Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
February 22nd, 2019


The bridge where friends meet

The Benson Street Bridge, or “Rainbow Bridge”, marks the city limit between Reading and Lockland, Ohio. Residents are fond of mentioning a sign that hangs over the bridge, proclaiming both Cincinnati suburbs to be “Where Friends Meet”. But if you talk to enough people from the surrounding area, you eventually hear whispers about a less friendly sign that used to be posted at the city limit, warning nonwhites not to set foot in Reading. My mother used to ride the bus with an African American person who still avoided that town, even though she said the whites-only sign hadn’t been up since the 1960s. You can imagine there must’ve been robust enforcement of that policy for it to have wound up on a welcome sign in the first place.

I first heard about her experience while growing up on the other side of town in Loveland. I was still too young and sheltered to take notice of the occasional weird remark or special treatment that in hindsight was almost certainly related to my ethnicity. But that story struck me, because we previously lived in Reading and we went to church and shopped there for several years after. To a child like me, Reading seemed like a perfectly normal community, not the sort of place that only a generation earlier might’ve treated nonwhites like criminals or kept us out.

Benson Street Bridge in 1951
The Benson Street Bridge is pictured in a 1951 book. A replica of this original “Where Friends Meet” sign was raised over the bridge last year. No whites-only sign is visible in the photo. If the sign was indeed posted on Benson Street, it’s possible that it could’ve been posted just after the bridge, remaining out of view, such as where a Neighborhood Watch sign is seen in a photo from 1998 or a roadside welcome sign is seen in Google Street View in 2018.

Reading’s decades-long history as a sundown town goes unmentioned in official town histories. A 1951 book commemorating Reading’s centennial tells some tall tales about Reading’s history but omits any mention of the ban on blacks. Surrounding the mayor’s embellished historical account are advertisements by local businesses praising Reading as a “progressive town”. In fact, it took me many hours of scouring local newspaper archives before I finally found a single published confirmation of the ban, from 1912.

Fear Crowd as Suspect Faces Girls
On July 5, 1912, The Cincinnati Post, a pro-labor paper, mentions Reading’s ban on blacks to explain why an armed mob of Reading villagers would invade neighboring towns to capture a black suspect falsely accused of attacking two white women. Another daily paper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, covered the same incident but downplayed the mob and mentioned nothing about a ban on blacks.

Even if the community felt little need to advertise its ban in the press, those who needed to know about it did get the message. Census records show a purely white Reading, extremely unusual for the area and for a town of its size. Until the 1970s, Reading’s black population was usually nonexistent and never broke two percent of the total population. By contrast, neighboring towns had plenty of black residents, especially Lincoln Heights, the first black-led municipality in the North.

Reading population by race, from incorporation to present
Census 1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
White 1,225 1,575 ? ? 3,076 3,985 4,463 5,664 6,079 7,833 12,816 14,213 12,563 11,755 10,579 9,251
African-American 5 0 ? ? 0 0 77 59 0 0 1 60 196 172 361 756
Other 0 0 ? ? 0 0 0 0 0 3 15 30 84 111 352 378
Total 1,230 1,575 2,680 ? 3,076 3,985 4,540 5,723 6,079 7,836 12,832 14,303 12,843 12,038 11,292 10,385

Other communities have had their ugly side too. Loveland was where the KKK held regional conventions and staged photo-ops in the 1960s and 1970s. As recently as the 1990s, when I lived there, they almost put up their cross in front of City Hall, after Cincinnati put an end to their annual rallies downtown. Yet despite the problems African Americans in Loveland may have faced, they were still able to reside there in greater numbers. Reading’s demographics stood apart from its neighbors, a fact that was surely clearer in person than in a federal census report. The sundown town phenomenon was especially pernicious because it was, in a sense, uncontroversial in communities like Reading.

As I continued to search newspaper archives for additional information about Reading’s race relations, I stumbled upon articles about dozens of other towns across the country that had driven out their black residents, either violently or by threat of violence, and become sundown towns. Each time, I edited the town's Wikipedia article to acknowledge the town’s former antagonism towards blacks. In at least one instance, I found that a passage on race relations had already been added to the article, only to be removed by a local resident who perceived it to be “playing the race card”, or blowing out of proportion what was historically a fact of life. But this is not a case of judging yesterday’s norms by today’s morals. Back then, southern Democratic newspapers often mocked northerners and Republicans as hypocrites for criticizing Jim Crow laws but, on the other hand, implementing an extreme form of segregation not often found in the South. Some northern papers also noted the existence of sundown towns with regret. People knew it was wrong.

By now, such policies have been swept under the rug so thoroughly that many current residents are legitimately unaware of their hometown’s sordid past. For them, seeing it suddenly appear in the town’s Wikipedia article can feel like an attack on their own character. But silence can only perpetuate injustice. There’s at least one person who still bears the burden of that long-gone sign at the Reading city limit. She will continue to experience that stigma until the community acknowledges its past and declares a definitive end to institutional racism as publicly as it started. Mentioning sundown towns in these Wikipedia articles is the least I can do to start much-needed dialogue before it’s too late to give people like her some closure.


TrackBack URL: <http://panel.1ec5.org/mt/mt-ping.fcgi/1705>

  1. Who am I to comment on the terrible things that keep happening in this country? Me, I’m just someone who’s lived a sampler platter of a life.


Comments and Concerns

Press “Submit” to send this card to Minh. Your comment will appear on this page as soon as he approves it. No solicitation, please. Your e-mail address is never displayed on this website and will not be shared with any other entity.