The sky was clear, the weather was pleasant and more than 12,000 people – mostly men, but women and children, too – walked abreast down High Street, accompanied by marching bands and decorated floats promoting the strength of organized labor.
In some ways, Labor Day 1919 in Columbus was like those that had preceded it. The people who took part in the march, feeling good about a successful event, dispersed to other activities throughout the city. The largest of these was held at Olentangy Park.
Founded in the 1890s, Olentangy Park was the largest amusement park in the city. Originally a picnic grounds called Olentangy Villa, the park was about 4 miles north of the city along High Street near Ohio State University. The Villa became an amusement park with rides and attractions when electric streetcar service reached the area. It also had one of the largest dance and concert halls in the city.
It was a great place for several thousand people to hold a party, and orators lined up to speak their minds in its concert hall.
Other venues around the city were open to capacity on Labor Day, as well. Because the day celebrating the contributions of working people to the U.S. had become accepted widely, most government, financial and commercial institutions in the city were closed. In addition, public schools traditionally did not begin until the day after Labor Day, so children were out and about. All of this meant local restaurants, theaters and parks were full of people.
But for all of that, there was a certain formality to the day.
A local paper summarized the situation in its Labor Day headline: “Labor and Army Share Holiday Honors.” One might wonder how the U.S. Army came to be part of Labor Day in Columbus.
The short answer is it came home.
World War I was the deadliest conflict the country had seen since the end of the American Civil War. The war began in 1914, and the U.S. avoided involvement in the deadly struggle for three years. But in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson led the United States into a struggle to “make the world safe for democracy.”
By the time it ended in 1918, 4.7 million young American men had been called to service, and more than 116,000 of them had died.
Now, a year later, most of the troops had returned. Many of them – organizing to meet their needs – had joined new service organizations, such as the American Legion. Veterans, through these organizations, wanted to make a statement about their continued commitment to the country they had served.
But the world they returned to had changed from the one they left. The departure of millions of men to war left many factory jobs in the industrial north unfilled. To fill those jobs, large numbers of men – white and black – came north to seek work.
To African Americans, this came to be called “the Great Migration.” The black population of Columbus doubled during World War I.
The great industrial cities of Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit saw significant increases, as well.
In many cities, the arrival of new people was not well-received. There were full-scale race riots in 1919 in Chicago, in East St. Louis, Illinois, and in many other American cities. Two days of rioting in Knoxville, Tennessee, had just ended as Labor Day came to Columbus in 1919.
Columbus saw no rioting, but its presence elsewhere was a definite concern.
With all of this happening, veterans organizations were even more inspired to show their loyalty. On Labor Day 1919, a delegation arrived at the Statehouse to present the state with the flag and colors of the 83rd Division – a force with many young Ohioans in its ranks and among its dead.
Representatives of the 83rd arrived in Columbus, accompanied by hundreds of members of the division.
The two groups got along fine.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.