In trying to figure out the more-recent history of 205-207 W. McMicken, I discovered that beginning in the early 1960s, each building received a new tenant who had roots in the deep south: Mary Jane Colbert of Georgia moved to 207 W. McMicken in 1960 and in 1961 Ruby Bester of Mississippi moved into 205 W. McMicken. Both of these women migrated up from the south around World War I as children in what historians now call the Great Migration. This internal migration of African Americans between World War I and World War II resulted in 10 million people moving from the south to northern industrial cities. Here I trace a few moments in these women's lives and contextualize them within this Great Migration.
Mary Jane Colbert and Ruby Mae Bester
Born on May 21st, 1912 in Banks County, Georgia, Mary Jane migrated north to Cincinnati with the rest of her family in the 1920s. This group include her father James or “Lamb” (1882-1962), her mother Sallie (1892-unknown), her five siblings, Julia, Viola, James and Elise, and her two half-siblings, Hollis and Dillard (from James' first marriage to Rosa Hackey). When the Colberts first arrived, their only work experience was that of farming, yet they took advantage of newly available service and industry jobs: her mother worked as a domestic servant while her father worked for a rolling mill. While Mary Jane was fortunate enough to attend school as a young girl, her parents and older brothers did not have that opportunity; censuses noted that her mother was illiterate.[i]
As newcomers to Cincinnati, the family lived in 546 Laurel Street (on what is now Ezzard Charles Drive).
Later, during the Great Depression, the family moved to 3475 Vine Street which (unlike their first home on Laurel) is still standing.
Frustratingly, not much is known of Mary Jane's life. We know that she did not marry, and we know from city directories that she worked most of her life as a maid in private households. She got an associate’s degree at one point.[ii]
We do know she lived at 207 W. McMicken from 1960 until 1982 (making her one of its longest tenants in the 20th century). Thereafter, as an elderly lady, she moved to Corryville where she passed away on November 6th, 1994 at University Hospital.[iii]
From 1961 until 1976, Ruby Mae Bester lived next door to Mary J. Colbert at 205 W. McMicken. Born on January 13th, 1914 in Mississippi to Isom and Letha (Savage) Bester, Ruby was the youngest of four girls after Angie, Velma and Luvinie. Her parents were born in Alabama, though Isom’s parents had lived in Mississippi and Georgia. Isom, born sometime around 1871, and Letha, born around 1881 had seen slavery abolished, the federal government’s attempt to reconstruct the south and its subsequent abandonment of the south by the late 1870s. In Mississippi and in Georgia, the Bester and Colbert families lived in the Jim Crow system of status quo segregation and institutionalized racism. There, Ruby’s father, similar to many of the Colberts, never had the opportunity to learn to read or write; in fact, he never attended school.[iv]
Prior to moving to Cincinnati, the Besters lived in Meridian, Mississippi where Isom worked on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad (went from Mobile, Alabama to Cairo, Illinois).[v]
The Bester family migrated north sometime during or just after World War I, and in Cincinnati, they lived on Carlisle Street in the West End. There, Isom worked as a laborer doing odd jobs until the 1940s when he could no longer work due to some illness or disability. Ruby did not marry, so she lived with her parents and most likely took on a caregiving role for them. She attended school through the 8th grade (and would later go back to finish/get her GED). By her twenties, as the Great Depression starved the U.S. economy, she worked as a maid.[vi]
In 1942, Isom passed away. His death certificate listed “old age” as the cause; this speaks to then-realistic longevity expectations and the reality that Isom had definitely—as an African American man who grew up in the south—experienced a hard life.
After his death, Ruby continued to live with and care for her mother. They remained in the West End living on Carlisle and later at 821 W. 8th—now a gas station. Ruby’s other siblings had married by then: Velma to Garfield Hayden in 1923; Angie to James Newsom the following year; and Luvinie to Robert Moore in 1928. In 1960, Ruby's mother passed away. In this same year, Ruby was displaced out of her long-time neighborhood and home due to the city’s “urban renewal” (widespread demolition) of the lower West End. Thousands of African Americans lost their their homes and businesses with little to no help for rehousing. As a result of this push-out, Ruby moved to 205 W. McMicken.[vii]
She continued to work into her elderly years to support herself, often as a cook. In the late 1970s, she moved out of 205. She died just before Thanksgiving in 2007—a 93-year-old woman—in Auglaize County, Ohio, south of Lima, Ohio.[viii]
A Closer Look: The Great Migration and Cincinnati
Both of these women, Mary Jane Colbert and Ruby Bester, were part of the phenomenon that historians call the Great Migration where 10 million (mostly rural) African Americans moved from the south to northern industrial cities between World War I and World War II. Cincinnati attracted many; by 1920, almost half of Blacks living in the north were concentrated in eight cities: New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. Many Blacks, for the first time, lived and worked in cities, forming a new working class of African Americans.[ix]
Push and pull factors
Many individuals and families moved north out of the south, and especially the deep south, from the 1910s up through the 1940s because of the allure of better employment in northern industrial factories. The majority of African Americans in the south in these years worked land as sharecroppers, or tenant farmers (never to own the land they tilled). Given a small often infertile plot of land to tend (often on property owned by previous slave owners or their descendants), sharecroppers were forced to give a portion of their crop to the landowner. Tenants had to pay for farming tools and almost always found that the meager crop they produced—after they harvested and returned a portion to the landlord—spelled no economic gain for them or their family. The whole system instead resulted in endemic poverty for Black and white sharecroppers and was a tool in maintaining white supremacy in the south.
In the 1910s, bad flooding and the boll weevil plague that attacked cotton further hurt poor farmers. The very real lack of economic opportunities in the south pushed many Blacks out and the promise of factory work in places like Cincinnati (for men) pulled families and individuals here.[x]
There was a gendered dynamic to this migration. While Mary Jane and Ruby went north with their entire families, as best as I can tell, many men traveled to the new cities by themselves; in fact, in the earlier years of the Great Migration, men far outnumbered women fleeing the south. This was partly because there were more jobs available to men than women.[xi]
World War I itself drew many families north; this seems the likely case for the Colberts and Besters (and World War II would have a similar effect). Cincinnati’s Black population increased by 50% in the years around World War I (only the NAACP and local African American newspapers were systematically counting these individuals). Wartime industrial output needs and diminished manpower opened up jobs for Black men in printing, clothing manufacturing, meatpacking, car manufacturing, railroad work, iron work, coal mines and factory labor for chemicals, rubber, tires, carbon, valves and munitions. Immigration to America was also severely restricted; European white immigrants who had historically been the ones getting those factory jobs in the north were fewer in number than they had once been.[xii]
Black women enjoyed newly available work, too, and better pay for the same work as in the south. Around World War I, an African American maid in Cleveland earned $7 a week whereas in Mobile, Alabama she would have made only $2.50. African American women, post-slavery, often worked as domestic servants, laundresses, cooks and waitresses. But World War I opened up new jobs, even in areas traditionally assigned for men only: work in railroad yards, in packing houses, in factories and plants making clothing, cigars and electrical supplies and in car factories making parts. These jobs were segregated as white women refused to share space with Black women, and unfortunately for all women, these jobs quickly dried up when the war ended and men returned. Black women were, however, the last hired and first fired.[xiii]
African Americans in the south knew of these opportunities by word of mouth but there were also active labor recruiters, both white and African American, who came from the north to enlist men for those factory jobs. In Cincinnati, two African American men Joseph L. Jones and Melvin J. Chisum started a recruiting agency; they ended up bringing thousands of men north. Even the federal government helped: set up under President Woodrow Wilson, the Department of Labor’s Director of Negro Economics oversaw a federal program to help African Americans find employment during the war; state committees like Ohio’s Negro Workers’ Advisory Committee did similar work.[xiv]
Many families and single individuals came to cities in which their friends or relatives had also already migrated to. Black single men often worked their way from city to city, northward, while African American single women went from the south to their northern destination in one trip (perhaps because they felt less safe on their own as women). Chain migration in families was common wherein the father or parents would move first, get established and then bring up children later. Having enough money to send for children was always difficult though; this meant children sometimes stayed in the south for years, often with grandparents, before moving to a city like Cincinnati. Records show the entire Colbert and Bester families together in the West End but that doesn't preclude the possibility of chain migration.[xv]
As much as wartime demands and better paying jobs pulled Black families to places like Cincinnati, it was equally true that conditions in the south pushed them north. In addition to sharecropping and chronic employment discrimination in the south, African Americans also faced complete political disenfranchisement and near constant threats of violence.
A very violent South
Towards the end of the Civil War and after, presidents wrung their hands over what to do with the south. “Reconstruction” became the answer—the federal government’s attempt to physically, economically and psychologically repair the south after the ravages of the war. Much of Reconstruction under President Lincoln and his successor Andrew Johnson dealt with how to re-accept southern states that had left the union (legally, how do we invite them back in? how should we punish them?). But the rest of it, which took place under Lincoln, then Johnson and then Ulysses S. Grant, had to do with the 4 million recently freed slaves (legally and socially, how do we include them in the nation-state?). Under Congress, and especially thanks to the influence of Radical Republicans, a series of amendments were passed to the Constitution—namely the 14th and 15th Amendments that gave citizenship to African Americans for merely being born on U.S. soil, regardless of race, and gave voting rights to Black men.[xvi]
In the wake of these enfranchising laws, with federal aid and troops in the south, African Americans themselves politically mobilized. Men joined the Republican Party (the party of Lincoln), began to vote in mass, ran for political office (and won—even up to the Senate), helped to rewrite state constitutions and served as jurors, sheriffs, mayors, jailers, police, tax collectors—all jobs previously unimaginable for them to hold. African American women, denied the right to vote, were still active participants in this mobilization as they attended meetings and helped to organize. They also launched a crusade with the help of white northern women to educate themselves and their children.
Much of Reconstruction is a story of political freedom and agency but unfortunately white backlash against these gains and rights struck immediately. Violence by whites in a multitude of forms—vigilante committees, terrorist societies like the KKK, poll violence that prevented men from casting ballots, arsons of churches and homes, lynchings—terrorized African Americans. And even though the 1870-71 Enforcement Acts made political harassment and terrorism federal offenses, that didn’t stop those who felt white supremacy was threatened. And there was little reprisal often. In Texas, for instance, between 1865 and 1866, 500 white men were indicted for murdering black people. No one was convicted. Political oppression also emerged in the form of “black codes,” designed to be loop holes to prevent Blacks from voting. Ridiculous rules like “you can only vote if your grandfather voted” or “you have to pay this much to vote” hindered Black progress.
The death knell of Reconstruction came in the late 1870s. In the north, Reconstruction was increasingly unpopular, especially in lieu of the economic recession that had hit America. Tax payers looked to the south and saw only political discord and violence, and wondered about the efficacy of Reconstruction as a federal project. It didn’t help that news publications depicted it as a giant debacle.
Southern Democrat politicians, who had in many ways boycotted politics since the end of the war, began to get involved and elected to office in the south (these were people often sympathetic to the Confederate cause). Moderate Republicans questioned their party’s support of Reconstruction. These trends together meant that in the contested election of 1876, Democrats agreed to let Rutherford B. Hayes—a Republican—have the presidency on the condition that federal troops in the south would be withdrawn and that a Southerner would be appointed to the president’s cabinet. Reconstruction effectively ended.
Known as the Corrupt Bargain of 1877, this initiated what we call the Jim Crow era—the world that Ruby Bester and Mary Jane Colbert knew well. White supremacists returned to power in the south. Voting rights for African American men ended. Lynchings increased dramatically. Black poverty remained endemic, especially because of sharecropping. If African Americans wanted any healthcare or education access, they had to set up those institutions on their own (which they did). Segregation became a way of life as Blacks were pushed out of public spaces and services.
The south was thus a very violent place for Black men and women. Sexual exploitation and assault that had existed—and in many ways, defined slavery for women—persisted in the Jim Crow era. It should be no surprise to us that families like the Colberts and Besters wanted out.
Cincinnati was a different kind of city for families like the Colberts and the Besters to move to. Unlike New York City or Chicago, Cincinnati had long boasted an African American population. It was a more southern city, sitting next to the Mason-Dixon line and thus had been a hotbed for abolitionism and activity on the Underground Railroad. In 1910, 6% of the city’s population—about 20,000 individuals—was African American and the majority were southern-born, especially from Georgia and Alabama. For sure, the existence of Black communities did not preclude serious and profound discrimination; still, it helped that there was a NAACP chapter here since 1915 and even a nationally-known Black newspaper, the Cincinnati Union, started in 1907.[xvii]
Once in Cincinnati, many Black families moved to the lower West End (particularly Wards 15-18 just above the Ohio River) which had a significant African American population prior to the Great Migration and only became denser into the ’20s and ‘30s. Others moved to Walnut Hills and Avondale, both of which became predominantly Black by the Great Depression.[xviii]
The number of African Americans coming to Cincinnati continued to grow even after World War II, in fact continuing through the 1960s. Between 1940 and 1970, the Black population increased from 55,593 (12% of the total) to 125,070 (28% of the total) while in the same span the white population decreased by 52,671, 12% of the 1940 white population. Between 1955 and 1960, a net total of 44,145 white Cincinnatians moved from the city to new suburbs; and then 27,445 between 1965 and 1970.[xix]
What was Cincinnati like for the Besters and Colberts?
While the jobs attracted African Americans north, the housing stock sure did not. In fact, African Americans were “crowded into basements, shanties, firetraps and other types of houses unfit for human habitation,” according to the Dept. of Labor’s Director of Negro Economics. The reason? One, there was a nationwide housing shortage during World War I (this would happen for World War II, too). Due to the war, the labor supply had decreased; materials went up in price; everyone was too concerned about the war, so housing construction basically stalled. Rent gouging became common, especially when the landlords were white and the tenants were African American. Furthermore, residential discrimination against Blacks—forcing them to live in certain neighborhoods, prohibiting them from living in others—was extremely common, often enforced through racially restrictive covenants (that operated like HOA rules in some ways). This lack of options meant that African Americans lived where they could, often living with extended family and friends, pooling for rent money.[xx]
Still, even if they had their hands tied, African Americans actively chose to live in Black neighborhoods. The sense of community was deeply important, especially in a city that felt hostile to newcomers of color.
Important context: the years surrounding World War I were, like other eras, yet another apex of racism, anti-immigrant fervor and political and social conservatism in America. These were the years of the KKK revival in Indiana and southwest Ohio and racist films like The Birth of a Nation (originally called the Clansman—it pitches African American men as sexual aggressors and the KKK as the nation’s heroes…) Lynchings rose in the south, often justified on totally fabricated charges of Black men assaulting white women. There were race riots targeting Blacks in Cleveland and Youngstown and an attempted lynching in Lima, Ohio during the war. Racial segregation grew; by the war’s end, Black urban concentrations in major cities were the norm and in Cincinnati, 78% of African Americans were concentrated in just 7 wards. Early suburbs drew out white immigrants in the earliest years of white flight, further accentuating black demographic concentrations in areas that used to be more diverse. Public facilities openly rejected African Americans; in 1919, all but one hotel in Cincinnati refused them. Editor of the Cincinnati Union Wendell P. Dabney commented on this upswing in prejudice:
Disease was another issue. In cities like Cincinnati, death rates were high for Blacks, often twice as high as whites.
Crime and things like prostitution also confronted them as African American neighborhoods were often forced to develop in the worst parts of a city.
In Cincinnati, before World War I and the Great Migration, a red light district developed along three blocks of George Street and on Longworth within an African American neighborhood on the western edge of Cincinnati’s downtown. It was tolerated by police and catered to anyone who wanted these services. In 1917, social reformers pressured the city to shut it down; madams and prostitutes were evicted, many of them African American women who fled to other parts of the city, including Carlisle Avenue (where Ruby Bester’s family lived) and John and Smith Streets in the West End. On George Street, African Americans migrants from the south moved into the vacated tenements (the old brothels); landlords immediately upped the prices.[xxii]
More positively, it was a place of Black pride and culture.
It wasn't all bad news. Migration and wartime employment meant that for some African Americans, they were making more money than they ever had before. Black professionals and entrepreneurs noted the growing number of Black-owned businesses, many of them servicing other African Americans instead of relying on white patronage. In Cincinnati, black businesses became concentrated on 5th Street between Central and Smith, among other locations. Other positive developments: the number of Black newspapers expanded. Black church memberships rose. Black clubs, especially Black women’s clubs, grew and were highly active in providing welfare assistance to those in need. All of these developments reflected a segregated society but one in which African Americans founded their institutions, organizations and businesses for helping and serving other African Americans.[xxiii]
This was also the time of the Harlem Renaissance, and while Cincinnati was no New York City, the West End was its own neighborhood of Black culture and pride.
Take entertainment, for instance. The West End had eight movie theaters. It was also a hotbed of jazz music. One man recollected, “Growing up in Cincinnati’s West End it was almost impossible to grow up not listening to and loving jazz.” Jazz musician and composer Artie Matthews, who arrived in Cincinnati in 1916, introduced ragtime to the city and founded the Cosmopolitan School of Music on 9th Street for African Americans. The Cotton Club in the Sterling Hotel on Mound Street in the West End was a hotspot for this music (named after the NYC establishment); it was the only integrated nightclub in Cincinnati. Black bands stayed with local African American residents or would rent a room up in Walnut Hills at the Manse Hotel because no other hotels would serve them. Many “jazz greats” came out of the West End, including some who worked with Benny Goodman, Count Basie and later Jackie Wilson, among others. Sadie Birch was considered the “Sarah Vaughan of Cincinnati." There was also (later) Billie Brooks and Wilbert Longmire, just to name a few.[xxiv]
For children and adolescents like Ruby and Mary Jane, they were some of the first in their families to get formal education. Judging by city records, Ruby most likely arrived in Cincinnati as a child and Mary Jane as a teenager. The school options were both were pretty similar. In Ohio, many schools were integrated, though not all; segregation was more common at the lower levels than high school. There were various public schools for Black students to attend in Cincinnati. Cincinnati had abolished its dual city school system (separate schools by race, including separate school boards) in the late 1880s, though one all-Black elementary school in Walnut Hills remained through these years—the Frederick Douglass Elementary School located at Chapel and Alms Street. Any Black child was welcome to attend. All other public schools were integrated, though the teachers and principal were white (many African American teachers at the previously segregated schools suddenly lost their jobs upon integration). Around World War I, other options grew for African American parents to send their children to an all-Black school if they wanted. A privately-financed kindergarten was started by Jennie Porter, a teacher from the Frederick Douglass school, in 1911, and then in 1914, the (eventually named) Harriet Beecher Stowe School became the second all-Black elementary school; classes were held at various buildings in the West End, including Hughes High School at 5th and Mound, until Stowe got its own building on W. 7th in the early '20s. Integrated Walnut Hills High School was another option for Mary Jane. None of the integrated options meant that white students welcomed African American students; they even threatened to strike at Walnut Hills High School in 1916 if Black students weren’t removed. The superintendent defended the Black students’ right to go there. There were also vocational schools for African Americans like the Cincinnati Colored Industrial School. Booker T. Washington was the most well-known advocate for this kind of education, emphasizing that Blacks had the best chance to succeed in life if they were trained in a manual trade.[xxv]
Less so for Ruby or Mary Jane, who migrated with families, there were social welfare organizations set up to specifically help in-need African Americans including children, women and the elderly: the New Orphan Asylum for Colored Children (est. 1845), the Crawford Old Men’s Home (est. 1888), the Home for Aged Colored Women (est. 1891), the Walnut Hills Day Nursery (est. 1910), the Home for Colored Girls (est. 1911), the Friendship Home for Colored Girls (est. 1918) and branches of the YMCA and YWCA for Black men and women. In 1917, the Negro Civic Welfare Association was established as a way to coordinate social welfare services, such as the Better Housing League, for Black migrants coming into town.[xxvi]
Finally, it's important to point out that even as families like the Colberts and Besters got settled into Cincinnati, that didn't mean they never went back to the south. Many parents, especially mothers, who left their children behind went back for visits. Many returned for religious holidays and to see extended family.[xxvii]
Want to know more about the Migration? About the west end? I highly recommend:
1. Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South (1968)—Anne, later a civil rights activist, so viscerally describes sharecropping, poverty and racism in the south around World War II through her own life.
2. John W. Harshaw's oral histories of the West End in his book Cincinnati's West End
3. Go see the Finding Kenyon Barr exhibit at 1202 Linn Street.* It's an exhibit of photographs of (inhabited) buildings in the West End, dated 1959, right before they were all torn down. These would include the buildings that Ruby and Mary Jane lived in. (*it will move, so pay attention to the address). On the same topic, you can also check out Alyssa Konermann's Cincinnati Magazine article here.
[i] 1920, 1930, 1940 Federal Census, Ancestry.com; U.S. Public Records Index, 1950-1993, Ancestry.com; U.S. Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014, Ancestry.com; Mary J. Colbert Tree, Ancestry.com.
[ii] Ohio, Deaths, 1908-1932, 1938-2007, Ancestry.com.
[iii] Ohio, Deaths, 1908-1932, 1938-2007, Ancestry.com.
[iv] 1920, 1930, 1940 Federal Censuses, Ancestry.com.
[v] 1908 City Directory, Meridian, Mississippi, Ancestry.com.
[vi] 1920, 1930, 1940 Federal Censuses, Ancestry.com.
[vii] Ohio Death Index, 1908-1932, 1938-1944, and 1958-2007, FamilySearch.org; Ohio Marriages, 1800-1958, FamilySearch.org; Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013, FamilySearch.org.
[viii] Ohio, Deaths, 1908-1932, 1938-2007, Ancestry.com.
[ix] Joe William Trotter. Jr., ed., The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class & Gender (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 128.
[x] William W. Giffin, African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 1915-1930 (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2005), 9-11.
[xi] Joe William Trotter. Jr., ed., The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class & Gender (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 128.
[xii] J. Trent Alexander, “Cincinnati, Ohio,” in The Great Black Migration: A Historical Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, Steven A. Reich, ed. (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2014), 73.
[xiii] Giffin, African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 16; Alexander, “Cincinnati, Ohio,” 130-141.
[xiv] Giffin, African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 11-14.
[xv] Alexander, “Cincinnati, Ohio,” 131-133.
[xvi] Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
[xvii] Alexander, “Cincinnati, Ohio,” 72.
[xviii] Alexander, “Cincinnati, Ohio,” 73-74; Giffin, African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 35.
[xix] Charles F. Casey-Leininger, “Making the Second Ghetto in Cincinnati: Avondale, 1925-70,” in Race and the City: Work, Community, and Protest in Cincinnati, 1820-1970, ed. Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. (Urbana and Chicago: The University of Illinois Press, 1993), 223.
[xx] Giffin, African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 17-19.
[xxi] Quoted in Giffin, African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 44, 35, 45.
[xxii] Giffin, African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 22.
[xxiii] Giffin, African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 24-30.
[xxiv] Quoted in John W. Harshaw, Cincinnati’s West End: Through Our Eyes (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2009), 103, 99-115; “Hotels 3,” Cincinnati Views, accessed November 21, 2017, http://www.cincinnativiews.net/hotels_part_3.htm.
[xxv] Giffin, African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 39-42.
[xxvi] Giffin, African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 53-54, 62.
[xxvii] Beverly A. Bunch-Lyons, Contested Terrain: African-American Women Migrate from the South to Cincinnati, Ohio, 1900-1950 (New York: Routledge, 2002), 10.