Rita Fuller-Yates takes control of the narrative with 'Columbus Black History' book

With more than 250 images of Columbus legends and everyday people, the new book compiles 200 years of local African American history

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Rita Fuller-Yates

Rita Fuller-Yates grew up on Long Street in the middle of Bronzeville on the Near East Side of Columbus, a neighborhood chock-full of African American history. But no one relayed those stories to Fuller-Yates as a kid.

“I'm 52, and I actually did not know that I lived in a rich community that had so much accomplishment when I lived there in the ’70s and ’80s. It was considered the ’hood. It was going through the crack epidemic and people were told that once you get educated, you find somewhere else to live,” Fuller-Yates said. “Now I feel obligated to make sure that the next generation of young Black girls and boys know their history, and they understand it from the standpoint of how it ebbs and flows, and how communities are set up to go down and come back up.” 

Fuller-Yates later got a history degree from Ohio University, but learning about her own history — the people, places and stories in her hometown community — proved to be most transformative. Now, she’s hoping to pass that feeling along to others with a new book, Columbus Black History: Images from Our Past, Vol. I, which releases today (Tuesday, Feb. 1), followed by a book launch party on Sunday, Feb. 6 from 4-6 p.m. at 401 W. Rich St. in Franklinton.

The book covers 200 years of Black history in Columbus, telling stories of the recent and distant past through images culled from the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s extensive archives and other sources.

"Columbus Black History: Images from Our Past, Vol. I" by Rita Fuller-Yates

“When you talk about Black history, we always learn American history, which is geared more towards European history. And it wasn't that interesting to us. When we step back and evaluate, why weren't we better at writing history and writing our own books? Well, because it really didn't have a lot to do with us,” Fuller-Yates said. “I started recognizing that it's my job to create my own content for my own community.” 

To get started, Fuller-Yates helped create the Columbus Black History Facebook group in 2020, which now boasts more than 17,000 members. “George Floyd had just been killed, and I believe that Black people were looking for an outlet,” said Fuller-Yates, who became convinced by the group’s popularity and the active posting by its members that she needed to write a book, and that to keep things simple, the images should do most of the talking. “The best approach was simplifying how it is that we learn history, because so often, to me, it was overcomplicated.” 

Just like the Facebook group, Columbus Black History tells the stories of local legends and everyday people. “We have Jesse Owens in the book. We have Stephanie Hightower in the book, and even Granville Woods, the famous African-American inventor,” she said. “But we also talk about the people who are at the corner store, the man who may have given you a couple of extra dollars towards a treat because you got an A on your report card. We're talking about the principals who made an impact in your life.”

But even 250 images can’t tell the full story, which is why Fuller-Yates gave this book the “Volume 1” designation; a follow-up is already in the works. And for those who want to dive deeper into the histories, the book includes two QR codes, one of which leads to more than 100 videos about Columbus Black history on Fuller-Yates' website, and another that links to the 20Twenty200 Project, featuring a video archive of interviews with more than 60 Black leaders in Columbus. 

Fuller-Yates hopes the book inspires readers to learn more about local Black history, and to always consider the source. “We self-published purposely to ensure that our story isn't controlled by someone else, because that's what's been done over generations,” she said. “We need the narrative back so that we can tell our own story from our own perspective.”