RACE in OHIO
Slavery was abolished in Ohio by the state's original constitution (1802). But at the same time, Ohio, with slave-state Kentucky across the river, took the lead in aggressively barring black immigration.
When Virginian John Randolph's 518 slaves were emancipated and a plan was hatched to settle them in southern Ohio, the population rose up in indignation. An Ohio congressman warned that if the attempt were made, "the banks of the Ohio ... would be lined with men with muskets on their shoulders to keep off the emancipated slaves."
According to historian Leon F. Litwack, Ohio "provided a classic example of how anti-immigration legislation could be invoked to harass Negro residents." The state had enacted Black Laws in 1804 and 1807 that compelled blacks entering the state to post bond of $500 guaranteeing good behavior and to produce a court paper as proof that they were free.
"No extensive effort was made to enforce the bond requirement" Likwack wrote, "until 1829, when the rapid increase of the Negro population alarmed Cincinnati. The city authorities announced that the Black Laws would be enforced and ordered Negroes to comply or leave within thirty days."
Citizens of the city's "Little Africa" -- largely a ghetto of wooden shacks owned by whites -- appealed for a delay, and sent a delegation to Canada to try to find a place to settle there. But if the authorities were willing to offer more time, the Ohio mob was not, and whites in packs roamed through the black neighborhoods, burning and beating. The delegation came back from Upper Canada with the offer of a safe home from the governor. "Tell the Republicans on your side of the line that we royalists do not know men by their color. Should you come to us you will be entitled to all the privileges of the rest of His Majesty's subjects."
About half of the city's 2,200 blacks left, most of them apparently going to Canada. The proponents of strict enforcement of the Black Laws then discovered that they had driven off "the sober, honest, industrious, and useful portion of the colored population," which lessened "much of the moral restraint ... on the idle and indolent, as well as the profligate" among the rest.
The abolitionists in the Old Northwest pitched their appeal, in part, to the desire for a homogenous (white) Ohio by claiming that attempts by blacks to immigrate into the state would end when slavery ceased and there was no more reason for blacks to flee the South for "the uncongenial North."
Blacks petitioned against the exclusion laws, but the state legislature denied they had the right to petition the government "for any purpose whatsoever." Finally, after the Free Soil Party gained a degree of power in the state in 1849, a compromise partially repealed the Black Laws, ending the bond-posting requirement. It was a rare, if not unique, instance of a Northern state loosening its restrictions on black settlement.
The northern tier of the state had been settled by good stock from southern New England and to a degree shared in the liberal and abolitionist religion and politics of that region. But when it came to an issue like integrating schools, the people's plain feelings revealed themselves.
When the public school system spread to Ohio, citizens and legislators alike objected to educating blacks from public funds, in part because it would tend to encourage blacks to come there and settle.
In the end, the state, like Pennsylvania, required its district school directors to set up separate facilities for black and white children. The Ohio courts upheld this segregation in 1850 and 1859, rejecting the idea of integration and declaring that, "whether consistent with true philanthropy or not ... there ... still is an almost invincible repugnance to such communion and fellowship."
Yet segregation was not enough for many Ohio whites, and they insulted, opposed, and sometimes literally attacked private schools set up to teach black children. Whites destroyed newly opened schools for blacks in Zanesville in 1837 and Troy in 1840.
In the 1830s, Oberlin College decided to open its doors to black students. As soon as the plan became known "panic and despair" seized students, faculty, and town residents. The chief proponent of the plan hastened to assure them that he had no intention to let the place "full up with filthy stupid negroes," but the controversy continued. The board of trustees tried to table the plan, but by now the abolitionists were aroused and would accept no retreat. In the end, in 1835, the trustees punted the decision to the faculty, which was assured of allowing black students to attend the school.
The move threatened the very existence of the college. From New England, the quarter from which much of the school's student body and money came, the college's financial agent wrote predicting disaster. "For as soon as your darkies begin to come in in any considerable numbers, unless they are completely separated ... the whites will begin to leave -- and at length your Institute will change colour. Why not have a black Institution, Dyed in the wool -- and let Oberlin be?"
The college did survive integration, however, mostly because before 1860 only a token handful of blacks were admitted. In 1860, the figure for black students was 4 percent. Still, the school was shocklingly integrated by Northern standards. A Massachusetts girl wrote home from the school in 1852, assuring her family, "that we don't have to kiss the Niggars nor speak to them," and anyway only about six "pure Niggars" were a the school, the rest looked like mulattoes, and anyway they dressed better than most of the white students.
Ohio was one of the states that prohibited blacks from testifying in legal cases involving white people. When that ban was lifted as part of the Free Soil-Democratic compromise of 1849, observers nonetheless acknowledged that, in the southern part of the state, where most of the blacks lived and where prejudice ran strongest, social forces would keep the ban in practical effect.
As for the brief victories of the Free Soilers, by 1854, the state government was back to its old ways, and it expelled a black reporter from a freedman's newspaper from the Senate press galley because his presence there violated "the laws of nature and the moral and political well-being of both races."
When the Republicans arose as the Northern political party, in Ohio as in Pennsylvania they kept their distance from abolitionists and blacks to assure their success. "The 'negro question,' " one state leader of the party wrote as Lincoln's election approached, "as we understand it, is a white man's question, the question of the right of free white laborers to the soil of the territories. It is not to be crushed or retarded by shouting 'Sambo' at us. We have no Sambo in our platform. ... We object to Sambo. We don't want him about. We insist that he shall not be forced upon us."
1. Appendix to the "Congressional Globe," 30 Cong. 1 Sess., p.727.