The Cincinnati Riots of 1836 were caused by racial tension at a time when African Americans, some of whom had escaped from slavery in the southern states of United states, were competing with whites for jobs. The anti-abolitionist rioters, worried about their jobs if they had to compete with more blacks, attacked both the blacks and white supporters. The racial riots occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio in April and July of 1836 by a mob of whites against black residents.
Blacks in southern Ohio suffered from severe restrictions to their freedom due to the “Black Code” of 1804. Under this legislation, the testimony of any black person was invalid in a court of law. A black person could not defend himself against a charge, and could not bring action against a white man. If he managed to acquire property, he was taxed for school support, but his children were not allowed to attend the schools. A black person moving to the state was required to obtain the signatures of two white men on a $500 bond. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was enforced, and steep fines were imposed on anyone who assisted a runaway slave.
James Gillespie Birney, a former slave owner from Alabama, had become an abolitionist. In January 1836 he set up the Cincinnati Weekly and Abolitionist, a newspaper sponsored by the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. At first, the newspaper was printed in nearby New Richmond. It was distributed across the Ohio River in Kentucky and was filled with anti-slavery propaganda. This angered local Cincinnati businessmen, who were keen to do business with the southern states. In late January 1836 some of the most prominent citizens organized a meeting opposing abolition; it was attended by over 500 people. Birney attended the meeting but was not allowed to give his views.
In April, Birney moved his press to Cincinnati. On 11 April 1836, a mob entered a black community, attacked people, burned buildings, and forced many of the occupants to leave their homes. Irish rioters burned down a tenement in the Ohio River bottom section of the lower West End. Several blacks died. The riot was not brought under control until the governor intervened and declared martial law. The anti-abolitionist paper the Daily Cincinnati Republican described the tenement that was burned as “notorious as a place of resort of rogues, thieves, and prostitutes – black and white”. The paper said the arson was viewed by a “large concourse of our citizens” who made no effort to extinguish the flames.
On 5 July, a race riot began when African Americans observed an Independence day celebration. Although this had long been the custom of the blacks, some whites considered it as a demonstration that the blacks wanted full integration. James Birney attended the event, which helped stir up passions as he was a noted abolitionist. On 12 July 1836, about forty men broke into the building housing Birney’s press, and destroyed it. The men were described as “respectable and wealthy gentlemen”. They shredded newspapers, broke the press in pieces, and dragged the damaged parts through the streets. Birney lost an estimated $1,500 in damage. He agreed to continue producing the paper only when his property was guaranteed to the value of $2,000 by the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society.
Following the press smashing, placards appeared saying “The Citizens of Cincinnati … satisfied that the business of the place is receiving a vital stab from the wicked and misguided operations of the abolitionists, are resolved to arrest their course.
The destruction of their Press on the night of the 12th instant, may be taken as a warning”. On 17 July a placard was posted on the street corners:
“FUGITIVE FROM JUSTICE, $100 REWARD.
“The above sum will be paid for the delivery of one James G. Birney, a fugitive from justice, now abiding in the city of Cincinnati. Said Birney in all his associations and feelings is black; although his external appearance is white. The above reward will be paid and no questions asked by
At a public meeting on 23 July chaired by the city mayor, resolutions were passed that included promises to use all legal means to suppress abolitionist publications. On 30 July a mob again attacked and destroyed Birney’s press, scattering its type. The rioters threatened to burn down Birney’s house, but were dissuaded by his son. Men from Kentucky had a prominent role in the mob. The angry whites marched to a black neighborhood nicknamed the Swamp, where they burned down several houses. They went on to Church Alley, where they met resistance from armed blacks, but again destroyed their property.
It took several days for things to calm down. The authorities made no arrests.
The aftermath of the riot brought varied reactions as the city’s newspapers published their accounts of the violence. Some praised the city Mayor remarks and intervention, while others felt the violence was justified.
The Ohio Anti-Slavery Society published a description of the riots, and commented on possible causes. Among these, they noted that while the colored people of the city were preparing for their procession on the fifth of July (that being their custom), they were approached by a white citizen of “standing” who began to violently abuse them. One of the colored men answered back in the same spirit, and this may have started the chain reaction.