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14 Books About the History and Life of African Americans in Cincinnati


Leslie Isaiah Gaines, a flamboyant, booming baritone-voiced, black derby wearing, larger-than-life man (who at times, at 6 foot 4 inches, weighed 250 to 300 pounds) was one of the most influential African American civil rights leaders and community activists in Cincinnati, Ohio (also known as the “Queen City”) from the 1970s the early 2000s.


Gaines’ passion for social justice and legal fairness, especially in the city’s many courtrooms, both as a fiery defense attorney and a witty Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge, enabled him to gain a powerful reputation as having one the best legal minds of his era in the region. He also was a champion for the thousands of less fortunate African American citizens who lived in the area.


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In 1973 Gaines helped to establish the Black Lawyers of Cincinnati Association, which took on both little-known and high-profile cases for individuals who could not afford to pay the regular fee commanded by most lawyers in the city and county. Several years later, in 1977, Gaines became a household name by being one of the first African American lawyers in the nation to advertise his services as a pre-eminent defense attorney nationally.


Related article: Must-Read Books by Black Authors in Cincinnati


His commercials aired during national shows such as “Good Morning America” and “Monday Night Football.” He contended that such commercials instilled a belief in many African American young people the view that the legal professional was an employment area that they could aspire to become a part of at all costs.


In 1993 Gaines’ outstanding legal mind and dedication to eliminate unfair treatment in all forms within the legal profession and be an activist for the city’s minority population helped to lead to his appointment as a Hamilton County Judge by Ohio Governor George Voinovich. As a Judge, he would wield a giant gavel while continuously saying, “This is the giant gavel of Justice.”


Several years later, Gaines decided and subsequently dedicated his life to traveling the region and country as an evangelist as well as performed on numerous occasions as a powerful motivational speaker. Soon many awards followed. But, despite these various accomplishments, very few people are aware of his powerful impact on improving race relations and advocating for social justice in the city of Cincinnati.


Without understanding the past, it is difficult to grapple with the present. Thus, to thoroughly examine how individuals like Leslie Isaiah Gaines came to prominence, here are Black Cincinnati Books one must read on the history of the African Americans in Cincinnati.


  • African Americans in CincinnatiWendell P. Dabney’s Cincinnati’s Colored Citizen’s. First published in 1926, the volume chronicles the city’s most influential and successful African American Cincinnatians. Still today, it is one of the most important books that explore the city’s rich African American heritage and culture.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • Dorothy H. Christenson’s Keep on Fighting: The Life and Civil Rights Legacy of Marian A. Spencer. Marian Alexander Spencer was born in 1920 in the Ohio River town of Gallipolis, Ohio. Following the example of her grandfather, a former enslaved African American and community leader, Young Marian joined the National Association for the Advance of Colored People (NAACP) at thirteen. She grew up to achieve not only many civic leadership firsts in her adopted home city of Cincinnati, Ohio but achieved a significant and lasting legacy for African American Cincinnatians.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • LaVerne Summerlin’s Gems of Cincinnati’s West End: Black Children & Catholic Missionaries. This project began with Summerlin’s decision to interview and/or read about 100 alumni and/or their parents who were educated in those inner-city Catholic schools between 1940-1970. Their personal stories are at the core of this narrative that details the Catholic church’s impact on their lives. In addition, it tells of the collaborative efforts between members of the many religious orders and lay ministers. Purchase from Amazon or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • John Emmius Davis’ Contested Ground: Collective Action and the Urban Neighborhood. In Part III of this powerful volume, the editor tests the plausibility of his overall framework of the book within the social and political realities of an inner-city neighborhood known as the West End in Cincinnati, Ohio.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • Keith P. Griffler’s Frontline of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. In shifting the focus from the much-discussed white-led “stations” of the Underground Railroad to the primarily African American led frontline struggle along the Ohio River, particularly in Cincinnati, Ohio, the author reveals for the first time the crucial importance of the freedom movement in the Queen City.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • John W. Harshaw, Sr’s Cincinnati’s West End: Through Our Eyes. This one book chronicles the author’s journey growing up in the West end of Cincinnati, Ohio.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • Eric R. Jackson and Richard Cooper’s Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad. This primarily pictorial volume examines the origins and development of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio. Both obscure and well-known places and individuals are examined in this volume.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


Related article: The History of African Americans in Cincinnati  


  • Nathaniel R. Jones’ Answering the Call: An Autobiography of the Modern Struggle to End Racial Discrimination in America. Judge Nathaniel R. Jones’s groundbreaking career was forged in the 1960s. He was the first African American assistant United States attorney in Ohio, an assistant general counsel of the Kerner Commission, and in 1969 was the general counsel of the NAACP. More importantly, he spent decades as a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • Marty Ford Pieratt’s First Black Red: The Story of Chuck Harmon. Chuck Harmon’s compelling life story symbolizes all that is good about America’s pastime and its oldest professional franchise. His great-great-grandfather fought and died for freedom in the Civil War. Less than 100 years later, Chuck Harmon was still fighting for justice – not with a gun and bayonet, but with a golden glove and becoming the first African American baseball player for the Cincinnati, Reds in 1954.
    Borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • Eliza Potter’s A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life. This book examines the life of Eliza Potter, who was a freeborn African American woman who, as a hairdresser, was in a unique position to hear about, receive confidences from, and observe wealthy white women who resided in or traveled throughout Cincinnati, Ohio during the antebellum period.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • Gina Ruffin’s Cincinnati. Cincinnati’s African American heritage is revealed here through fascinating images of African American life in the community, churches, education, politics, entrepreneurship, civil rights, community benevolence, and sports.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • History of Black CincinnatiHenry Louis Taylor, Jr’s Race and the City: Work, Community, and Protest in Cincinnati, 1820-1970. This edited volume provides a rich view and context to explore the social, economic, and political development of African American Cincinnatians. These articles also offer insight into both the dynamics of racism and a community’s changing responses to it.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • Nikki M. Taylor’s America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark. As a pioneer educational activist in Cincinnati as well as throughout the state of Ohio, Peter H. Clark led the fight for African Americans’ access to Ohio’s public schools. He became the first African American principal in the state. He supported all-Black schools and staunchly defended them even after the tide turned toward desegregation. As a politician, intellectual, educator, and activist, Clark was complex and enigmatic. The author explores Clark in much detail and precision.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.


  • Nikki M. Taylor’s Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802 – 1868. Nineteenth-century Cincinnati, Ohio, was northern in its geography, southern in its economy and politics, and western in its commercial aspirations. While those identities presented a crossroad of opportunity for native whites and immigrants, African American Cincinnatians endured economic repression and a denial of civil rights, compounded by extreme and frequent mob violence. No other northern city rivaled Cincinnati’s vicious mob spirit. Despite this environment, the author examines how African Americans in the city persevered.
    Purchase or borrow from the Cincinnati Library.



About the author, Eric R. Jackson
With almost 30 years of academic experience at the university level, Dr. Eric R. Jackson teaches in the fields of American and African American History/Studies, Race Relations, and Peace Studies. He also has a vast knowledge of Black Cincinnati books. He has published over 50 publications, including journals such as Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies, the  Journal of African American History,  and the  International Journal of World Peace. Dr. Jackson also  received the Goodwill Ambassador for the Golden Rule Award in 2016 and the Second International World Civility Award from IChange Nations in 2017.


Eric R. Jackson, Ph.D.
Professor of History –  Director, Black Studies Program
Northern Kentucky University
Phone – 859.572.6146
[email protected]


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