Sunday, July 15, 2001

Civil unrest woven into city's history

Museum Center exhibit tells the stories of citizens who took their voices into the streets

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When street violence broke out in Over-the-Rhine in April, Cincinnati City Council member Jim Tarbell said publicly: “There is no precedent for this! None!”

        The former owner of Arnold's Bar & Grill, which sits two blocks from the Hamilton County Courthouse, should have known better.

        Fifty-six people died in the Courthouse Riot of 1884. It's the bloodiest of 16 city riots included in Civil Unrest in Cincinnati, a newexhibit opening Saturday at Cincinnati Museum Center.

[photo] National Guard troops man a barricade in 1884 during a riot sparked by political corruption.
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        Riots were a way of life in the 1800s. Not just in Cincinnati, but in many urban centers. More than 1,200 riots occurred in the United States during the four decades leading up to the Civil War, according to American Mobbing: 1828-61 by David Grimsted (Oxford University Press; $65).

        “Riots were a normal way of getting people's voices heard, because a lot of people couldn't vote — blacks, women and some immigrants,” says historian Dan Hurley, a consultant for the exhibit, co-sponsored by the Museum Center and Cincinnati Arts Consortium.

        Museum Center visitors will enter the exhibit through a time line of Cincinnati riots — from 1792 through 1968 — to provide a historical context for a display about the city's April unrest.

        “For contemporary Americans, urban race riots are mostly the only thing we've ever experienced,” says Ruby Rogers, Cincinnati Historical Society library director at Museum Center. Most of the exhibit will be devoted to the riots that followed the police killing of an unarmed black man, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, in Over-the-Rhine on April 7.

Riot issues wide-ranging

        In the 19th century, some of Cincinnati's riots were racially charged, but not all. Residents also erupted in the streets over a bank closing, injustice, corruption, tensions with immigrants and religious issues.

[photo] Police seek shelter during the 1968 riotse.
        An angry Catholic mob marched on the home of Bishop John Purcell on Christmas 1853 to protest a visit by Cardinal Gaetano Bedini, an Italian emissary of Pope Pius IX. One protester was killed and many “respectable German citizens” were arrested, according to the Enquirer.

        Violent civil unrest has been part of this area since the city was founded along the Ohio River in 1788. The first known insurrection was in 1792, four years later, after a merchant named John Bartle was beaten by a soldier, according to Cincinnati — The Queen City, a 1912 history by the Rev. Charles Frederic Goss.

        “Fifty people were involved in the fighting. That was like one-tenth of the population,” says Scott Louis Gampfer, Cincinnati Museum Center director for history collections and preservation.

        Cincinnati racial violence dates back to 1829, when whites drove about 1,000 African-Americas — or half of the city's black population — out of town, Mr. Gampfer says. Some relocated in Canada, settling in Wilberforce, near York, Ontario.

        More white-on-black violence occurred in 1836, and again in 1841, when whites fired a cannon three times into the black neighborhood east of Sixth Street.

        “These riots were not what we'd call "race riots' today, when black people riot in their own neighborhood. Back then a "race riot' meant that white people went into the black neighborhood and burned things and killed people,” says James Oliver Horton, director of the African-American Communities Project at the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution. He researched Cincinnati's 1829 riot in his book, Author: In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks (Oxford University Press; $19.95).

Rumors fueled rioting

        Racial tensions ran high in Cincinnati before the Civil War because of its proximity to Kentucky, a slave state. Some residents saw the influx of blacks as jeopardizing the social order; others perceived it as an economic threat.

   1788: Cincinnati founded.
   1792: Fifty people riot after a soldier beats a merchant.
   1829: Whites drive more than 1,000 African-Americans out of town.
   1836: A white mob destroys an abolitionist newspaper press, then marches on African-American homes.
   1841: Whites are met by gunfire when they attack ŒŒLittle Africaıı African-American neighborhood. Whites retreat and fire a cannon on the black community.
   1842: Panicked customers trash the Bank of Cincinnati after it closes.
   1848: Eleven people are killed when a white mob tries to lynch two jailed Mexican War veterans charged with assaulting a girl.
   1853: 800 German Catholics march on Bishop John Purcellıs house demanding that Cardinal Gaetano Bedini be expelled from the city.
   1855: Cincinnatiıs establishment and German residents clash over a rumor that Germans might try to prevent others rom voting for the American Party, or Know-Nothing Party, mayoral candidate.
   1861: Irish and African-Americans riot for two days on cityıs east side.
   1862: Police and a volunteer militia unit restore order after week-long riots by Irish and African-Americans on the riverfront.
   1884: 56 people are killed and 300 wounded, and the Hamilton County Courthouse burned, in a weekend riot involving about 10,000 people.
   1935: A fight between a black and a white student at Oyler School ends with 16 arrests.
   1941: A crowd riots outside a West End store.
   1955: About 1,000 people gather when two African-American women fight on a West End street. Two days later, 500 gather when police help a disabled black woman.
   1967: More than 400 people are arrested in June riots in Avondale, which leave one dead and injure 63.
   1968: Two people die and 22O are injured in riots after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
    What: Civil Unrest in Cincinnati: Voices of Our Community     When: Saturday through Oct. 21
    Where: Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, 1301 Western Ave., Queensgate, in the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati: African American Museum gallery.
    Tickets: Free during museum hours, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.
    Information: 287-7000, or 1-800-733-2077, or
        “There were always these rumors that all these black people would come over the river and take all the jobs,” says Mr. Horton, a consultant to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “The presence of black people often posed a threat to white workers. Then whites would often strike out at them because of the perceived threat.”

        Attacks on black neighborhoods or lynchings were ways “(white) leaders restored what they perceived as the proper social order,” Mr. Hurley says.

        Cincinnati — The Queen City says “it was discovered with apprehension” in 1829 that the city's number of black residents had reached nearly 10 percent. The African-American population had jumped from 620 in 1826 to 2,258 in 1829, according to Cincinnati's Black Peoples by Lyle Koehler.

        “Mobs formed and assailed the Negroes whenever they could be attacked with impunity,” the Rev. Goss wrote in Cincinnati — The Queen City.

        In 1836,, another riot erupted when city leaders banned publishing abolitionist, or anti-slavery, newspapers. A crowd stormed The Philanthropist newspaper office, tossed the printing press into the Ohio River, and then marched on the African-American homes on Church Alley.

        Again in 1841, whites assembled at the Fifth Street Market and marched on “Little Africa,” on the city's eastern edge, near Sixth and Broadway. They were met by armed blacks anticipating the attack. Whites then rolled a cannon into the street and fired three times in the black neighborhood, Mr. Gampfer says. Police took more than 300 blacks into protective custody during the violence.

        A year later, in 1842, citizens stormed the Bank of Cincinnati after it closed. In 1848, a mob marched on the jail trying to lynch two Mexican War veterans charged with assaulting a young Cincinnati girl. Eleven people were fatally shot by sheriff's deputies outside the jail, according to Cincinnati — The Queen City.

        “This was just your "normal' crowd trying to lynch someone. It was not a race riot. They just got mad and tried to take the law into their own hands,” Mr. Gampfer says. “These things were fairly common.”

Fast growing town

        In the 1840s and 1850s, Cincinnati society became increasingly unstable as German and Irish immigrants poured into the Queen City. By 1851, Cincinnati was the nation's fifth-largest city.

        In 1853, German Catholics took to the streets on Christmas armed with guns, pistols, clubs, canes and sling shots trying to run Cardinal Bedini out of town. The Germans, many of whom fled to the United States after the failed European revolutions of 1848, saw the priest as a symbol of repression, Mr. Hurley says.

        Two years later, Cincinnati's establishment (called “nativists”) clashed with Germans. The nativists were alarmed by a rumor that Germans might prevent residents from voting for J.D. Taylor, the mayoral candidate for the anti-immigrant American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party.

        German-Americans barricaded streets into Over-the-Rhine on the north edge of the Miami-Erie Canal (now Central Parkway). Members of the Turners, a German physical fitness organization, aimed their cannon and “shot it over the head of the mob of nativists that came at them,” says Don Heinrich Tolzmann, University of Cincinnati German-American studies director and curator of UC's German-American Collection.

        In the middle of the 19th century, tensions ran high between the nativists and Germans, Mr. Tolzmann says. Cincinnati's German population had become such a force at the ballot box that they pushed for — and received — bilingual education in city schools and Sunday beer sales.

        “The Germans would parade down the streets holding their huge steins and have picnics,” Mr. Tolzmann says. “The nativists would be incensed by it. They stormed and harassed Germans at church festivals and picnics.”

        Irish immigrants rioted against African-Americans in 1861 and 1862, when river traffic was disrupted by the Civil War. There was lots of friction between Irish and blacks who lived together in the poor neighborhood east of downtown and competed for the same unskilled riverfront jobs.

        “Often in the summer there was trouble, back in the days before the dams and locks, when the river dried up and the river workers were idle,” Mr. Gampfer says.

        “I don't think the Irish are particularly racists. The Irish just saw themselves in direct competition with blacks for jobs. It was an economic thing,” Mr. Horton says.

Worst violence in 1884

        Twenty years after the Civil War, Cincinnati experienced its worst unrest when the courthouse was burned to a charred shell in 1884.

        Citizens frustrated by political corruption and an increasing murder rate were incensed when confessed murderer William Berner, 17, was sentenced to 20 years in jail — instead of death — for robbing and killing a West End stable owner.

        More than 8,000 people rallied in Music Hall about the perceived miscarriage of justice, when someone threw a rope noose and shouted, “Hang him! Hang him!” Soon the crowd was headed to the courthouse, not knowing that Mr. Berner had been transferred to a Columbus jail earlier that day.

        Armed with bricks and boards, the rioters forced their way into the jail. Ohio National Guard units from Dayton, Waynesville, Columbus and Cleveland were called in to quell the three-day riot involving an estimated 10,000 people.

Price Hill outbreak

        More than a half century passed until Cincinnati's next widespread street conflict.

        A fight between a black student and a white student at Oyler School in Price Hill quickly escalated in 1935. Police blocked the Eighth Street viaduct to separate groups of angry whites and blacks. Sixteen people were arrested, Mr. Gampfer says.

        The West End was the scene of three disturbances in the 1940s and '50s.

        A crowd smashed windows of a store in 1941 where an African-American customer had clashed with the owner. Several people were arrested, and a police officer injured, Mr. Gampfer says.

        Incidents two days apart in 1955 also resulted in clashes between police and blacks.

        Three police were injured trying to break up a fight between two African-American women on July 16. As the crowd grew to nearly 1,000, about 50 police officers and detectives rushed to the scene, the Enquirer reported.

        Two days later, on July 18, between 400 and 500 people filled the street as police tried to help a disabled, disoriented African-American woman. Newspapers called it a “near riot.”

        “Almost every year in the city, in the summer, there was a serious incident that could have turned into a riot, if it wasn't for quick action,” Mr. Gampfer says. “A lot of things that seemed benign — a fight or altercation — could quickly turn into something bigger.”

Exhibit ends in '60s

        The Museum Center time line ends with the Avondale riots of 1967 and 1968 during the turbulent civil rights movement.

        The arrest of a black man for loitering near the Abraham Lincoln statue at Rockdale Avenue and Reading Road in June 1967 exploded into widespread civil unrest, one of more than 100 riots that summer in cities across the country.

        Seven hundred Ohio National Guard officers were called in to restore order. One person was killed, 63 injured and 404 people were arrested.

        After the assassination of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Cincinnati was among more than 100 cities that experienced urban violence. Again the Ohio National Guard was summoned to Avondale, where two people were killed and at least 220 were injured. Police arrested 260 people during two nights of violence.

        The '60s riots left their mark on Cincinnati. Avondale was scarred by an estimated $3 million in property damage from each riot. Many damaged areas were vacant for a decade.

        In response to demands from African-Americans, minorities were appointed to city boards and commissions. (All 69 members were white in 1967). African-Americans also wanted satellite health department offices in minority communities.

        But many of the social and economic reasons for the 1960s Avondale riots parallel the three-day April riots, which resulted in 66 felony arrests and more than 800 misdemeanor arrests, dozens of injuries and $1 million damage, Ms. Rogers notes.

        “The underlying issues — unemployment, housing and educational opportunities — all of those are still here today,” she says.


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