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Explore Ohio's African American History

Learn and celebrate Ohio history, heroes and museums.

John Rankin House in Ripley

Explore Ohio's African American History

By Ohio.org Staff

Posted On: Jan 11, 2023

Ohio is rich with history. It was the first free state formed from the Northwest Territory and home to Wilberforce University - the first private historically Black college or university (HBCU). It's also the birthplace of presidents, astronauts, inventors, and writers. Many of these Ohio heroes were African Americans who fought tirelessly for equity and justice.

From historic homes to museums, there's lots to see throughout the state. You can also celebrate Black History Month by attending one of the several events and programming options offered throughout February. Like the Pioneers of African American Cinema film series at Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

The theater is hosting the last two events of the series in February and March (Pioneers of African American Cinema: The Scar of Shame on Feb. 3 at 7PM and Birthright on March 3 at 7PM). It's also showing a series of films "From the Collection" including The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011) on Feb. 12 at 1PMSelma on Feb. 24 at 7PM, and Malcolm X on Feb. 26 at 1PM.

Read on to learn more about some of the many Black historic and cultural institutions in Ohio.

The Children's Theatre of Cincinnati

The Children's Theatre of Cincinnati is celebrating extraordinary African American individuals this season with their performance of Shirley Chisholm: The Chisholm Trail on tour from Feb. 1 - June 30

You can also check out their current season, featuring online performances of Harriet Tubman: Straight Up Outta’ The UndergroundAbiyoyo (which is based on a South African folktale), Lewis, Clark, and York, and Martin's Dream

Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati

Discover the the place where this famous author spent her formative years. Stowe was an abolitionist and women's rights advocate and wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, the popular 19th century novel credited with laying the groundwork for the Civil War.

While visiting, you can check out several exhibits showcasing different historical aspects of the Stowe's and the 19th century. A number of events and talks are also hosted each month and for February, the featured events are: 

exterior of building front of National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati Ohio during the day
Photo credit: ODOT

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center immerses visitors into the stories of the Underground Railroad. The mission of the museum is to reveal stories of heroes from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times, challenging and inspiring us to fight for human rights today. 

The Freedom Center hosts several events and special exhibitions throughout the year. On Feb. 3 from 2-3:20PM, join them for the Film Screening: America's Truth: Cincinnati

Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing

Founded in 1993, the Underground Railroad Museum preserve the past with exhibits portraying the history of the Underground Railroad in Ohio and life in the 1800s. 

The Celebrate BHM @ the UGRRM event is on Feb. 5 at 1PM and features presentations, a book signing, and more. The program begins with guest speaker Ron Scott, followed by author Kathy Schulz. Schulz will discuss the history of the underground railroad in Ohio and her book will also be available to purchase. 

Ohio History Connection in Columbus

The Ohio History Connection has several experiences and resources on their website regarding African American History, as well as resources on the Black individuals who have profoundly impacted sports, the Civil War, and the women's suffrage movement.

This year for Black History Month, they're offering a variety of programming. Like The Tea Room event on Feb. 18 from 11AM - 1:30PM, which looks at African American tea ceremonies that started around the mid-19th century. And "As A Matter of Black: Film Screening and Discussion" on Feb. 26, featuring a discussion with filmmaker Donte Woods-Spikes.

boy looking at exhibit display inside National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce Ohio

National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce

The National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center (NAAMCC), which is part of the Ohio History Connection's historic site system, is the home of one of the nation's largest African American archives and collections. Items include Alex Haley's final draft of Roots, Alphonso Woodall's Carnegie Hero Medal, and an unparalleled collection of works from the Black Arts Movement. 

For this year's Black History Month, the museum (along with Ohio History Connection) hosts a several exhibits:

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Wilberforce

The Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument is less than two miles from NAAMCC, and it's a National Park Service site.

Colonel Charles Young was the third African American to graduate from West Point and the first to become a national park superintendent, a military attaché, and a colonel, making him the highest-ranking Black officer in the U.S. Army until his death in 1922. His legacy lives on today at this national monument. 

Downtown Oberlin Walking Tour of Civil War Monuments

Head to Oberlin College for a self-guided walking tour of 11 historical sites and monuments. A highlight of the tour is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument. The monument, on East Vine Street, was created to honor the legacy of Dr. King and commemorate his visit to the college in the 1960s. 

outside of Elizabeth Harvey First Free Black School in Warren County Ohio with Ohio Historical Marker in front of building

First Free Black School in Harveysburg 

Visit the one room schoolhouse, and now museum, built specifically to educate non-whites in Warren County. The Elizabeth Harvey Free Black School, built in 1831 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, still stands on its original location.

The school remained in operation until the early 1900s. And one of the students from this school, Orindatus S.B. Wall, became the first African American captain in the U.S. Army and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Funk Music Hall of Fame & Exhibition Center in Dayton

Dayton was dubbed the "Land of Funk," for a reason. The Funk Center preserves the legend of funk music in the Gem City through a collection of memorabilia and interactive activities. 

For even more funky fun, head over to their YouTube page and watch interviews with artists, producers, and other Funk Storytellers. 

John Mercer Langston Historic House in Oberlin

A National Historic Landmark in Oberlin, this house was the home to John Mercer Langston, an attorney, abolitionist, diplomat, U.S. Congressman, and college president. As the town clerk in Oberlin, Langston was one of the first African-Americans elected to public office in the United States.

John Parker House in Ripley

The John Parker House is the former home of African-American abolitionist John Parker. He escaped slavery to become a successful inventor and businessman in Ripley before the Civil War. Parker is credited with assisting hundreds of enslaved people to freedom through this Front Street home.

You can schedule tours of  John P. Parker Museum & Historical Society by appointment, or stop by during visitor hours. 

looking up at John Rankin House in Ripley Ohio

John Rankin House in Ripley

Explore Ohio's connection to the Underground Railroad at the John Rankin House in Ripley. The Rev. John Rankin was an ardent abolitionist who assisted the enslaved on their paths to freedom. When you visit, you'll be stepping inside one of the best-documented and most active Underground Railroad "stations" in Ohio.

The Kings Art Complex in Columbus

The King Arts Complex connects the community through the arts. The Elijah Pierce Gallery presents a wide range of historical and contemporary exhibitions that include painting, sculpture, graphics, photography, and decorative arts. The main gallery is named in honor of the late Elijah Pierce, America's foremost wood carver of 20th century folk art.

They also offer an award-winning youth arts program and were named "Best Community Art Center" by Columbus Parent Magazine

National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus 

The National Veterans Memorial and Museum showcases the history and facets of the Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, Guardian, Coastguardsman, and their families. Throughout the museum, you can walk and learn from numerous exhibits and installations.

There are 14 thematic alcoves, including one featuring the history of the Tuskegee Airmen - who were the first African American military aviators and fighter and bomber groups in World War II.

black and white portrait of Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton

Learn about the life of internationally-acclaimed poet Paul Laurence Dunbar at his house in Dayton. Dunbar gained worldwide fame for his poetry, stories, and plays in the early 20th century and was a voice for equality. In 1936, the Ohio General Assembly dedicated the house as the very first state memorial honoring African-American history. 

Washington Gladden Social Justice Park in Columbus

The Washington Gladden Social Justice Park in Columbus is home to the "Our Single Garment of Destiny" sculpture. This piece of public art, created by artists Adriana and Julian Voss-Andreae, was inspired by a quote from one of Dr. King's letters. Dr. King's legacy is still felt in Ohio today, and he frequently visited the state throughout the 1960s. 

three people one adult woman and two young boys standing in front and looking at aminah robinson painting at the king arts complex in columbus ohio
Aminah Robin artwork at The King Arts Complex in Columbus

There are African American art museums, galleries, and community centers where you also learn more about the contributions and accomplishments of African Americans around Ohio. Several universities and college have spaces and monuments dedicated to celebrating Ohio's Black history. Like the bronze cast statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which commemorates his Jan. 11, 1968 visit to Ohio Northern University . 

You can also view the digital art collection from the Malcolm Brown Gallery, which was originally founded in Shaker Heights as one of the oldest Black-owned galleries in Ohio and the country. And artwork by treasured Columbus artist Aminah Robinson is on display at the Columbus Metropolitan LibraryColumbus Museum of Art, and the King Arts Complex in Columbus. 

Additionally, this summer you can head to the Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame Induction and Dedication Ceremony on July 22 from 12-3PM. CBMWF was founded in 2021 to recognize music created by people from Hamilton County and Southeastern Ohio that have influenced funk, opera, hip-hop, gospel, rock, and more. The new interactive walk will highlight the impact of music, artists, and the region's creativity.

For more Ohio history and historic attractions, check out #OhioFindItHere at Ohio.org.

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