The Push To Preserve Greater Cincinnati's Black History Through Architecture

Feb 22, 2021

Cincinnati prides itself on its historic architecture. While some local landmarks vital to the region's Black history and communities are seeing preservation, many others sit empty, their fates uncertain. And more still have recently been leveled. 

But in places like Evanston, Glendale and the West End, advocates are working to find ways to preserve these historic sites -- and more importantly, the stories and contributions of the Black Greater Cincinnatians who breathed life into them in the first place.

To hear more on this story, tune into the corresponding Cincinnati Edition segment

St. Mark, Evanston's 'Sentinel'

St. Mark Church in Evanston.
Credit Nick Swartsell / WVXU

Marye Ward, 60, has spent her whole life in Evanston. She can tell you about a time when the streets weren't bisected by I-71, about a community where everyone seemed to know everyone else, the shops that lined Montgomery Road and the bustling Catholic church called St. Mark that, for her and her family, was at the middle of it all.

Ward has never been Catholic, but attended school at St. Mark starting in third grade when her public elementary school ran out of room. She says the sense of warmth at the church's masses and community events made a huge impression on her; as a grade-schooler, she aspired to be a nun, inspired by the sisters she met at St. Mark.

The church has been a central part of Evanston for more than 100 years

Workers completed the soaring St. Mark Church in 1916. It was built for a growing neighborhood of mostly Polish and German Catholic families. Its sanctuary could accommodate more than 800 worshipers, and its tallest point towers 130-feet over Montgomery Road.  The congregation swelled, peaking at more than 1,000 families in the 1950s.

But over the next several decades, demographic changes came to Evanston and to the parish. An influx of Black residents, some pushed to Evanston by highway construction in the West End in the 1960s, accompanied white flight from the neighborhood. The construction of I-71 in the early 1970s right next to St. Mark chipped away at the church's congregation, leveling numerous homes directly to its north.

Soon, St. Mark's congregation was smaller and primarily Black. Though it was diminished in numbers, the church still served as a warm, vibrant heart of the neighborhood, residents like Ward say.

By 2010, however, the parish had gotten so small that the Cincinnati Archdiocese merged it with three others now located in Bond Hill.

The Sanctuary of St. Mark Church in Evanston was built to hold 800 congregants.
Credit Nick Swartsell / WVXU

Since then, the church has sat mostly empty, though its food pantry remained open until 2017 and its school building is now home to a charter school.

Past Evanston Community Council President Gregory Stewart and others in Evanston want to change that by bringing the building back into community use. Stewart, now the community council's preservation chair, says the effort to do so is well underway.

"For over 100 years, people from the Evanston neighborhood walked to this church," he says. "Even as the neighborhood transitioned, there was still a commitment to the wonderful things that went on in that building." 

Residents of Evanston have incorporated a nonprofit organization called The Mark to raise money so the community council can acquire the building from the Cincinnati Archdiocese and renovate it. That's important, Stewart says, because other potential buyers have expressed interest in leveling the church.

So far, The Mark has engaged experts to get estimates on how much it will cost to stabilize and renovate the buildings, though the total price tag for acquiring them is still up in the air. The goal: reestablish St. Mark and its rectory as a community hub, with office spaces for arts organizations and nonprofits, an event center, resident social workers, services for seniors and youth, and other uses.

Evanston Community Council Member Gregory Stewart reviews records from St. Mark's now-relocated food pantry.
Credit Nick Swartzell / WVXU

Stewart says some potential tenants have already said they're ready to occupy the space when it's ready.

In the meantime, St. Mark's towering face is a bittersweet reminder for former students and church attendees like Ward.

"It’s hard to just look at it," she says. "I drive by it anytime I’m going somewhere, and I just remember being in there. That building is more than just a building. It’s a home for us. By revitalizing it, we can give that same opportunity and memories to people who live in Evanston. Even though it's no longer a church, it can still have life. We can't lose this building. It's been a sentinel watching the neighborhood change."

Glendale's Once-Segregated School Sits Empty

Glendale's Eckstein School.
Credit Nick Swartzell / WVXU

Some of Cincinnati's suburbs have played significant, multi-layered roles in the region's Black history. Among them: Glendale, which was a prominent stop on the Underground Railroad.

Author and artist Bill Parrish has delved into that history in a book called An Underground Community. He's also been a vocal proponent of preserving one of the village's links to its later Black history: a once-segregated schoolhouse called the Eckstein School.

The school, built up around a repurposed single-family home, started in at its location in 1915 to educate Black students at a time when public education in Glendale, as in many places, was still segregated. It served that purpose until education was integrated in Glendale in 1958.

But the school has an older legacy via its namesake, Eleanor Eckstein, a white Glendale resident whom historians believe played an active role in the Underground Railroad and who began teaching Black students in the barn behind her house in 1860. She continued this practice for 10 years until Glendale opened its first official school for Black children.

Since Glendale integrated its education system, the building has served a number of other purposes, including a dentist's office. But now it sits empty and in need of significant repairs.

 

A former classroom in the Eckstein School building.
Credit Nick Swartsell / WVXU

Parrish has deep roots in Glendale. His grandparents moved to the village in 1923 from Statesboro, Georgia, and his grandmother worked for wealthy industrialist family the Procters.

He took note of the situation facing the Eckstein School when he returned from Michigan six years ago and set out to acquire the building from the village government.

But he ran into a number of frustrations, he says. "I went to the city administration about it," Parrish says.

"They gave me a packet of things I needed to do to qualify to renovate the building. I came up with a business plan and became a 501(c)3. We went through this process over four years of establishing an organization."

The village first put the building up to bid in 2018. It took two rounds, but Glendale eventually sold it to a development firm that bid $25,000. 

"The village purchased the building from the Princeton School district in 2009," a statement from the village says. "When the village decided to sell the property, state law required that we put it up for public bid and sell it to the highest bidder. It is now privately owned."

The firm transferred rights of purchase to Denny Dellinger, an Over-the-Rhine based architect.

The gymnasium at Eckstein School.
Credit Nick Swartsell / WVXU

Dellinger says he had hopes to renovate Eckstein School for a community center, but could not attract the investors necessary to pay for the extensive needed renovations. The building is again on the market.

Parrish, who is Black, says that conversations about preserving Black history, including but not limited to the Eckstein School, must include Black voices. He wants to see policy changes that make it easier for Black preservationists and historians in places like Glendale, which has lost other structures significant to its Black history.

"If you're in a group that is making historic decisions and there are no African Americans present, then they're making decisions based only on a white perspective," he says. "There is no African American perspective on historic preservation in that case. That's consistently what has happened."

Despite the frustrations, Parrish hasn't stopped pushing for greater awareness about Glendale's Black history. He's putting the finishing touches on a second book, Children of Eckstein School, that details the contributions of those educated in the building. He also runs the nonprofit Eckstein Cultural Arts Center, which is headquartered in Glendale. And he's leading walking tours about the village's history as part of the Underground Railroad.

He says renovating buildings is just the beginning of preserving Black history. "The story is bigger than the building," he says.

"What I’m attempting to preserve is the contributions of African Americans." 

The Effects Of Loss 

Revelation Missionary Baptist Church in the West End shortly before demolition.
Credit Nick Swartsell

Some local landmarks important to Greater Cincinnati's Black communities have already been lost -- but the effort to preserve the history they left behind continues. A recent example is Revelation Missionary Baptist Church, which stood until last year on the corner of John and Liberty Streets in the West End. 

The church's congregation voted in 2019 to sell the church to FC Cincinnati as the team worked on its coming soccer stadium, moving to a new facility in Mount Healthy as part of the deal.

Last May, crews demolished the 155-year-old church. Other nearby demolitions, including of another historic building called the State Theater, required the relocation of West End residents and businesses.

There is a long history of demolition in the West End -- not the least of which being the destruction of its entire southern half in the early 1960s for I-75 and so-called "urban renewal" programs. That project displaced more than 20,000 predominantly Black residents and demolished roughly 2,800 structures.

Those memories loom large for current and former West End residents. And while some buildings in the neighborhood, including the Regal Theater, see slow preservation efforts, others remain in danger.

One of the people working to raise awareness about the West End's architectural heritage is Jerald "Coop" Cooper, founder of the popular Instagram account Hood MidCentury Modern. That account regales its almost 38,000 followers with tidbits about the connections between mid-century modernist architecture across the country and Black culture and history.

For Cooper, the link between Black history and the built environment is very deep. He is a prime example of what is at stake when places like Revelation are lost – yes, the Black community loses something, but individuals also lose part of their personal histories, too.

"One thing that we all have, but that we dismiss quickly, is spatial awareness," he says as he sits in his West End studio space on a chair that once resided in Revelation Baptist. "(Black peoples') movement North was all about seeking design.  People escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad were given descriptions of houses to look out for, places that were safe. You had to have that imagination, visualizing what to look out for. Architecture plays such a significant role in how we view the world."

Though he's interested in architecture across the country and spends a good deal of time in Los Angeles, Cooper is a Cincinnati native who grew up attending Revelation. His memories of the church in the 1980s and 1990s are incredibly emotional, he says, and he cried and suffered nightmares when he heard it was coming down.

Jerald Cooper in his West End studio.
Credit Nick Swartsell / WVXU

Cooper's family made its own trip North in the 1920s and 1930s, following the Great Migration's promise of jobs and an escape from the racism and dead-end sharecropping they found in Georgia.

His grandmothers and great aunts settled in the West End, and found in Revelation a sister church to the one they had known in Georgia. His mother was serious about the church, too, and Cooper had many of his formative life experiences there.

"There are things about Revelation I can’t even tell you," he says. "It’s about who I am. It’s about learning how to dress. It’s about the traumas, the triumphs, the first crushes, the church trips, the safe haven, the dinners, seeing my dad get married. Seeing him in his casket."

Hundreds of others have similar memories, but the church's significance goes beyond the personal. Originally built as a Jewish Synagogue in 1865, the slim, towering German Gothic red brick building became the property of Revelation Missionary Baptist Church in 1928. 

The predominantly Black church would go on to play a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement, hosting Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth from 1961 to 1966. Shuttlesworth, a close ally of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other prominent civil rights leaders, led sit-ins, boycotts and other protests across the south when he wasn't giving sermons at Revelation.

University of Cincinnati Visiting Assistant Professor Anne Delano Steinert says that's quite significant. Steintert has done painstaking research on the history of the West End generally and Revelation Baptist Church specifically.

"Shuttlesworth's most productive civil rights action came after 1961," Steinert says. "He's getting paid by Revelation to do this civil rights work, to go back and forth between here and Birmingham doing this work. That’s a clear indication to me that this congregation was deeply committed to civil rights."

Shuttlesworth wasn't the only figure connected to the church who made big contributions to the movement. At the time, Louise Shropshire led the church's music ministry. Shropshire is credited with writing what would become "We Shall Overcome," perhaps the best-known piece of music from the Civil Rights Movement.

Despite these personal and political histories, the Cincinnati Historic Conservation Board did not deem it worthy of protections afforded by a local historic designation. That happened at least in part due to an addition constructed in the 1970s that changed the look and feel of the building.

But Steinert argues that addition shouldn't have disqualified the building.

"One of the things I think is the biggest hurdle in preserving African American sites is that so often preservation is focused on the historical integrity of the building," she says. "In many African American neighborhoods, those buildings see a lot of changes over time. So I think professional preservation needs to figure out how to unlink the criteria for preservation from aesthetics."

Cooper, distressed but undaunted by the loss of Revelation, says he will continue to advocate for preserving Black spaces in Cincinnati and beyond. He says he has plans for highlighting the West End's history in a big way soon.

For him, however, it's about more than just the buildings.

“We have to contextualize the West End… what it gave to Black culture, the people who lived here originally, the people who had to move to Avondale or Lincoln Heights," he says. "We have a really big job of preserving that, in a way that's sustainable and equitable. But also, how do we activate that preservation? How do you make it live and breathe in the world? How do we pass legislation that offers some kind of protection for these places and the people who live there, too? It would be a tragedy to continue this reckless cycle."

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