Bicycle Tour of Black History Sites in Madisonville
Written by Chris Hanlin, local historian and longtime resident of Madisonville. He is the coauthor, with Kathleen Smythe, of Bicycling Through Paradise: Historical Tours Around Cincinnati.
The Murray Path, which is part of the CROWN Network, runs along the southern edge of Madisonville, a neighborhood with a long tradition of racial integration. From the Murray Path, if you head north on Watterson Street for two blocks, west on Bramble Avenue for a block-and-a-half, and then north on Whetsel Avenue for half a mile, you will reach the historic center of Madisonville. From there, eight significant Black history sites are easily accessible by bike within a one-mile radius.
At the northwest corner of Madison Road and Whetsel Avenue is a two-story commercial building, built in the 1920’s as a bank, and now home to Bad Tom Smith Brewing. For many years, this was David Benna’s barbershop, one of the most visible Black-owned businesses in Madisonville. David Benna had both Black and white customers and kept shop here until his death in 1983.
By 1905, Jennie Moore Bryan, who was African American, was principal of the Madisonville High School, which had a mostly-white student body. As principal, Jennie Bryan supervised white teachers – a remarkable level of authority for a Black woman at that time. She was elected president of the Madisonville Audubon Society, and she was the first Black member of a women’s group call the Monday Club. She also wrote poetry, and in 1929, she published a book of her poems titled High Tower.
This house – now rebuilt on its original foundation – was the home of Miranda Boulden Parker from 1916 to 1920. She was the widow of Underground Railroad hero John P. Parker, who died in Ripley, Ohio, in 1900. After her husband’s death, Miranda Parker moved first to Norwood, Ohio, but she was forced out by racist harassment. So she moved to Madisonville, a more accepting community.
In the 1920’s the Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, an African American congregation, decided to build a new sanctuary, and as architect they hired Edward E. Birch. Edward Birch was the most important Black architect in Cincinnati prior to the Civil Rights movement, and this church, finally completed in 1941, is his earliest known public building. The congregation has a long history of civic activism and held institutional life membership in the NAACP by 1961.
In 1933, Braxton F. Cann became the first Black physician on the staff of Cincinnati General Hospital, now the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. His spouse Reber Simpkins Cann was active in the Civil Rights movement, working with the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the National Council of Negro Women. Reber Cann was also president of a local interracial organization called “Links,” which still exists.
In 1935, Lucy Orintha Oxley became the first African American to earn a medical degree from the University of Cincinnati. At UC, Oxley was called racial slurs, not only her by anatomy partner, but also by her professors. She persisted and went on to a distinguished career as a physician, receiving many professional awards. Her practice was in Walnut Hills, but by the 1950’s, and for decades thereafter, her residence was this home in Madisonville.
If you go to the west end of Tompkins Avenue and look further west, you will see the site of a lost community called Dunbar. Beginning in the 1880’s, Dunbar was an African American enclave that grew to have a small grocery shop, two churches, and a population of around 170. In the 1990’s, the City of Cincinnati acquired the property through eminent domain, tore down the houses, and re-zoned the property for commercial and industrial use.
At the left of this historic photo is a house, now gone, at the northwest corner of Carothers Street and Whetsel Avenue. This was the home of Henry B. Whetsel, a white conductor on the Underground Railroad, as documented in the 1912 book, Cincinnati, the Queen City. When the Civil War broke out, Henry Whetsel was already 43 years old, which was too old to enlist. So he told them he was 34 and enlisted anyway. (Photo courtesy Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library.)