CINCINNATI — The West End in which John Harshaw Sr. spent his childhood no longer exists in Cincinnati. It couldn’t. That small, close-knit community of mostly black families was shaped by boundaries on all sides — segregation, racism, northward journeys from unfriendly southern states, the “slow crawl” toward integration — and had been “uprooted and destroyed” by the end of the ‘60s, Harshaw wrote in his 2011 history of the area.
He made himself the keeper of its legacy when he wrote “Cincinnati’s West End,” collecting memories from his peers and friends.
And he ensured that, even after his death over the weekend at the age of 78, a record of the communities, lives and accomplishments of black Cincinnatians living in the pre-Civil Rights era survived.
“I want them to remember him as this loving, caring person that No. 1, cared about his family,” his son, John Harshaw Jr., said Monday. “You know, family and knowledge first. You’re never too old to learn anything, but you have your family first and your community, and you take care of your community.”
Harshaw Sr. arrived in the field of history late in life, his son said. Before that, he had been a businessman who worked in Washington under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinto. Before that, he had been a star basketball player at Taft High School, where he made the lifelong friends who would later encourage him to take on “Cincinnati’s West End” in writing.
First, though, he compiled a history of his family.
“I thought he’d lost his mind when we were in college and I came back to the apartment,” John Harshaw Jr. said. “He had paper scattered all over the apartment, lines drawn and names and everything else, but he had been going to the National Archives and started a family history and genealogy, just trying to do that research.”
The research would take the family to the source of their name — the Harshaw plantation in North Carolina, where their ancestors had been enslaved — and leave the next generation prepared to continue documenting their history as it happened.
John Harshaw Jr. said he hoped his father would be remembered for everything he did: The histories, the work in Washington and the close bond he had with the community throughout his entire life. After a long career, he continued to pursue the good of the West End during his retirement.
“When that stopped, it wasn’t just time for him to be still,” his son said. “It was time to do something different.”
He did. And, according to Harshaw Jr., he described his life’s journey in understated terms: “I think I did pretty good for a young man from the West End.”