Robert S. Duncanson, fresh and wide-eyed, had only been in Cincinnati for maybe a couple of months when a tense exchange took place in the Summer of 1841 in Cincinnati, in, of all places, a candy shop!
On June 25th, 1841, Cornelius Burnett, a White English immigrant who also happened to be an abolitionist, and owner of a candy store, got into it with a White man from Kentucky and a constable who were trying to arrest a mulatto man, accused of being a fugitive slave hiding out at Burnett’s candy store. The confrontation got physical and Burnet and his son injured both the constable and the White man from Kentucky, who I believe was the supposed owner of the claimed fugitive.
So, the candy store owner, Burnett, and his son, were arrested and held on $3,000 bail. A crowd formed because of this incident. Then, a white mob started breaking windows and threatening nearby houses during the initial confrontation and then another mob formed when the father and son were taken to jail. This mob tried to attack Burnett, but the sheriff had none of that. So, the father and son were safe, for a time. A third mob formed the next day to try to destroy the Burnett property, but this mob was also broken up by the Sheriff. The Burnetts were charged and convicted… of something, what the exact charges were, I’m not sure.
Here is why this incident is important, and why the conflict most likely happened in the first place (I know I’m going off into the weeds a little bit, but stay with me). In May of 1841, remember, the candy store fight took place in June) a judge made an extra-judicial comment on a fugitive slave case that stated that slaves willingly brought to Ohio were technically free because state law didn’t allow slavery. This emboldened some abolitionists in their fight, but it also increased the violence against Black people and abolitionists throughout the state.
But even before Duncanson arrived, African Americans and abolitionists had been suffering violence at the hands of White anti-Black and anti-abolitionist mobs that year. In January, in Dayton, at the court house where an abolition speech was to take place, a White mob threatened the courthouse and rioted for two days, burning down the houses of Black residences. The only ones arrested were the Black people defending themselves. Reading about so much of the violence happening in Ohio in 1841 was very distressing as I was doing the research. Another example – A Black man and a White woman (said to be his wife) were attacked in Cleveland – busting up their house and burning her with coals… In Ripley, two men broke a Black man’s skull, killing him because he had a job that paid him enough to pay off a loan to his mother-in-law who helped buy his freedom from slavery.
According to his dissertation titled, “Community Development for a White City: Race Making; Improvementism and the Cincinnati Race Riots of 1829, 1836 and 1841, by Silas Niobeh Tsaba Crowfoot, multiple stories from newspapers in New Orleans were reprinted in the Cincinnati Gazette, which called for renewed Black oppression through legislation and local customary prejudice behavior. The articles encouraged driving out the free Black people in the area and the harshest treatment for perceived insult on any Black person, free or enslaved.
Of course, reprinting these articles only fanned the flames in an already boiling social climate. And, how would these already hate-filled Cincinnatians feel knowing that the South is now dumping their free Blacks into their yard?
Several incidents occurred in which Black citizens of Cincinnati were accused of all sorts of things, from competing for jobs with White laborers, to jumping out in front of a respectable “White lady” – not assault or robbery or anything… just being there and scaring her, to theft to physical assault. And on top of everything, Southerners were calling the citizens of Cincinnati, “thieves,” for informing their Black citizens of their rights.