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OSU professor explains how many African Americans came to live in Ohio after Civil War

William Hannibal Thomas
Upper Arlington Library
William Hannibal Thomas

Ohio became home to many people, including Black migrants from the south after the Civil War ended.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries is an Associate Professor of African American History at The Ohio State University. He says Ohio always had free African Americans who lived here.

“There were small numbers at the very founding of the state, but it's important to point out that when Ohio became a state, it became a state that didn't allow slavery,” said Jeffries.

In 1870, there were more than two million people in the state, according to the Ohio Census of 1790-1870, but not many African Americans were recorded.

Franklin County had a little over 1,000 "free colors" listed. And although Ohio was established as a free state, nine slaves were recorded in smaller counties between 1830 and 1840.

“Ohio was hostile to African Americans, even after emancipation, because white Ohioans did not want that labor competition and shared in this belief in white supremacy,” comments Jeffries on the low number of Blacks in the state.

According to Jeffries, African Americans hadn’t migrated in large numbers until the end of the 18th century. They were fleeing from their homes in the south.

“We really don't see a surge in the Black population in Ohio until we get to the early 20th century in which a new industrial age of manufacturing tied primarily to automobiles begins to take root,” Jeffries said.

Census records show a spike in the African American population throughout Ohio's counties. Eventually, the state's Black population grew to over 2,500 by the end of 1870.

Financial opportunity and safety were the driving factors for many blacks who were fleeing from the south to Ohio via the railroad system.

“If you go over a little bit west, those African Americans who were in Alabama and in Tennessee, they wind up migrating north, following those direct northern routes, and they wind up, settling in Ohio (in the cities of) Cincinnati and Columbus,” explains Professor Jeffries.

In fact, a thriving Black community used to reside in the Upper Arlington area of Columbus, Jeffries said. He also shared that African Americans who were migrating from the south would settle into communities where other Black people already lived.

By doing so, they had a greater chance of enjoying freedom and that was another motivation to settle in cities including Columbus and Reynoldsburg.

“The idea of Black community is really important post-emancipation, because there's safety in numbers,” said Jeffries.

After emancipation, African Americans who were working in skilled jobs as slaves were replaced by poor whites and or immigrants. Eventually, African Americans would work the "less desirable" jobs and were paid little compared to others, according to Jeffries.

“And so a lot of skilled labor, skilled artisans are losing their careers as we begin to move into the era of industrialization and mass production,” Jeffries said.

For example, a cobbler, a person who mends and creates shoes, was a typical job for an African American, but that job was replaced with machines capable of mass producing shoes.

Migration to Ohio still was beneficial for many African Americans who were working as sharecroppers in the south.

Jeffries said moving into the 20th century, Black men worked as unskilled laborers and Black women worked domestic jobs. These were the types of jobs that were available to African Americans during that time period. Even though they were paid less and were segregated, it was still better than Black people's previous conditions in the south.

Ohio benefited greatly from the migration of Black people to the state, Jeffries said.

“The state received an infusion of Black talent, Black intelligence, Black expertise, Black desire and motivation to move ahead,” but Jeffries said the state didn’t do much with said talent.

“Now does the state capitalize on that in the way that it could or should? Absolutely not,” Jefferies said. “We don't see the state providing the kinds of educational resources to tap into this potential."

Jeffries said that instead the Black community was policed.

“In fact, their energy is more centered around controlling the population. Extracting the labor when necessary, but really about controlling the population. So the state misses out on an opportunity,” Jeffries explained.

Jeffries also said there were some benefits for African Americans as well. “You get away from the daily sort of indignities and racial terror that dominates and characterize the south. [It] didn't mean in the north, (but) it didn't mean Ohio was free of racial terrorism,” Jeffries said. He said the northern experience was still dangerous, but different.

Soon African American men would prosper in manufacturing jobs, and it was enough for them to help themselves and even their families in the south.

Jeffries also noted that African Americans faced many challenges and obstacles over the last 150 years, but continued to persevere in unwelcoming territories.

Visit the Ohio History Connection to learn more about the American Civil War.