In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Americans in Cincinnati

  • Introduction

African American Studies African Americans in Cincinnati
Eric Jackson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0100


African Americans in Cincinnati have played a vital role in the history of the “Queen City.” Struggles for racial equality, social justice, and economic opportunities have taken place in the city’s streets, homes, churches, schools, governments, and workplaces, and these efforts been woven into every fabric of Cincinnati’s rich historical tapestry. However, until recently, the role of African Americans in the region’s history remained largely neglected by most scholars and writers. Without question, African Americans in Cincinnati have played a vital role in the history of the Queen City.” Their struggles for racial equality, social justice, and economic opportunities have taken place and continue to take place in the city’s streets, homes, churches, schools, governments and workplaces. The trials and tribulations started a few years after Ohio became a state in 1802 with the enactment of the Black Laws (Codes) and the subsequent decades of urban violence, open discrimination, and legal segregation, continued into well into the 1950s. However, during these decades, despite the oppressive social climate, African American Cincinnatians made great strides in the fields of education, politics, and business. But the struggles continue today in areas such as police and community relations, access to quality public education, and urban renewal (gentrification).

Race Relations and Segregation (1788–1870s)

Despite its founding in 1788, the name “Cincinnati” did not become official until two years later, in 1790. Initially, the natural landscape of the area both limited and defined the boundaries of the soon-to-be created city for its first one hundred years. With the construction of new roads and the creation of an electric trolley streetcar system, the population and the general growth of the city gradually intensified. For instance, by the 1850s, Cincinnati, with a population of about 115,000, had become the sixth largest city in the nation. More importantly, however, its African American population was around 3,200. For most of the city’s African American residents the supposed “promised land” of Cincinnati never materialized. Thus, despite Cincinnati being located in a free state, its African American citizens had very limited rights and freedoms. For instance, regardless of the Ohio state constitution prohibiting the system of enslavement in 1802, the passage of a series of legal codes, known as the Black Laws, enacted in 1804 and 1807 respectively, left little doubt about the real views of most of the state’s white politicians and residents about the presence of persons of African descent. Furthermore, in 1829, an urban race riot erupted when a gang of whites targeted a group of African Americans for walking down the street. This event occurred, in part, because of the growing population of African Americans in the city and the perceived competition for various semi-skilled labor-jobs by the majority of white middle-class, which was not true in reality. The Lane Seminary debates in the 1830s also contributed to this racially charged environment in Cincinnati. Additionally important was the changing migration and housing patterns of the city. As a result, in 1841, another urban race riot broke out in the city when a group of dockworkers, mostly Irish, attacked a group of African American Cincinnatians. When the dust settled, fifty-six people had died and two hundred were injured. More race riots occurred in Cincinnati throughout the 1840s. Despite this racially charged environment in Cincinnati, African American Cincinnatians continued to focus much of their attention and efforts on education. For instance, regardless of being segregated, Cincinnati African American public schools not only provided the community with a political, social, and educational spaces to thrive, they also became the centers of protests and activism throughout the antebellum period. One example was the private all-Black “Gilmore High School for Negroes,” whose graduates included John I. Gaines, an African American abolitionist, and Peter H. Clark, a vocal African American politician, educator, and community activist in the Queen City. Additionally, in 1852 the Independent Colored School System was established, which eventually led to the creation of an all-Black Gaines High School in 1866.

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