Black History in Oxford, OH

An old photo of Mr. John East and his class of Black children before the integration of Oxford's public schools

Oxford, Ohio's Black community has a rich and important history. It is through this self-guided tour that we aim to keep alive the memories of the brave Oxford citizens who fought for their right to occupy public spaces and who flourished in their passions despite systemic racism. We honor the lives and legacies of those who never faltered in demanding justice. We celebrate and gain inspiration from the accomplishments of Oxford's Black community, then and now.

How to use this guide: The letter next to each title and description corresponds with the letter on the map (seen directly below). Some locations on the tour will not have a clear place to pull over if you are driving, so please exercise caution and park in the closest parking lot if you wish to stop to observe the location more closely.

The tour takes roughly one hour to complete.

For a physical copy of this self-guided tour, please visit the Enjoy Oxford office at 14 W. Park Place, Suite C.

For a PDF of the tour, click here.

Above photo: Mr. John East and his class before the integration of Oxford's public schools.


Black and white photo of the Bethel A.M.E Church, a white building with bare trees around itA. Bethel A.M.E. Church
14 S. Beech St.

Bethel A.M.E Church is the oldest of Oxford’s four Historically Black Churches with a congregation that’s been here for over 175 years. The building was constructed by Joel Collins in 1855 and two years later was purchased by church trustees, Beverly Yancy, William Townsend, and John Thompson. Before buying the church building, Bethel’s congregation (organized in 1842) would meet in the home of John Rollins. One of its early pastors was Hiram Revels who would later become the first Black American to serve in the U.S. Congress when he was elected to the Senate from Mississippi after the Civil War.

The construction of the church building was not finished upon purchase and funds for completion were low. However, the congregation never let the challenge dampen their spirits and instead raised money through multiple means such as selling refreshments at events they organized around town.

Bethel’s long history includes helping organize a community choir, housing dinner theater events, throwing annual Smorgasboard dinners, and creating a Sunday School Department within their church for youth education and activities. To this day the Bethel A.M.E church continues to be an important place for teaching and community gathering.

Contact: Bethel A.M.E on Facebook

A group of choir women stand in front of the church, wearing gold and red choir uniformsB. First Baptist Church
14 E. Vine St.
This is a private residence.

Organized in 1865 by a small group of Black citizens under the guidance of Reverend S. P. Young, the First Baptist Church of Oxford is one of Oxford's Historically Black Churches. Services were first held in an old schoolhouse on Collins Street. In 1892, notable Oxford citizen Dr. Alexander Guy deeded two lots of land on East Vine St. to church trustees William Smith, Wesley Calvin, and Edmon Stansifer. On this land they built a frame church building that stood proudly for 55 years before a fire burned it down in 1947. Thanks to efforts led by Charles A. Williams, nearly $3,000 was raised by the Oxford community in order to rebuild the church. While the church was under construction, Elm St. Christian Church members shared their facilities with the Baptist Church congregation.

First Baptist Church remained at the location on Vine Street until 2006, when a new church was built at 6701 Ringwood Rd. The new location includes more room for parking and activities, as well as an accessible floor plan for people in wheelchairs in order to make the space inclusive to all. The church continues to thrive with a dedicated, diverse congregation.

An old black and white photo of Cephas Burns and his daughter Edna, both smilingC. Cephas Burns House
310 N. Main St.
This is a private residence.

Cephas Burns, born in Oxford in 1871, was the master stonemason behind many of the lamp posts, buildings, and beautiful stone bridges (ten in total) constructed on the campus of Western College for Women. Burns’ work has resulted in a distinct aesthetic for what is now Miami University’s Western Campus, where beautiful grey cannonball stonework stands in contrast to the red brick found on most of Miami’s campus. These grey stones were handpicked by Burns himself from the local creeks in and around Oxford, and hand washed with care before use.

Burns learned masonry from his father, Richard Burns, and built his own house near his father’s at the age of twenty-one. Later, Burns was commissioned by the President of Western College for Women, Dr. William Boyd, to replace all of the wooden footbridges on campus with stone ones. This impressive work took place between 1922 and the early 1930s, with Burns instructing and working alongside an all-Black crew of workers. In addition to footbridges, Burns was also involved in the stonework construction of Kumler Chapel, as well as the stone gazebo and stairs leading down to the Western Pond.

Another place to find Burns’ work is the Ernst Nature Theater, named for U.S. senator and Western College trustee, Richard P. Ernst, who funded the project. The theater is meant to look similar to one Ernst had seen in Rome.

Cephas’ first wife, Carrie, was the daughter of Peter Bruner. She died after eight years of marriage, survived by her daughter Edna. Burns later married India Churchman, who also preceded him in death after 25 years of marriage.

Burns died in 1935 and is buried in Oxford’s Woodside Cemetery.

Black and white photo of Richard Burns' house, a tidy white house with manicured shrubs out frontD. Richard Burns House
314 N. Main St.
This is a private residence.

Richard Burns was born in 1839. He served in the 9th Regiment, U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery during the Civil War and in 1886 became the second Black American elected to Oxford village council.

Burns' father was born in Virginia, and his mother was born in North Carolina, but they left the South before their children were born. They lived in Ohio and then Wayne County, Indiana before moving to Oxford in the 1850s. After working as a farm laborer in his early years, Burns learned the stonemason trade.

Burns was commonly regarded as one of Oxford’s “most highly respected colored citizens.” For many years he worked as a stonecutter and mason throughout the village. He was also a talented contractor who laid the foundation of Miami University’s auditorium. In his personal life, he was an active member of the Bethel A.M.E church, as well as a member of the local Civil War veterans group and masonic order.

He died at the age of 81 in 1919 and is buried in Woodside Cemetery.

E. Sycamore Car Wash
9 E. Sycamore St.
This is a private residence.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Sycamore Car Wash (9 E. Sycamore St.) was an important place of gathering for the Black residents of Oxford. According to brothers H. Dale Jackson and Gary S. Jackson (sons of owners Harrison E. Jackson and Lillie Mae Stewart-Jackson), the Sycamore Car Wash became a "cultural haven" where Black people could enjoy music, dancing, basketball, story-telling, and Bible lessons. Additionally, the car wash provided employment opportunities for others, who like the Jacksons, had migrated from the South and were looking for a sense of community and belonging. The car wash was also a safe place where children could receive important life lessons passed on from their elders, including coping skills for when they struggled to acclimate to a more dominant white culture.

F. God’s House of Praise and Worship
100 Homestead Ave.

God’s House of Praise and Worship is one of Oxford's Historically Black Churches. Formerly known as First Pentecostal Bibleway Church, it began as a Bible study group in 1956. Meetings initially took place in the home of Ethel Piper. Pastor Lenora Jenkins, who had been organizing bible studies with her husband E. D. Jenkins, lead the congregation in purchasing some acres of land upon which, in 1964, the church edifice was built. Funds for this were raised in part by selling baked goods at a local tavern where the congregation had relocated for a time. Betty Wilson remembers during the construction of the church that the congregation would meet in a tent outside, keeping warm during the rainy season by wrapping themselves in blankets. They moved into the church basement as soon as it was done while the construction continued above.

In 1993, Elder Anderson A. Simmons, Jr. became pastor and in 2013 the name of the church was officially changed to God’s House of Praise and Worship. In 2015 the congregation welcomed their third pastor, Pastor Beverly A. Simmons. The church continues to hold weekly services, including Sunday school, morning worship, day and evening Bible studies, and Youth and Outreach ministries.

Contact: God's House of Praise and Worship on Facebook

G. Knoxy’s Delicatessen
209 E. Sycamore St.
This is now Johnny’s Campus Deli.

Built by Francis Theodore Knox and Ruth L. Knox in the late 1940s, this building used to be home to Knoxy’s Delicatessen. On Saturdays and Sundays, men in the Black community, across generations, would gather in the deli’s back room to share ideas surrounding world and community affairs. It was a space of refuge for reflecting on the struggles of establishing and operating a Black-owned business. It was also a community-organizing space for deliberations on which white citizens might be trusted enough to be approached about creating “a modicum of opportunity” for the Black community. Reflecting on when his father would take him to Knoxy’s Delicatessen as a child, H. Dale Jackson (son of Harrison E. Jackson who owned the Sycamore Car Wash) recalls “Knox’s back room was a place where such ‘coming of age’ for young children was both a harsh awakening and a wonder.”

H. Lewis Place
310 E. High St.
This is a private residence.

Lewis Place is known and loved here in Oxford, as the home of Miami presidents since 1903. Open houses and other events take place here for the public on a regular basis. But Lewis Place has a fascinating history as well. Built in 1839 for Romeo Lewis and his wife Jane, what is now known as Lewis Place is said to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Possible evidence for this claim was discovered in 1965 when Lewis Place underwent a renovation in preparation for incoming Miami University President Phillip Shriver. According to Shriver, a secret part of the house was discovered that could have been used to hide runaway slaves. In fact, according to local stories, several houses in Oxford may have used trap doors and hidden compartments to aid in the escape of enslaved people fleeing the South.

The Freedom Summer memorial made up of beautiful stone benches with engravings of the summer's events. Kumler Chapel is in the backgroundI. Freedom Summer Memorial
650 Western College Dr.

In 1964, student volunteers from around the country came to Western Campus (which was then Western College for Women, separate from Miami University) for a two-week orientation in voter registration and non-violence resistance. This orientation was to prepare them for the harrowing but important task of registering disenfranchised Black voters in racially segregated Mississippi. Known as Freedom Summer, this voter registration drive was organized and led by civil rights activist, Bob Moses.

Volunteers were trained in how to peacefully resist physical attacks with passive body positions. This was done in preparation for dealing with the same violent segregationists in Mississippi who had been terrorizing and intimidating Black residents.

Some of the first volunteers to leave Oxford for the South were James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. They immediately went missing, and it wasn’t until six weeks later that their bodies were found. Their murderers were members of Klu Klux Klan who had been protected by local law enforcement.

In 2000, a stone memorial for Freedom Summer was built next to the Kumler Chapel on Western Campus. In 2014, three additional tree sculptures were added to the memorial to honor the lives of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.

A black and white photo of a smiling Maurice Rocco with a button down shirt and his hand in his pocket. He is standing casuallyJ. Maurice Rocco Burial Place
Burial near parents in Woodside Cemetery.

Maurice Rocco (born Maurice John Rockhold) was a world-famous jazz pianist known for his energetic boogie-woogie style that he performed while standing.

Rocco, born in 1915, was musically gifted from a young age. He was born into a family of likewise gifted musicians, singers, and dancers. His mother Ruby was a pianist, his father danced, and his sisters Geneva and Charlotte both sang as well as played piano. He also had three talented brothers: Malcom who played trumpet, Thomas who tap danced, and Ohmer who sang, danced, and whistled.

Rocco learned to play piano when he was quite small and would stand rather than sit (an ability that later became his trademark in professional performances). His mother Ruby, a pianist, was paid to do housework in people’s homes and had clients with pianos who would allow her to bring Rocco with her to work. This afforded him plenty of time to practice, often for many hours a day.

The gravestone of Maurice Rocco's parents, John and RubyRocco played locally and in Cincinnati before moving to New York City where his career flourished, headlining in nightclubs and theaters, and later performing at Carnegie Hall a number of times. He landed roles in several Hollywood films, including 52nd Street in 1937 and Incendiary Blonde in 1945.

Rocco enjoyed a long and extremely successful career around the world until, at the age of 60, he was murdered while living in Bangkok, Thailand. He is buried in Oxford’s Woodside Cemetery near his parents.

K. McGuffey Lab School
216 E. Spring St.
This is now McGuffey Hall.

In 1910, Miami University established the McGuffey Laboratory School. This teacher training school included kindergarten through twelfth-grade classes, which helped relieve some of the overcrowding that had begun to occur at the Oxford Public School. It was the McGuffey School policy, however, to only admit white students.

In 1944, several members of the Oxford NAACP Branch met with Dean Ashbaugh of the School of Education at Miami to discuss the importance of integration. It wasn’t until 21 years later, however, that the school’s first Black students enrolled: Timothy Davis, Pamela Walden, and Victoria Nash.

An old, black and white team photo of the Oxford Panthers basketball teamL. Oxford Panthers Basketball Team
101 E. High St.
This is now the Oxford Police Department.

By 1919, Black students at the Oxford Public High School had been playing on integrated athletic teams for some years. The integrated sports teams included football, baseball, and track. Black athletes were not, however, allowed to play on the basketball team. Therefore, with help from a nearby YMCA, the Oxford Panthers team was formed.

Black and white photo of the old Town Hall where the Oxford Panthers played their basketball games. It is brick and there are many windows.The Panthers were described as a talented, semi-professional team that played challenging games against college, high school, church, and YMCA teams from across Ohio, Indiana, and northern Kentucky. At one point during the 1926-1927 season, the Panthers even played the Harlem “Rens,” (more formally known as the New York Renaissance Five) a predecessor of the Harlem Globetrotters team, of later fame.

Even after Black athletes were allowed to play on the Oxford Public School team in 1929, the Panthers continued on as a separate community team for close to ten more years. Their games were played on the upper level of the Town Hall (101 E. High St.) where local fans cheered for their home team.

Black and white photo of the old Oxford Public School with a pointed roof and an American flag flying to the side.M. Oxford Public School
115 W. Spring St.
This site is now Stewart Square.

Beginning in 1853, Oxford had two separate schools: the Union School for white children and the North School for children of color. Notable teachers at the North School were Mr. Lawrence Grennan, who was white and Mr. John East, who was Black. Pupils at this school ranged in ages from 5 to twenty-five, with older pupils generally being formerly enslaved people from the South who had never been allowed to read or write. While the Union School and North School were barely half a mile apart, they differed greatly in terms of their quality of facilities and curriculum (the North School being the one with lesser quality of materials due to fewer funds).

When a new Oxford Public School opened in the fall of 1887 on West Spring Street, over forty Black students from the North School attempted to attend but were chased away by the town marshall. Angry residents from Oxford's Black community spoke at two town meetings to demand their children be allowed to attend the new school. It wasn’t until Perry Gibson, a Black resident and father, advocated for the school’s integration before the Circuit Court of Butler County that Black students were finally allowed to attend the new school. It was a lengthy process during which the school board appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Ohio, a case which they lost.

At the new school, although classrooms were integrated, spaces like playgrounds and bathrooms were segregated for a time. Still, what became known as the “Gibson Case” was a judicial milestone for the Black community in Oxford.

N. Elm Street Christian Church
300 W. Withrow St.

Elm Street Christian Church, the second oldest of their denomination in Ohio, was organized in 1863. The congregation (formed by I. Dieson, R. Devinney, William Brassfield, and L. Oliver) was initially small and meetings were held on North Elm Street in the home of Mrs. Gidding.

Over time the congregation grew to 50 members and more space was needed. In 1881, Mrs. Gidding’s house was moved back farther on the lot and a new church building was constructed in its place. The church burned down in 1952, though fortunately nobody was harmed.

With fundraising efforts (led by Margaret Bradley) underway to pay for the reconstruction of the church, Oxford rallied to provide assistance. The Village of Oxford offered the Municipal Building and the Masonic Lodge allowed their quarters to be used as the congregation needed. Additionally, the First Baptist Church (who had needed to use the Christian Church facilities when their church burned down just five years earlier) offered to conduct joint services within their building. In 1956, after five years of fundraising and construction, the new church opened.

Peter Bruner holding a bouquet of flowers, dressed in a top hat and a suit.O. Peter Bruner House
319 W. Withrow St.
This is a private residence.

Peter Bruner, a formerly enslaved person in Kentucky, arrived in Oxford in 1866 after freeing himself and serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. His work in town included custodial and other work at Western Female Seminary, Oxford Female College, and Miami University, as well as waiting on President Taft when he visited Miami in the early 1900s.

Bruner was well known and loved in town. He was an active member of the Bethel A.M.E Church, and is said to have given informal lectures on ethics to students sent to him by Miami University President Guy Benton. He was once named “Mayor for a Day” by Mayor Verlin Pulley, a tradition for the town’s Civil War veterans.

Bruner married Frances Proctor in 1868 and had a large family with five children. His second daughter, Carrie, to whom he dictated his life’s story for a book, died before the book’s completion. The unfinished draft was later found, completed, and titled, A Slave’s Adventure Toward Freedom.

Bruner died in April 1938 at the age of 93 and is buried in Woodside Cemetery.

P. Oxford Municipal Pool in Roosevelt Park
6192 Contreras Rd.
This property now belongs to the Oxford Country Club.

The first Oxford Municipal Pool opened in 1935 for “whites only.” A clause in the lease stated that the Village of Oxford would lose ownership of the land if anyone besides white people were allowed to use the pool. A lawyer in Dayton stated that this clause couldn’t be enforced by the courts, but the pool remained off limits to Black residents regardless.

In 1943, the Civil Committee of the NAACP (led by the president of Oxford’s NAACP Branch, Simon Miller) stated that if the pool were to continue refusing Black citizens access that it would be an infringement on their constitutional rights. However, rather than demanding integration, the NAACP attempted to keep what they called an “interracial good will” by simply asking for access to the pool twice a week. Six years later in 1949, there had still been no action taken to allow Black citizens to enter the pool, resulting in the NAACP filing a petition to admit “persons of Negro race and ancestry.” This request was denied and it was not until a year later in 1950 that the courts finally declared that the swimming pool must be open to all citizens.

Black and white photo of the old Municipal Pool with a crowd of people (all white) in the water and standing around.

Additional History

Black and white portrait of John S. Jones, from the chest up and looking stoicJohn S. Jones
Considered the best documented Underground Railroad site in the Oxford area.

Born in Butler County in 1819, John S. Jones is known to have aided his father, Jack Jones, as an Underground Railroad operator. Together they helped enslaved people escape the South through Hamilton and up to the Quaker communities of West Elkton, Ohio, as well as Richmond, Indiana.

According to the family’s oral history, enslaved people would follow the Great Miami River north from the Ohio River all the way to Jack Jones’ home in Hamilton. From there, he would direct them to follow the railroad tracks that had been laid between Hamilton and Oxford. They would eventually find themselves at the farm residence of John S. Jones on Booth Road where they’d be given refuge before the next part of their journey.

In 1852 Jones also became the first Black American to testify in a Butler County Court.

He continued to live in his farm residence on Booth Road until his death in 1898.

The Miller Family

The Miller Family has long had an important and influential history in Oxford.

Simon Miller, born in 1900 in Alabama, came to Cincinnati in 1905 and moved to Oxford with wife Lazelle Jones Miller (granddaughter of John S. Jones) in 1918. He worked on the construction of Ogden Hall at Miami University and remained at Miami University as a custodian in the Physical Education Department for forty-five years. He was an active member of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, a 32nd Degree Mason, and a charter member of the Oxford branch of the NAACP. He also served as president of the branch, leading the legal challenge to compel the village of Oxford to admit African Americans to the Oxford Municipal Pool in 1950. Miami University’s Department of Health and Physical Education for Women gave him an honorary graduate degree because of his dedication to influencing prospective drop-outs to stay in school. He died at the age of 87 in 1988.

Black and white portrait of Arthur Miller, smilingSimon’s son, Arthur Miller, was born in 1921. He was an activist from a young age, refusing to use the “colored” bathroom in elementary school. A World War II veteran, Arthur achieved the rank of Sergeant during his four years in the U.S. Army. Upon returning home, he enrolled at Miami University and received a bachelor's degree in 1949. He was the first Black American allowed to practice-teach at Miami’s McGuffey Laboratory School, and later became the first Black American to manage the university’s central food store. Arthur followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming active in the local NAACP branch and leading it as president for more than 20 years. Arthur’s many accomplishments include supporting civil rights workers during the Mississippi Summer Project, later known as Freedom Summer 1964. Additionally, he served on the Oxford Village Council for six years and was Vice Mayor for two. He died at the age of 85 in 2007.

Anna Estella Hasty

Anna Estella Hasty, born in 1876, was the daughter of Peter and Fannie Proctor Bruner. A resident of Oxford her entire life, Hasty was an early graduate of the Oxford Public School. She was an active member of the Bethel A.M.E Church and its missionary society (which, after Hasty’s death, was renamed the Estella Hasty Women’s Missionary Society). She was, additionally, a member of the Ladies’ Improvement Club and the Oxford Senior Citizens.

Shortly after 1935, Hasty became a writer for the Oxford Press, a job she continued for over 25 years. She was commended for faithfully reporting the news, often walking her reports uptown herself. Even after her retirement, she would continue to phone news to the press.

Hasty passed away at the age of 90 in 1966. She is buried in Woodside Cemetery.

LYNCHING
Simeon Garnett + Henry Corbin

We remember and honor the lives of Oxford citizens Simeon Garnett and Henry Gorbin, lynched in 1877 and 1892 respectively. In each instance, after being accused of a crime, both men were arrested by law enforcement but were later targeted by mobs and publicly lynched. In 2019, a memorial was held in the uptown parks, close by to where both men were murdered.

Acknowledgments

Information gathered and summarized by Taylor Meredith at Enjoy Oxford.

Thank you to Valerie Elliot at the Smith Library of Regional History for providing information and assistance.

For a print copy of the driving tour, please visit the Enjoy Oxford office at 14 W. Park Place, Suite C.

For more information on Oxford history, visit:

The Smith Library of Regional History
441 S. Locust St.
(513) 523-3035
www.lanepl.org/smith

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