News: A Riotous History

Museum Center chronicles Cincinnati's violent protests

Aug 2, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Widespread outrage over law enforcement led a mob to burn the Hamilton County Courthouse in 1884.

Four years after Cincinnati's establishment in 1788 came its first riot — and then, as now, the conflict was between citizens and the people charged with protecting them.

Sparked by the beating of a merchant by a soldier at Fort Washington, the riot of 1792 grew to include 31 soldiers and 20 civilians. Since then, 16 more riots have marred Cincinnati's history, including the most recent unrest in April.

The city's long history of violent protests motivated the Cincinnati Museum Center to organize Unrest in Cincinnati: Voices of our Community. The exhibit chronicles the history of civil unrest in Cincinnati, including the April 2001 protests and riots.

For curators of the exhibit, the challenge was twofold: They had only 90 days to be up and running by July 21, and the events of the most recent riot were still unfolding.

"I don't know of any institution that has done this in the time frame that we had," says John Fleming, vice president of museums.

The Cincinnati Historical Society provided information about the early riots in Cincinnati, which was added to media coverage the Museum Center had collected about disturbances that erupted in April after a police officer killed an unarmed African American in Over-the-Rhine.

"Our biggest concern was making sure the information was correct," Fleming says.

The Museum Center plans to update the information in the exhibit as current events warrant.

Tucked underground in Union Terminal, the three-part installation fills the small African-American Museum with time lines, summaries, news clippings, photographs and newscasts. About two-thirds of the riots in Cincinnati have been clashes between blacks and whites, including the city's largest riot in 1884.

The Courthouse Riot of 1884 started when citizens protested different convictions for a half-black man and a white man who committed the same crime, killing their boss. While the half-black man was hanged, the white man received 20 years in jail.

A protest quickly escalated to a riot when 10,000 people ransacked the courthouse and burned it to the ground. When it was over, 56 people had been killed and more than 200 injured.

The museum exhibit details the city's riots in charts and graphs of pertinent statistics that line the walls and a chain-link fence divider. For example, the exhibit notes that, of 69 officials on city boards and commissions in 1967, not one was black. Today 11 of 56 officials in comparable positions are African-Americans. That sounds like a suitable improvement — until the next chart reveals that blacks make up about 43 percent of the city population.

Other population charts from 1960 and 2000 show a 34 percent decline in the city's overall population and a concurrent 24 percent increase in its black population.

The display about riots of the 1960s is most revealing in light of recent events. A list of demands by black leaders following riots in the 1960s included more job opportunities, justice in the courts, representation on city boards and commissions, as well as the prompt release of riot prisoners. These are strikingly similar to demands recently made by black leaders in Cincinnati.

Is it any coincidence that a time line of actions taken to improve race relations in Cincinnati ends in 1972?

As a long history of intolerance unfolds, patterns emerge from the wall of riot information. Violence is not limited to clashes between blacks and whites, but also includes violence over issues such as a bank closing, a visiting religious official and clashes involving Germans, Catholics and immigrants.

The riots that are not motivated by race distract from the focus of the rest of the exhibit: the history of black and white race relations in Cincinnati.

The exhibit includes a "whispering tunnel," where common racist expressions are voiced, including such jewels as, "She's one of the good ones" and "They all look alike."

Local schoolchildren donated drawings and poems inspired by the April riots. At the end of the exhibit, postcards are available for visitors to record their personal commitments for change. In a few months, the museum will mail the postcards to the people who wrote them, as a reminder of their pledge.

Although it's unusual for current events to be so quickly digested and regurgitated for display in a museum, the April riots occupy about half of the space of the exhibit. Not surprisingly, the exhibit relies heavily on mainstream media to capture the events that scarred Cincinnati earlier this year. Yellow Cincinnati Enquirer boxes display the headlines. Local TV news coverage plays on a loop on a collection of television sets. Other sets play the only original material in the exhibit — interviews of local government leaders, police officials, citizens and black community leaders discussing riot-related questions.

The exhibit includes no radio coverage, nor a single copy of a Cincinnati Herald, Cincinnati Post or CityBeat. Asked about the limited collection of local print media, Fleming says, "We're still trying to get some Herald boxes." The Herald no longer uses street boxes, but the paper is trying to locate some.

Questions on placards throughout the exhibit ask visitors, "When is it right to protest? What has changed? Are police sometimes afraid?" Fleming hopes these questions can be a starting point for dialogue among viewers.

"We're in danger of making the same mistakes that we made in '67 and '68," he says.

Although the Museum Center hopes the exhibit encourages dialogue, some of its documents seem discouraging, in particular an excerpt from a report on the 1967 race riots in Cincinnati. In the report, Kenneth B. Clark compares that disturbance with other 20th-century race riots in the United States.

"It is a kind of Alice in Wonderland — with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations and the same inaction," the report says.

The exhibit's displays on Cincinnati's long history of rioting emphasize not only the disputes that caused them — but the absence of lasting solutions afterward. ©