The Second Life of Poindexter Village
Like much of the city’s Black history, Poindexter Village was nearly wiped out. Two buildings survived to tell their story.
Reita Smith warned the crowd she might cry. It was Oct. 12, 2017, and she was standing in front of the two remaining buildings of Poindexter Village, one of the nation’s first public housing projects. She began the press conference by telling the assembled politicians, activists and neighborhood residents that they were there to celebrate their roots.
It had been 77 years to the day since President Franklin D. Roosevelt came through Columbus to mark the opening of the village, whose early residents, all of them Black, viewed the project’s modern housing as a sign of hope. As she teared up, Smith announced that the Ohio History Connection had agreed to purchase those last two structures from the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority, which had demolished the village’s other 33 buildings four years earlier. After a nine-year crusade by Smith and many others, what was left of Poindexter was finally saved.
The organization she created in 2014, the James Preston Poindexter Foundation, is working with the Ohio History Connection to tell the project’s story by converting the buildings into the Poindexter Village Museum and Cultural Center. Progress has been slow, partly due to the pandemic, but the structures were also deteriorating and needed to be stabilized, says Charles Wash, director of the National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce, a division of OHC. The first phase of construction is nearly complete, and the windows, doors and porches now resemble the originals from the 1940s. The interiors will be renovated next, and then work will begin on the layout and the look of the galleries. All told, Wash hopes it will be completed within four years.
In 2017, the city of Columbus committed over $1 million to the preservation, and though OHC doesn’t yet have an estimate for the remaining work, Wash expects financing to be the last major obstacle. Poindexter Foundation board chairman Tom Dillard says the organization has held small fundraising projects, and OHC is also ramping up its efforts.
When finished, the museum will tell a story much bigger than that of just two buildings. It will educate people about renowned former residents, like the late artist Aminah Robinson, and weave a larger narrative of the East Side. Wash hopes it will allow visitors to connect the area’s art and music to similar cultural movements in Harlem, Oakland, Baltimore. It’s a national story.
Today, the Poindexter site is an anomaly of barracks-style buildings, out of place and out of time, surrounded by brand-new multiunit residential complexes, part of the massive redevelopment threatening the village’s existence. At first blush, the preservation seems curious, but to know the history is to understand.
The village was a hub for the segregated East Side, providing safe, stable housing for many Black families who’d never had it, where they worked toward a better future and saved for homeownership. It was pivotal to the success of the whole city, says Ohio Sen. Hearcel Craig, who recently introduced a bill to declare Poindexter an official state historic site, alongside a companion measure in the Ohio House. Even the village’s namesake, the Rev. James Poindexter, is a symbol of progress: He was the first Black member of Columbus City Council and the Board of Education.
“It’s a story of the people,” says Smith, who raised her children at Poindexter in the 1950s. “It’s a story of the community.”
The lesson of Poindexter is a familiar one of Black people overcoming, but it’s also about the journey, the struggle, Dillard says. Yes, it’s the story of the vibrant midcentury East Side, but that was fueled in part by segregation that provided no options except for patronizing Black businesses. Yes, Poindexter’s residents did well, but there was opposition to their success, their survival. People don’t give a full account of that journey when they talk of Black history, Dillard continues. “They overlook the fact that to a large extent, the behavior of white folks was the barrier we had to overcome.”
The village can speak about it at volume—redlining, I-70 destroying a neighborhood, gentrification erasing Black history. They’ve lost so much, Smith says. From this perspective, the remaining buildings’ incongruity with their surroundings makes perfect sense: Their presence demands an explanation. There’s no telling of Columbus in which Poindexter Village can be omitted.
In her closing remarks in October 2017, Smith referenced an old oak near where everyone had gathered. The tree was symbolic, she said, not of her nor anyone there, but of their children and grandchildren. “This tree cannot grow without roots. Our children need their roots. They need their history.”