City Quotient: What is the history behind the word 'Bronzeville'?

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From the August 2014 edition

I’ve seen the King-Lincoln District referred to as “King Lincoln Bronzeville.” What is the history of the term “Bronzeville,” and what is its history in Columbus specifically?

The story goes back a ways. “Bronzeville” describes a large century-old, traditionally black Chicago neighborhood known early on as the “Black Belt” or the “Black Ghetto.” In the 1920s, James Gentry, a theater reviewer for the Chicago Bee, coined and promoted Bronzeville as a more sensitive and accurate name that described most of the residents’ actual skin color. The name stuck and is still used today.

Bronzeville was in Columbus, too. The neighborhood just east of Downtown began to fill with black residents in the early 1900s, a result in part of the Great Migration, the northward movement from the South that swelled the black populations of cities like Chicago and Detroit. According to a 1938 Dispatch article, there was a “Bronzeville movement” in Columbus, promoting a mayor and a cabinet that would “keep the welfare of the race at heart.” These weren’t actual elected offices but were focused on improving life for people in the city’s predominantly black neighborhood, known at the time as Bronzeville.

Several distinct residential and commercial districts have been established in Columbus over the past 10 or 15 years. One was the King-Lincoln District, named for cultural institutions the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and the Lincoln Theater. In 2009, there was a grass-roots movement to drop the King-Lincoln name and again call the district Bronzeville. This generated some controversy, but it’s been settled by using both names for an area that has made a rich contribution to our city’s history.

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus.

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