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 Doreen Uhas Sauer
In his dissertation on the American Addition community (1972), James Felix noted that although the Ordinance of Congress (1787) prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, thirteen years later only 137 African Americans lived in the area that was to become Ohio. Felix asserted that there were no blacks living in what would be Franklin, Fairfield, or other neighboring counties at the time of Ohio statehood. It was during the War of 1812 that fugitive slaves arrived in central Ohio.
While historians today are apt to question whether or not African Americans were living in Franklin County before 1812, they agree that the Constitutional Convention in Chillicothe had problems resolving the “status of blacks,” though it did not specifically exclude blacks from settling in Ohio.
Ohio was divided between the former New Englanders who settled north and the Kentucky and Virginia families who settled south. Columbus became a crossroads between Franklinton (primarily settled by Kentucky and Virginia families) and Worthington (established by New Englanders).
Although slavery was prohibited in Ohio, the state did not stop masters from being accompanied by their slaves as they passed through or visited. Farmers along the Ohio River often employed slaves from Kentucky and Virginia.
If slaves became fugitives, they were more likely to be captured at cities on the river or at Lake Erie. Columbus offered a better chance of hiding; the city had a larger black population prior to the Civil War than any other northern city. Fugitives often hid in plain sight. Some worked at the Neil House downtown, for example, where they became part of the anonymous backstage that served wealthy whites, including captured Southern generals who were allowed leave at Camp Chase. They forged certificates of freedom, took on domestic work, and farmed outside the city limits. This was the beginnings of small communities in unincorporated areas like American Addition, east of Joyce Avenue around 17th Avenue, and Burnside Heights, a community on the west side near Sullivant and Demorest Avenues.
Prior to 1840, African Americans were considered without political rights and were placed in a class with “Indians and unnaturalized foreigners.” After 1840, they were subject to a series of Ohio’s Black Laws which regulated the movement and settlement of blacks and mulattoes.