African-American people have been living in Columbus for as long as there has been a Columbus. In fact, some were living here even before there was a Columbus. The regrettable fact is that we do not know all that much about most of these people.
It should not be too surprising that we know so little about the lives of early black residents of Columbus. We do not know all that much about many of the white people who came here in the early days of Columbus.
There was no community of any sort on the "high banks" at the forks of the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers until about 1816 or so. Columbus had been founded on Feb. 14, 1812, to be the new capital city of Ohio. The War of 1812 intervened and the Ohio General Assembly did not meet in Columbus until 1816. By that time Columbus was small village of about 700 people hacked out of the old growth forest along the ridge that once had been called Wolf's Ridge. Across the river from the new town was frontier Franklinton which had been founded by a man named Lucas Sullivan in 1797. Franklinton had prospered during the War of 1812 but was now drifting into the shadow of Columbus across the river.
Some of the first African American people to arrive in central Ohio were residents of Franklinton. Lucas Sullivant and many of the early arrivals in Franklinton came from Virginia by way of Kentucky. Slavery was prohibited in Ohio by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. So many of the slaves of the early families were freed upon arriving in Ohio and became servants of their former owners. In addition, slaves freed prior to their arrival in Ohio came into the state seeking a new life as well. And by the time Columbus was founded, free African American families were arriving as well.
Some families came together to the new town in the new state. Others had to take a more circuitous approach. While slavery was prohibited in Ohio, runaway slaves could still be captured by slave hunters and returned to their masters. To help runaways reach freedom in Canada, an escape network that came to be called the "Underground Railroad" was organized.
Many of the most prominent members of the African-American community in Columbus were "conductors" on the Underground Railroad.
James Preston Poindexter was born in Virginia to a mother of mixed black and native-American descent. His father was a local white newspaperman. Trained as a barber he came to Columbus in 1838 and opened a shop in a hotel along High Street. He found a wife and by 1862 became pastor of the Second Baptist Church. He led that church for 40 years and along the way was a member of Columbus City Council, the Columbus Board of Education and a committed participant in the Underground Railroad. At the time of his death in 1907, he was probably the best known African American in Columbus.
But his courage and commitment was by no means unique.
Robert Napper was born a slave near Staunton, Va. At the age of 34, married with five children, Napper proposed to John Brandeburg, a local merchant, that Brandeburg buy him and hire him with some of his wages set aside for his purchase. After four years of work, Napper earned enough money to buy his freedom.
He came to Columbus and after working for another year had made enough money to purchase his wife. A local history recorded what happened next. "In July, 1860, he bought his youngest boy, Cornelius, aged eleven, who was sent to him by the Adams Express Company. From his master Cornelius received on July 4, a gift of twenty-five cents. Of which he spent enroute ten cents; the remainder he handed his father before he left the express office, with the request that it be applied to the purchase of his brother, yet in slavery."
"Napper hoped at that time to purchase the remainder of his family, comprising two girls, aged fifteen and eighteen, and a boy aged thirteen. He little foresaw the great events, then near at hand, by which human slavery was to be extinguished forever in the American Union." As a result of the American Civil War, slavery was ended in America and purchasing the rest of his family was not required.
Most African-Americans lived in modest dwellings along the streets, alleys and byways of central Columbus. There was no black retail center in Columbus until well after 1870 when a commercial node came into being at Long and High Streets. With the growth of the downtown, that commercial district moved east and became the center of a black community on the Near East Side of downtown Columbus.
It is a place of pride in the heart of the capital city.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.