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New African American Leaders In Columbus May Not Be Elected

Debbie Holmes
Columbus City Councilwoman Jaiza Page

With Michael Coleman's departure, for the first time in nearly two decades, the city of Columbus is not led by an African American.  In the past few years, African Americans have left top leadership roles in Columbus City Schools. 

Some African Americans wonder where their new leaders will come from and they predict new leaders for the community won't necessarily hold elected office. 

"I think the African American community in 2016 is in a quandary.  The identifiable leadership whether in name or reality was Michael Coleman who was the president.  That leadership is gone," said Samuel Gresham.

Samuel Gresham chairs Common Cause Ohio, a political activist group. He questions who will champion issues like jobs and education within the African American community.  Gresham says black demographics have changed in Central Ohio.  

"Middle class African-Americans no longer reside in the city of Columbus.  They live in the suburbs.  So to add legitimacy to leading people in the city of Columbus where they don't even have a vote rises in question.  I think that creates the complexity of it," said Gresham.

Gresham says a younger group of leaders or millennials who work at the grass roots level can make a difference.  He says better training for better paying jobs tops the list of must do's.

"If you go around and you look at jobs in the city of Columbus that pay good money you won't see many black people there at all.  And that's a problem. Construction jobs, manufacturing jobs.  You see low wage jobs warehousing, service industry you see black folks, but in the higher paid jobs, no," said Gresham.

Former Columbus mayoral candidate, James Ragland admits there has been some frustration within the African American community on getting results, no matter who is in charge.

"Communities of color have heard rhetoric over the years.  They've seen people come and go through our community, promising things, and getting our vote, and we have not quite seen the results that we've expected as a community," said Ragland.

Ragland who first opposed, then supported Mayor Andrew Ginther during his campaign, says he's confident improvements for predominantly African-American neighborhoods are on the way.

"I think we've got an administration in place right now that really feels like their legacy is not going to be turning those communities that are currently gold into platinum. I think those leaders that are in office right now really feel their legacy is going to be built upon helping those that are struggling the most and turning around some of the hardest hit communities that have not recovered from the recession," said Ragland.

Black unemployment remains high in Columbus.  In 2014, nearly 12 % of blacks were jobless compared to about 6.5 percent of the population overall.  And the Ohio Department of Health reports black babies are twice as likely to die in Ohio before their first birthday, than white babies.

Columbus is not without its elected African American leaders. Two of seven school board members are black. Four of seven Columbus City Council Members are African American. Jaiza Page is one of them.

She says Mayor Ginther is committed to struggling neighborhoods around the city.

"I think that it will take more city resources, but we also have to find private partnerships.  The one thing that is very unique and great about our city is the public private partnerships that we have established.  And we need to find private champions for some of these neighborhoods in order to get them back," said Page.

Page along with James Ragland applaud Ginther for appointing the city's 1st Diversity Officer. They hope the position can boost renovation efforts in neglected parts of the city.  

Page says the right steps are underway toward increasing diversity in various city departments.

"He's already taken that first step to create that position and I believe he will put the teeth behind it and knowing the kind of person that Steve Francis is.  He's a hard worker, he's ethical and I know that he will want to do and will do his best in that position," said Page.

Sam Gresham with Common Cause welcomes the addition of a diversity officer, but he says it's up to the Mayor to help minority communities. 

"If Andy Ginther is committed to getting black businesses, getting black employment, he will get it," said Gresham.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.