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History Lesson: The 106th Anniversary of the death of James Poindexter

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: The 106th Anniversary of the death of James Poindexter
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Poindexter Village has been in the news a great deal recently. It is one of the nations oldest experiments in public housing and has quite a few stories that can be told.

Jimmy Rogers circa 1956. Photo courtesy CML.

One of those would include East High School alumnus and jazz musician Jimmy Rogers who grew up there. He has played drums for the likes of Sammy Davis Junior, Lester Young, Billy Eckstein and even Miles Davis. He toured with many bands of the jazz era and during one 6-month stint played in 37 different states. According to an article in Ebony magazine, he broke the world-record for marathon drumming – playing for 80 hours 35 minutes and 14 seconds!

His family was one of the earliest residents and at 11 years old, he was chosen to be the “ambassador” of Poindexter Village to shake President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s hand when he officially opened it on October 12, 1940. (Roosevelt visited Columbus that day and in one hour and 45 minutes visited Poindexter Village, Fort Hayes, and had his military aide Major General E.M. Watson lay a wreath at the foot of the statue of Christopher Columbus at the Statehouse!) He reflected on his presidential handshake in a Dispatch article dated January 20, 1986 that President Roosevelt:

…wore this beautiful hat, with a brim turned up all the way around. He had a way of throwing his head back. He said, “How do you like your new home?’ and I said, ‘I like it a lot.

Another terrific story is that of Columbus’ most celebrated living artist and MacArthur Fellow “Genius” award recipient who grew up in Poindexter Village and has drawn from her childhood memories to create a celebrated collection of artwork. Of course, I am writing about Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson who lived there from 1940 until 1957.

Makin' Sweet Soap by Aminah Robinson, courtesy Aminah Robinson. Photograph of Aminah Robinson, courtesy Todd Popp.

According to Robinson, “It was the kind of community where hard-working families flourished.” Speaking at a gathering to celebrate the opening of the Poindexter Village Community Center on October 31, 1996, she said “ I could not do or produce the work without Poindexter Village and the families and extended families.”

Back then monthly rents at the Village ranged from $18.25 to $19.25 for three – five bedroom apartments that included stove and utilities. It was built on the site of the former “Blackberry Patch” that Ms. Robinson celebrates in her book A Street Called Home:

At the turn of the century, African Americans came up from the South looking for a better life, and some of them settled in a shantytown called the Blackberry Patch in Columbus Ohio. My Grandmother and Grandfather came, and their sisters and brothers; they were all part of this Northward migration. The day came when the shacks in the Blackberry Patch were all torn down to set up Poindexter Village, the third Metropolitan Housing Development in the United States.

My parents were among those first families, and they walked with everybody else up and down Mount Vernon Avenue. That was a self-sufficient street. Everything you could need you could find on Mount Vernon Avenue. The rooftops of Poindexter Village are as crowded with pigeons as the street is with people. It’s hard to see everything going on at the same time. There’s the drugstores, the shoe stores, the beauty parlors, the schools and the churches, the theaters and hotels, the open-air markets, the nightclubs and musicians, the newspapers and restaurants – they’re all part of the street called home.

In the preface to the exhibition catalogue entitled “Pages in History,” the work of Aminah Robinson (which ran from May 6 – July 1 , 1990 at the Columbus Museum of Art), CCAD President Denny Griffith asked Robinson to describe the most important aspect of her work. She replied “It’s about people. It’s about history.”

Folklife in Poindexter by Aminah Robinson. Click to view larger. Courtesy Esther Saks.

Poindexter Street Called Home. From A Street Called Home by Aminah Robinson.

That thought led me to wonder about the naming of the village built on the former Blackberry Patch and ultimately to the timing of this particular History Lesson article.

It was 106 years ago today that arguably, one of the most important men of Columbus passed away. His name was Reverend James Poindexter and he was an intimate of President Rutherford B Hayes, Governor Salmon P Chase, and Columbus’ most famous preacher of the social gospel, Washington Gladden. In 1882, he was the first African-American to serve on the Columbus Board of Education and was also the first elected to Columbus City Council in 1880.

The people of Columbus had such respect for this man, that Dean Myers of the Columbus Dispatch reported in 1940 – “that he was the first Negro ever to serve on a petit jury in a federal court – and, the 11 white jurors elected him foreman. He was the only colored member of the Pastor’s Union of Franklin County and once held its president’s chair.”

Is it any wonder, when the leadership of the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority was in search for a name for the $2 million dollar housing development on Champion Avenue that was to open in 1940, that they chose the name of Poindexter Village, which was submitted by Mrs. Waldo Tyler, a former instructor at Wilberforce University.

According to Gerald Tebben, writing in the Columbus Dispatch just last year, Reverend Poindexter was “born on Sept. 25, 1819, in Virginia. His father was white; his mother was black and Cherokee. He trained as a barber and moved to Columbus in 1838. His shop at 61 S. High St., across from the Statehouse, was popular with city leaders and state politicians.”

James Poindexter and right, as Reverend James Poindexter. Courtesy CML.

He and his wife Adelia (whom he married in 1837) joined the Second Baptist Church and he led services there until an ordained African American minister arrived. In 1847, another black family from Virginia joined the congregation and when it was discovered that they had themselves owned slaves before selling them and moving to Columbus, the congregation begged them to buy them back and give them freedom. The family did not and Reverend Poindexter led a group of 40 members who broke away to form the Anti-Slavery Baptist Church.

The split lasted for ten years until the two churches merged in 1858 and Reverend Poindexter was named the pastor – a position he would hold for the next 40 years.

After the war when the 15th amendment allowed African-American men to vote throughout Ohio, he led a statewide convention in 1871 to encourage voting among the newly enfranchised electorate. In 1884 he was named to the Board of the Ohio School for the Blind. In 1887 he was named to the Board of Directors of the State Forestry Bureau and in 1896 he was asked to join the Board of Trustees of Wilberforce University in Xenia.

His obituary of Friday February 8, 1907 published in the Columbus Evening Dispatch reads in part that “he was a warm friend of many of the leading ministers, both Catholic and Protestant. He held positions of honor and led a blameless life.”

Naming this complex Poindexter Village served to honor this man and in turn allowed hundreds on Columbus’ Near East side to grow up in what many would consider to be a place that for a time was unusually tight-knit, supportive and in the words of Aminah Robinson “A Street Called Home.”

For more information please consider:

A Street Called Home” by Aminah Robinson

Beyond Poindexter Village” by Anna Bishop

Pages in History” catalogue edited by Norma Roberts

Please join the Columbus Historical Society on Sunday, February 17th at their home in COSI to celebrate the 201st Birthday of Columbus. “What better way to end Columbus’ 200th year than by celebrating its 201st! Join us on Sunday, February 17th from 1pm to 4pm at COSI for a series of fun presentations from the area. Come watch the Ragtime Era presentation by the Times Past Vintage Dancers and maybe they can teach you a step or two! Learn a bit about the Ford industry in Columbus from Rick Lindner, or maybe the Ohio Village Muffins vintage baseball program is more of your niche. Activities will be available for our younger guests to take part in that will blow them away! Whatever your interest may be, you will love our finale, as we blow up a cake in honor of Columbus!” Visit columbushistory.org.


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