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What’s being done to Cincinnati buildings, monuments that are tied to slavery?

Posted at 7:42 AM, Sep 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-29 20:05:57-04

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CINCINNATI — Racism is visible in some of the city’s buildings and monuments, Xavier University’s Kyra Shahid said.

Shahid, director of the Center of Diversity and Inclusion at Xavier, works to reconcile the university’s historical connection to slavery.

Bishop Edward Fenwick Place, Xavier University

Bishop Edward Fenwick, the city’s first bishop and founder of Xavier University, owned slaves. Shahid’s project, the Stained Glass Initiative, aims to dismantle racism and promote healing for the Black community.

Shahid has been working to rename Bishop Edward Fenwick Place, which houses a conference room, library and dining hall on Xavier’s campus. Since launching the initiative, Shahid has received more than 200 suggestions for new names for the building.

“For some of us, we think that removing the tradition or removing the marker or symbol will remove our history. I don’t think that’s true; I think it gets in the way of our healing,” Shahid said.

Not changing the name of the building and leaving it to be named after a slave owner promotes racial wounding, Shahid said.

“Being able to see … examples rather of racism that is hidden in plain sight, it’s not really hidden. It is clearly a statement of white supremacy that remains in our campus and in our larger communities,” Shahid said.

Various places named after Charles McMicken, University of Cincinnati

On the University of Cincinnati’s campus, a former slave owner’s name is etched into the College of Arts and Sciences.

Charles McMicken, the university’s co-founder, wanted UC to exclusively educate white students.

The University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees voted to remove McMicken’s name from the college in December. The most visible effects will be on diplomas, letterheads, business cards, websites and advertising. McMicken’s name will remain on physical structures.

McMicken, an early 19th-century businessman from Pennsylvania, bequeathed the city money and property “to found an institution where white boys and girls might be taught” when he died in 1858.

The names of McMicken Hall, McMicken Circle, McMicken Commons and the "Mick and Mack" statues and restaurant will remain unchanged.

The university said it will add digital displays that will "more fully and fairly represent the histories associated with McMicken so that his legacies and the university's relationship to him, in all their complexities, remain a vital and living part of the university's history."

For Shahid, the issue is much deeper than a name change; it provides an opportunity to focus on healing.

“The renaming of pieces, as symbolic as they may be, is an opportunity for us to innovate and to create, to re-imagine what community looks like and why we preserve different pieces of our human experience,” Shahid said.

Black Brigade of Cincinnati, Smale Park

On the riverfront at Smale Park, a monument commemorates the Black Brigade of Cincinnati, a troop of Black men who fought to keep the city out of Confederate hands in 1862.

The mayor forced 300 men at gunpoint to protect the city after Confederate troops had won several battles in Kentucky. A Union general ordered the men should be allowed to volunteer instead of being forced into battle.

The group of 300 men went back home and returned with more than 700 men. The Black Brigade of Cincinnati protected the city for weeks.

Christopher Miller, senior director of education and community engagement for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, said it’s an important story that often goes unnoticed.

“It's a beautiful Cincinnati story, but it also talks about those parallels when it comes to race relations and those dynamics,” Miller said. “Why did the mayor at that time decide to do force when they were willing to volunteer to put forth a militia to protect the city?”

The area near Smale Riverfront Park is significant because it was one of the original Black communities in Cincinnati -- it was “little Africa,” Miller said. It was also the gateway to freedom for hundreds of people who crossed over the Ohio River heading north.

“We are a beacon, a symbol of inclusive freedom. We are a symbol of courage, cooperation and perseverance,” Miller said.

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