Many African Americans had generational ties to the West End. Then the most significant transformation of this region of the city occurred.
The establishment of the West End in Cincinnati, Ohio, started with the origins of the city during the late 1780s, with the establishment of the “Queen City” in 1788 when Israel Ludlow, Matthias Denman, and Robert Patterson purchased eight hundred acres of land from John Cleves Symmes. The area, which rested at the mouth of the Licking River, was bounded on the south by the Ohio River, on the west by the Mill Creek, and on the other two sides by steep hills that measured three to four hundred feet tall. Symmes had obtained 2 million acres of land in the region in 1787 under the Articles of Confederation. Subsequently, he decided to cash in and hopefully make millions by selling parts of his property to the highest bidder during the late 1780s and 1790s.
After an agreement was signed with Symmes, Denman supplied the necessary funds; Patterson located the settlers, and Ludlow surveyed the land for possible settlers and the ultimate establishment of the town. Although the town was founded in 1788, the name Cincinnati did not take hold until two years later, in 1790. However, the natural landscape of the region both defined the boundaries and limited the outward expansion of Cincinnati for its first one hundred years. It was not until the construction of several inclined planes during the 1870s, and the establishment of an electric trolley-car system during the 1880s did the population sprawl and economic growth of the city intensify beyond the crowded basin of the central city region.
By the mid-century, Cincinnati had become a significant machine tool manufacturer of the West. During these years, the city also led the nation in the production of ale, beer, finished clothing items and whiskey. Its intense and powerful meat-packing industries, as well as its wealth of soap production factories, earned the city the name “Porkopolis.” Its dominant commercial position in the steamboat (and steamship) industries also helped the city obtain the name “Queen City of the West.”
Because of this economic boom, thousands of people began to migrate to the city, includes hundreds of African Americans. For example, in 1826, the city had 690 African American residents, but by 1860 the number had grown to about 3,600. Furthermore, between 1820 and 1860 only Philadelphia and New York increased at a faster rate. By 1860 Cincinnati had become the six-largest city in the nation, with a population of about 160,000. Irish and German immigrants were the dominant ethnic groups who also helped to fuel this population expansion in the region.
Many of the new African Americans residents to the city, settled on the outskirts of the central business and commercial districts. Most of these new arrivals migrated from the South in high numbers, based on the promise of stable jobs, especially in the steamboat industry, as well as the belief in improved race relations. More importantly, however, the area of the city in which most African Americans traveled to soon became known as the West End.
These changes in the city’s economy and population also led to a significant real estate boom in the West End. Beginning during the 1830s, there also was a massive transformation of the residential makeup and industrial patterns of the entire region. At the lower part of the West End, along the Ohio River, an African American community, known as “Little Bucktown,” or just “Bucktown” had been established. Right next to “Bucktown,” on its west and north sides, were several newly established Irish communities. A little higher up, on Third Street, an upper class and very influential white community, which pre-dated the 1830s, began to expand along Fourth and Fifth Streets.
Between Sixth and Laurel Streets, a newly established group of middle and lower-middle class white Cincinnatians had started to push out a small but potent group of farmers who had settled in the West End during the early 1800s. Also, this new group of white Cincinnatians was starting to displace older factories, cemeteries, and numerous other locally established businesses and institutions that had been in the region for decades.
The most significant transformation of this region of the city initially occurred in the upper West End. Slaughterhouses, breweries, and soap factories that had been established in this area during the early 1820s intensified in their development between the 1830s and the 1870s. Also, hundreds of tenement houses from workers began to appear throughout this part of the city. Gradually, the entire West End became one of the most densely populated areas in the city. Also notable was that initially, very little racial violence occurred in the region as well in the city at-large. However, this situation changed seemingly overnight with race riots in 1829, 1836, 1842, 1863, and 1884 respectively.
As a result, by the turn of the century, many affluent white residents in the lower and upper West End had been abandoned by the wealthy class. This situation mainly occurred because of several newly developed neighborhoods opened on the hillsides of Cincinnati. Also, many industries began to move to these same regions. By 1900 almost half of the city’s population resided in the Basin and West End region of the city. Twenty years later, the proportion was just about one-third.
Although every ethnic, racial, and income group participated in the enormous exodus from the West End, most people who left the region were non-African Americans. By 1910, with only 6 percent of Cincinnati’s population is African American, 44 percent of the African American residents lived in the West End. Thus, the West End gradually became the primary destination for thousands of southern African American migrants to the city.
During the 1920s, the West End had become the center of Cincinnati’s African American community. The combination of a continually expanding African American population, increased racial barriers to keep African American out of other areas of the city, and the development of very few employment opportunities outside of the West End also caused much energy and focus of the African American community to look inward.
A lively cultural, religious, and social life started to emerge in the West End for African Americans. Some of the most prominent organizations were the establishment of such important civic and civil rights institutions, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Cincinnati’s branch of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and the Negro Civic Welfare Association. These, along with many other similar organizations, principally were devoted to the goals of racial improvement, civic pride, racial uplift, and social justice for all the city’s African American residents.
By the 1930s, 70 percent of Cincinnati’s African American population lived in the West End. Most of these residents were concentrated within a 35-block radius which occurred because of several critical factors such as cheap housing, the proximity to places of employment and commerce, the location of the local railroad station at Union Terminal, and the whereabouts of numerous essential businesses, churches, and civic organizations.
Also noteworthy was the construction of the Laurel Homes and Lincoln Court Housing Projects along with a 22 block area east of Linn Street, stretching from Court Street on the south to Liberty Street on the north. Most importantly, within these decades, the African American Cincinnatians, despite the apparent segregation, would thrive greatly. However, this era would be short-lived.
As World War II ended, numerous public officials, city planners, and business leaders began to worry about Cincinnati’s postwar development. One of the most crucial issues was the impending return, employment and housing of approximately 50,000 servicemen to the Greater Cincinnati region. Also of much concern was the city’s continuous loss of population and industry to the suburbs. As a result, on November 22, 1948, Cincinnati’s City Council adopted the 1948 Master Plan. This Plan emphasized highway construction and community development at a high level. More importantly, however, after the passage of the 1944 Federal Highway Act, the West End region of the city became the focus of numerous redevelopment projects.
However, one of the unintended consequences of these city planning and community redevelopment efforts in the West End was that thousands of local African Americans were forcefully driven out of their local community and into other neighborhoods such as Avondale, Bond Hill, Mount Auburn and Walnut Hills. For example, the African American population in Mount Auburn increase from 2 percent in 1950 to 10 percent in 1960 to 74 percent in 1970. Also, hundreds of local African American businesses, churches, and civic organizations, such as the Ninth Street YMCA and the Cotton Club, were forced to leave the West End because of the dramatic loss in population and revenue.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the remaining African American residents in the West End began to organize and try to slow down or completely stop the seemingly authoritarian notions of the Cincinnati City Council’s effort to force various plan of urban renewal and community redevelopment on the West End community. For instance, the West End Task Force, populated with members of about six city departments, as well as individuals from the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), the Better Housing Authority, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, was established in 1966. Also, the West End Community Council (WECC), whose origins can be traced back the 1930s, was reignited.
Thus, during the next 10 years, both organizations seem to have the power to veto all unwanted major planning and community development projects virtually. However, by the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting the community itself, these and similar organizations in the West End gradually lost much of their political power because of several key leaders seeking and obtaining city and state political officials. Furthermore, sharp internal divisions and organizational fragmentation also destroyed much of the unity that had characterized such organizations in previous decades.
Hurley, Dan and Paul Tenkotte. Cincinnati: The Queen City – 225th Anniversary Edition San Antonio: HPHbooks, 2014.
Davis, John Emmeus. Contested Ground: Collective Action and the Urban Neighborhood. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Harshaw, Sr, John W. Cincinnati’s West End Cincinnati: Create-Space, 2009.
Taylor, Jr. Henry Louis, (ed.) Race and the City: Work, Community and Protest in Cincinnati, 1820 – 1970 Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Taylor, Nikki M. Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802 – 1868 Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.
About the author, Eric R. Jackson
With almost twenty-five 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 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.
Dr. Eric R. Jackson
Professor of History – Director, Black World Studies Program
Northern Kentucky University
Phone – 859.572.6146
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