Ohio is celebrating its 212th birthday with special events at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
King Lincoln – A Neighborhood Rich in Diversity, History
By the time I met Nimrod Allen in 1969, he had seen a lot of America and Columbus at both its best and worst.
1969 was a pivotal year in the African American story in Ohio’s capital city. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior had been assassinated the year before. A year later tensions still ran high as Left and Right, young and old, black and white clashed over cultures and conflicts both here and abroad. In July, 1969, a capital city which had generally avoided the violent “long, hot summers” of the 1960′s saw the Main Street corridor on the Near East Side ripped by violence.
Dr. Nimrod Booker Allen was 83 years old that summer when I talked with him at length. The son of a minister, Allen had studied at Yale before deciding to become a social worker. The first Director of the Columbus Urban League in 1917, Nimrod Allen had led the organization for decades until his retirement in 1954.
He had seen it all – the emergence of the Near East Side and the despair and triumph of the Great Depression and World War II. Then the Civil Rights Movement came along with the increasing militancy of black America in the 1960′s.
I asked him at one point how he was able to respond with equanimity to criticism that groups like the Urban League – which stood for peaceful cooperative effort by black and white – were counter-productive and out of date. He simply smiled and quietly responded that he had worked for most of his life to bring people together to find solutions to the problems they faced in housing, education and employment.
And in his view, working together was a very good thing. There was a time, not all that long ago, when black and white in Columbus did not mix all that much. Black people simply were expected to stay in their neighborhood. Prior to that they did not even have a neighborhood.
Columbus was established as the new state capital in 1812. As a center of transportation and trade as well as government, the town had more than its share of available jobs.
Unlike the Germans or Irish, black Columbus did not have a commercial or residential center. People lived close to where they worked – and sometimes literally in the place they worked – until shortly after the Civil War. By the early 1870′s, an identifiable black commercial strip had developed east along Long Street for a couple of blocks.
A school for black children and a few black churches could be found here as well. To the south was the center of town. To the north was the Irish community centered on both sides of the rail yards. Over the next several decades, the black commercial area moved east on Long Street as the areas north and south of it were built out and became part of the central business district.
By 1922, Nimrod Allen would write an article for a national magazine describing East Long Street as the heart of black Columbus. In many ways, interestingly enough after almost 90 years, it still is. Nimrod Allen taught all of us in Columbus a lot until his death in 1977.
He taught me that what was remarkable about black and white America was not how far apart they still were, but how close they had come together – not how much there was reason to despair – but how much reason there was for optimism. In the face of some of the worst discrimination imaginable, Nimrod Allen never lost hope.
And neither should we.
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