PIQUA — Coinciding with Black History Month, Wednesday night’s Portal to Piqua’s Past at the Piqua Public Library focused on early African American businesses within the city of Piqua, while also touching upon the blatant racism that those business owners and African American residents came up against.
“Prior to 1820, there is a ordinance on Piqua village books that prohibit blacks from settling in Piqua,” Director Jim Oda of the Piqua Public Library said. “Blacks were not allowed, however, in the census, we find African Americans as servants.”
The first African American that the library has a record of is Arthur Davis, who showed up on the 1820 census.
In discussing businesses owned by and jobs for African Americans from the early 1800s up to the 1940s, Oda said that there were limited opportunities for African Americans prior to the Civil War, which took place between 1861 and 1865. African Americans were limited to jobs like servants and day laborers. Even small industries did not have African Americans working for them, Oda said.
In September 1867 after the Civil War, there was a record of the “Colored Men’s Cooperative Tray Association, Inc.,” which Oda said was most likely a corner grocery.
“It lasted about eight or nine years,” Oda said. He added that this was an accomplishment as “we’re talking about a time when discrimination wasn’t subtle.”
One of the members of the association was a barber Robert Smith, and Oda said that it was possible that the association ran the grocery out of the barbershop.
Being a barber was another profession after the Civil War that African Americans were taking part in, but that job came with a hitch.
“There’s a problem with being a barber. You could cut black hair or white hair, but you couldn’t cut both,” Oda said. Oda referenced an article at the time that referenced their so-called reasoning, which was that if a barber cut both black and white hair, then white men “could be infected and turned black.”
“People are believing this,” Oda said.
This provided barbers with a tough decision of which customer base to choose. Oda said that some may have chosen to cut black hair at night, but those barbers were risking losing all of their customers if they were found out.
Oda said that African Americans continued to work primarily as day laborers and domestic servants.
Toward the end of the 1800s, African Americans were working in more jobs like shoemakers and as hucksters, including selling items out of a wagon or even knife and scissor sharpening.
“When we start talking about African American business, who do we have to talk about? We’ve got to talk about Goodrich Giles,” Oda said. “He was the first big business man.”
Giles was born in 1845 and came to Piqua in 1865, Oda said.
“He is probably related to the Randolphs, but he didn’t come with them,” Oda said, referencing the Randolph freed people, a group of 383 emancipated people and survivors of slavery on the Roanoke Plantation in Virginia in the 1820s. They left Virginia for approximately 2,000 acres of purchased land in Mercer County, but they were forced to leave that area and resettle north of Piqua at Rossville, a location also referred to as the Randolph Slave Settlement.
Oda said that it was likely that Giles worked with horses while in the south, because when Giles came to the area, he eventually operated a cottage livery stable.
“It became very successful,” Oda said. The business became Empire Stables, and Giles had employees working for him. Giles was also one of the first African Americans in the area to invest as he invested in property and the Third National Bank.
“Most blacks in Piqua would not have been allowed to invest money,” Oda said. He said that Giles also owned rentals on Spring and Greene streets as well as farmland in Springcreek Township.
“He rented to the Mills Brothers. He had farm land. He was a very wealthy man,” Oda said. Oda added later that Giles was also the first black man to run for the city council.
African Americans also began working in professions like blacksmiths, which was difficult as that was an apprenticeship position.
A pair of African American business owners also included John and Dorothea Rudd, who owned a business selling embalming fluid. After her husband passed away, Dorothea Rudd was one of the first women to run an industry.
Oda said that their business later went out of business during the first World War as their business was not considered essential war work.
African Americans continued to expand further into the service industry in the early 1900s. During the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, Oda said that African Americans began doing auto repair work.
One auto repair business was owned by Darrel Taylor in the area of Washington and Greene streets. Taylor was also a member of the Piqua chapter of the NAACP and was responsible for a number of sit-ins at restaurants and the movie theater, Oda said. Taylor’s business faced a racist backlash when there was a concentrated effort of people refusing to do business with Taylor, and his business folded. Oda said later in the discussion that there was never enough black residents within Piqua for a black business to survive only on business from black customers.
Oda referenced the northern Civil Rights Movement, which was going on locally in the 1940s. During one sit-in at the movie theater where African Americans sat throughout the theater instead of just the back three rows, Oda said that the owner at the time was going to refuse to play the movie until the African Americans moved. Oda said that he spoke with someone who was there at the time, who said a gentleman stood up, swore a number of cuss words, and said, “If we can serve with them … we can watch the damn movie with them.”
Oda said that instance may have been what ended the designated back three rows for black patrons of the local movie theater.
The presentation reached the end of its focus time period between the 1800s and the 1940s with mention of the effect of the second World War. During that war, black workers were no longer kept from working at factories as their labor was needed for the war effort. Factories that refused to hire black people would be denied war contracts and necessary access to coal and railroads.
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