The nationwide protests spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis have brought a magnifying glass on the Midwestern city—its people, its politics and its problems. And so it was with the 2017 acquittal of the officer charged with the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith in St. Louis. And so it was with the death of Sylville Smith in Milwaukee in 2016. And so it was with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. And so it was…
And yet our concept of the Midwest—of so-called “Middle America”—remains strikingly whitewashed: one of white grandmothers making white bread, white farmers milking white cows—the overly nice, casserole-baking, country-living Midwestern people that remind us of a simpler, more “wholesome” America.
But these stereotypes wash out a much more complicated and diverse reality—or at least, two realities that very much co-exist. It’s true that much of the Midwest is indeed white and rural: only 10% of its population in 2017 was black while 81% was white. But dotting the vast pastoral landscape are a series of large- to mid-size cities, mostly post-industrial and blue collar with severe issues of depopulation, poverty and inequality. And these Midwestern cities tell a different story than the quiet countryside towns.
For example, four of the ten cities in the nation with the highest percentage of African Americans are in the Midwest. In particular, 77.61% of Detroit, Michigan’s population is black—and so is 76.48% of Gary, Indiana’s, 54.10% of Flint, Michigan’s, and 45.37% of St. Louis, Missouri’s.
And again we see the urban-rural divide. According to one count, seven of the twelve Midwestern states have a black population percentage that’s less than half that of the nation’s. The same report notes that of 1,055 Midwestern counties, almost two-thirds are over 95% white and more than half have a black population share of less than one percent. While 75 percent of the Midwest’s white population lives in metropolitan areas, the same is true for 96% of the black population.
In recent years, we’ve seen Midwestern urban centers become “revitalized” destination cities (or at least marketed as such), but the reality for people of color is often on a different trend altogether. As of the 2010 census, of the eight most segregated cities, six were in the Midwest. And that’s been a worsening trend since 1890.
To some extent, these numbers shouldn’t be a surprise. As 7 million African Americans moved north in what’s known as the Great Migration (eventually to make up around a quarter of the population of northern cities), they were met with reactive segregation, discrimination and violence—law-sanctioned and otherwise—and would eventually be hit harder than nearly anyone else by the fall of industrial America. And as more African Americans moved in, “white flight” continued out into suburbs and rural areas—something the vast openness of the Midwest allowed (and still allows) for today.
But this summary cannot possibly take into account the storm of factors that led to the two Middle Americas we see today: demography patterns, economic trends, political influence and labor industries have all shaped and encouraged divides for decades.
And these same divisions have made themselves nationally heard in recent years: rural and urban areas in the Midwest may as well be in different regions—the adjacent conservative heartland and progressive-leaning urban centers make states like Ohio swing differently each election. In one particular election, of course, in 2016, these wounds were ripped open for all to see as Americans suddenly woke up to the existence of “Middle America,” regardless of political leanings.
The Midwest narrative we usually envision—whether it’s the Corn Belt, the Rust Belt, a sea of farms or an ocean of manufacturing facilities—is arguably (or at least partly) a myth, providing incomplete truths and failing to encompass complicated stratifications and all the factors leading up to them. And most of the time, even Midwesterners don’t have to face them directly, staying safely in their own desired piece of this vast region.
So, yes, tragic events in recent years have brought to light many of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Midwest racial disparities, but in some ways the Midwest is also a product (or symptom) of ever-growing divides across the nation—increasingly extreme politics included. Yes, the Midwest has played a key role in exposing systemic problems and pushing for change, but we are at that crossroads now all across America to determine whether, at this fragile, pivotal moment, we fracture or we converge.
Because the Midwestern identity is no longer as simple as some of us would like it to be (and frankly, probably has never been). Cows and casseroles aside, our region and nation are reckoning with fundamental truths about our own identity: Who are we? Who have we been and who will we be?
Jason Mecchi and Stefan Binion contributed to this article and compilation.
Below is a timeline of moments the Midwest played a pivotal role in civil rights and race relations. It is by no means exhaustive, and gives some emphasis to events in Ohio as an example of similar happenings across the Midwest. Comment below with other notable events!
Racial tensions, protests and related notable events in the Midwest
1829: The Cincinnati riots
“Racism and economic tensions fulminated in Cincinnati, Ohio in August of 1829, resulting in white violence against African Americans over a two-week period in August 17-22. White mobs estimated at times at 200 to 300 led by Irish immigrants invaded the riverfront area where African Americans lived with the avowed intent to drive them all out of the city. The mob burned shelters and homes and assaulted a number of individuals. African Americans fought back but the attacks persuaded many in the black population to evacuate Cincinnati. A number of them emigrated to Canada to a community they named Wilberforce. Those who stayed behind attempted to rebuild their lives but experienced further white assaults in 1836 and beyond.
Causes for the violence were rooted in racial animus exacerbated by competition for jobs. Free blacks and increasing numbers of African Americans who had escaped slavery in the South arrived in Cincinnati with hopes of safety and economic opportunity. The African American population rose rapidly after the Missouri Compromise in 1820. A surge of migration from 1826 to 1829 swelled the numbers of African Americans about 10% of the city’s population. Many of the new arrivals were poor and illiterate, and had to construct flimsy shelters along the riverfronts. There they competed for wage labor jobs with poor whites and especially Irish immigrants.” – From blackpast.org
1841: The Ohio legislature enacts provision for any slave who arrives in Ohio to be free (on paper)
1863: Detroit Race Riot
“As in other Northern cities, many whites resented the government’s military draft and the blacks, largely from the South, who had arrived in town. The local Democratic newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, frequently ran articles accusing African Americans of causing various problems that mainly affected the city’s working-class whites. The newspaper promoted the idea that freedmen leaving the South would take jobs from white men which in turn contributed to heightened racial tension in the city.
Tensions in Detroit finally boiled over during the trial of William Faulkner, a mixed-race man accused of molesting two girls, one of whom was white. Even though Faulkner identified as a “Spanish-Indian” and had previously voted (at the time, only white men could vote), the Free Press and other newspapers labeled him a black man. As far as the white public was concerned, Faulkner was black and had raped a white girl…” – From Blackpast.org.
1900: Akron Riot of 1900
“On August 22, 1900, a riot erupted in Akron, Ohio that would live on to be called the “darkest night in Akron’s history.” The cause of the riot occurred the day before, on August 21, 1900, when Louis Peck, an African-American, was arrested for assaulting six year old Christina Maas, who was white. Peck was caught the next morning and confessed to the crime. That evening, a mob started to form in the city streets with the intention of lynching Peck for his crime. City buildings were burned to the ground, two young children were killed in a crossfire of bullets, and the National Guard was eventually called in to restore order to the city.” – From the Ohio History Connection
1916-1970: The Great Migration(s)
White supremacy in the rise again in the south during post-Civil War Reconstruction era, more and more black Americans moved north, seeking better economic opportunities. When the migration began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. By the time it was over, in the 1970s, 47 percent of all African-Americans were living in the North and West. A rural people had become urban, and a Southern people had spread themselves all over the nation.
July 27, 1919: Chicago Race Riots
“On July 27, 1919, an African-American teenager drowned in Lake Michigan after violating the unofficial segregation of Chicago’s beaches and being stoned by a group of white youths. His death, and the police’s refusal to arrest the white man whom eyewitnesses identified as causing it, sparked a week of rioting between gangs of black and white Chicagoans, concentrated on the South Side neighborhood surrounding the stockyards. When the riots ended on August 3, 15 whites and 23 blacks had been killed and more than 500 people injured; an additional 1,000 black families had lost their homes when they were torched by rioters.” – From History.com
1943: Race Riot in Detroit
“On June 20, 1943, more than two hundred black and white individuals engaged in racially-motivated fighting on Belle Isle. Though police quelled the violence by midnight, tensions soared and later that night, two rumors led to incendiary action on both sides. African Americans at the Forest Social Club in Paradise Valley were told that whites had thrown a black woman and her baby off of the Belle Isle Bridge. They formed a furious mob and moved near Woodward, breaking windows, looting white businesses and attacking white individuals.” – From the Detroit Historical Society
1959: Ohio Civil Rights Act of 1959 passed, Ohio Civil Rights Commission created
June 3, 1963: United Freedom Movement formed in Cleveland
1966: Hough Riots in Cleveland
“The HOUGH RIOTS, 18-24 July 1966, were a spontaneous outbreak of violence characterized by vandalism, looting, arson, and sporadic gunfire. Although there had been racial disturbances earlier in the summer, these events proved to be more serious and widespread. The riots were sparked by a dispute over a glass of water at the Seventy-Niners Cafe at Hough Ave. and E. 79th St. on the evening of 18 July, which escalated until the police were unable to deal with the situation. As the crowd grew larger, rock throwing, looting, and vandalism gradually spread throughout the HOUGH area. The following evening the violence was repeated, with fires set in the area as well as reports of sniper fire.” – From Case Western Reserve University
September 1, 1966: Dayton Ohio Uprising
“After the long hot summer of 1966, tensions boiled over in the West Side of Dayton, Ohio. After the murder of an innocent African American man, the community rioted against their treatment by the city government and the local police force. In the midst of the Civil Rights movement, citizens felt they needed to voice their opposition against the blatant housing segregation they have experience, that has resulted in their children attending poorly funded, predominantly African-American, public schools. As well as the awful prejudices by their white neighbors, the local police, and racial groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, that resulted in violence towards African American West Daytonians. The combination of these factors fueled the spark of the Dayton Race Riot of 1966, a riot that still has lasting consequences on the City of Dayton.” – From Dayton Area History.
1967: Detroit Riots
“The 1967 Detroit Riots were among the most violent and destructive riots in U.S. history. By the time the bloodshed, burning and looting ended after five days, 43 people were dead, 342 injured, nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned and some 7,000 National Guard and U.S. Army troops had been called into service.” – From History.com
2001: Cincinnati Riots
“The Cincinnati Riot was a four-day period of civil disorder that occurred in response to the shooting death of nineteen-year-old Timothy Thomas by Cincinnati Police Patrolman Stephen Roach. Officer Roach was attempting to arrest Thomas for traffic citations. The riot mostly took place in the Over the Rhine neighborhood near downtown Cincinnati, Ohio between April 9 and April 13, 2001. The riot was the largest urban disturbance in the United States since the 1992 Rodney King Riots and caused an estimated $3.6 million in damage to 120 businesses and public buildings.” – From Blackpast.org.
2014: Ferguson & St. Louis Protests
“The Ferguson Unrest and Ferguson Riots were a series of several riots and protest triggered by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American, in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, U.S. by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, on August 9th, 2014. Exact details on the incident remain uncertain and continue to be disputed. Some accounts report that Brown made no threatening movements towards the officers while others state that Brown charged at Wilson and attempted to take Wilson’s firearm. The police claimed that Brown was a suspect in a nearby store robbery and that the items had been spotted in his possession, prompting their action. Some witnesses said that Brown put his hands up and others said that he ran for his life. The conflicting accounts were the subject of much controversy in the following days. Several peaceful protests occurred in addition to incidents of looting and violent unrest. In anticipation of violence, a curfew was established in the area and riot squads were deployed.” – From Blackpast.org.
2016: Milwaukee Protests
“On the afternoon at 3:30 p.m. of Saturday, August 13, 2016, in the Sherman Park area of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a 23-year-old black man, Sylville K. Smith, was shot and killed by a 24-year-old black police officer. Smith, along with another 23-year-old male, were pulled over by two officers. They then fled from the vehicle, causing an on-foot chase. During the chase, Smith turned around toward one of the officers while holding a handgun. Smith was told to drop then gun, and, when he didn’t, the officer shot and killed him on the scene.
Hours after the shooting and killing of Smith, a crowd of at least 200 people and 150 police officers gathered in the streets of the Milwaukee neighborhood in an outrage to protest the death of Smith. Protesters became violent in their interactions with the police officers dressed in riot gear at the scene. Objects were thrown at police and their cars, striking an officer in the head who was transported to a hospital to be treated. Some police vehicles were set on fire. Windows of nearby buildings were smashed.” – From Blackpast.org.
2017: St. Louis Protests
“…a judge in St. Louis found Jason Stockley, a white former St. Louis police officer, not guilty of first-degree murder in the death of a black man named Anthony Lamar Smith. Smith was shot and killed by Stockley after a high-speed chase in 2011. Throughout the weekend, groups of protesters took to the streets of St. Louis, voicing their anger with the decision. At night, as most of the peaceful demonstrators dispersed, others took their anger out on police cars and nearby businesses, smashing dozens of windows. More than 80 arrests were reported on Sunday alone.” – From the Atlantic.
2020 [ongoing]: Killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis & subsequent global protests“In eight days of national civil rights protests surrounding the death of George Floyd and race-based police practices, 62,000 National Guardsmen have been deployed while over 4,400 people have been arrested as protests occur in all 50 states…” From Forbes.
This list is for educational purposes and is not meant to be comprehensive. Have more to add? Comment below.