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.
Teaching Columbus is a pubic history and civic engagement initiative by and for Columbus educators.