To Understand Ohio: What We Can Learn from Cincinnati on Race

Dec 19, 2019

There is an idea, that there are five Ohios. They are not only segmented by region, but so much more. Industrial and agricultural. Urban, suburban and rural. Upper and lower income. Black and white. Looking at them together, they might just provide a better understanding for our country as a whole.

We've been checking in with Ohio author David Giffels as he travels around the state for his new book, "Barnstorming Ohio". Each month he discusses what he’s finding in a series of conversations we’re calling “To Understand Ohio.” This month Giffels visited Cincinnati to learn more about how the city has dealt with racism. 

End of the South, beginning of the North

The journey from enslavement to freedom on the Underground Railroad had a specific turning point. Crossing the Ohio River into Cincinnati.

“Cincinnati is kind of the end of the South and beginning of the North depending on which direction you’re looking,” said Giffels. “That was literally the case during the exodus of slaves fleeing from the south, Cincinnati was the crossing over point.”

The history of the Underground Railroad is full of bravery, tenacity and danger. It’s also an indictment of our nation’s policies, then and now, and acts as a reminder that the north was not the pure bastion of freedom it’s often mistaken to be.

Brutalism with a message

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center sits on the bank of the Ohio River, near the crossing self-emancipated slaves would take to get from Kentucky to Ohio.

The exterior façade of the building is what happens when modern brutalism has a message. The stones used on the exterior of the building are harsh, almost jagged and white. Massive metal casings bleeding with rust catch the eye immediately while the stones and other elements come into focus shortly after.

Walkways bend and curve throughout the center. There are few straightforward paths to be found.

“It has walkways that meander through it,” said Giffels. “Not in straight lines, but in this sort of like shadowy, hiding and dodging way that suggests this journey is neverending.”

The building’s design works as its own statement on the struggle of black Americans through the past few centuries to the present day.

“And if you overlay that with the current state of African-American life, it’s not an easy life; it’s not a restful stopping place,” added Giffels. “But this constant struggle to advance and overcome the trail of the past.”

Dr. Carl Westmoreland is the senior historian at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Moreland sees the long view of not only Ohio’s racial history, but America’s as well. With that frame of mind he looks into a very complicated question. As Giffels puts it, was Ohio the beginning of freedom, or just another part of a never ending journey?

The shooting

Former Cincinnati Police Officer Steven Roach fatally shot Timothy Thomas, 19, on April 7, 2001. Thomas was a young, unarmed black man. Roach was a white police officer.

Following the shooting, days of civil unrest plunged the city into some of the worst violence it had ever seen. Protests in Over-the-Rhine were met with riot police equipped with shields and batons. Sporadic gunfire could be heard throughout the city as demonstrators confronted officers. Tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds littered city streets. But, from the haze of spent tear gas canisters and ashes of torched dumpsters, came reform.

“The city directly addressed it,” said Giffels. “And they put together a very diverse group of citizens and officials and came up with something called the Collaborative Agreement.”

The agreement

In 2002, the Fraternal Order of Police, City of Cincinnati and Black United Front came together to sign the Collaborative Agreement. It laid out concrete changes as to how police handle interactions with citizens.   

The Agreement sought to bring transparency and accountability to policing in Cincinnati and move to a community policing model; a model where citizens are not viewed as potential criminals but seen as collaborators in dealing with crime.

Reforms also included creating a citizen board to review use-of-force by officers and changing the policies of foot pursuits of suspects.  

“[It was] a concrete, specific, reworking of the way the police force and the city administration interacted with citizens,” said Giffels. “Especially citizens and groups that had previously not had great relationships with the police.”

The Agreement quickly gained national attention and has become something of a model for cities across the country.

In Ferguson, Missouri Michael Brown, another unarmed black man, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, on Aug. 9, 2014. Riots soon broke out and the city went into a state of emergency.

In the middle of the crisis, members of Black United Front took copies of the Collaborative Agreement and handed them out to demonstrators. If Ferguson was destined to be another Cincinnati, it could end with reform as well.

The Mayor

Four years after the agreement, on Dec. 1, 2005 Mark Mallory, a Cincinnati native, was sworn in as the 68th mayor of Cincinnati, the city’s first black mayor.

“It was an important time because this new conversation about race was taking place,” said Giffels. He described Mallory as being thoughtful and deliberative with a ‘good sense of community.’

Mallory is credited with leading efforts to revitalize downtown Cincinnati, which suffered from Midwest blight of the 70s and 80s.

His focus on revitalizing not only the image of the central city, but the community itself led Mallory to two mostly successful terms in office.

The wisdom

Nearing the end of our conversation with Giffels, we asked him what the stories he found in Cincinnati tell him about where we’re going as a nation.

“I think it’s important to listen to these voices,” said Giffels. “Especially in a time when we’re more attuned to what they might be telling us about our bigger direction.”

“I’m hoping that whatever Ohio is telling us about race right now might be something that the rest of the nation can learn from.”  

We'll check back with David Giffels next month.  His book, Barnstorming Ohio, is due out in August of 2020.

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