Growing up half-black in Cincinnati

[February is Black History Month. Over the next few weeks UrbanCincy will share some stories of individuals from Cincinnati’s robust black community. The good, the bad and the ugly. This week, Alex Schutte shares his story about growing up half-black in the Queen City -Randy.]


Cincinnati’s history has long been shaped by the ethnic makeup and cultures of its inhabitants. Some of the biggest contributors to Cincinnati’s history and culture have been African Americans and German Americans. I embody this history, quite literally, as I am half-black and half-white. My African American mother, oldest of ten, grew up in the projects of Cincinnati, while my father grew up in a German Catholic family in Finneytown.

Navigating the world as a biracial child can be tricky. While I grew up within a very loving family, sometimes it was difficult to figure out where I fit in to the traditional American racial dichotomy. I could never be white but I was never black enough. Most white people assumed I was 100 percent black until they saw my father. American society has always followed a “one drop” rule for classifying individuals as black if they had any ounce of African ancestry. On the other hand, many black people thought I must be mixed with something because I had that “good hair.” I eventually began to self identify as black, although I never denied my father’s blood.

Over the years I became more and more proud to be black, seeking out more information about black history and the story of blacks in America. It turned out that I was living in a city that has been highly influential in shaping the history of African Americans – a city whose history is intertwined with the lives of many African Americans who have struggled for equality and freedom.

Youth and School
In grade school we learned of Cincinnati’s role as a border town between a free state and a slave state. Our river town played a key role in The Underground Railroad, serving as headquarters to abolitionists, white and black, helping slaves escape across the Ohio River to freedom. I learned the names of important historical Cincinnatians such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Levi Coffin, and John Rankin. Years later, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center would be built along the banks of the Ohio River to recognize and celebrate Cincinnati’s vital role during this period of time.

Growing up within the Cincinnati Public School district allowed me to meet and befriend others from all walks of life. At a young age I began to see a pattern in the neighborhoods kids said they were from. Kids that were from Hyde Park, Anderson and Madiera were white and had money. Kids that were from Bond Hill, Avondale and Walnut Hills were black and had no money. I grew up in Kennedy Heights, so I was really middle-of-the-road. There was a sizeable black population, but I didn’t live in the middle of the hood either. I felt like I could tell my black friends I lived in Kennedy Heights, aka “K-Heights!”, and get their approval, but still be able to tell my white friends where I lived without them being scared to come over.

When it came time to choosing a high school, there was only one clear choice – Walnut Hills High School. This was by far the best traditional high school (I’m excluding School for Creative & Performing Arts on this one) at the time within the Cincinnati Public School District. I was either going there or my parents would pay to put me into Seven Hills or a similar school. Fortunately I passed the entrance exam and was accepted into Walnut; however several of my grade school friends did not pass. Instead of Walnut, my black friends went to Taft, Woodward, or Withrow. While my white friends’ parents paid to get them into private schools.

Even the mighty Walnut Hills was not safe from racial tension though. Looking out into the lunch room you still saw segregated social groups. Once I got into honors classes I became separated from several of my black friends from grade school. I observed shades of what I refer to as segregation, although I never saw any explicit racial conflicts or anything close to the law-mandated school segregation of decades earlier.

A History of Tension
I’m a mid 80’s baby, so I didn’t get to experience Over-the-Rhine’s Main Street in its heyday. However I can vividly remember my cousins on both sides telling tales of going out and having a blast on Main Street. Main Street used to be THE place to go out, no matter if you were white or black. There was a spot for everyone. And then there was the summer of 2001.

Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year-old black man was shot and killed by a white police officer. At the time, Cincinnati had a largely white police force and had already experienced several clashes between police and the blacks in the community that year. The Timothy Thomas shooting was the proverbial straw that broke the black community’s back.

Over-the-Rhine and the center of Cincinnati erupted in riots, and a city-wide curfew was issued by then Mayor Charlie Luken. I was in high school when all of this was going on and I can remember how crazy I thought it was for an entire city to be under curfew. I mean my parents always had a curfew for me during the week, but now even they had a curfew! This was not Cincinnati’s first race riot. Cincinnati’s first was in 1829 when anti-abolitionists attacked blacks in the city. Riots occurred again in 1836, 1841 and later in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After 2001’s riot the city was in need of healing and dialog.

A Sober Hope for the Future
Our city is still recovering from the wounds of 2001 with some suburbanites still afraid to go all the way downtown. We are a city that never forgets and is slow to move on. We love clinging to the past whether that past is good or bad.

However, Cincinnati has come a long way since then despite all this. A new generation of Cincinnatians has embraced our city and its once forgotten central heart. This new generation has forgiven the city of its past and is willing to put the rest of this town on its back, dragging us toward our true potential. While I embrace the new development in our city center, and within its historic neighborhoods, I am sometimes torn as often times these new developments require the removal of lower income (mostly black) people.

In the second half of the 20th century, predominately white working-class families that had filled the urban core during the European immigration boom in the 19th century moved out to the suburbs. Blacks filled these older city neighborhoods. Putting myself in the shoes of these inner city inhabitants I’d say “Where the hell have you guys been? You moved out, I moved in, and now because you decide to all of a sudden care about this neighborhood again, you’re kicking me out and telling me I’m not good enough to live here?”

I hope the new generation of Cincinnatians will care about not only our city’s rich historical, cultural and architectural treasures, but also care about the people that have helped shape them and who have called them home over the years. Cincinnati can become the city that we want it to be but only if we all work together to improve the lives of everyone that calls our city home.

  • BGee

    Very interesting and informative story about his personal experience and thoughts. Thanks for posting.

  • CA

    This was a very though provoking post. There are things I would want to share and questions and concerns I would want to voice.

    I feel that by only describing Timothy Thomas as an unarmed 19-year-old black man does not tell the whole the whole story and makes me think he was just shot for being black. Not for who was fleeing to avoid arrest, not complying with the police request to stop at 3 am down a dark alley reaching for his pants.

    Plus I am not sure I understand the comment “now because you decide to all of a sudden care about this neighborhood again, you’re kicking me out and telling me I’m not good enough to live here?” Where in Cincinnati are people being asked to move from their homes because now they are “not good enough to live here?”

    I moved to Cincinnati as a bi-racial teenager from Upstate New York in the early 80’s. The school I attended was a small rural school district and my sister and I were the only “black children” at the school. We were never totally accepted but since we grew up with all the other children we were tolerated by our community.

    I never become aware of this till after we moved here and I saw true racial exclusions. We were not black enough to fit in with the other black students and not white enough for the white students either. We lived in this gray area which for me followed my all the way through till I was in my late 20’s.

    Fast forward to today and being half black and half white is not the first thing people go to any longer. There are so many other ethnic groups in not just Cincinnati but the US that I feel, I now just blend into society.

  • @CA thanks for the comments and personal insights from your own experiences. I agree that only describing Timothy Thomas as an unarmed 19-year-old black man does not tell the whole the whole story. Very true indeed, but the end result was a community that became fed up and the riots that resulted from this tension bubbling up. The point that I was trying to make regarding the residents having to move was that there have been some instances where a historical building with a low occupancy rate was rehabbed and turned into condos, but the residents were asked to move. The Metropole apartments downtown is an example of this. I brought this quote/comment up more as food for thought and to provoke discussion. It is a tough issue with complex solutions. It does no good by just moving our poor around though. These are issues many urban communities are dealing with across the country. As you said, it is wonderful though to see people all over the world blending together as one common human race, no longer purely identifiable as just white or black. Thanks for your comments and for reading my piece! -Alex

  • I do think that we need to be very aware of the risks of not addressing the situation of displacing poor residents from our city center as it is redeveloped. Cincinnati has the opportunity to get out in front on this issue before it becomes a problem, but if left unchecked, I feel certain that it will become a problem eventually.

    While City West has accomplished some positive outcomes, one of the largest issues is that the end result was less affordable housing in the West End neighborhood. Some neighborhood leaders may contend that is a good thing, and maybe they’re right, but what that has resulted in is a shift of poor residents from the West End to places like Westwood, East Price Hill, Lower Price Hill and other nearby neighborhoods. Now it is these areas that are struggling with an influx of poor residents.

    There is nothing wrong with poor people in a community, but we should be planning our communities in such a way that promotes upward mobility and supports those at the very bottom. And I agree that simply pushing these poor residents from one neighborhood to the next does nothing to solve the substantive issues at hand.

  • Ryan L

    I don’t know if there is any legal way to create a minimum amount of affordable housing in Over-the-Rhine and West end to promote mixed-income neighborhoods and prohibit the areas from becoming “too gentrified”. I don’t think that any neighborhood “belongs” to a certain group of people, and I think the co-mingling of people with different backgrounds is very important for a neighborhood that seems to be experiencing a transformation.

    While I was at a discussion of the renovation of Washington Park last year, there was concern from the neighborhood that 3CDC was trying to kick out the urban poor (mostly blacks). One resident even said “we don’t want you people here” (referring to white people, upper class, and new residents in general) to the crowd of people. Unfortunately racial discrimination still happens on both ends of the spectrum. While her racism was evident, she does bring up a valid point of gentrification like Alex brings up in his article.

    Perhaps a starting point would be to look at the demographics after the 2010 Census, and compare it to Over-the-Rhine’s potential capacity. Then the city could require a certain percentage or explicit amount of the housing stock in the neighborhood be affordable.

    Another problem could be forcing the long-time residents to further corners of the neighborhood to provide higher end condos and apartments in the central locations. There could also be some requirement for market rate housing per block, or per district (ie. Gateway Quarter, Brewery District, Pendleton, Northern Liberties, etc) to prevent any “segregation” of market rate housing and more expensive housing. Unfortunately, unless 3CDC or other large developer creates a considerable amount of market rate housing in Over-the-Rhine on an ideological basis, the market will quickly absorb the affordable housing and turn it into condos.

    As a prospective resident of Over-the-Rhine, I would hate to see diversity go away. OTR could be a very unique neighborhood if it is planned properly. New Orleans is known for its building stock as Cincinnati is, but it would be a shame if OTR received a similar racial demographic as the French Quarter. New Orleans is 2/3 black, and the French Quarter is only 4.3% black. To New Orleans defense though, the area has always been predominately white, OTR has shifted demographics in its history.

    Since I doubt 3CDC will make enough affordable housing (I do believe they will make some), it would be amazing if the city could pass an ordinance to require a certain amount of housing to be affordable in the surrounding neighborhoods. If the city can supply citizens with low income housing like they did decades ago in places like Fay Apartments and English Woods, they should be able to simply require the market to create a certain amount of affordable housing per block or per district.

  • Ryan L:

    I think the city should pass inclusionary zoning codes that incentivize developers for providing affordable housing (as defined by HUD). I think providing a blank requirement might be too stringent and not provide enough flexibility to developers and investors constantly struggling to get financing for urban developments.

    I have had an idea about setting up a requirement for the region. The way it would work is you define what percentage of the region lives beneath a certain income level to be defined as “low income.” Saying that percentage is 15%, then each jurisdiction (neighborhoods would be broken down in this practice by each municipality) would be required to provide 15% of their overall housing stock as affordable housing.

    The almighty free market kicker to this idea is that if a neighborhood wants to opt out (say Indian Hill), then they could pay to not provide their 15%. That money would then go into a general pot to then be paid to the community who takes on Indian Hill’s portion. This money would help those communities supporting more of the low income residents and affordable housing to have more money to provide the needed social programs and services needed to help promote upward mobility.

  • Ryan L

    Randy,

    I think I completely understand what you are saying. I see only two questions.

    1) Who exactly pays into the system? Is it the property owners in the neighborhoods/municipalities or the municipalities themselves?

    2) Say 15% of the population is considered low income. I think it is a little high to require 15% of the residents in each area to be low income to not pay into the system. I think that 10% or so would be more acheivable, that way more municipalities try to reach that level. Perhaps even make it a graded scale, where the more low income residents you hold, the less money you have to pay, up until the threshold of low income residetns. So if a neighborhood has 5% low income, they are still incentivized to reach 6% and those with 14% are incentivised to reach 15%. It also seems to make sense that the scale would provide more incentive the lower the percent. In other words, increasing from 5% low income to 6% low income would provide more financial incentives than increasing from 14% to 15%.

    I think that the idea is very good though, and if it were implemented, could provide OTR with the direction needed to keep its affordable housing. Would you consider a county wide initiative or a city wide initiative? It seems difficult to make it county wide, however it would make the system larger and more effective.

  • AJ

    Everything about this is so beautifully written that I’m practically applauding in my living room. Thanks for sharing, Alex!

  • Paul

    Looks like HUD is going to step in and take care of some of this soon.

    http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20110211/NEWS0108/102120341/HUD-housing-authority-discriminated?odyssey=mod|breaking|text|FRONTPAGE

    No comments allowed by the Enquirer as usual.

  • Zachary Schunn

    Interesting thoughts on the necessity to provide affordable housing, though in my opinion the more pressing issue in OTR is the plethora of people who cannot afford ANY housing. The city needs a viable plan to address homelessness so these people are not also shifting to worse neighborhoods.

    I’ve heard before that the city’s solution (or at least one of their solutions) is to provide homeless people with bicycles to ease mobility. Is this true? I fail to see how this would help. The real solution, I would think, would be to provide better support (both private and public) for food pantries and homeless shelters.

  • I have never, ever heard of that idea Zachary. Homelessness is a VERY difficult social issue to handle. So complex.

  • Zachary Schunn

    My mistake, Randy. Either I misheard or my source is poor because a quick search is turning up nothing.

    Apparently a few such ideas have popped up in Portland, though, including a non-profit that offers free bike repair to the homeless. Not surprising given Portland’s aggressive (albeit not always friendly) approach to homelessness.

  • Neil

    “While City West has accomplished some positive outcomes, one of the largest issues is that the end result was less affordable housing in the West End neighborhood.”

    Have you been reading the news regarding City West? The project has a TON of problems, out of money and having a hard time attracting the upper end of the mixed income part of the equation. Its been accused of poor management, involving poor screening of tenants and safety issues.

    Here are multiple Business Courier articles on the subject:

    http://www.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/news/2010/12/01/lenders-start-foreclosure-action-at.html

    http://www.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/news/2010/12/30/cmha-calls-for-ouster-of-city-west.html

    http://www.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/print-edition/2010/11/05/with-defaults-is-city-west-still.html

    http://www.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/news/2011/01/20/city-west-residents-resist-removal-of.html

  • Alex Schutte:
    Thank you for a thoughtful piece. I wanted to add some history on the Metropole as additional food for thought for those who might not realize why it will no longer be low-income housing. I’m working from stories of people I know to be hard working community leaders who have a track record of helping the community.

    The Metropole used to be well run with many elderly, low-income individuals. Crime was low and some members were even involved with the local community council. However, over time the building owner started offering short term (3 month leases) to anyone with no background check and no follow-up by the now absentee landlord. When crime started to rise many of the older, more involved residents came to the local community council for help. The council tried to work with the police and groups like the Coalition for the Homeless to address the issues. However, the non-profits were not interested in addressing issues at the location and the police could unfortunately only act as a reactionary force. As more and more of the good people of the building were forced to moved out, more and more people with criminal backgrounds moved in and began using the location for prostitution and drug sales. The absentee landlord stopped fixing up the building and it fell into disrepair.

    Finally, after the place was falling apart and the police runs at the location hit an alarming high, the police moved in to take control of the situation. Unfortunately, it was too late to save the bed bug infested location where someone even broke through the rotting floorboards to the restaurant below. The costs needed to repair the building far exceeded the payback to keep it as low income housing. At this point non-profits began to cry foul and demanded that large amount of public money be used to save the building for its use for low income housing. However, the money was too great and the timing by these non-profits too late.

    We do have other locations that can be saved for low income housing downtown if we act as a community now. The Model Group and Talbert House have a plan to renovate The Dennison Hotel as a location still reserved for low-income housing including improvements to get people to work and giving them safe places to congregate. They hopefully will find the money to make their vision a reality. Also, the Anna Louise Inn has been a fantastic neighbor for over one hundred years with an honorable goal to help women in need. They need the support of the community to avoid a hostile bid by Western Southern who is actively working to cut their public funding. I completely agree that we can still maintain a diverse neighborhood if we work together to ensure low income options are designed into Cincinnati’s rebirth.

  • Zack

    But where do you draw the line? I personally cant afford a 3 bedroom 1500 sqft house that overlooks downtown from Mt. Adams.

    Should the city be forced to make that available to me? Im not below the poverty line, but its a place I would like to be if I could afford it.

    Its a sticky situation holding back a city’s propensity to grow or mature in value.

  • Zack:
    While I agree the prime locations downtown should have a bump in price, low income housing options I speak of are far from being luxury options. To my knowledge, existing low income units downtown tend to be tiny one bedroom / one bath units with very few amenities (some existing locations are even SRO style with only a single bathroom per floor). I’m not sure why some modest set asides for low income individuals should be an issue (as long as they keep their nose clean).