Numerous African Americans have resided in Ohio. Today, African-American Ohioans continue to enhance Ohio's cultural and social landscape.
Before Ohio became a state, very few African Americans resided in the Ohio country. In 1800, only 337 African Americans lived in the area. Most of these people were free, but undoubtedly, a small number of them were slaves. The numbers of African Americans in Ohio hovered near two percent of the state’s total population throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. By 1810, 1,890 blacks called Ohio home, increasing to 4,723 a decade later. By 1860, 36,700 African Americans resided in the state. Over the years they have made significant contributions to the state, such as their service in the factories during the First World War.
Ohio's first constitution, the Ohio Constitution of 1803, outlawed slavery. This was a requirement of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Despite this legal protection, some African-American Ohioans were actually slaves. Slave owners lived especially in southern Ohio. If a sheriff or some other law enforcement official accused the owner of violating the law, the slave owner would simply transport his slave or slaves across the Ohio River to the slave-holding state of Kentucky.
The vast majority of African-American Ohioans were free. Prior to statehood and the growth of cities, many of these people lived with friendly American Indian tribes. Most African Americans in the state had run away from slave states in the South. Although slavery was banned in Ohio, slave owners still had the right under the United States Constitution to retrieve fugitive slaves. Many African Americans hoped that slave owners would not look for them among the American Indians who lived in Ohio. During the late 1700s and the early 1800s, some African Americans settled in Upper Sandusky, a village of the Wyandot tribe.
As cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati began to grow, many African Americans moved to these locations. Most of them had little money and could not afford to purchase land to become farmers. They hoped to acquire jobs in the cities by becoming factory workers or skilled artisans. The less fortunate among them took poorer paying jobs as nannies, housekeepers, waiters, waitresses, and day laborers. In the cities, African Americans faced racism and most usually lived in the same neighborhoods. They did this partly out of fear of slave owners coming to the area and trying to return them to slavery, and because whites did not want African Americans living in their neighborhods. Race riots sometimes occurred, especially if whites feared that African Americans were gaining too much power or infringing upon white opportunities. In 1829 one such riot occurred in Cincinnati because Irish immigrants disliked economic competition from the African-American community. The next year, Portsmouth whites forced approximately eighty African Americans from the community. Many African Americans chose to leave Ohio and moved to such settlements as Wilberforce in Canada. There they did not have to worry about slave owners coming to claim them as fugitives. Sometimes African Americans formed their own towns in Ohio. Such was the case for Carthagena in Mercer County. During the 1840s, whites drove them from the area. Similar events occurred in the Scioto River Valley in the early 1800s.
Racism towards African Americans clearly existed in Ohio during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. After statehood, government officials enacted numerous laws denying African Americans their rights. The state constitutional convention did not allow African-American men the vote. This right failed to reach approval by a single vote. Edward Tiffin cast the deciding vote. Tiffin and his brother-in-law, Thomas Worthington, had both owned slaves prior to moving to Ohio from Virginia. They freed their slaves, but many of these African Americans followed their former owners to Ohio and continued to work for them as hired hands. Women of all races could not vote in Ohio. African-American men could not serve in the militia, serve on juries, testify in court against whites, receive assistance at the "poor house," or send their children to public school. In 1804, the Ohio General Assembly, hoping to prevent any other African Americans from moving to the state, implemented an ordinance requiring all African Americans to post a bond of five hundred dollars to insure their good conduct. Despite the racism that African Americans endured, many African-American Ohioans favored life in the state over being slaves in the South.
Fortunately for African Americans, the American Civil War fought between 1861 and 1865 resulted in a Union victory. During this conflict, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in states in rebellion on January 1, 1863. Lincoln issued this document as a war measure hoping that by freeing the slaves the South would have a more difficult time continuing the struggle. While the Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves everywhere, it was only a matter of time before the institution ended.
In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution ended slavery in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment granted equal protection under the law to African Americans in 1867 and in 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment gave African-American men the right to vote. Most Ohioans supported the Thirteenth Amendment, but passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments was much more difficult. The Ohio government actually approved the Fourteenth Amendment in 1867 and then revoked its approval in 1868. The Ohio legislature did not reauthorize its approval of this amendment until 2003. The Fifteenth Amendment did pass the Ohio legislature in 1870, but by just one vote in the Ohio Senate and two votes in the Ohio House, illustrating the racism that continued to exist in the state.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, Ohio's African American population soared. The Great Migration began in the 1910s and continued at least through World War II in the early 1940s. During this thirty-year period, hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved from the South to the North. In the South, most African Americans had few rights and opportunities. Most of these people worked as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, or as day laborers. With the outbreak of World War I, numerous jobs opened in Northern factories as white men enlisted in the United States military and were sent to Europe to fight. While some African-American men also enlisted in the armed forces, many others migrated to the North to fill these factory positions. Estimates vary, but perhaps as many as 500,000 African Americans moved from the South to the North during the 1910s and the early 1920s.
Thousands of African Americans who participated in the Great Migration settled in Ohio. They provided businesses in the state's industrial centers, including Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo, and Akron, among other cities, with workers. In 1920, African Americans made up only three percent of Ohio's population, but their numbers increased dramatically enough over the next decade to have risen to five percent of the population by 1930. The growing African-American population in Ohio dramatically altered the state. Most African Americans were forced to live in segregated communities, separate from the whites. Cities experienced a tremendous building boom during the 1910s and 1920s. For example, in a study of housing in Akron completed in 1939, it was determined that sixty percent of the city houses were constructed between 1914 and 1924, when the Great Migration was at its peak. Race riots again occurred in Ohio and other Northern states, as some whites feared that they would lose jobs to the migrants. Despite the problems that African Americans faced in the North, the racism that they endured tended to be less overt than that of the South. The Great Migration did create new opportunity and hope for the African Americans who migrated northwards, but true equality did not result in the 1910s, the 1920s, the 1930s, nor the 1940s.
Following World War II, many African Americans and whites united to protest the racism and discrimination that existed in the United States. Before this point in time, smaller numbers of blacks and whites had fought for equality, but with World War II's conclusion a more organized movement, the Civil Rights Movement, arose. There were several reasons why this movement developed when it did, a prominent reason being the fact that hundreds of thousands of African Americans served their country during World War II. They discovered that racial discrimination was not nearly as oppressive in European countries like Great Britain and France. For the first time, they realized that the United States could become a land without racial discrimination. Another primary reason for the growth of the Civil Rights Movement at the end of World War II was the G.I. Bill. To help veterans from World War II readjust to life after returning home, the federal government helped offset the cost of a college education. Thousands of African American veterans took advantage of this benefit, only to discover upon graduating from college that whites received the better-paying jobs. Many African Americans took jobs that they could have attained without a four-year college degree. Unhappy that the United States supposedly represented freedom and equality but did not truly provide these items to all people, many African Americans and their white supporters thus created a much more organized movement to attain equality.
The Civil Rights Movement culminated in 1964 and 1965, with the federal government's passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These two federal laws outlawed segregation, guaranteed African Americans equal protection under the law, and truly secured African American men and women the right to vote. However, the Civil Rights Movement was not over. Many activists continued to urge peaceful demonstrations to protest the lack of equal pay for equal work. They also sought to improve educational opportunities for people of all races. The Civil Rights Movement, however, began to change. Some African Americans, especially younger ones, began to reject these calls for non-violent protests. These people wanted changes to occur much more quickly. They demanded action now, rather than the slower changes that usually came from peaceful demonstrations. By 1965, the Civil Rights Movement had divided between the followers of Martin Luther King, Jr., who advocated peaceful protest, and generally younger and more violent African Americans.
While most people associate the Civil Rights Movement with the struggle to provide African Americans living in the Southern United States with equal opportunities, this reform era encompassed much more. During the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans living in the northern portion of the United States also experienced racism and discrimination, although generally the problems that these people endured were not as oppressive as those that African Americans faced in the South. Many African American and white Ohioans actively sought to reform the South, joining organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress on Racial Equality, and participating in protests across the South, including the Freedom Summer Project of 1964. Other Northern activists also sought to end racism in the North, including in Ohio. For example, during the 1960s and 1970s, the United Freedom Movement sought to desegregate schools in Cleveland, Ohio. Partly due to pressure from Civil Rights activists, the Ohio government implemented the Ohio Civil Rights Act of 1959, which was to "prevent and eliminate the practice of discrimination in employment against persons because of their race, color, religion, national origin, or ancestry." It also was to guarantee all people fair access to public facilities and private businesses. The Ohio Civil Rights Act established the Ohio Civil Rights Commission to enforce these stipulations, helping to eliminate discrimination in Ohio.
Thanks to the efforts of Civil Rights activists, today African Americans enjoy more opportunities than at any other point in United States history. Racism still exists, but slowly its hold over American society has eroded. True equality does not necessarily exist even today. Protests continue to arise across the United States, including in Ohio.
- Ohio Civil Rights Act of 1959
- Youngstown, Ohio
- Edward Tiffin
- Wyandot Indians
- Carthagena, Ohio
- Portsmouth, Ohio
- Upper Sandusky, Ohio
- Toledo, Ohio
- Akron, Ohio
- Ohio Constitutional Convention of 1802
- Cleveland, Ohio
- Cincinnati, Ohio
- Thomas Worthington
- Ohio Constitution of 1803
- Northwest Ordinance
- Ohio River
- United States Constitution
- Irish Ohioans
- Black Laws of 1807
- Mercer County
- Ohio General Assembly
- Scioto River
- American Civil War
- World War I
- Abraham Lincoln
- Great Migration
- [National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center]
- Roseboom, E.H., and F.P. Weisenburger. A History of Ohio. Columbus: The Ohio History Connection, 1996.