Understanding Columbus’ Racial Divide

Acclaimed writer (and guest editor of Columbus Monthly’s May issue) Wil Haygood on police violence, unequal justice and the “bounced check” owed to the city’s Black citizens

Wil Haygood
Wil Haygood

Cities consist of neighborhoods, all awash with a hum of emotional histories. A city’s reputation announces itself to outsiders and chroniclers, all but saying, and often quite cheerily: This is who we are. A city, then, acquires a reputation, a notable identification that many are made aware of through the drumbeat of publicity. Los Angeles is known for entertainment, Chicago for its commerce, New York City for its melting pot. For much of its history, Columbus, a state capital, has been known, like Ohio itself, for its conservatism—and, of course, the sweet afternoons of Saturday football. 

In the great swirling that goes on inside the American city, there exists one group of citizens whose political and social history has been marked by constant tension, inquiry and fairly consistent pain: the Black American. It did not take Jane Jacobs’ often cited 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” to inform Black Americans that politicians and city planners had often undermined their life, existence and quest for equality. The unveiling of annual statistics relating to Blacks—health care, crime, education—all bear this out. Black people have been the one American racial group constantly forced into a struggle to stitch themselves into the whole of the American dream. Despite the myriad civil rights laws enacted across the decades, the shadows of slavery and once-legal segregation remain real. Depending on the decade, the pain alternately eases and hardens. Yet it never disappears, keeping full democracy for Blacks just out of reach. 

To understand the temperature of past and present Black life in Columbus—or any American city—it is necessary to unravel the ever-present links of law enforcement intrusion into everyday Black life. Beyond the expected duties of law enforcement— solving crimes, keeping the peace—the engine of those police duties churns in more ominous directions when it comes to Black people. The dynamic becomes painfully obvious concerning the lethal shooting of unarmed Black people in Columbus and across the nation. There is, as well, the gnawing disrespect routinely meted out to Black people. In late May 2020, following George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Columbus’ three top Black political leaders—U.S. Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin and Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce—gathered in Downtown Columbus to protest. Police officers on bikes sought to keep demonstrators out of the street and proceeded to pepper-spray the three officials, who were attempting to assist the officers. Given Beatty’s stature—she is now chairwoman of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus—the incident made national news. 

It is not just the past four years—the rise of hate crimes as documented by the FBI; the extrajudicial killings of unarmed Black people; the anti-civil rights tone of a presidential administration; the savagery seen in the Jan. 6 storming of the nation’s Capitol and the deaths it caused—that have been full of anguish for America’s largest racial minority population. The preceding decades have been fraught with heartbreak as well. 

I’ve covered hundreds upon hundreds of stories across the years as a journalist working for two national newspapers—The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. My travels have taken me into nearly every state in America. I’ve slept outside under a crescent South Dakota moon, traveled the Mississippi River on a raft, interviewed Montanans about Barack Obama and rolled across Appalachian towns talking to poor white people about racial division. I traveled alone across Louisiana with Klansman David Duke and stepped around the burned buildings in Los Angeles in the aftermath of police officer acquittals in the Rodney King uprisings. (The officers were later convicted in federal court.) I spent a month in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina listening to Black people wail about a federal government that appeared to have abandoned them. There also was plenty of traveling into foreign lands where, no matter where I landed, a question was always tossed at me: Why does America so mistreat Black people? 

So, back to a city’s image. 

A city’s reputation tends to glide along the tributaries of sociology, psychology, educational opportunities, race and law enforcement. Law enforcement has long been the colossus of American life, particularly as it relates to Black people. It is why the names of Emmett Till, Rodney King, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery—and now Casey Goodson and Andre Hill—can erupt with pain inside any conversation among Black people. All are linked by lethal actions of law enforcement that resulted in national headlines and protests. Goodson and Hill were Columbus residents, shot dead within weeks of one another last year. In a season of national reckoning over race, Columbus, like other urban centers, sits mired in a back-to-the-future, 1960s-like drama of deadly law enforcement visited upon Black citizens. 

Demonstrators march north on Third Street in protest against the killing of George Floyd.

When I look back at the part of my life spent growing up in Columbus, it comes down to this: I grew tired of being stopped by police officers—white police officers—for reasons that bewildered me. Two encounters with police are seared into my consciousness. 

One night—late 1970s—my friend Steve and I were cruising down North High Street when, suddenly, unmarked cars screeched to a halt surrounding us. A white man in a brown suede jacket hopped out with a shotgun pointed at us; yes, a shotgun. Steve told me to stay still, which I did. Just as quick, marked police cars arrived, lights flashing. The man in the suede jacket peered inside the car. An officer behind him whispered there had been a robbery; we were suspects. In the mix of words and our denials, a Black police officer, Ron Kenley, walked over to the car, leaned in, turned to the other officers and said, “Man, these guys are friends of mine. They didn’t do it.” Ron, Steve and I had played summertime basketball together. Ten agonizing minutes later—and following routine background radio checks—we were allowed to go. (It would not be the last time I had a shotgun stuck in my face. However, the next time it happened, I was in Somalia as a reporter covering that country’s civil war.) 

Not long after the High Street incident, Steve and I were in Town & Country Plaza on East Broad Street. I had just come from getting my temporary driver’s permit. Just as Steve started his car, a police officer appeared out of nowhere and pulled his gun on us. He screamed, told us to stay still. We did. The white officer, a member of the Bexley police force, accused us of robbing a lady of her jewelry. The accusation was bizarre. A second officer, with the lady victim, pulled up, ostensibly to identify us. The lady, white, looked at us and said, “Those are not the guys who robbed me.” The officer told her to make sure; she said the same thing again. Steve and I were so rattled afterward that we went straight to the Bexley Police Department to file a complaint. The officer’s supervisor apologized and told us if we filed any kind of charges the officer might be fired. We realized our presence at the police station meant nothing. Steve went on to become a Columbus firefighter before leaving the city and settling in Chicago. Following nearly every high-profile police shooting, he and I hop on the phone and say to each other: There for the grace of God we go. 

In the late 1970s I got a different view of crime and punishment in Columbus. I became a reporter for the Call and Post, a publication geared toward Black news. Every week I spent a few hours Downtown at the police station, rummaging through recent arrest records to write my column, titled Good Morning Judge. (I don’t ever recall seeing another Black reporter in town from the city’s two daily publications at the time.) Amos Lynch, editor of the Call and Post, knew that crime was palpable news in the Black community. Perhaps most who landed in my columns because of their arrests were guilty, but did they have recourse to equal justice? Therein lies so much of the string now unwinding from the spool of the nation: Has justice ever been fair unto Black America? 

I left the Call and Post after a year, taking a retailing job in New York City. I was awful at it, was shown the door and managed to claw my way back into the world of journalism, eventually becoming a national and international correspondent. 

One of the most riveting moments of my reporting career was being in South Africa and watching freedom fighter Nelson Mandela walk out of prison after having served 27 years. I returned again to South Africa as President Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was being formed. South Africa went on to do something Americans never have: Talk openly about race and the brutalities unleashed by white supremacy. 

Siblings (from left) Jayla Williams, 7, Omar Jennings, 12, and Amere Williams, 9, of Akron, took turns chanting “Black lives matter” into the microphone at a protest at the Statehouse against the killing of George Floyd.

When the spotlight shines on police brutality in the U.S.—and the white juries that so often exonerate white police officers of wrongdoing—the conversations in suburban white America erupt in a familiar pattern: The police have hard jobs; they have to risk their lives; we want them to come home at night no matter what. Most officers indeed do good honest work. But that is not the backdrop Black America exists under. 

Before they were murdered, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were talking emotionally about police brutality. But in the ensuing years of American life, police officers became mythic figures—featured in reality shows, as TV heroes, the modern cowboys on horseback. But reality points to something else: a justice system that has abetted the mass incarceration of Black people; cities giving up hundreds of millions of dollars to settle brutality lawsuits. The often-heard excuse—“they need more training”—does not assuage the feelings of a mother staring down at her son or daughter in a coffin, put there by someone wearing a badge to protect society. 

The death of a young, unarmed loved one by police freezes you. A family sits in stunned silence, garbling words. My family was once that family. It was the holiday season of 1979. Keith Burke, my cousin, had apparently stolen a taxicab. When he alighted from the car—running away from officers—he was shot in the back by the police. His last day on earth. He was 15 years old. Holidays haunt us. 

Sean Walton, a Columbus attorney, has been working on police brutality issues for several years. “It’s always been an issue across America,” he says. “Columbus has been able to put on a good front to keep its dirty laundry from being aired. That’s how you egregiously get past the killing of these Black men.” Walton feels accountability is important to stem the wave of police killings. “Officers have to know they have to answer for everything they do. The Columbus police have just turned a blind eye to it,” he says. Columbus voters have finally voted for a civilian review board, a policy long ago adopted by many other major cities. Though the last two leaders of the city of Columbus—former Mayor Mike Coleman and his successor, Andy Ginther—have earned progressive reputations, their administrations have been unable to turn the tide of police misconduct. 

Not long after George Floyd’s death, Judge Steven Dankof of Dayton put a photo of Floyd up in his Dayton courtroom. He was quickly criticized by white police officers in Dayton, who felt the photograph was an attack against them. Dankof has been closely following the case of the police shootings in Columbus. “People of goodwill need to understand this is intolerable,” he says of the police shootings. “It flies in the face of our seminal documents—the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” 

During his epochal 1963 March on Washington speech, which more than a few Columbus residents heard in person, Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the debt—the bounced check—America owed Black people. He talked about the “architects of our republic” who had designed the Constitution and Declaration of Independence so that all could enjoy equality: “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” he said. Not long after King’s speech, the Columbus Citizen-Journal penned an editorial, “Petition on a Bounced Check.” The newspaper wrote: “James Baldwin, the gifted Negro writer, dealt perceptively with the problem in a brief, off-the-cuff interview during yesterday’s historic march on Washington. It is time, he said, for Americans to get over their terror of Negroes.” 

It is that lingering terror—few can now deny it—that seems to have guided the bullets that killed Casey Goodson, Andre Hill and so many others. If it is not vanquished, these moments will not only haunt a city’s image, but also a nation’s. 

Wil Haygood, a prizewinning historian, journalist and faculty member at Miami University, is the guest editor of Columbus Monthly’s May issue, which is devoted to documenting the experiences of Black people in Central Ohio. More stories from the May issue will begin to post on the magazine’s website next week. The issue will be available on newsstands next week.