The first major American city founded after the Revolution, Cincinnati became an attractive destination for settlers and merchants from all ethnic backgrounds. Thanks to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787—which outlawed slavery in the territories that would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin—black people in particular saw unprecedented economic opportunities in the Queen City. However, as in so many other cases, the rapid growth of the black community triggered a severe, sometimes violent reaction from white political and business leaders, who quickly moved to disenfranchise, segregate, and even bar African Americans from entering the state in the early nineteenth century. Though black people made up ten percent of the city's population by the 1820s, a number of laws restricted their movement and barred them from social services, such as the public school system. Tensions boiled over in a race riot that occurred in the summer of 1829. Many more disturbances would follow in the ensuing decades.
Unfortunately, this puts Cincinnati in league with so many other urban centers across the country. What makes the city unique is its location in a rapidly growing America, and how that affected the development of its African American community. The city was essentially the first frontier town, with a burgeoning manufacturing sector and a thriving port on the Ohio River. Though Cincinnati has lost much of its cultural and economic influence in the twenty-first century, it ranked among the ten most populous cities at the outbreak of the Civil War. As a result, the black community grew and contributed, despite the legal codes that restricted their rights, freedom of movement, and economic opportunities.
Moreover, the city was located at a crossroads between free Ohio and the slave state of Kentucky, making it a hub of the Underground Railroad. Cincinnati's first black neighborhood, in the Bucktown section, established a church that served as a safe house for fugitive slaves as early as 1812. Not surprisingly, the city produced or influenced some of the most important figures of the abolitionist cause, including Levi Coffin and Samuel Carrel. In addition, Ohio contributed some of the first black soldiers in the Civil War. The legacy of the abolitionist cause carried on long after emancipation, with the city's political struggles playing a role in what would become the modern Civil Rights Movement. Thanks to the efforts of people like state representative George Washington Williams, Ohio repealed its so-called Black Laws in 1887, at a time when many states sought to tighten restrictions on African Americans. Cincinnati was also home to some of the most active chapters of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association and the NAACP, as well as numerous black-owned newspapers and labor unions.
The manufacturing boom of the mid-twentieth century made Cincinnati a prime destination in the Great Migration, which helped to triple the black population in the city by the early twentieth century. Indeed, one of the most important biographical dictionaries came out of this era, a precursor to our own AANB: Cincinnati's Colored Citizens: Historical, Sociological And Biographical, edited by Wendell Phillips Dabney and released in 1926. An associate of Frederick Douglass, Dabney was the first president of Cincinnati's chapter of the NAACP. His ambitious book reveals the history of black Ohio through the lives of its people as they continued to build their community even during the most difficult years of the Jim Crow era.
When the postwar prosperity began to wane in many Rust Belt towns, the traditionally black neighborhoods of Kennedy Heights, Over-the-Rhine, Mount Auburn, and others fell far behind the rest of the city in the areas of infrastructure, education, and economic investment. A familiar story played out, with accusations of police brutality increasing as the neighborhoods declined. In 1967 and 2001, tensions with police erupted into riots. In the years that followed, the city helped to pioneer so-called community policing procedures meant to improve relations between citizens and law enforcement. Although this has pointed the city in a new direction, Cincinnati, like most other urban centers, has struggled to address the rapid demographic changes that have once again marginalized black communities in favor of gentrified, virtually segregated neighborhoods.
As we've discovered in our collaboration with Eric R. Jackson—guest editor for a Community Spotlight on Cincinnati—the city has done an incredible job of preserving its legacy of abolitionism and political struggle. Most notably, the work of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has been inspirational and eye-opening. But perhaps even more promising: the Center works to not only examine the past, but to join with modern abolitionist groups to end the institution of slavery around the world. It's just another example of how Cincinnati continues to produce freedom fighters—patriots who draw from a proud tradition.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
New Primary Source Documents
Peter H. Clark
Jennie D. Porter
Wendell P. Dabney
Theodore "Ted" Berry
William L. Mallory
Fred L. Shuttlesworth
Ken Griffey Sr.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Underground Railroad (Excerpt from Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1876)