Cincinnati Mostly Ignored the Civil Rights Act of 1875

To be fair, all of America mostly ignored the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Although it was perhaps the most far-reaching legislation passed by Congress during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, it is obvious from the very public opposition to this law that most white Americans refused to even consider equality for African Americans.

Although the Civil Rights Act promised broad access for African Americans to establishments catering to the general public, as reflected in this Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast, lax enforcement and public threats rendered the legislation ineffectual.

Illustration by Thomas Nast From: Harper’s Weekly, 24 April 1875 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The Civil Rights Act codified a concept that we take for granted today:

“That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.”

Seems pretty straightforward, yes? Not to the Cincinnati Enquirer. At the time, the Enquirer was a Democratic newspaper, which meant that it was pro-South, pro-slavery, anti-Reconstruction and quite openly racist. On 1 March 1875, before the bill had even passed, the Enquirer blasted its opinion loudly and clearly:

“The Civil Rights Bill will probably receive the President’s signature to-day, and the colored man will be lifted up from degradation to equal rights, privileges and muniments. The disposition on the part of the American people to ‘give Sambo a chance’ will now be gratified to the fullest extent.”

Two days later, the Enquirer announced that civil disobedience was the proper method to oppose this imposition of civil rights. The Enquirer [3 March 1875} described the new law as a form of tyranny:

“Under the law which has been adopted by the Imperialist majority in Congress to legislate negroes into social communion with the whites, whether the latter are willing or not, there is a chance for far-seeing hotel-keepers to make money. All they have to do is advertise that the so-called Civil Rights Bill does not govern their establishments, and that they don’t set negroes at the same tables with the whites.”

White people, the Enquirer claimed, would flock to hotels that refused accommodation to African Americans and “the public” would gladly contribute money for their legal defense.

One group that was not rushing anywhere was the African American population of the city. A group of approximately 100 Cincinnatians, black and white, gathered to debate the new law on the evening of 20 March 1875 and the next day the Enquirer reported a great deal of reluctance by African Americans present to exercise their new privileges:

“Mr. William Alexander, a respectable colored gentleman, then arose and stated his opinion upon the matter. He said he didn’t wish to be forced among white people at all, and was quite content to live among his own people.”

Colonel Robert James Harlan informed the meeting that he approved of the act, and was glad that it did not apply to schools. Colonel Harlan was an African American and an ex-slave who was actively engaged in creating separate schools for the African American children of Cincinnati.

Harlan also noted that the act did not apply to saloons and read from a letter by Benjamin F. Butler, the white Massachusetts representative who sponsored the bill in Congress. The letter, dated March 18, demonstrates that even the chief proponent of the 1875 Civil Rights Act was uncomfortable promoting full equality to African Americans. Butler wrote (and remember, he is writing this to a black man):

“I am happy to say that the civil rights bill does not give any right to a colored man to go into a drinking saloon without the leave of the proprietor, and I am very glad that it does not. I am willing to concede, as a friend to the colored man, that the white race may have at least this one superior privilege to the colored man, that they can drink in bar-rooms and saloons, and I never shall do anything to interfere with the exercise of that high and distinctive privilege.”

The Crawford House, on the southwest corner of Sixth and Walnut streets, was the only Cincinnati hotel prosecuted for discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The hotel was exonerated.

Image courtesy: Leading Manufacturers and Merchants of Cincinnati and Environs Published 1886 Page 58 Digitized by Google: Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

Meanwhile, Cincinnati hoteliers did their best to find how little they needed to do to meet the letter of the law without actually allowing any “colored” trade. The Enquirer sent a reporter out to survey hotel owners and found that the few who would speak on the record planned to set up segregated rooms in their establishments, thereby permitting African Americans to spend the night, but not in a bed that might later be offered to a white customer.

It appears there was only one lawsuit filed in Cincinnati over the Civil Rights Act. An African American minister named Alfred A. Price arrived in town from Gallipolis, Ohio, and sought lodging at one of the city’s “colored hotels.” Unable to rouse anyone at the late hour, he found himself at the Crawford House on the southwest corner of Sixth and Walnut. Told that the hotel was full, he asked if he could sit by the fire until his connecting steamboat arrived in the morning. He was refused even that comfort and sued. A federal magistrate exonerated the Crawford House, stating that everyone is equally turned away when a hotel is full.

The Civil Rights Act had a brief life. Most of it was tossed out by the United States Supreme Court in 1883, but it had not been enforced to any extent since its passage. President Ulysses S. Grant wanted a very different law to protect African American voters from violence in the South, and he decided to ignore the law Congress gave him instead.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.

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