In June, Ohio legislators refused to ban confederate memorabilia from county fairs. The state has long had a complicated relationship with the confederacy.
By Eric Michael Rhodes
Symbols of the Confederacy have had a bad month. Confederate battle flags will no longer fly at Talladega, there is talk of renaming Fort Benning and Fort Bragg, and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves just signed a bill doing away with the state flag’s Confederate battle flag canton. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has also pledged to remove Jim Crow-era bronzes from Richmond’s infamous Monument Avenue. But legislators in Ohio have not seized the moment. Last month, the state’s Republican-dominated House of Representatives moved to table Cleveland Representative Juanita O. Brent’s amendment to H.B. 665, which would have banned the sale and display of Confederate memorabilia at Ohio’s county fairs.
Brent’s reasoning was clear: “Ohio was never part of the confederacy at all so we are holding onto a flag that was never part of our state’s history,” she explained. Ohio had the highest per-capita participation in the Union Army of any state during the Civil War. The name of the state’s professional hockey team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, is an explicit homage to Ohio’s role in winning the war. And the nation’s eighteenth president, Ulysses S. Grant, is held in high esteem across the state. Why, indeed, would Ohio lawmakers elect to table the Brent Amendment by a vote of fifty-six to thirty-four?
The vote on the Brent Amendment generally broke down along lines of party, race, and geography: all present Democrats—Black and white—supported the ban, and the only Republican not to toe that party’s line was also the caucus’s only representative of color, Indian-American Niraj Antani of suburban Dayton. Likewise, representatives from the state’s urban areas—Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and the smaller cities of Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown—voted for the Brent Amendment. (Recent polling suggests that forty-seven percent of rural Americans consider the flag to represent not racism but “heritage”—only twenty-six percent of urban Americans agree.)
But Ohio’s geography is more complicated than the urban-rural divide. The state is extraordinarily Balkanized by region. There are really five Ohios. Unlike the other “Big Eight” states, which split the majority of their populations between one or two metropolitan areas, Ohio’s millions are diffused, clustering around regional capitals far smaller than New York City or San Francisco. Each of the five Ohios has its own culture and history. “You guys” in Cleveland is “y’all” in Cincinnati and “yinz” in Youngstown.
Toledo has a strong affinity with other twentieth-century Great Lakes industrial powerhouses, especially with places like Fort Wayne, Gary, and Detroit. Southeast Ohio’s counties are officially designated part of Appalachia. Central Ohio is home to Columbus, just a cow town in the early nineteenth century when it was named the state’s capital. But this now-sprawling, car-friendly seat of the state’s postindustrial knowledge economy looks more like a Sunbelt city (minus the sun) than it does a Cleveland or a Cincinnati. Much of the city’s recent experiments in progressive politics owe to Ohio State University’s large student population.
A look at the map of how representatives from different regions of Ohio voted on the Brent Amendment points to a major political divergence between the state’s two oldest regions: Northeast and Southwest. In other words, what happened at the statehouse this month also parallels historical rifts between Ohio’s regions over race, slavery, and the Confederacy itself.
Northeast Ohio is home to the historical Western Reserve of Connecticut, a collection of counties first settled by Yankees and Nutmeggers in 1786. Present-day Northeast Ohio was officially claimed by Connecticut from 1662 to 1795. Historically, the area was, as historian Andrew Cayton noted, “an extension of the Burned-Over District of New York, a crucible of Protestant revival and reform.” In towns such as Norwich, Saybrook, and Plymouth, thus named by homesick New Englanders, white clapboard houses and Congregationalist churches clustered around village greens. Farmers further afield farmed dairy as they had back home. By the eve of the Civil War, half of Cleveland’s population had been born in Europe, nine percent in New England, and thirteen percent in Upstate and Western New York. Only one percent of the city’s population had been born in a southern state.
During the eras of canals and railroads, the Western Reserve’s economy was tied more closely to New York City than to other parts of Ohio, Cincinnati, or the South. The town of Oberlin was a hotbed of abolitionism and a renowned stop on the Underground Railroad when Mary Jane Patterson, the first Black woman to earn a bachelor’s degree, studied there during the 1850s. So too was Hudson, where Connecticut-born John Brown made his home and first declared war on slavery in 1837 (from the pews of First Congregational Church).
Last weekend, lawmakers from the counties comprising the historical Western Reserve largely supported banning the Confederate battle flag. Bucking the urban-rural explanation of the vote, five of the six rural districts that voted for the Brent Amendment lay within the old Western Reserve (the only other district was in Appalachian Ohio). However, most of Southwest Ohio’s legislators—especially those hailing from districts outside of Black neighborhoods in Dayton and Cincinnati—voted against the amendment. History might point to why.
During the nineteenth century, the economy of Cincinnati—the capital of Southwest Ohio and the state’s oldest European-settled city—stood in stark contrast to Northeast Ohio’s. Its wealth was indelibly linked to slavery. Throughout the early antebellum period, enslaved Black people were hired out as indentured servants to the Southwestern Ohio elite and brought across the Ohio River to work. The city, which became known as “Porkopolis,” continued to send salted pork downriver to New Orleans, where it was distributed to plantations throughout the South.
In the leadup to the Civil War, the Cincinnati business elite encouraged division between the white working class and the city’s small free Black population (the first in the Midwest). Many of Cincinnati’s whites feared that Black migrants would bring their “immoral,” “lazy” ways to Ohio. Others worried that Ohio would risk discord with their Southern business partners if Cincinnatians were accused of harboring escaped “property.” Still others feared that Black migrants would compete with whites for jobs.
Dominating the Ohio House of Representatives and eager to please their scornful, white constituents, Southwestern politicians successfully shepherded the Ohio Black Laws through the Statehouse in 1804 and 1807. The Black Laws required free African Americans to prove that they were not slaves, to find white sponsors to ensure their good behavior, and limited Black peoples’ rights to marry white people and own guns. Slavecatchers abounded as far north as Dayton, where they made a living catching African Americans seeking freedom and selling them back into bondage across the river. Visiting the city in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville asked one prominent Cincinnati lawyer about Ohio’s “very severe laws against blacks.” “We are trying to discourage them in every possible way,” came the reply. (The Ohio Black Laws were not repealed until 1887.)
New England’s transplants to antebellum Southwest Ohio, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s family, were outnumbered by the region’s original settlers, upland southern whites from Kentucky and Virginia. Abolitionists were not welcome in antebellum Cincinnati. When The Philanthropist excoriated Cincinnati’s business elite, insisting that they were “more interested in keeping up the Slavery of the South, than they [were] in maintaining the Liberty of the North,” massive violence ensued. The country’s first urban race riots erupted in what came to be known among historians as the “Queen City of Mobs” in the 1830s, as middling whites and even slaveholders from Kentucky attacked Cincinnati’s small abolitionist presses (condemned for their “Yankee” beliefs) along with free Black people in the Bucktown and Little Africa neighborhoods. Many Cincinnatians were avowed apologists for slavery—which would keep Black people in bondage and out of Ohio—well before the 1860s.
This ambivalence towards the institution of slavery on the part of southern Ohioans continued into the Civil War era. The geography of Ohio lawmakers’ votes on the Confiscation Acts (1861-1862) are a case in point. The Acts were forerunners to the Emancipation Proclamation—they mandated that all Confederate enslavers who did not surrender to the Union would lose their slaves in criminal proceedings. In 1862, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted on the Second Confiscation Act, all present Congressmen representing districts north of Youngstown (Republican save one) voted for freeing enslaved African Americans in the Confederacy. While all four Republicans hailing from south of Youngstown voted the same way, Southern Ohio’s six Democrats voted against freeing Confederate slaves.
In defending her amendment this month, Representative Brent maintained that “the Confederacy is so deeply rooted among racists, even though our state fought against that.” But during the Civil War, Southwest Ohio was home to the nation’s largest concentration of “Copperheads”—or pro-Confederate Northerners. Dayton’s Clement Vallandigham and Hamilton’s Alexander Long led the so-called Peace Democrats caucus in the Ohio General Assembly during the war. Their supporters launched a midwestern insurrection in a desperate attempt to reverse the course of the war. In 1864, hundreds of Midwesterners plotted to overthrow the state government of Ohio (and those of Indiana and Illinois) to establish a pro-Southern “Northwest Confederacy.” Union forces had to mobilize to squelch the mutiny.
R.W. Apple, Jr sums up this regional history of Confederate apologism in Ohio well, writing: “Ohio is a state of two cultures, with northern accents north of Route 40 and southern accents south of it. In the nineteenth century, they differed in their view of the Civil War, with Butternut and Copperhead sentiment dominant in the south.”
Cincinnati and its environs have been neither north nor south—and yet both at once—for centuries. Today, six of the Midwest’s nine confederate monuments (excluding those in Missouri) are located in Southwest Ohio. While Northeast Ohio has seen one reported lynching, Southwest Ohio has witnessed six. When Freedom Summer activists chose Oxford, Ohio as their staging ground in 1964, many locals asked “Why would you want to interfere in what’s going on in the South?” Cincinnati police shot Timothy Thomas in 2001, setting off the largest urban uprising in the years spanning Watts and recent Black Lives Matter rebellions. John Crawford III was killed by police in a suburban Walmart near Dayton in 2014. Even the celebrity of Southwest Ohio local Dave Chappelle is not enough to make him feel entirely safe from police violence there. And Donald Trump’s first stop on his post-election “Thank You Tour” was Cincinnati.
Ohio is a microcosm of the larger Midwest. It was the first state in which each of the Midwest’s three latitudinally oriented subregions emerged. The Upper Midwest was forged out of the Yankeedom of the Western Reserve, and spans the Great Lakes to Minneapolis. The Midland is home to flatland metropolises like Columbus, Indianapolis, Springfield, and Kansas City. And the Lower Midwest strafes along the Ohio River, dotted with river towns like Cincinnati, Evansville, Cairo, and St. Louis.
Just two days after the tabling of the Bent Amendment, eighty Black Lives Matter supporters planned a protest in the small Southwestern town of Bethel. They were met by hundreds of counter protesters, including “several motorcycle gangs, back the blue groups and second amendment advocates.” “I felt like we were walking a gauntlet” said one protester, after being menaced by men with rifles yelling “Get the fuck out of here, boy.” One protester was punched in the back of the head—by a man wearing a bandana styled after the Confederate battle flag.
Exceptions to this regional explanation of Ohio’s vote on the Brent Amendment exist. While the Western Reserve likes to tout its historical ties to the Underground Railroad, stops south of Columbus—like Bethel—were just as important. There is much good anti-racist work emerging from Dayton, Cincinnati, and even the small village of Yellow Springs.” And Northeast Ohio is hardly a paragon of race relations. It consistently ranks in the top three most racially and economically segregated metropolitan areas in the nation. Racial violence like that visited upon Tamir Rice runs rampant there, too. By one measure, fifty percent of Ohioans statewide take no issue with the public display of the Confederate battle flag.
But when we remind ourselves of Ohio’s complex historical relationship to slavery and racial capitalism, it is less surprising that representatives from Southwest Ohio voted overwhelmingly against the Brent Amendment and that Ohio has refused to ban the Confederate battle flag at county fairs. When, earlier this month, Representative Kyle Koehler of Springfield successfully tabled the banning of the Confederate flag, Representative Brent shouted him down. “Treasonous!” she exclaimed. Her admonishment was an echo of a centuries-old rift in Ohio, a state of disunion since its inception. ■
Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed that “Miami University refused to allow Freedom Riders to stage their travels south on campus in 1964, asking: ‘Why would you want to interfere in what’s going on in the South?’” According to Prof. Ann Elizabeth Armstrong and archivist Jacqueline Johnson of Miami University, this is inaccurate. “The Miami University administration was barely aware of what was happening,” they maintained. It was local Southwest Ohioans who worried that civil rights activists would draw negative attention to Oxford. We regret the error.
Eric Michael Rhodes teaches urban history at the University of Angers and is a Fellow at the Center for History and Culture at Lamar University. Formerly associate editor at Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, Eric currently helps to edit book reviews at The Metropole. Follow him on Twitter @EricMichaRhodes.
Cover image: Confederate memorabilia is sold at fairs throughout Ohio, including at this one in Highland County. Image adapted from J. Stephen Conn (creative commons).
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