804 and 1807 respectively, ended any doubts about the real feelings and views of most white politicians about the presence of persons of African descent in the state. In general, these laws prohibited the migration of African Americans into the state of Ohio without a $500.00 “bond guaranteeing good behavior.” (Taylor 2005, 2-3).
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. For example, in 1829 an urban race riot erupted when a group of whites targeted a group of African Americans just for walking down the street.
In the end, the attacks resulted in some Black Americans moving to Canada and eventually creating the Free Wilberforce Colony. Several years later, in 1841, one of the worst urban race riots in American history emerged when a group of dock workers, mostly Irish, attacked a group of African Americans in downtown Cincinnati. Fifty-six people were killed, and 200 were injured. More race riots occurred in Cincinnati throughout the 1840s. Only Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 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, 2-3)
Despite such a harsh racial climate, African Americans in Cincinnati survived and 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 Black American church was the most important institution because it provided both spiritual cover as well as political activists, African American schools were the center of Black American life and community growth in Cincinnati.
More specifically, African American public schools provided the community with a political, social, and an education space to thrive. They also became the centers of protests and activism throughout the entire antebellum period in the city. One of the most important ventures was the establishment of the Independent Colored School System in 1852, which eventually led to the creation Gaines High School, the all-Black public secondary school. Also important was the creation of several private all-Black high schools during these years, with the first and one of the most important being the Gilmore High School for Negroes, where two of its most famous and important graduates were John I. Gaines and Peter H. Clark. (Tenkotte 2014, 41 – 42).
1861 – 1954: The Development of Several Local Civil Rights Organizations and Community Leaders
During this second era, Cincinnati’s history of race riots, which started during the antebellum period, but continued during the 1860s, coincided with the resiliency of African Americans throughout the city with the establishment of several prominent communities. However, the 1862 race riot marked a major turning point in the history of African American life in the Queen City. After this event, the economic gains that many African American workers had made during the previous decades had almost vanished.
The 30 percent employment rate that African American laborers in Cincinnati experienced during the 1860s, in various commercial industries, had been almost cut-in-half by 1870. In education, despite the elimination of the Independent Colored School System Board in 1874, in 1866 the all-Black Gaines High School had already graduated more than 60 students by 1878, which helped to fortify the emerging African American middle class in the city. (Tenkotte 2014, 41 – 42)
By the 1890s, into the early 1900s, like most cities in the United States, and partly codified in law by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, racial segregation permeated most aspects of the Cincinnati. The dismantlement of the Independent Colored School System by the local government demonstrated this situation to all involved.
In 1910, the only operating segregated high school that was still in operation, formally governed by the Independent Colored School System, was the Elm Street School in Walnut Hills, which had been renamed the Douglass Elementary School. 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 87 African American teachers and almost 3,800 African American students in 1870. (Taylor 2005, 2 – 3)
Within this segregationist climate, 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 a follower 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.
In 1923 the Harriet Beecher Stowe House was opened with much fanfare. However, some local African American leaders, such as newspaper publisher Wendell P. Dabney, disagreed with the Porter educational philosophy and published several editorials and articles in his paper titled The Union that expressed his views quite forcefully. (Tenkotte 2014, 73 – 74)
Within this highly segregated environment several local African American-led civil rights organizations also were founded. One of the first was the Cincinnati branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The branch was established in 1915, some years after the national organization in 1909, and with only about 20 members, the Cincinnati NAACP chapter began.
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, such as Wendell P. Dabney, its first president, 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 similarly 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 Greater Cincinnati Urban League, was founded in 1948 as one of Cincinnati’s Community Chest Agencies. (Mjagkij 1993, 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. For example, in 1948, within Cincinnati’s companies that employed at least 1,500 workers, no African American was among them. As a result, the League developed several industrial relations and job training programs and fostered numerous relationships with leading company executives that led to the hiring of hundreds of African Americans in several local businesses such as Shillito’s, Ben’s, and Max Department Stores during the next few years. (Mjagkij 1993, 282 – 283)
During these same years, a cadre of African American community leaders and political activists were emerging. Several of the individuals were directly involved in various local efforts to integrate the city’s public school system fully. 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.
Some of the most important people 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. They helped to organize a campaign, with the assistance of the local NAACP, 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 – 1980s: Triumphs and Tragedies
In this third, and final era, African American in Cincinnati experienced both triumphs and tragedies as they organized various political, social, and economic campaigns to improve their daily lives. For example, 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 that started in 1960, but did not contain an adequate relocation component for the over 40,000 people that were displaced. This urban renewal plan also caused numerous African American institutions in the West End, such the Ninth Street YMCA and the Cotton Club, as well as other African Americans churches, to disappear. (Tenkotte 2014, 120 – 121)
African American Cincinnatians also had to deal with the city’s complex but defined intentional racial segregationist tactics. Indeed, while Cincinnati’s numerous public facilities were not segregated legally, clearly most local African Americans knew that there were customs that existed that unofficially reinforced the wishes of White private property owners who sought to prevent African Africans from entering their hotels, restaurants and amusement parks.
In July 1965, the local Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter began a work stoppage and a sit-in that drew national attention on the issue of racial discrimination in the Federal Building in downtown Cincinnati. 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.
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During the 1970s and 1980s, most individuals who were involved in the local Civil rights movement concentrated most of their efforts on the areas of business development, access to quality public education, and the creation of integrated neighborhoods. For example, during the 1970s Virginia A. Coffey led several community groups the fight to create more integrated neighborhoods throughout the city.
Several years later, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a group of local African American parents, backed by the local NAACP chapter, pushed for the city of Cincinnati to finally end the use of segregated public schools with the 1981 Bronson case. These types of community-based Civil rights activities continued throughout the rest of the 1980s.
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 Anniversary Edition. San Antonio: HPN Books.
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