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Food And Community In Columbus’ African American Neighborhoods

Toni Shorter Smith and her mother-in-law Reita Bynum Smith.
Toni Shorter Smith and her mother-in-law Reita Bynum Smith.

Preserving African American history has many challenges. That's why many saw it as a victory when two buildings from Poindexter Village were saved from demolition. The two buildings on Columbus’s Near East Side are being preserved as a museum exploring one of the nation’s first public housing programs and the tight-knit community it created.

As part of StoryCorps COLUMBUS, Toni Shorter Smith and her mother-in-law Reita Bynum Smith, both of whom advocated for the project, sat down to talk about their work on behalf of the museum. The conversation stirred up memories of the food traditions in their neighborhoods.

Toni Shorter Smith recalled how Southern roots were at home in her Near East community where a tradition of hospitality and Sunday fried-chicken dinner was standard. Everyone served chicken and everyone had their own recipe.

"So we would eat at our house – me and my brothers – and then we would go over across the street to Mrs. Davis's house. And of course, she was very generous," Toni said.

According to Toni, it was weeks before her parents figured out what the kids were doing.

That story is an example of what it was like to grow up in that community. "It was like family," Toni said. "People looked out after each other's children and supported each other."

Reita Bynum Smith spoke about a very different kind of memorable chicken dinner.

"Back in those days, our communities were still rather country," Reita said. "And so we raised our chickens."

When Reita was a child, her family lived on South 22nd Street with and a pet hen named Clarabell. When the family moved to the West Side, Clarabell went with them.

Reita said that she and her three sisters watched their father raise many chickens. "We would watch these little chickens hatch," Reita said. "But then on Sunday or Saturday, one of them would leave, you know, it was on the table on Sunday."

Clarabell was the girls' pet, however, so they weren't prepared for that fateful day when Clarabell disappeared.

"And then we figured it out," Reita said. "Clarabell was dinner that day and you ended up with four sick little girls."

An early shot of Poindexter Village in Columbus, Ohio
Credit Columbus Historical Society
A photo of Poindexter Village as construction neared completion. It opened in 1940 as one of the first public housing projects in the United States.

Reflecting on the neighborhoods where she grew up, Reita said, "we were close and we had to be close because of segregation."

That's the type of close community she found when she lived in Poindexter Village as a newlywed with young children.

Toni agrees that Poindexter Village was a special place. "There were so many amazing people that came out of that community because it functioned like an African village," she said. "The courtyards allow people to see each other's children and to care for them and to take care of each other."  

"I am so pleased that I can look back on those fond memories of living in Poindexter and watching my children grow and be safe," Reita said. "And it is my privilege and my honor that somehow or other, the Lord helped me to save those last two buildings, to create a museum and cultural learning center, to capture these stories and to capture this history in one place."  

Toni Shorter Smith and her mother-in-law, Reita Bynum Smith, were recorded in the StoryCorps booth during its recent visit to Columbus. To hear more stories from your neighbors, be sure to subscribe to the StoryCorps COLUMBUS podcast on AppleSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

To learn more about preserving African American history and the work to turn Poindexter Village into a museum, watch Toni Shorter Smith's TEDx talk, "Preserve Black Culture: Built Structures Keep Memory."

Michael De Bonis develops and produces digital content including podcasts, videos, and news stories. He is also the editor of WOSU's award-winning Curious Cbus project. He moved to Columbus in 2012 to work as the producer of All Sides with Ann Fisher, the live news talk show on 89.7 NPR News.