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In 1809, George Peake became the first African American settler to arrive in Cleveland. Cleveland’s African American community continued to grow slowly within the next few decades and by 1860 there nearly 800 blacks living in the city. In comparison to other urban areas, Cleveland’s Black population remained small accounting for less than two percent of the Cleveland population in 1860. The passage of a series of laws known as “Black Laws” beginning in 1803 slowed Black migration to Ohio. These laws required any black person entering the state to post bond for $500 and carry documentation of their free status. Despite the fact that slavery was outlawed in the state, the freedom of Black Ohioans was severely limited throughout the nineteenth century. By the late 1840s and early 1850s, most of Cleveland’s African American population lived on the east side. However unlike other urban areas, Cleveland’s east side included a mix of both black and white families living within relatively close quarters. This pattern of settlement makes this city unique because unlike cities such as Boston African Americans in Cleveland lived spread out throughout the city until the 1870s. By the 1870s and 1880s, African Americans in Cleveland faced increasing discrimination moving to increasingly segregated areas of town.
In comparison to other cities in Ohio, African Americans living in Cleveland experienced a wider range of social and economic opportunities. For instance, by the late 1840s, Cleveland’s public schools were integrated. In terms of employment, an estimated one third of Black residents in Cleveland worked as skilled workers. Some members of the African American community operated successful business ventures and acquired substantial wealth. Black entrepreneurs in Cleveland were involved in a wide range of businesses owning real estate companies, hotels, stores, restaurants and other businesses. For instance, in the late nineteenth century, George Myers operated a successful barbershop in the Hollenden Hotel in downtown Cleveland.
Cleveland also served as a center for abolitionist activity before the Civil War as African American leaders fought for integration and participated in national political debates. In 1883, the city’s first African American newspaper, The Cleveland Gazette, was established. Black churches in Cleveland emerged more slowly than in other urban areas. It was not until 1830 when St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church was established. Thirty-four years later, the establishment of Mt. Zion Congregational Church marked the second Black church in the city.
Researched and written by Anna Lacy. Edited by Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman.
“African Americans,” in The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, https://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=AA.
- Russell Howard Davis, Black Americans in Cleveland (1972)
- Russell Howard Davis, Memorable Negroes in Cleveland’s Past (1969)
- David Gerber, Black Ohio and the Color Line (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976)
- James Oliver Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)
- Bessie House-Soremekun, Confronting the Odds: African American Entrepreneurship in Cleveland, Ohio (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2002)