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Our Rich History: The Black Population of Newport and Campbell County

By Chad Huggins Dunbar
Special to NKyTribune

Part 56 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

Cincinnati’s position as the largest city along the Ohio River, which formed a natural border between the free North and the pro-slavery South, made it a popular destination for runaway enslaved people fleeing the South. While many continued to travel farther north to elude slave catchers (especially after passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law), some decided to stay in Cincinnati, thus adding to the city’s Black population. Newport acted as a gateway for Blacks fleeing Kentucky for the relative safety of Ohio and the North.

Newport and Campbell County had relatively few enslaved people in the Antebellum Period. “In 1850, Campbell County had 177 slaves, about 1.3% of a total population of 13,127,” and “on the eve of the Civil War in 1860,” the county “had even fewer slaves, 115, a little more than one-half of 1% of the total population of 20,909.” It is not surprising that, “of 109 counties in Kentucky in 1860, only two others (Jackson and Johnson in Appalachia) had lower slave-to-total-population percentages than Campbell County” (Tenkotte, “Our Rich History: William Shreve Bailey was a heroic abolitionist editor, provoked ire of pro-slavery,” NKyTribune, February 17, 2020).

In 1926, a cloudburst flooded streets in Newport’s West End, home to a diverse population of working families. (Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte. )

By 1860, Cincinnati had become one of six major areas characterized by high concentrations of free Blacks, as the greater economic and social opportunities of its urban setting attracted them from areas of less opportunity and greater risk of re-enslavement. Despite objections and discouragement from White workers, free Blacks in both Cincinnati and Newport found opportunities for work in a wide array of trades, especially during times when the region was losing White workers to western migration by way of the Ohio River, thus creating labor shortages that Black workers filled.

The American Civil War had profound effects on Kentucky’s Black demographics. The overall patterns of Black residency in Kentucky after the Civil War originated from the Black workforce distribution created by the slavery-based agriculture system of the Antebellum Period, from 1812 to 1861. These distribution patterns barely changed for the remainder of the nineteenth century, but slowly began to change after that as several migration trends converged in the beginning of the twentieth century. Blacks began to move away from their plantations and owners, either moving from rural locations to urban locations, out-migrating from the state, or relocating and ethno-aggregating in other rural areas to form Black hamlets in the countryside. This dynamic could be easily observed in Campbell County, as much of its Black population departed after the Civil War.

By the 20th Century, housing in Newport was generally less segregated than the rest of Kentucky. By cross-referencing the Population Schedule for Newport’s 2nd District from the 1930 U.S. Census with the 1910 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Newport, Campbell County, Kentucky, one can easily match the addresses of Black residents with the actual houses on the city’s map. The pattern that emerges is a scattered one of racially integrated blocks and neighborhoods, in which both Blacks and Whites lived together on the same blocks rather than being divided along distinctly drawn color lines. Therefore, in terms of racial integration, Newport was considerably more progressive than much of Kentucky during the same era.

Between 1940 and 1960, the population of Cincinnati proper only grew by about 50,000, while the population of its suburbs (those in Ohio, as well as in Northern Kentucky) grew by 175,000 during the same two decades (Davies 1998, 138). By 1950, Campbell County had about 1,000 Black residents (Coleman 1956, 8). In 1960, the City of Newport had a Black population of 780, while Campbell County as a whole had 823. Thus, only 43 Blacks in Campbell County lived outside of Newport. In 1970, these numbers dropped to 761 Blacks living in Newport, with the total for Campbell County being 801.

Meanwhile, the overall population of Newport shrank from 30,070 in 1960 to 25,998 in 1970, which was an overall decline of 13.9% that decade. At the dawn of the 1970s, 2.9% of Newport’s population was Black, while only 0.9% of Campbell County’s total population was comprised of Blacks. In 1970, Newport’s Black population was concentrated primarily in Census Tracts 501 and 502, while no Blacks resided in Tracts 503, 504, and 505. The boundaries of Census Tracts 501 and 502 were roughly Washington Street on the east, 8th Street to the south, the county line between Campbell and Kenton counties to the west, and the Ohio River forming the northern boundary.

Only 66 Black families in Newport owned their homes in 1970, while 151 Black families rented their housing. Of these households, five African-American families who owned their homes lacked some or all plumbing, while four Black families who rented lacked such facilities. The majority of Black homeowners lived in Census Tract 502, while the majority of Black renters lived in Census Tract 501.

By 1970, close to 80% of Blacks in Kentucky lived in urban areas, defined as having over 2,500 total people of more (Coleman 1974, 12). That same year, Kenton, Campbell, and Boone counties had a combined Black population of 4,656 with Blacks comprising 1.9% of the population overall, which was a 3.7% drop from 1960’s numbers (Coleman 1974, 12). These three counties alone accounted for almost 87% of Northern Kentucky’s Black population.

In 1980, African Americans accounted for 3.5% of Newport’s total population, which was a 0.6% increase over the previous decade. This increase, however, was partially due to the overall population of Newport plummeting by 17% over that same timeframe. Blacks totaled only 817 in all of Campbell County, which means there were only 69 African Americans in the county who weren’t living within Newport’s city limits.

By 1990, Newport’s Black population dropped to only 645 people, which was a net loss of 103 people, or a decline of almost 13.8%. Meanwhile, there were 826 African-Americans living in Campbell County, meaning that there were now 181 Blacks living in Campbell County outside of the Newport city limits, compared to only 69 the previous decade. In their words, the growth of Campbell county’s suburban Black population was 112, translating into over a 262.3% increase in just ten years. Hence, the 1980s were the decade that Blacks in Campbell County began moving in large numbers to the county suburbs.

In conclusion, the relatively small percentage of Blacks living in Newport and Campbell County during the 20th Century reflects two trends. First, Campbell County had few enslaved people in the Antebellum Period, and the demographics after the Civil War echoed this reality. Further, after the Civil War, the proximity of Cincinnati beckoned many African Americans across the Ohio River where employment opportunities were more plentiful and where they had greater access to Black businesses, churches, schools, professionals, and community institutions.

For more information, see:

Coleman, A. Lee, Albert C. Pryor, and John R. Christiansen. The Negro Population of Kentucky at Mid-Century. Lexington, KY: Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station, 1956.

Coleman, A. Lee, and Dong I. Kim. The Negro Population of Kentucky: Status and Trends, 1970. Lexington, KY: Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Kentucky, 1974.

Davies, Richard O. Main Street Blues: The Decline of Small-Town America. Urban Life and Urban Landscape Series. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

Hurley, Daniel and Paul A. Tenkotte. Cincinnati: The Queen City. 225th Anniversary Edition. San Antonio, TX: Historical Publications of America, 2014.

Jackson, Eric. Black America Series: Northern Kentucky. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

Ulack, Richard, Karl Raitz, and Gyula Pauer. Atlas of Kentucky. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1998.

US Census, https://www.census.gov/ .

Chad Huggins Dunbar is a graduate of the MA in Public History Program at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He resides in Louisville.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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