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Black History Month in Ohio: Benjamin Arnett

A pastor-turned-politician uses his powerful voice to overturn Ohio's racially discriminating "Black Laws."

CLEVELAND — Ohio holds the distinction of being one of the first states in the Union in which slavery was not legal. However, racial discrimination was still entrenched in Ohio's justice system and laws from the very beginning. 

Early on, the General Assembly passed legislation, in 1804 and 1807, intentionally designed to discourage Black people from moving to Ohio and to discriminate against anyone of African descent. 

Black people in Ohio could not vote, hold office, or serve in the state militia. They could not testify at trial against a white person or serve on a jury. Ohio required Black people to file a $500 bond before settling in the state. They must also prove that they were not slaves, when applying for a job. And Black children were prohibited from attending public schools. 

That is, until a pastor turned politician, used his powerful voice to strike down Ohio's so-called "Black Laws."

The church brought Benjamin Arnett from Pennsylvania to Ohio, but the political arena is where the pastor made his greatest impact. 

While a pastor at the Allen Temple in Cincinnati, Arnett became increasingly involved in civil rights, joining the National Equal Rights League led by his good friend Frederick Douglass.

In 1885, voters elected Arnett to represent Greene County in the Ohio General Assembly. Once in office, the skilled orator quickly made an impassioned case against The Black Laws. He was particularly concerned that state law did not ensure Black children the same educational opportunities as their white peers. Arnett fought to have these laws repealed and won -- in 1887. 

His contributions in civil rights, religion and education are many. Benjamin Arnett also holds the distinction as the first Black man to serve as a foreman on an otherwise "all white" jury. 

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