No matter how the legal details are ultimately judged in court, the shooting of Samuel DuBose by UC officer Ray Tensing reminds us that racism is culturally engrained and institutionally embedded in American society. Whatever distance we thought we had put between us and the riots/civil unrest of 2001 disappeared in an instant. In the days between the shooting and the indictment, fear of another round of violence as bad or worse than 2001 was the whispered worry of many people. 

Because we were once again on the brink, this is a good time to recall that public violence is not only as old as Cincinnati, but is dynamic.

For Thomas Jefferson and others of his generation, cities were violent places. Although Jefferson did not rely on data to form this opinion, in fact, historians have documented over 1,800 riots in American cities between 1830 and 1861. In Cincinnati, that meant bank riots, anti-immigrant Nativist riots and anti-Catholic riots, as well as race riots. 

Between 1819 and 1841, Cincinnati experienced four race riots. These were fundamentally different than race riots since 1950. In 1819, 1829, 1836 and 1841, the fundamental structure of these riots was a mob of white Cincinnatians rising up to drive the African-American community out of the city. 

An “alarming increase” in the black population from about 620 to 2,250 between 1825 and 1829 resulted in an ultimatum on July 1, 1829 that the black community leave the city in 60 days. Black leaders explored “possible havens,” especially in Canada, but before the 60-day limit was reached, a mob of 200 to 300 men and boys invaded the black districts and drove more than 1,000 blacks out of the city.

In 1836, the emergence of abolitionism and the founding of the Philanthropist newspaper stirred discontent. City leaders announced the radical newspaper had to be silenced “peaceably if it could, forcibly, if it must.” When peaceful means failed, white mobs first sacked the printing offices, throwing pieces of the press into the Ohio River. The mob then turned on the blacks living in Church Alley. Mayor Davies observed the mob’s actions for four hours before sending them home, announcing that they “had accomplished enough for one night.” 

The 1841 riot marked a turning point in Cincinnati racial history. In early September, several scuffles on the waterfront brought growing tensions to a head. What was different this time was that the black community organized to defend itself, appointing Major J. Wilkerson, a 28-year-old Virginia-born AME missionary, as its leader. 

When a white mob attacked “Little Africa” on Sept. 3, they found that the black residents had manned the rooftops and windows along Sixth Street east of Broadway and in the alley leading to New Street. Black defenders fired on Wilkerson’s command, driving the mob back and pursuing it into Broadway. The mob reassembled at 1 a.m., hauled a cannon (six pounder) to the corner of Sixth and Broadway and fired three times down Sixth. The Mayor finally called out the militia, which arrested more than 300 black citizens. 

Why all these urban riots? American society was still raw and had not developed the institutions to provide orderly outlets for peaceful expressions of disfavor. The concept of democracy was new. Women and blacks were formally denied the vote. Immigrants, especially Catholics, were intimidated and denied access to the ballot box. Community leaders (elected and business) were skilled at raising mobs to carry out their desires. 

Although things gradually changed, the worst riot in the City’s history, the Courthouse Riots of 1884, was still decades off. After a week of violence, 56 people were dead, 200 injured and the Courthouse, the symbol of justice, was reduced to a smoldering mess. 

By the early 21st century, American society has found ways of peacefully channeling the anger and disappointments of most people, but some, especially impoverished African Americans, sometimes still find the streets a necessary place to demand recourse of grievances.