CIRCLEVILLE— Local author and researcher Deborah Lowe Wright presented a history of the voting rights movement and African American History at the Pickaway county Library Tuesday night.
Wright, a Circleville native who is founder and director of the Pickaway County African American Heritage Association (PCAAHA), spoke for just over an hour Tuesday about her research into the African American movement of the 1870s in an effort to obtain equal voting rights.
“The history of the black vote does not start with Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said. “The first non-violent protest does not start with Martin Luther King; it starts here in Circleville. It starts at Second Baptist Church and it started with the help of William H. P. Denning. He became renowned in the state of Ohio and was a newspaper man for 66 years, and was the postmaster in the 1870s in Circleville.”
Wright said when the reconstruction laws went into effect, specifically the 13th and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, which freed the slaves and gave them citizenship, and the 15th Amendment, which gave universal voting rights, they didn’t specifically apply to African Americans but to everyone.
“Nowhere in the amendment does it stipulate is it strictly for people of color, although it’s in the amendment you cannot discriminate because of someone’s religion, creed or color or former servitude,” she said.
Wright went on to explain that at that time, Circleville was considered the crown jewel of Ohio.
“It’s because of the political activism coming out of Circleville in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s,” she said.
Despite the 15th Amendment, which was passed in 1870, Wright said African Americans were still denied when they tried to vote.
“They were denied because the night before the then-democratic state party organized pollsters and told them they don’t have to let the black people vote because the State of Ohio has not changed its laws and they cannot vote,” she said. “You may have one white parent and one black parent, you can’t vote.
Wright explained that in Circleville at the Second Baptist Church, which now meets on West Mill Street, 170 African American men met and signed a letter that was sent to Congress that inspired the Voting Rights Act of 1870. That’s where Denning comes into play.
“He helped them come up with two petitions,” she said. “All told, 147 of them signed the petition. The first one was dated April 5, 1870, the day after the election and he sent that to John Bingman.
Bingham was a congressman and authored the Enforcement Act of 1870 after receiving the petition and it was signed into law on May 31, 1870, by President Ulysses S. Grant.
With the passage, Wright said that was the first non-violent protest to enact legislation in the civil rights movement, nearly 100 years prior to Dr. King and Rosa Parks.
Wright said the Enforcement Act of 1870 penalized anyone who refused or interfered with the vote of anyone.
“It was non violent; they did not protest in the street, they did not raise their voices, they gathered in a church and took comments by Republican leaders in the county and discussed what they wanted to do,” she said. “The petitions are very heartfelt, and very moving.”
In addition to sharing information about the meeting at the Second Baptist Church and Circleville’s history with equal voting rights, Wright shared that Circleville was no stranger to race riots.
“Circleville was not immune to anything, they experienced every kind of racial tension that was in the world at that time,” she said. “In 1860 and 1861 I found news coverage of race riots.”
Wright said the account she found revolved around 700 people who stormed down South Pickaway and rioted between Union Street and Mill Street.
“The riots were started because of a woman who had been offended and disrespected in some way by several African American men,” Wright said. “She reported it in the morning and by evening they had enough men mad enough to go into the black neighborhoods to avenge her honor.”
During the riots, resident Robert Randolph’s house was burned down by the mob. Randolph was a well-known barber around town, worked with horses and Wright said by today’s standards, he’d be upper-middle class.
“As they were breaking things and tearing up things, the marshall and the mayor of the city finally managed to get them a little bit calm. A gunshot rang out from behind Mr. Randolph’s house,” she said. “They weren’t sure it was from there but they liked they had an excuse to go into Mr. Randolph’s house.”
“When the shot rang out it struck an elderly man who was on the parameter of the mob and that was all they needed,” she continued. “The mob rushed his house, broke through his house, set it on fire and burned it to the ground. Mr. Randolph and his wife escaped and the mob went looking to lynch him. He managed to escape and go to Columbus and ended up in Cleveland.”
Another piece of Circleville’s history that Wright said she has discovered over the years in her research is that the African American community had similar and separate clubs and civic organizations from the white population.
“I could tell you everything about the lodge because it was recorded in the newspapers,” she said. “Every meeting, every official, everyone who died. Everything is there. It’s not there for African Americans. They did not report it. I am having a hard time finding any information.”
Wright also discussed the topic of education within the African American community pre-desegregation and spoke about a few of the schools that served African American students.
“It started out with two rooms and the Circleville School District had it built,” she said of the school that was located on Ohio Street Across the railroad tracks. “They added the back onto it as the population grew. With the integration of schools the school was abandoned and it became the Pickaway County Infirmary. Brown Memorial Home claims this building as their start and their root in the community.”
In addition to having the school in Circleville, there were also schools out in the county, including a school in Darbyville.
“That school predates the school in Circleville and there was also a school in Jackson Township,” she said. “Two fathers sued the state for the right to not send their kids to these schools. One sued because his farmhouse was 300 years from the white-only schools. But his kids had to go through hills, woods, over a ravine more than three miles away to go to the colored only school. He was denied.”
Wright concluded by saying the efforts of everyone in the 1960s were valuable but that’s not what started the process and that Circleville played a part in that history.
“A lot of people are not aware of the legacy we share,” she said. “Before Martin Luther King there was Circleville. Before Memphis Tennessee, or Selma or Montgomery, there was Circleville. The same vain of non-violent protest for their rights was started in Circleville.
“The whole country just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday and it makes my skin itch when they say he won our rights in 1964,” she said. “He carried on a fight that started here in Circleville. Rosa Parks was used in the fight that started here in Circleville.”