LINCOLN HEIGHTS, Ohio—African Americans started coming to Cincinnati more than a century ago, fleeing the violence and economic constraints of the South for jobs and homes.
But redlining and other restrictive zoning laws prohibited black families from buying homes in many of the city’s neighborhoods. So when developers started selling off lots of unincorporated land north of Cincinnati to black buyers, it seemed like a good opportunity, one of the few paths to homeownership in the segregated North.
The land had no paved roads and no streetlights. Few homes had running water and there was no police or fire protection. Carl Westmoreland, who grew up in this village in the 1940s, remembers watching black men rush over a hill toward a burning home with a small fire cart they’d bought. They didn’t save it in time, but the neighborhood banded together and rebuilt the house together. He refers to the community at the time as “America’s Soweto” for the primitive living conditions there.
When it incorporated in 1947, this village, called Lincoln Heights, was the first primarily black self-governing community north of the Mason-Dixon line. (Today, the city has one of the highest concentrations of African American residents in the state of Ohio—according to the Census, 95.5 percent.) Lincoln Heights thrived for a while, producing poet Nikki Giovanni, songwriters the Isley Brothers (who wrote “Twist and Shout”), and scholar Carl Westmoreland, who now helps run the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Hundreds of residents worked at the nearby Wright Aeronautical Plant, manufacturing the B-29 bomber, and at a chemical plant a few blocks away, putting away money to improve their homes and secure their places in the black middle class. So successful was Lincoln Heights in its early days that New York’s governor, Thomas E. Dewey, invited prominent officials to New York City for a ticker-tape parade to honor the village as one of the only self-governing African American communities in the nation, according to Lincoln Heights, by Carolyn F. Smith.