Oct. 26 was the 200th birthday of James Preston Poindexter, a remarkable man who lived though much of the early history of Columbus.
Poindexter was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1819. His father, Joseph Poindexter, was a white journalist who worked for the Richmond Enquirer. His mother, Evelina, was half Cherokee and half black.
James Poindexter’s mother died when he was 4. His father ensured proper care and education for the young boy, who was apprenticed to a barber at age 10.
He practiced his trade in what a later account referred to as an “aristocratic shop,” where he learned how to meet the needs of the masculine leisure class of a state capital. It was an education that would prove to be useful in his later career.
In 1837, he met and married Adelia Atkinson. A year later, the Poindexters, like many people of their generation, decided to seek their fortune in the west – which in those days was the Ohio Country north and west of the Ohio River.
In 1838, the Poindexters arrived in Columbus, then a bustling town that was growing rapidly.
A village with a population of 2,000 in 1830, Columbus had welcomed the arrival of the National Road and the Ohio and Erie Canal in 1831. By 1834, the borough of Columbus had become the city of Columbus, with more than 5,000 residents.
Poindexter shortly established himself as a local barber and worked in a shop on High Street near the state capitol. In the shop, he met a number of important people and learned a lot of political gossip, which he used to his advantage.
The main place where this knowledge was useful was in his work with the Underground Railroad.
Neither underground nor a railroad, the network of people – black and white – and pathways – hidden and in the open – led runaway slaves to freedom in Canada.
Poindexter was an active participant in the Underground Railroad until it ended with the coming of the Civil War.
He later described to historian Wilbur Siebert a bit of history of the Underground Railroad in Columbus:
“The Negroes were brought in wagons at night from Columbus by colored drivers. ... After the streets were quiet at night, the conductors hauled their passengers up High Street or out Friend Street, later Main Street, which was the National Pike.”
Along the way, Poindexter became a minister with the Second Baptist Church of Columbus in 1858, while continuing to make a living and raise a family.
He would serve in that role for 20 years.
In a meeting of pastors in the 1870s, he explained his view of the role of the church in society: “Wherever there is a sin to be rebuked, no matter by whom committed, and ill to be averted or good to be achieved by our country or mankind, there is a place for the pulpit to make itself felt and heard.”
In addition to these activities, Poindexter, like many men of his time, was active in many social and fraternal organizations. As a member of the Republican Party, he became involved in local politics, as well.
In the course of a long political career, he became the first black man to serve on the Columbus school board and the first black man to serve on Columbus City Council. With a number of important friends and acquaintances, he also was appointed to serve on a variety of state and local boards, committees and commissions.
Poindexter died Feb. 7, 1907, of complications of pneumonia. He was 87. Honored at the time, he would be well-remembered in Columbus through the next several decades.
By the late 1930s, Columbus, like most of the U.S., had been coping in a variety of ways with the challenges of the Great Depression. One way the federal government tried to deal with a pressing demand for housing for people in need was to subsidize the construction and management of a series of public housing projects.
One of the first of these was built on Columbus’ Near East Side in the late 1930s.
It was dedicated personally by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. It was called Poindexter Village in memory and recognition of an acknowledged leader of the black community of Columbus for much of the 19th century.
Today, the James Preston Poindexter Foundation carries on his memory.
It was said of him that his leisure time was spent in reading the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare.
Poindexter is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.