African-American 1830’s – 1930’s

 Soon after Cincinnati was founded in 1788, blacks came across the Ohio River to live and work in the city. Many had been born free, some were freed slaves, and others were enslaved fugitives who had escaped their masters and plantations in the South.

Although the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the north and west of the Ohio River, the Ohio Legislature passed the Black Laws in 1803 and 1807 to restrict their opportunities. In the city’s bustling riverfront and growing economy, however, work was plentiful and laws were sometimes ignored or selectively enforced.

When the black population in Cincinnati rose in large numbers by 1829, white mobs attacked black homes in Bucktown, causing over one thousand African Americans to leave Cincinnati for settlements in northern Ohio or Canada. In the 1830s, an informal network of individuals known as the Underground Railroad emerged to help fugitives escape to freedom.

More race riots occurred in Cincinnati in 1836 and 1841. When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, it became illegal for anyone, black or white, to assist fleeing slaves (Fig. 2). The conflict over slavery in the United States was one of the main causes of the Civil War that began in 1861. After the war ended in 1865, freedom for African Americans was achieved, but hostility and repression toward them continued.


The history of society presents no chapter more interesting than that which describes the interaction of ideas in Cincinnati from the close of the war of 1812-1815 to the end of the Civil War.  The three elements of population, and we might say of civilization, northern, central, and southern, met together on the shores of the Ohio, and Cincinnati became a cauldron of boiling opinions, a crucible [crossed paths] of ignited ideas. There was a time when Southern alkali seemed to prevail over Northern oxide, and the aristocratic young city was dominated by cavalier [arrogant] sentiment. Cincinnati, by the accident of geographical position, became the focus of Abolitionism, and also of the opposite sentiment (Howe).

The city’s peoples were . . . a confusion. . . There were Cincinnatians of older American descent stemming from New England or Pennsylvania, or vaguely from upriver. There were others, more than one-fifth in 1870 of German descent, speaking for the most part two languages instead of one, reading their daily news in German-language papers. There were the Irish too, not long from the old country. And, almost buried under newer influxes [immigrant arrivals], there was a small element of the French society of the [Rhine] river valley. More apart, more alien, there were thousands of Negroes packed together near the river in sections that the earliest settlers had thought salubrious [respectable], now crowded, dirty, yet teeming with the vitality of hopeful life and careless crime. Here Kentucky heaved [pushed forth] its southernness straight into the North, with only the [Ohio] river separating the ways of the North and the South. (Jakle)

. . . with the war over, slavery done for, the rootless Negroes of the near South beyond the river crossed over in their thousands to Cincinnati. They came out of hope— for freedom and for work. In reward for hope the city gave them many small, footling opportunities, restrictions, and hurts. Yet, among themselves, in spite of disease and casual death, they thrived (Fig. 4). They held onto their songs, their stories, their own racketing, colorful way of life (Fig. 5). They gave something to the city, as the French had done, and the Germans, and the mass of upriver Americans. The presence of the troubling thousands of Negroes was only one sign of the intimate way the Civil War had affected the life of the city. (Stevenson)

Most journalists saw the blacks as victims of social and economic oppression and not as instigators of their plight. Harriet Martineau wrote bitterly: “They are citizens, yet their houses and schools are pulled down, and they can obtain no remedy at law (Fig. 1, Fig. 3). They are thrust out of offices, and excluded from the most honourable employments, and stripped of all the best benefits of society by fellow-citizens who, once a year, solemnly lay their hands on their hearts, and declare that all men are born free and equal. Cincinnati was a hotbed for the Abolitionist movement. Nonetheless, the city’s reliance on the trade of northern Kentucky produced a strong “southern” sentiment favoring slavery. Even many of the whites who opposed the “peculiar institution” [slavery] remained biased toward blacks, viewing them as inferior to whites, and, as such, unnecessary to the city’s economy and society. (Jakle)

Literature Sources

1) Howe, Henry. Historical Collections of Ohio in Two Volumes. (Copyright 1888 by Henry Howe) Cincinnati, Ohio: C. J. Krehbiel & Co., 1900.

2) Jakle, John A. Images of the Ohio Valley: A History and Geography of Travel, 1740-1860. Oxford: University Press, 1977.

3) Stevenson, Elizabeth. Lafcadio Hearn. New York: McMillan, 1961.


Fig. 1, Fig. 2 Moore, Gina Ruffin. Images of America: Black America Series Cincinnati. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

Fig. 3 Ransohoff, Daniel J. There is in Every Human Countenance, Either a History or a Prophecy . . . Cincinnati: Hennegan Company, 1988.

Fig. 4 Mersch, Christine. Images of America: Cincinnati Police History. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

Fig. 5 The Photography of Paul Briol: a centennial tribute. Cincinnati: The Cincinnati Historical Society, 1989.

Fig. 6 Courtesy of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati