The black community of central Ohio has a long and compelling history.
The story begins before Columbus became Ohio’s capital.
Frontier Franklinton was the home of a number of “free people of color.” Many of these people were former slaves of some of the founders of the new town and had been freed when they came to central Ohio.
Slavery was forever banned north of the Ohio River by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Ohio Constitution of 1802. For reasons of preference or predilection, many of the former slaves stayed with their former masters as freed workers.
In 1812, when the Ohio General Assembly designated the “high banks opposite Franklinton at the forks of the Scioto” to be the state capital, many black residents were ready, willing and able to seek work in the inns, hotels and shops of the new town.
As Columbus grew in the 1830s with the arrival of the National Road and the Ohio and Erie Canal, so did the black population. Columbus as a center of public and private institutions became an attractive destination for people seeking work in the service industry.
Columbus was a city of about 20,000 people at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Most of its black population lived along the alleys and side streets close to or in the places they worked.
With the completion of the Hocking Valley Railroad in the early 1870s, immense quantities of coal, iron and timber became cheaply and easily available to Columbus industries. The town grew rapidly, and its black community was no exception.
By the 1870s, an economic and social center of that community began to emerge.
In 1922, Nimrod Allen, director of the recently established Columbus Urban League, described that place in an article for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:
“The Negro center of Columbus has always been Long Street. It is reputed that 30 years ago, the Negroes owned practically all the property between 3rd and High Streets, including the land where one of the largest banks now stands. They did not live farther east than 4th Street. During time there were separate schools in Columbus and on the corner of Long and 3rd Streets was the Loving High School and just west was the elementary school.
“Negroes conducted restaurants, barber shops and saloons, of which there were nine within four blocks. On the north side of the street between Third and High Streets was the St. Paul AME Church. ... There were not 75 Negro families in the city of Columbus living outside of this section in those days.
“In 1904, the officers of the St. Paul AME Church purchased a site on East Long Street, near Jefferson Avenue, upon which the church now stands. It was the moving of this congregation and the erection of an Odd Fellows’ Hall by Negroes sometime previous, on the corner of Garfield Avenue and Long Street, together with the increased value of property on Long Street, near High, that caused the exodus of Negroes farther east on Long.
“In this vicinity there are today 10 negro physicians, 6 dentists, 10 churches, 2 drug stores, 2 undertakers and over one hundred Negro owners of homes. These are scattered all the way from Ninth Street to Taylor Avenue, and it is predicted that Long Street from Jefferson to Woodlin Avenues will be owned in the not too distant future by Negroes.”
In his article, Allen went on to describe some of the challenges and opportunities facing the community. Concluding his description, he closed on an optimistic note:
“The receding families of white people on East Long Street are being fast replaced by progressive Negro citizens, and it is no wild fancy to predict that the next generation will find a score or more of Negroes of real wealth from business accumulations on East Long Street; even now we have those who count their monthly incomes in the thousands.”
Allen eventually became head of the Columbus Urban League, serving until his retirement in 1954.
He remained an elder statesman of Columbus’ black community until his death in 1977. He is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.