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Article-a-Day #21: Smithsonian-How the Myth of a Liberal North Erases a Long History of White Violence

John Langston was running through a neighborhood in ruins. Burned homes and businesses were still smoking, their windows shattered. Langston was only 12 years old, but he was determined to save his brothers’ lives. He had spent the night in a safe house, sheltering from the white mobs that had attacked the city’s African American neighborhood. Sleep must have been difficult that night, especially after a cannon was repeatedly fired. The cannon had been stolen from the federal armory by the white mob, alongside guns and bullets, so they could go to war against Black people.

Langston awoke to worse news. The mayor had ordered all white men in the city to round up any surviving Black men they found and throw them in jail. As John Langston would later write, “swarms of improvised police-officers appeared in every quarter, armed with power and commission to arrest every colored man who could be found.” As soon as Langston had heard this, he ran out the back door of the safe house to find his brothers to try to warn them. When a group of armed white men saw Langston, they shouted at him to stop, but he refused, willing to risk everything to save his brothers.

There is a toxic myth that encourages white people in the North to see themselves as free from racism and erases African Americans from the pre-Civil War North, where they are still being told that they don’t belong. What Langston experienced was not the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 or Rosewood, Florida, in 1923—this was Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1841, 20 years before the Civil War broke out. This was the third such racist attack against African Americans in Cincinnati in 12 years.