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politician, was born on Cincinnati's segregated west side, the older of two brothers born to George Blackwell, a meatpacker, and Dana Blackwell, a part-time nurse. Until he was six years old, the family lived in the Laurel Homes housing project. Blackwell would later attribute his character to his father's work ethic, his mother's reading and lessons from the Bible, and the parents' strong promotion of education. He graduated from Hughes High School in 1966, and attended Cincinnati's Xavier University on a football scholarship. A well-regarded and physically imposing athlete—he stood at 6 feet 4 inches, 220 pounds—Blackwell was also seen by his peers as a radical black campus leader, donning daishikis and wearing his hair in an Afro, serving as president of the black students association, and lobbying the administration in civil rights issues.

In his sophomore year, Blackwell married his childhood girlfriend, Rosa whom ...