Early West End
Thousands of African Americans, many from slavery, migrated to the city to the Queen City. In 1826, Cincinnati had 690 African American residents. Whites, mostly Irish and German immigrants, were the dominant ethnic groups, but by 1860 the number of African Americans had grown to about 3,600.
Many of the new African American residents to the city, settled on the outskirts of the central business and commercial districts. Most of these new arrivals migrated from the South in high numbers, based on the promise of stable jobs, especially in the steamboat industry, as well as the belief in improved race relations. More importantly, however, the area of the city in which most African Americans traveled to soon became known as the West End. These changes in the city’s economy and population also led to a significant real estate boom in the West End. Beginning during the 1830s, there also was a massive transformation of the residential makeup and industrial patterns of the entire region.
At the lower part of the West End, along the Ohio River, an African American community, known as “Little Bucktown”, or just “Bucktown” had been established. Right next to Bucktown, on its west and north sides, were several newly established Irish communities. A little higher up, on Third Street, an upper class and very influential white community, which pre-dated the 1830s, began to expand along Fourth and Fifth Streets. Between Sixth and Laurel Streets, a newly established group of middle and lower-middle-class white Cincinnatians had started to push out a small but potent group of farmers who had settled in the West End during the early 1800s.
The most significant transformation of this region of the city initially occurred in the upper West End. Slaughterhouses, breweries, and soap factories that had been established in this area during the early 1820s intensified in their development between the 1830s and the 1870s. Hundreds of tenement houses from workers began to appear throughout this part of the city. Gradually, the entire West End became one of the most densely populated areas in the city.
Racially Motivated Riots
Also notable was that initially, very little racial violence occurred in the region as well in the city at-large. However, this situation changed seemingly overnight with race riots in 1829, 1836, 1842, 1863, and 1884 respectively. As a result, by the turn of the century, many affluent white residents in the lower and upper West End had been abandoned by the wealthy class. This situation mainly occurred because several newly developed neighborhoods opened on the hillsides of Cincinnati. At this time, many industries began to move to these same regions. By 1900 almost half of the city’s population resided in the Basin and West End region of the city. Twenty years later, the proportion was just about one-third.
Into the 20th Century
Although every ethnic, racial, and income group participated in the enormous exodus from the West End, most people who left the region were non-African Americans. By 1910, with only 6 percent of Cincinnati’s population being African American, 44 percent of the African American residents lived in the West End. Thus, the West End gradually became the primary destination for thousands of southern African American migrants to the city. During the 1920s, the West End had become the center of Cincinnati’s African American community. The combination of a continually expanding African American population increased racial barriers to keep African Americans out of other areas of the city, and the development of very few employment opportunities outside of the West End also caused much energy and focus of the African American community to look inward.
A lively cultural, religious, and social life started to emerge in the West End for African Americans. Some of the most prominent organizations were the establishment of such important civic and civil rights institutions, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Cincinnati’s branch of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and the Negro Civic Welfare Association. These, along with many other similar organizations, principally were devoted to the goals of racial improvement, civic pride, racial uplift, and social justice for all the city’s African American residents.
By the 1930s, 70 percent of Cincinnati’s African American population lived in the West End. Most of these residents were concentrated within a 35-block radius which occurred because of several critical factors such as cheap housing, the proximity to places of employment and commerce, the location of the local railroad station at Union Terminal, and the whereabouts of numerous essential businesses, churches, and civic organizations. Also noteworthy was the construction of the Laurel Homes and Lincoln Court Housing Projects along with a 22-block area east of Linn Street, stretching from Court Street on the south to Liberty Street on the north. Most importantly, within these decades, the African American Cincinnatians, despite the apparent segregation, would thrive greatly. However, this era would be short-lived.
As World War II ended, numerous public officials, city planners, and business leaders began to worry about Cincinnati’s postwar development. One of the most crucial issues was the impending return, employment and housing of approximately 50,000 servicemen to the Greater Cincinnati region. Much of the city’s concern was a continuous loss of population and industry to the suburbs. As a result, on November 22, 1948, Cincinnati’s City Council adopted the 1948 Master Plan. This Plan emphasized highway construction and community development at an elevated level. Then the passage of the 1944 Federal Highway Act, the West End region of the city became the focus of numerous redevelopment projects.
However, one of the unintended consequences of these city planning and community redevelopment efforts in the West End was that thousands of local African Americans were forcefully driven out of their local community and into other neighborhoods such as Avondale, Bond Hill, Mount Auburn and Walnut Hills. Hundreds of local African American businesses, churches, and civic organizations, such as the Ninth Street YMCA and the Cotton Club, were forced to leave the West End because of the dramatic loss in population and revenue. During the 1960s and 1970s, the remaining African American residents in the West End began to organize and try to slow down or completely stop the seemingly authoritarian notions of the Cincinnati City Council’s effort to force various plans of urban renewal and community redevelopment on the West End community. This is when the West End Community Council (WECC), whose origins can be traced back to the 1930s, was reignited.
1980s to Today
By the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting the community itself, these and similar organizations in the West End gradually lost much of their political power because of several key leaders seeking and obtaining city and state political officials. The Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library’s West End Stories Project podcast captures and shares the stories of individuals who lived in the West End during the second half of the 20th century for urbanites today who want to know more about the neighborhood’s transformation. And, look no further than the Urban Roots podcast's Lost Voices of Cincinnati West End Film Short that features photos from the Robert O'Neal Multicultural Arts Center archives to provide a glimpse of the past.