Because of its social stance as an anti-slavery state, Ohio was a destination for a number of escaped slaves before the Civil War. As early as the 1870s, members of the Society of Friends (a Peace Church within the Quaker faith) actively assisted former slaves in their search for freedom. Ohio was important in the operation of the Underground Railroad. While some escaped slaves passed through Ohio on the way to Canada, a large number settled in Ohio, particularly in growing cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati. By 1860, almost 37,000 African-Americans lived in Ohio.
African-Americans also greatly contributed to the state’s culture. For some examples of these contributions, click the portraits on this page.
You can also learn more about Ohio’s role in the Underground Railroad by visiting Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
George Washington Williams, who was originally born in Pennsylvania, moved to Cincinnati and became the first African- American elected to the Ohio Legislature in 1879. Williams retired from politics after one term as state representative. However, he continued to serve as a leader and spokesman for the black community and later wrote History of the Negro Race in America 1618-1880. The publication of this two-volume, 60 chapter work made Williams the first African- American to write a history of his race.
Jesse Owens, who grew up in Cleveland and attended The Ohio State University, won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Prior to the Olympics, Owens set three world records and tied a fourth in the span of 45 minutes during a Big Ten track and field meet on May 25, 1935. Following the 1936 Olympics, Owens retired from competition.
In 1993, Lorain native Toni Morrison became the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Morrison has earned several honors for her work, including a Pulitzer Prize for her 1987 novel Beloved. Morrison, who earned degrees from Howard University and Cornell University, has also worked as an editor and played a significant role in bringing African-American literature into the mainstream.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, an author from Dayton, was the first nationally-recognized African-American poet. The child of two former slaves, Dunbar’s work often dealt with the efforts of African-Americans to achieve equality in the United States. Aside from having his work published in a number of periodicals of the day, Dunbar also produced 12 books of poetry, five novels, four books of short stories and one play.
Stephanie Tubbs Jones represented the east side of Cleveland in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1999 to 2008. Tubbs Jones was the first African-American woman elected to Congress from Ohio. Prior to serving in Congress, Tubbs Jones was a municipal judge, trial court judge and Cuyahoga County prosecutor