Image: Header image designed using Canva. Source: Background image depicts a Cincinnati Courthouse Riot. It’s from the Cincinnati Museum Center.
As we celebrate Black History Month this February, it’s easy to think about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the surrender of the last major Confederate Armies at Appomattox Courthouse, but the Queen City has a rich connection with this month.
200 years ago, Cincinnati was a refuge for slaves who had escaped from the plantations on the other side of the Ohio River. Here, for the first time, former slaves would have felt truly liberated in Free Soil. Due to its location, Cincinnati developed “a reputation as being a magnet for runaways seeking to gain their freedom,” according to a plaque at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which just happens to be right between the Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium. During this time, Cincinnati had one of the most rapidly growing African American populations of any northern city, which in turn helped escaped slaves establish themselves mostly in service jobs like cooking and manual labor. Despite these opportunities, many former slaves proceeded farther north from Cincinnati. For them, establishments like the Samuel and Sally Wilson House proved to be excellent accommodations as they traveled along the Underground Railroad. Today, this House is a registered historic building and serves as a private residence in Hamilton County, sitting right next to the College Hill Campus of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Image: Samuel and Sally Wilson House. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Image: Plaque in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center showing Antebellum History of Cincinnati regarding black history month.
Thanks to these factors, Cincinnati became a city that slaveholders warned each other to avoid, but even after the Civil War, Cincinnati remained one of the cities at the front of the Reconstruction Movement. The Queen City is the birthplace of one of this period’s most prominent figures: Salmon P. Chase.
Image: Salmon P. Chase. Source: Wikipedia Commons
His illustrious career revolving around the anti-slavery cause included a seat on the Cincinnati City Council, 4 years as the governor of Ohio, a position in President Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet as Secretary of Treasury, and ultimately the most esteemed title of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Chase often used “the law in unique ways to defend the rights of fugitive slaves” and the entire African American population during his career, an endeavor that earned him a respectable memory in Black History Month as well as an engraved silver pitcher on behalf of the black people of Cincinnati.
Image: Salmon P. Chase’s engraved silver pitcher. Source: Cincinnati History Library and Archives
Today, even though many people have been made aware of the struggles the African American community had to overcome and the cruelest proponent of these struggles, black slavery, has been eliminated, Cincinnati and the world still has a long way to go before slavery has entirely disappeared from the planet. The last exhibit of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center explains slavery today, describing the stories of many victims of this institution, from a young girl forced into the human trafficking industry to a migrant worker in Florida laboring on a farm for unfair wages and in unreasonably long shifts. In this way, Black History Month has extended as a celebration of freedom in America and the sacrifices many have made to make it possible and also as a reminder of all the work still to do. These issues are not solvable by Cincinnati alone, but if many cities come together and provide help to minorities, such as Cincinnati did before and after the Civil War, a universal abolition is possible. The future of black history glimmers with promise.
Samuel and Sally Wilson House: https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/oh10.htm
Salmon P. Chase and his Silver Pitcher: