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
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.