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Introduction to the African American Experience in Ohio 1850-1920

The African American Experience in Ohio is a project that provides on-line access to Ohio African American history through the digitizing of over 30,000 pages from numerous separate collections in the holdings of the Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library and the Library/Manuscript collections of the National Afro-American Museum. Students, teachers, researchers and others interested in African American history will find individual items of interest, but the real value of the collection is in the overall picture of black life that these combined collections provide.

From the establishment of the Northwest Territory in which slavery was outlawed and the founding of Ohio as a state in 1803, African Americans have been active throughout the history of Ohio. At the same time, Ohio has played a significant role in shaping the course of African American history nationally. This particular project encompasses the period from 1850 to 1920 and touches on major themes in American history: slavery, emancipation, the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad movement, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Within these major themes are materials from the turn of the century period which offer insight into the meaning of freedom, the curtailment of that freedom based on race and the establishment of the era of segregation.

Ohio played a significant role in the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist movement. The seeds which were sown by a few radicals during the early 1800's eventually led to Civil War and the end of slavery. Ripley, Ohio was a hot bed of abolitionist activities. A leading figure who aided in the escape of hundreds of slaves was John Rankin. Rankin was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Ripley and founder of the first anti-slavery society in Ohio in 1835. His collection offers the researcher a personal view of a movement that shook the very foundation of the nation. The WPA Ex-Slave Narratives are particularly rich in providing insight into the life histories of former slaves. There are twenty-seven narratives that were not deposited in the Library of Congress and were only available at the Ohio Historical Society.

Wilberforce University was established before the Civil War and has had both a national and international impact on higher education and African American religion. The papers of Reverdy C. Ransom offer a broad view of the church, its leadership, civil rights and higher education. The African Methodist Episcopal Church Review covers a wide range of topics including politics, education, religion, history and world events. The Conference proceedings of the American Methodist Episcopal Church provide a glimpse into history of the denomination and its politics.

The African American Experience in Ohio is a wonderful resource that allows students exploring twentieth century race relations and other social issues to gain insights into these contemporary problems by examining their nineteenth century antecedents. Choices made in the 1800s still impact life in the 20th century. The speech by Charles Sumner in support of the Bill to establish the Freedmen's Bureau is one example. While the Bureau is an example of the effort of the Federal government to help blacks overcome the residual effects of slavery, the bill did not go far enough in providing the type of economic support necessary for the Freedmen to sustain life as free people. Without a stable economic base and adequate civil rights protection, most African Americans remained tied to the very economic system which once enslaved them.

The articles from eleven African American newspapers from 1844 through 1923 provide context for African American life in Ohio. Pamphlets, photographs, prints and manuscript collections can only provide a glimpse into the history of Blacks in Ohio. Together, these materials offer an overview of these experiences during the time period 1850 to 1920 in the words of the people who lived them. This project was not meant to be exhaustive; it is a beginning. The researcher is encouraged to explore further the rich, diverse and complex story of the African American Experience in Ohio 1850-1920.

Dr. John Fleming
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center


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