Civil rights in Columbus: The Vanguard League

February 27, 2020 12:20 am

Most of us have heard the national story of civil rights. But did you know that many cities and towns across Ohio had (and still have) incredibly active local civil rights organizations? The Ohio History Connection holds the papers of one of these local organizations: the Vanguard League.

In May 1940, in the home of Mrs. Constance C. Nichols of Taylor Avenue, Columbus, Ohio, a small group of concerned community members met to discuss possible solutions for problems stemming from racial discrimination. 

A document showing the formation of the Vanguard League. Provided by the Ohio History Connection.

After deciding that they would need to organize to fight these injustices, the group pulled a piece of lined paper from a nearby notebook and put down their names as the founding members of the Vanguard League.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Ohioans were inundated with racist stereotypes that encouraged discrimination and racist attitudes. Everything from advertisements to the images on kitchen utensils and toys characterized African Americans as ignorant, aggressive, or complacent.[1]  After seeing these stereotypes every day, children were assured to learn (and adults could never forget) the supposed inferior nature of African Americans.

Backed with these negative prejudices, many businesses in Ohio refused to serve or hire African Americans. In Columbus, the black community could struggle to find accommodations such as a seat in a movie theater, a hotel room, or even medical attention. [2] As industrial jobs boomed during World War II, the best and highest paying factory jobs were always reserved for white employees, regardless of talent.

Photo of members of the Vanguard League. Photo provided by the Ohio History Connection.

In Columbus, management at most theaters barred African Americans from entry. When African Americans were allowed in, they were charged increased prices and forced to sit in the back. Even as they mistreated black customers, these theaters still maintained a profit by hiring black musicians. 

To make things even more complicated, one of the discriminating theaters did business within the majority African American neighborhood on the East Side of Columbus. Known as Club Lincoln, this was a space that the black community relied on for entertainment and as a rental space for personal events.

The Vanguard League began to file legal suits on behalf of African Americans who were discriminated against at these theaters, and the Picket Committee spent months standing outside the establishments (especially at peak hours) with any community members who could help. The Vanguard League even threatened to revoke membership in the League for anyone who attended events at Club Lincoln.

Eventually the managers of Columbus’s theaters would crumble under the weight of so many civil rights suits. On June 30, 1941, the Vanguard League’s meeting notes finally read, “theatres… opened to colored patrons. Removal of pickets.” A few days later at a meeting there would be a motion to plan a party “to celebrate our first major victory.”
Even before they had the chance to celebrate, the Vanguard League decided that the “next project” needed to be the “school situation” that had developed due to stark segregation in housing.

A map showing redlining. Provided by the Ohio State University.

Students in Columbus attended segregated and unequal schools due in part to a deeply rooted federal policy. When the U.S. government began refinancing home loans in the 1930s, a federal agency named the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) created reference maps that indicated poor investment areas in red. Existing African American neighborhoods were colored in with this red, or “redlined.” These red lines encouraged lenders to deny service to African American homebuyers.

Furthermore, white homeowners reacted violently to the risk of African Americans moving to their neighborhood and ruining home values. [3] These factors meant that African Americans were stuck in segregated portions of the city that, not coincidentally, received the least amount of city funding towards neighborhood schools.

While it would never successfully integrate Columbus schools, the League continued activities throughout the 1940s. 

One of the League’s most successful campaigns would end in securing positions at Curtiss Wright for black women. However by 1950, the League’s numbers dwindled as more civil rights organizations formed on the East Side. 

The group integrated itself into the Columbus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality and its members continued to make headlines in the city. As members spread throughout future organizations they took with them the spirit and mission of the Vanguard League that can still be seen in the neighborhood today.

For a 4-minute PBS highlight of the Columbus Vanguard League, click here.

  • [1] Ethnic Notions. Directed by Marlon Riggs. California News Reel, 1986.
  • [2] Giffin, William Wayne. African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 1915-1930. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.
  • [3] Sugrue, Thomas. “”No Right More Elemental”” In Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, New York: Random House, 2008, p. 204

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Karen Robertson
Karen Robertson

Karen Robertson is a Curator of Manuscripts at the Ohio History Connection. Karen earned her master’s degree in public history from the Ohio State University in 2015, beginning her career at the Ohio History Connection later that year. Karen’s research interests center around civil rights and social movements. Her newest full-length publication, Little Ohio, hit bookstore shelves in November 2019. Karen’s daily work can be seen in her many contributions to the Ohio History Connection History Blog.