On the Ground: A history of the West End's African American community

Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood goes almost as far back as the city itself. Back when the construction of the city’s famed inclined planes and the establishment of an electric trolley-car system were complete is when population sprawl and economic growth boomed beyond the city's downtown basin causing thousands of African Americans to migrate to Cincinnati, making the African American population balloon to 3600 in1860, when only 40 years prior, the population just scraped 700.

Mostly migrating from southern states, many of the new families settled on the outskirts of Cincinnati's central business district, which was soon to become known as the West End.

“Some of the most prominent social service organizations were the establishment in the West End,” says Clinton Johnson, retired director for community services at the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency (CAA).
He spoke about his time living in the West End during the neighborhood’s heyday in the 1940s and 50s. “And CAA was one of them. Also, there was the NAACP, along with many other similar organizations, like Seven Hills Neighborhood Center, which all were principally devoted to the goals of racial equality and social justice for all the city’s African American residents.”

But dark times for the neighborhood were coming, and it seemed as though the number of social services placed in the West End was a testament as to what was to come. In the late 1940s, Cincinnati officials began to devise ideas to accommodate the city’s continuous loss of population to the suburbs and, on November 22, 1948, Cincinnati’s City Council adopted the 1948 Master Plan. It called for highway construction and spurred what we now call community development, all at the expense of the residents who lived in the West End neighborhood.

“But life in the West End went on,” says Lisa Wallers who lived in the neighborhood as a child from 1958 to 1964.

“I loved to watch the Cincinnati Redlegs play at Crosley Field,” she continued. “We would walk to the end of Dayton Street and sit on the raised grassy knoll. We would also sit and watch Peanut Jim, with his top hat and wearing tails, selling those peanuts he was famous for.”

Originally from Union, South Carolina, Peanut Jim became a Cincinnati legend, migrating north to Cincinnati in search of freedom, a better life, and the American dream. Peanut Jim was African American and hard working, with a shop on Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine, but on game days he could be found outside Crosley Field and, later, Riverfront Stadium.

“Back then, in the early 1960s, there was a store on each side of every block,” recalled Wallers. “I lived with my grandmother, at the time, on Dayton Street, and when I would go out for her groceries, I’d have to go to four or five different places to get everything on the list.”

But as a child, seldom do we see the ugliness that progress sometimes brings.

The 1948 Master Plan was moving forward with its massive community redevelopment efforts and, sadly, the West End would be one the many communities where thousands were forcefully driven out to other neighborhoods such as Avondale, Bond Hill, Mount Auburn, and Walnut Hills.

Dr. O’dell Owens, current president and chief executive director for Interact for Health, recalls the systematic push to leave while living as a child in the West End.

“Some called it Negro-removal,” says Dr. Owens. “We were either called Colored or Negro at the time. We were told that we had to move in 1960. And our home was owned by my grandmother. When she sold the home to the city of Cincinnati, my grandmother gave the money she received to my parents for a down payment for a home in North Avondale.”

The importance of the neighborhood, both economically and socially, set the stage for his future.

“I lived in the West End from when I was born in 1947 to 1960. We grew up poor, but just because we were poor, didn't mean we didn't have a happy life. We were respectful. Now, people have the internet to find out information,” he says.

“Back then, we had the inter-auntie,” he continues. “I clearly remember one time my mother sent me to the store and warned me not to cross the street to hang out with my friends and to come straight back home. Well, when I got out of eyesight, I crossed the street, played with my friends for a few minutes, crossed back and went to the store. The moment I walked back into the house, my mother smacked me on the backside of my head and said, ‘Boy, I told you not to cross the street.’ My mother received a call from my ‘auntie’ down the street who saw how I crossed the street and called my mother before I got home.”

Dr. Owens explains that many parts of his childhood in the West End were ideal. He recalled that he used his imagination and spent a lot of time outdoors.

“We would go skating at Findlay Street Neighborhood House and play baseball outside and we used our imagination,” he says. “We would play with popsicle sticks. One day those sticks would be army men and the next day they may be something else. For me, it was a happy time.”

Many who grew up in the West End during the 50s and 60s, including Dr. Owens, remembered the dedication of neighborhood teachers and how they urged him to succeed.

“At Sands Elementary, where I attended, there were a high percentage of African American teachers,” he says. “I remember reaching out to my first grade teacher, after returning from my medical training at Yale and Harvard, and thanked him. It was this teacher beginning an after school science club that fueled my interest to become a doctor.”

History has a strange way of repeating itself. Fast forward to the present, following decades of disinvestment following the area’s massive suburban flight, the West End has begun to re-appear in development circles with the destruction of Laurel Homes and again when Cincinnati was awarded a major league soccer team who decided to place its new soccer stadium in the neighborhood, further displacing the already displaced.

The On The Ground: West End feature series is made possible with support from
The Carol Ann and Ralph 
V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.

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