© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Confederate Symbolism And Apologists In Southwest Ohio

Marker Dedicated To Robert E. Lee In The Parking Lot Of The Fraternal Order Of Eagles In Franklin, Ohio
Chris Welter
Marker Dedicated To Robert E. Lee In The Parking Lot Of The Fraternal Order Of Eagles In Franklin, Ohio

Last month, an amendment to H.B. 665 in the Ohio House of Representatives would have banned the display and sale of Confederate memorabilia at Ohio county fairs. However, the amendment was killed, on a vote of 56 to 34. Six Miami Valley representatives voted against killing the amendment, including Niraj Antani and Fred Strahorn.

To learn a little bit more about the history of Confederate symbols in Ohio, WYSO News reporter Chris Welter spoke with Eric Michael Rhodes, a graduate of Antioch College and Miami University, and now a Fellow at the Center for History and Culture at Lamar University in Texas. Rhodes’s new article “Ohio Has Always Had Confederate Apologists” was just recently published by Belt Magazine.

Chris Welter: In the article, you talk about the Five Ohios, specifically the contrast between southwest Ohio and northeast Ohio.

Eric Michael Rhodes: Ohio is unique among the eight most populous states in that its population is remarkably diffused. Detroit, New York City and Los Angeles make up pluralities of their state's total population, Ohio's millions cluster around regional capitals with distinct cultures and histories. So the contention is that they are really five sub regions of Ohio clustering around Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Appalachian Ohio. So northeast and southwest Ohio are different in many ways.  You find that southerners who populated southwest Ohio and the Yankees, who made up a large percentage of the population in northeast Ohio transplanted their views on slavery to each of those regions.

Chris Welter: There was recently a vote in the Ohio state legislature to ban the sale and display of Confederate flags at county fairs, but it failed. How did legislators in southwest Ohio vote compared to northeast Ohio?

Map of How Ohio House Of Representatives Voted On The Amendment
Credit Eric Michael Rhodes / ESRI Online
ESRI Online
Map of How Ohio House Of Representatives Voted On The Amendment

Eric Michael Rhodes: Almost all of the legislators outside of districts representing black neighborhoods in Dayton and Cincinnati, voted against the amendment. And if we look to history, that can help us explain. 19th century Cincinnati's economy was indelibly linked to slavery and to the south. First: Cincinnati was a neighbor of Kentucky and while chattel slavery did not exist in Cincinnati, Cincinnatians did hire enslaved African-Americans from their Kentucky neighbors to labor in southwest Ohio in the early 1800s. So even in the 1850s Cincinnatians are saying we can't upset our neighbors by opposing slavery. And secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Cincinnati's pork industry was intimately tied to the plantation economy of the South. This pork was sent to plantations all across the south and was actually a staple in the diet of enslaved African-Americans.

Chris Welter: What does southwest Ohio’s history tell us about our present?

Eric Michael Rhodes:You have a culture of kind of enduring rather than embracing emancipation. It's in this region that violence against African-Americans really becomes a part of life after the Civil War. Southern Indiana, parts of which are constitutive of Cincinnati's metropolitan area, this is where the majority of northern lynchings happen during Jim Crow.

Chris Welter:Tell me about the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Eric Michael Rhodes: If you're a respectable, wealthy white woman in the South after the Civil War, you would be a member. You'd get together, play bridge, drink tea, hold fundraisers, fund scholarships and rewrite the history of the Civil War. So this is the organization that funded the construction of the monuments that are currently being taken down throughout the U.S.  In 1901, the UDC Stonewall Jackson chapter of Cincinnati was founded, the first in Ohio. And two years later, the UDC holds their first national convention in St. Louis. Both Jefferson Davis's and Stonewall Jackson's widows are in attendance. The minutes from that meeting show that the Ohio division was dominated by southwestern Ohioans. So chapters came from Cincinnati, from Oxford, where Miami University is, from Springfield, up the road from Yellow Springs. There's an old saying, right, that the North won the war and the South won the history. Their ideological project was really successful.

Chris Welter: I understand that one of those monuments is still around, down in Franklin, Ohio, just southwest of Dayton?

Eric Michael Rhodes: It was erected in 1927. A  lot of southwestern Ohioans fought, they thought, for the preservation of the Union and specifically not for the emancipation of slaves. They were seeking to make nice with their white southern neighbors. And so in 1927, Cincinnati's chapter of the UDC, Ohio's Director of Highways, and journalists gathered to commemorate "in loving memory of Robert E. Lee." They sang at that ceremony, Carry Me Back To Old Virginny, which is where Lee was from, and Lee's favorite hymn: "How Firm a Foundation." It turns out the monument’s foundation was pretty firm.

Locally, just last week, the Clark County Fair Board banned the sale and display for sale of the Confederate flag and other symbols of hate speech at the Fairgrounds.

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

JULY 22 - This story has been revised to reflect the following correction: Due to an editing error, the position of State Representatives Niraj Antani and Fred Strahorn on the motion to table the amendment to the bill was transposed. The two representatives voted in favor of banning Confederate memorabilia at county fairs.

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

Chris Welter is an Environmental Reporter at WYSO through Report for America. In 2017, he completed the radio training program at WYSO's Eichelberger Center for Community Voices. Prior to joining the team at WYSO, he did boots-on-the-ground conservation work and policy research on land-use issues in southwest Ohio as a Miller Fellow with the Tecumseh Land Trust.