The African-American experience in columbus blog
This blog features brief articles on the African-Experience in Columbus from the Underground Railroad to the civil rights era.
By Matt Doran
The Columbus Urban League, established in 1918, was the most active organization working against the Columbus color line during the period of the Great Migration. Dr. Nimrod Booker Allen, a social worker and graduate of Yale Divinity School, was hired as the first general secretary, a position he continued to hold until his retirement in 1954.
An ad in the May 10, 1919 edition of the Ohio State Monitor outlines the purpose and activities of the Columbus Urban League. Of the League’s purpose, the ad states that it is founded, " especially to give the man farthest down a chance. It holds as a firm principle that Social Service must mean that an opportunity must be given to all men to develop themselves fully, and that every man has a right to be happy…" The ad further notes its commitment to African-American migrants stating that “less than two dollars per capita has been spent on these brothers of ours to school them and make them citizens.”
Eight positions are cited as part of the Leagues activities: a traveler’s aid, a nurse, a home-builder, an employment secretary, an industrial group worker (to improve employer/employee relations), a parole investigator, four teachers for African-American soldiers, and two court visitors to assist those released from jail. A similar ad appearing in the Cleveland Advocate makes particular note of the League’s work with the city’s Director of Public Safety. The League’s court visitors made recommendations on parole decisions. Prisoners who were granted parole then reported weekly to an appointed “Big Brother” or “Big Sister.”
A 1930 letter from Nimrod Allen to T. Arnold Hill, Director of the Department of Industrial Relations at the National Urban League, documents the work of the Columbus Urban League as an employment bureau. The letter lists thirteen industries known to employ African Americans, including major industrial forces such as Buckeye Steel and Jeffrey Manufacturing. The letter further cites the League’s efforts to investigate employment discrimination. Although finding no specific examples of an African-American worker being replaced by a white worker, Allen laments the disproportionately high unemployment rates for African Americans in Columbus. Finally, he notes the work of the League on behalf of an African-American manager who was released from the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company.
In addition to working for better employment, the Columbus Urban League also took an active role public health efforts and education advocacy. Through its Department of Health and Housing, the League promoted an annual “Negro Health Week,” distributed literature, and encouraged Africans Americans to visit physicians and health professionals.
Although some criticized Nimrod Allen for his non-confrontational approach, Allen did not hesitate to seek redress from school and city officials. In 1931, Allen requested bus transportation from Columbus Public Schools for a group of African-American students who had to walk more than two miles and across the railroad tracks to Champion Avenue Jr. High. In a much stronger letter, Allen chastised a city official for his description of Columbus as a “Mecca” for African Americans, and for his use of the term “darkies” to describe African-American migrants.
By Doreen Uhas Sauer
The King-Lincoln-Bronzeville Neighborhood has long been known for its artistic contributions to the city and to the nation. By the 1920s East Long Street was the center of black commercial, social, and entertainment life. Shops, theaters, restaurants, and jazz clubs proliferated. The Plaza Hotel hosted Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller—whose appearances would influence young Columbus musicians and vocalists. The Empress movie theater opened in 1920. Mt. Vernon Avenue was equally vibrant, and in the area, the golden age of music was in the popularity of the jazz clubs in the 1940s, especially after World War II when famous musicians played the local scene. If they played in white downtown hotels, they returned to the neighborhood to play long into the night to large crowds and with local talented musicians. Live jazz could be heard in twenty different clubs. There were also five hotels and two theaters—two of which still exist—the Lincoln and the Pythian (King Arts Complex).
By Doreen Uhas Sauer
By the late 19th century, African American families could be found in parts of the Badlands (around Fort Hayes); by the Olentangy River and West Lane Avenue; by the Olentangy River and West 11th Avenue; Long Street and North High; the Hilltop (by the state institutions); Burnside Heights (Hilltop/Westgate area); Flytown (near North Side), and later Hanford Village and Teakwood Heights. African Americans lived in so many different areas that Columbus Schools actually desegregated 90 years before court-ordered desegregation.
Between 1900 and 1940, the African-American population grew from 9,000 to 39,000. By World War I and the Great Migration of African Americans seeking work and opportunity in the north, one neighborhood grew substantially larger—the East side—because it was practical to live near work near the railroads and companies dependent upon the railroads. The African American community moved eastward along Long Street, despite the efforts of some white businessmen to hold the commercial and housing line near what is now St. Paul’s AME Church.
By Doreen Uhas Sauer
Famous educator Booker T. Washington made frequent appearances in Columbus in the early 20th century. He was here for conventions, special occasions with families he knew well (like Ralph Tyler, auditor of the U.S. Navy and Dr. Scarborough, president of Wilberforce), and student Bible conferences.
Sometimes Dr. Washington stayed in a rooming house on West Eleventh Avenue with a family he knew from St. Paul’s AME Church. When he did so, he liked to work in the mornings in bed so he could spread his papers out while he wrote. The daughter of the family, as a small child, was asked to take a tray with coffee to him one morning, and after leaving the tray ran down the stairs to report an “accident.” Dr. Washington, she announced, had broken his glasses and would not be able to work. Did he break them in half, her mother asked? Yes, the top of the glasses are gone. Her mother smiled; no problem. Her daughter had never seen reading glasses before.
On May 24, 1900, Dr. Washington spoke at Memorial Hall (the old COSI building that is now county offices on Broad Street) because the hall had a large seating capacity, and on his previous visit to Columbus, he spoke at Reverend Washington Gladden’s church. But thousands had to be turned away. Dr. Washington was in town for a special Student Bible Conference and would speak without charge at Memorial Hall. It was noted in the newspapers that, “all throughout the South, as well as the North, the leading white citizens, business and professional men, and white women of culture and refinement crowded to hear him. Even the governor and other state officials were present and accorded him the greatest courtesy.”
It was noted he would stay at the North Hotel (no longer there but would have been in the Short North) where rooms had been reserved for him. But this was a change of plans from the original reservation at the prestigious Neil House, across from the Statehouse. Though Dr. Washington had stayed at the Neil House before and on another occasion the fine Chittenden Hotel, this time, however, the Neil House could make no assurances that he (and the other African American men who were to attend the conference) would be welcome.
By Matt Doran
If Ohio was to be the Promised Land that many African-American migrants had sought, it would take much work to accomplish. Just as African Americans took an active role in moving north, they engaged in an equally determined effort to shape the Promised Land.
In Ohio’s capital city of Columbus, a variety of organizations emerged to aid the growing urban African-American population. African-American leaders in Columbus took decisive steps to counter the problems of Columbus, including social ills, crime, and white prejudice and discrimination. Most of the governing boards of these organizations were interracial, and they were predominantly staffed by African Americans.
The efforts by the African-American community to weaken the city’s color line provide early examples of grassroots efforts to achieve racial equality. These methods served as a foundation for civil rights activism in subsequent decades.
By Matt Doran
During and after World War I, most African Americans in Ohio's major cities lived in largely segregated neighborhoods. By 1930, for example, 65 percent of African Americans in Columbus lived in just four of the 19 census districts in the city.
During World War I, housing shortages limited the options for African-American migrants in Ohio. Often confined to overcrowded and low-rent neighborhoods, African Americans also became easy victims of landlords who took advantage of housing shortages by engaging in rent profiteering. After the war, discriminatory practices and “white flight” resulted in greater segregation within urban areas.
African Americans in Ohio cities faced problems common to rapidly urbanizing areas. They were especially vulnerable to health problems such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, and more likely to die from these diseases than whites. Ohio cities were also susceptible to common “vices” of city life—brothels, gambling houses, and saloons. In Columbus, the brothels and opium den in the “Badlands” neighborhood and “red light district” were largely ignored by the city government. Not surprisingly, adult crime and juvenile delinquency also experienced a surge in Ohio’s cities.
African Americans left the South, in part, to escape segregation and discrimination in the public sphere. Yet, in spite of the Ohio Civil Rights Law of 1884, discrimination persisted in Ohio’s theaters, hotels, and restaurants. Some businesses openly disregarded laws, posting “Whites Only” signs. Even by the middle of the twentieth century, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission found wanton disregard of the laws against discrimination. The Commission’s report detailed discrimination in dance halls, skating rinks, swimming pools, bowling alleys and cemeteries.
Ohio schools were also sometimes segregated despite laws against such practice that passed Ohio’s legislature in 1887. Of course, given the residential patterns of cities, schools often experienced de facto segregation. However, school board policies often resulted in gerrymandering of attendance zones that created segregated schools within integrated districts. Columbus Public Schools, for example, gerrymandered its attendance areas in 1911 so that African-American students attended Champion Avenue Jr. High. There they were taught by African-American teachers (including four that been transferred from predominately white schools). White students from the same neighborhoods attended different schools.
By Matt Doran
In the first three decades of the twentieth century, the United States witnessed a profound and lasting demographic change. During this period, an estimated 1.5 million African Americans left the predominantly rural South to live and work in northern cities in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York. Known as the Great Migration, this mass movement often drew upon biblical imagery of the “exodus” to describe African Americans’ journey from the land of enslavement in the South to the Promised Land in the North. Motivated by opportunities for economic and political advancement, African Americans chose to leave the South for northern cities like Columbus, Ohio, where they created institutions and social organizations to help overcome the color line.
Between 1910 and 1930, African-American migration to Ohio swelled the state’s cities. Ohio’s three largest cities – Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus— saw the greatest migrations. Cincinnati’s Black population increased from 19,639 in 1910 to 47,818 in 1930. Columbus saw an increase from 12,379 to 32,774 in those same years. The greatest increase was in Cleveland, where the African-American population reached 71, 899 by 1930, up from just 8,448 two decades earlier. Given all they had heard about opportunities in the North, the expectations of African Americans in Ohio were high. Ronald Takaki tells the story of a group of migrants who, after crossing the Ohio River, “knelt down in prayer and sang ‘I Done Come out of the Land of Egypt with Good News.’”
Was Ohio the Promised Land that so many migrants longed for? On the political front, African Americans in Ohio enjoyed the franchise, as there were no voting restrictions like they had known in the South. Further, Ohio’s Civil Rights Law of 1884 (also known as the Public Accommodations Law) banned segregation and discrimination based on race in public facilities. In addition, Ohio’s 1896 antilynching legislation, known as the Smith Law, was hailed as a progressive attempt to curtail anti-black violence. Nevertheless, weak enforcement mechanisms and other forms of de facto segregation undermined Ohio’s status as a land of opportunity for African Americans.
In his book, Ohio: The History of People, historian Andrew Cayton paints a grim picture of Ohio’s increasingly sharp color line. Noting the increasing white intolerance, workplace discrimination, and mob violence, Cayton considers the state a “hostile world” for newly arrived African Americans. In his definitive work, African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 1915-1930, historian William W. Giffin supplies the details that support Cayton’s conclusion. Both Giffin and Cayton point out that Ohio’s color line stiffened in the wake of the Great Migration, as whites reacted in fear to the increasing number of African Americans, nearly 99 percent of which settled in cities. According to Giffin, African-American migrants in Ohio faced a number problems including: poor housing conditions in increasingly segregated neighborhoods, increased crime, health problems and other “vices” of city life, discrimination in public accommodations, and racial intolerance that often culminated in violence and intimidation.
By Doreen Uhas Sauer
As the state capital, Columbus, Ohio was often a hotbed of political meetings, speeches by famous people, rallies, and organizing around the turn of the 20th Century. In October, 1900, Columbus was the site of a nonpartisan meeting of African Americans who were united in their condemnation of a “reign of terror” that affected African Americans in the South.
They wanted to impress upon the public that they too should be against lawlessness, at a time when many of these violent activities were unknown or overlooked by the American public.
The nonpartisan meeting reported the reign of terror was:
…manifesting itself by shooting, lynching, and burning Negroes upon the slightest occasion, disfranchising them, curtailing their school privileges, and in every manner possible, depriving their citizenship of its usefulness.
They appealed to people to help defend life and liberty and the majesty of the law. These organizers, who were working across the Republican and Democratic lines, also raised controversial issues too, condemning the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) who were engaged in endless prayers to bring about the demise of alcohol.
Teaching Columbus is a pubic history and civic engagement initiative by and for Columbus educators.