If we think about Cincinnati’s place in the history of slavery, it’s easy to imagine that the city’s position in the North and its role as a station on the Underground Railroad would make it a more welcoming place for Black people in that era. However, as usual, the truth is a lot more complicated.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe House examines how local newspapers encouraged several white mobs to start anti-Black riots in pre-Civil War Cincinnati with a new exhibit titled Who Controls the Narrative? Newspapers and Cincinnati’s Anti-Black Riots of 1829, 1836, and 1841.
Christina Hartlieb, executive director of the Walnut Hills museum where the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin lived from 1832 to the early 1850s, says tours of the home have typically mentioned the three anti-Black riots.
“[The riots] are an integral part of what was taking place in this border city that was mostly pro-slavery and partially anti-slavery, so it’s something that we normally do talk about,” says Hartlieb.
But with the help of a graduate student volunteer’s research, Who Controls the Narrative? began to take shape, revealing the people, publications, and places involved in those riots. The exhibit is also a collaboration with the Cincinnati Type & Print Museum, which provided printing artifacts from the era and reproductions of articles reporting on anti-Black violence.
“This really lays out exactly what happened and how it was stoked by the newspapers and who the people involved were, and even with [a] look at where the violence was taking place and where the newspaper offices were—that’s something that was outside of our scope before,” Hartlieb says.
Known as a gateway for enslaved people seeking freedom via the Underground Railroad, Cincinnati was home to a small but growing population of free Blacks in the early 1800s. The buying and selling of human beings was prohibited in Ohio, but life remained difficult and dangerous for Black people. The meager jobs available to them paid little, and they faced rising resistance from white immigrants seeking similar jobs. Newspapers at the time, including the Republican, the Whig, the early Enquirer, and other English and German-language publications, used negative stereotypes to instigate anti-Black sentiment.
“They stoked people’s fears and really worked toward creating these stereotypes of Black Americans,” Hartlieb says. “You’ve got these stereotypical images of someone being evil. It’s much easier to commit violence against them.”
In 1829, white Cincinnatians petitioned leaders to halt the rise of the city’s Black population through a tax under the “Black Codes,” a series of laws designed to deter Black people from staying in Ohio. By August, anti-Black fervor reached a fever pitch as a mob of roughly 200 white workers descended on “Little Africa,” the area we know today as The Banks. Looting, beatings, and forceful removal of Black people from the city limits ensued for days as police and city leadership looked on. By September, nearly 1,000 Black people—roughly half of the city’s Black population—fled Cincinnati.
“The 1829 riot really starts because immigrant labor is competing with African American labor for the same low-paying jobs, and anytime someone is coming in and ‘taking our jobs,’ that [provides] some reason to lash out at them, and the newspapers were just encouraging that,” Hartlieb says.
The exhibit also describes an 1836 riot surrounding the publication of abolitionist newspaper The Philanthropist. A band of men broke into its print shop, destroyed the press, and threw parts of it into the Ohio River. A short time later, printed notices called “broadsides” appeared on street corners throughout the city announcing the press’s demise and warning abolitionists not to print their papers anymore. But The Philanthropist continued to circulate. Another group destroyed its press again, and the mob continued to riot in a nearby Black neighborhood.
In 1841, another riot broke out after a fistfight between groups of Irish and Black workers. A mob rose to attack a Black boardinghouse, Black-owned businesses, and The Philanthropist press again, and some Black residents took up arms to defend themselves. Both sides suffered injuries (it is not known if or how many people died), the mob brought a cannon from the river which was “discharged several times,” Mayor Samuel Davies called in the military, and 250–300 Black men were jailed for protecting their homes. Some newspapers and letters blamed abolitionists for the violence while flattering the rioters. The Cincinnati Republican described the band as “the most systematic, orderly and well behaved mob, we ever witnessed.”
Who Controls the Narrative? also features dissenting voices from The Philanthropist and the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. The paper particularly blamed the Enquirer for the 1841 riot, citing articles that were “most grossly slanderous” to abolitionists and “abusive of the colored people.” Still, these abolitionist papers and groups rarely allowed a platform for Black voices, and Hartlieb says firsthand accounts from the victims of the violence are scarce.
“When you look at how do you research this, it’s easy to find information on the white guys. . . .Is it as easy to find information on the Black perspective? No, there’s not nearly as many accounts of the Black perspective in the riots,” says Hartlieb.
Abolitionists like Stowe witnessed the violence and the publications that spurred it, and the exhibit features portions of her letters and essays from the violent period.
“We really do look at all of the context of what was going on in the 1800s, and we primarily focus on Harriet and the things that she learned and the people that she met here in Cincinnati—she lived here for 18 years—and that was what enabled her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, another work of changing of public opinion,” Hartlieb says. “But all of that was taking place within the context of Cincinnati, and once you put together all of these ideas, you see why Cincinnati was right in the middle of all this abolition fervor.”
Who Controls the Narrative? Newspapers and Cincinnati’s Anti-Black Riots of 1829, 1836, and 1841 is on display at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House now through May 2022.
Harriet Beecher Stowe House, 2950 Gilbert Ave., Walnut Hills. (513) 751-0651