June 30, 1829 – Cincinnati Notice of Enforcement of “Black Laws” Leads to Rioting by Impatient Whites

At the time of Ohio statehood in 1803, there were few blacks in Ohio and thus no discriminatory legislation. But within a few years, as Stephen Middleton reports in his book The Black Laws: Race and the Legal Process in Early Ohio (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005), white Ohioans became concerned over a growing black population, and began to institute “black laws.” These laws imposed a number of burdens on black residents as well as prohibiting them from being educated in public schools, serving on juries, voting, or joining the militia.

Still, blacks continued to move to Ohio. Nikki M. Taylor, now a professor of African American history at Howard University, wrote in Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005):

In 1820, approximately 433 African Americans called Cincinnati home. The city saw a steady rise in the number of black inhabitants until 1826, when the black population exploded from 700 and reached 2258 by 1829. This nine-year, 400 percent population increase frightened Cincinnati’s white citizens. Middle class whites worried that the ever growing, largely uneducated, poor black population would severely change the city. Working class whites, mainly Irish immigrants, were concerned about job competition.” (p. 11).

But there was another, more potent (because more irrational) fear. Silas Niobeh Crowfoot, in his paper “Community Development for a White City: Race Making, Improvementism, and the Cincinnati Race Riots and Anti-Abolition Riots of 1829, 1836, and 1841” (2010), observed:

The “hot button” topic in race relations in antebellum America, and in Cincinnati, was amalgamation: mixing of the races — from being at the same job site, at the same school, on the street or in each others’ homes, to interracial sexual relationships and marriage. No matter how banal the outward meaning of the word, it always carried an undercurrent of its more sexual meanings — because of the fear on the part of many whites that the more innocent mixings would inevitably lead to sexual mixing, threatening a wide-spread imagined purity of whiteness.”

Taylor reported that in 1829, whites petitioned government officials to enforce the 1807 Black Code that required black residents to pay a $500 bond to serve as proof of their “respectable” natures. On June 30, a notice went out in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette informing all black residents that they had 30 days to pay the bond or be forced to leave the city.

Black leaders asked the public for a three-month extension so they could find a place to resettle, but whites were impatient. From the night of August 15 through August 22, white mobs of up to 300 people tore apart the Fourth Ward, where the majority of the city’s African Americans lived. The mob destroyed businesses, burned residences, and assaulted black residents. Initially city police did not intervene but eventually both white rioters and black residents were arrested. Crowfoot stated:

This violence, and the threats of removal that preceded it, resulted in more than 1,100 African Americans, as well as their white and Native American family members, leaving the city before, during, and immediately after the violence. Some headed for Canada and some went to other Ohio towns; many left for destinations unknown.”

A group of these black exiles from Ohio with more resources founded the Wilberforce Colony, north of present-day London in Ontario, as a place of their own. But lack of funding and jobs led to the colony’s decline after fewer than twenty years.

African Americans who remained in Cincinnati, and black migrants who joined them, were attacked again by ethnic white rioters in 1836 and 1841.

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