Racism and the Misuse of History in Ohio

Thousands of delegates, activists, spectators & law enforcement from all over the US descended onto Cleveland for the RNC. Revolutionary Community Party protesters, July 20, 2016 (Shutterstock).

In December, James Alex Fields Jr., a neo-Nazi from Maumee, Ohio, was convicted of first-degree murder for killing Heather Heyer at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. A month later African American employees at a General Motors (GM) plant in Toledo, Ohio sued the company after co-workers threatened and harassed them with nooses and racist language in the workplace. Shortly thereafter in Field’s hometown of Maumee, a group of African Americans sued UPS after suffering years of racism that white managers and supervisors refused to stop. In August, someone blew up a home in Wayne County, Ohio in an apparent hate crime. The Sheriff of Wayne County promised to investigate, and then added, “It’s totally out of character for Wayne County to have racial crimes like this.”

The sheriff is not alone in his puzzled or baffled response to hate crimes and racism arising in Ohio and the Midwest. Indeed, a majority of the public and media seems unable to wrap their minds around the incidents occurring there, presenting them as random and rare. A general consensus prevails among many white people: since Ohio was home to the Underground Railroad, Oberlin College, and was a Union state during the Civil War, white Ohioans couldn’t possibly be racist. But what is happening in Ohio is not just about a small splinter group of neo-Nazis, or random GM and UPS plants; it is about the ways many white people weaponize history to wipe out the facts of the past and the truths of the present in Ohio and the Midwest.

There are so many comfortable myths that whites cling to about Midwest history, myths that push all racism (and most Black people as well) to a region south of the Ohio River. And historians like me have encouraged those myths. For years our work has praised Ohio’s white citizens for their liberal ways.

True, there were white Ohioans who worked for equality and freedom for centuries, but their histories are being used to obscure and deny a long and troubling pattern of racism that arose in Ohio alongside those struggles for justice. And in Ohio, that racism started early.

When white delegates gathered to create Ohio’s first state constitution in 1803, a majority decided to ban African Americans from voting. They stole this right from their own neighbors, African American pioneers who had already successfully settled the land and voted alongside these white men. And these white delegates reversed the right promised by the Northwest Territorial Ordinance of 1787, which granted voting rights to all free propertied men regardless of the color of their skin. So in 1855 when a few white men elected John Mercer Langston to office in Brownhelm Township, they were breaking the law.

Oberlin College may have accepted a few African American students in the 1830s, but by that time thousands of wealthy African American propertied farmers and entrepreneurs in Ohio were paying taxes for a public-school system that was for white children only. And school segregation continued in Ohio and the Midwest well into the 20th century, with Michigan having the second-most segregated public school system in the United States.

There may have been some white Underground Railroad conductors in Ohio, but there were many more whites intent on destroying the lives and successes of the state’s African American pioneers. Starting in 1829 and continuing into the 1840s, white Ohioans began a violent campaign to drive out successful African American entrepreneurs who had helped found Cincinnati — their actions fueled by inflammatory speeches from local white leaders and hate-filled rhetoric in local newspapers.

And violence in this region did not end with the Civil War. As Linda Gordon reveals in The Second Coming of the KKK, in the 1920s vast numbers of white women and men across Ohio and the heartland joined the Klan in numbers exceeding most Southern states. But what Gordon does not say is that the Klan arose most forcefully in Ohio’s rural regions, which were once home to over ninety thriving African American farming communities whose residents had pioneered and integrated the state long before the Civil War.

But historians and school teachers, sheriffs and company managers, pastors and parents continue to deny this history in Ohio. They favor a whitewashed picture of the state settled by and for white people, full of white Underground Railroad agents and cheerful supporters of education and equality for all. This erasure is about belonging, and about who belongs where.

When historian David McCullough asserts in his best-selling book, The Pioneers, that white Protestant men from New England brought the best ideals of the nation to the Northwest territory, it actively erases African American founding citizens of that region. And readers seemed hungry for a story that erased the heroic pioneers of African descent who continued to work for liberty and equality long after most whites in Ohio had turned their backs on the Declaration of Independence’s best ideals. This is a history that continues to be literally buried, with the graveyards of African Americans desecrated, moved, and ignored in Columbus, Ohio and a revolutionary integrated school in Indiana founded by wealthy Black pioneers before the Civil War running into state-level resistance to preservation. Until all aspects of this region’s past can be admitted, the truth of broader patterns of racism in the region today will continue to be ignored, with tragic results for Ohio and the nation.

About the Author

Anna-Lisa Cox is an award-winning historian whose newest book The Bone and Sinew of the Land was honored by the Smithsonian Magazine as one of the best history books of 2018. She was a recent Research Associate at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture where her original research underpinned two exhibits. Cox is currently a Visiting Scholar at Hope College and a Non-Resident Fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.