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Benjamin W. Arnett and his wife
Benjamin W. Arnett and his wife, Mary Louise Gordon – Photo from

Born a free man in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, Benjamin Arnett was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. In 1958, at age 20, his leg was amputated (some sources say a tumor and others say an injury while working on a steamboat). Nonetheless, that same year, he married Mary Louise Gordon, earned his teaching certificate and began his career as an educator. 

In 1865, Arnett became licensed to preach in the A.M.E church., which brought him to Cincinnati, where he was a pastor of Allen Temple. Rev. Arnette accepted an appointment within the A.M.E church, which relocated his family to Wilberforce in 1885.  


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Benjamin W. Arnett
Benjamin W. Arnett (1838 – 1906), first Black man to serve as foreman of an otherwise all-white jury – Photo from Wikipedia

A skilled political orator, Arnette was elected to the Ohio House representing Greene County. In the two years he served (1886-1887), Arnett introduced legislation to repeal the state’s “Black Laws of 1804 and 1807,” designed to limit the freedom, rights and economic prosperity of African American residents.  

For more than 80 years, African American and mulatto Ohioans were required to prove that they were not slaves and find at least two people who would guarantee a surety of $500 for their good behavior. Other restrictions included the right to vote or testify against white people in trials. Ohio’s Black Laws also limited African Americans’ rights to marry whites, gun-ownership, quality education and other opportunities afforded to white residents. 


Related Article: The History of African Americans in Cincinnati


Benjamin W. Arnett
Benjamin W. Arnett introduced legislation to repeal Ohio’s Black Laws – Photo from Cincinnati Public Library

Ohio’s Black Laws were repealed in 1887, which also led to the desegregation of schools throughout the state. After leaving office, Arnett was remained influential in Republican politics, thanks, in part, to his friendship with a fellow legislator (and later president), William McKinley 

Arnett died at Wilberforce University in 1906.  





19th Century Black Cincinnatians you should know | Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library (
Benjamin W. Arnett, Jr. | Ohio Statehouse
Benjamin W. Arnett – Wikipedia
Black Laws of 1807 – Ohio History Central
(1804) Ohio Black Codes ( 


The First 28, graciously sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, celebrates Black Cincinnatians who were the first in their fields. Each day during Black History Month, we will celebrate athletes, artists, business leaders, civil rights activists, educators, physicians and politicians.


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