Explore Landmarks of Columbus' Black History

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Entrance to Near East Side in 2014

Black Columbus has stories to tell.Stories of freed slave Matilda Gales, who, at 117 years old, was perhaps the oldest person in the United States in 1906. Stories of the Sellsville Sluggers, our own black baseball team. And stories of Burnside Heights, where residents built their homes with bricks originally used to pave Broad Street. After two years of research and with the help of more than 40 volunteers, Columbus Landmarks Foundation earlier this year published a collection of these anecdotes: "African-American Settlements and Communities in Columbus, Ohio," an 85-page document identifying the people and places that make up early black history in the capital city. This narrative includes tales from 17 distinct areas of the city where black communities were established.

"It started out with big dreams," says 79-year-old genealogist Reita Smith, who helped spark the initiative. "A lot of persons in the community were working on preserving pieces of the early part of Columbus, but no one was talking to one another." Smith, whose own work involves turning the two existing buildings of Poindexter Village into a cultural center and museum, saw an opportunity and brought together local historians so they could learn about one another's research. Kathy Mast Kane, then executive director of Columbus Landmarks, secured a national grant that would fund the organization and printing of 700 books to be distributed to local libraries and institutions.

Recurring appearances of Water Street (now Marconi Boulevard) in Smith's research served as her personal inspiration for the project. While the Near East Side is often cited as Columbus' historically black community, this Downtown roadway was home to Smith's relatives in the 1880s and is the subject of Columbus artist Aminah Robinson's "Along Water Street" series.

Columbus is unique, Smith says, in that its black communities existed in pockets throughout the city, and not just in one area. Small and influential, they were "the texture and the fiber" of Columbus, she says. This cloth of culture envelops Columbus: Burnside Heights, on the West Side, was home to jazz singer Nancy Wilson. Poet and activist Anna Bishop called the Blackberry Patch home.

The project was managed by art educator (and Smith's daughter-in-law) Toni Smith, who put together a steering committee and helped to organize and secure training for volunteer researchers. Volunteers such as Hilltop librarian Becky Ellis hosted community meetings, encouraging people who grew up in neighborhoods like the Hilltop and Burnside Heights to contribute their stories.

"This book is just an appetizer," says Toni, who hopes it will encourage others to do their own research. She cites the report, the Long Street bridge's cultural wall and the newly created Poindexter-centered preservationist group James Preston Poindexter Foundation as part of a movement to make Columbus' black history more accessible to future generations. She's looking into expanding the project by going directly to the city's churches and working with their historians.

History, Reita says, can affect lives today. To comfort a family member after the death of a loved one, Reita shared the book, which includes a photo of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Poindexter Village dedication. (The second public housing site in the country's steam heat and indoor plumbing made it a post-Depression symbol of modern living.) Upon seeing the image, the relative cried out: "I remember that! I could touch [Roosevelt's] car!"

"In that moment of great sorrow," Reita remembers, "there was a moment of reconnecting with a memory. That's why it's important to record our history."