Ohio History Journal

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Negro Self-Improvement

Negro Self-Improvement

Efforts in Ante-Bellum

Cincinnati, 1836-1850


by Richard W. Pih






In recent years various historians, particularly Leon F. Litwack in his

North of Slavery, have focused on the speciousness of the North Star Legend

of Yankee tolerance and benevolence toward the free Negro prior to the

Civil War. Numerous state studies on this subject have been made, but

work on the local urban level appears neglected. Even though Carter G.

Woodson admirably pioneered an examination of antebellum race relations

in Cincinnati, further evidence and research sheds new light on his initial

optimistic appraisal.1 Instead of "Yankee benevolence," especially after 1840

white Cincinnatians practiced social and economic repression of the Negro,

and the city's black community was forced to rely almost exclusively on its

own resources.

Between 1840 and 1850, the Negro population of Cincinnati increased

rather slowly from 2240 to 3237 in a total population of 46,338 and 115,434,

respectively.2 A small portion included recently freed bondsmen, their

owners, relatives, or friends having purchased their freedom. Also fugitive

slaves, once across the Ohio River, found refuge in the city with assistance

from abolitionists, Quakers, and especially their own black brethren. The

remainder of the influx consisted of free Negro migrants who came in

search of greater economic opportunity in a growing urban center.3

A majority of the black folk resided in the First, Fourth, Sixth, and

Ninth Wards bordering the city's outer perimeter. The largest proportion

of them lived near Deer Creek, an area known as the "Swamp," in the

Ninth Ward. Others crowded into "Bucktown"--a "noisome hollow"--in

the First Ward. Aside from the unwholesome locations, Negro families

suffered also from terrible housing conditions. A few sources refer to their

dwellings as mere "huts" and "decayed shacks." In the open country to

the east, however, the more fortunate escaped to "small farms" or to a

"few settlements or clusters of homes."4