The Fight for Fountain Square

Fountain Square in Downtown Cincinnati, May 1973 (U.S. National Archives)

The intersections of race and place lie at the heart of my ongoing DOCUMERICA series for Black Perspectives. Through the work of photojournalists such as John H. White and LeRoy Woodson, who were among the handful of African Americans who contributed assignments to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) landmark photography project, we have seen how these forces combined to shape the lives of African Americans in locations such as Chicago and Birmingham during the 1970s. As it had done throughout the nation’s history, race continued to play a major role in determining where African Americans could and could not reside. By extension it influenced their proximity to environmental hazards such as air and water pollution, alongside more generalized issues such as substandard housing, crime, and the impact of urban renewal.

By protesting such issues, even as they worked to carve out lives in often inhospitable environments, Black urbanites laid claim to their neighborhoods and their cities. Such contestations occurred against the backdrop of ongoing urban change and the rise of majority Black cities. The poster-child for this shift was the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., which became a majority Black city in the aftermath of World War II. However, as American funk band Parliament famously declared, by the mid-1970s there were “a lot of chocolate cities around.” As the racial demographics of major urban centers across the country continued to shift, prominent public sites and thoroughfares became key markers of this cultural and racial shift. Consider the opening to Gordon Parks’ iconic 1971 blaxploitation film Shaft, which opens with the title character walking through traffic in Times Square. This sequence was a microcosm of the city’s broader transformation, with the Black population in New York City rocketing from around six percent in 1940 to more than twenty-five percent by 1980.

In the midwestern metropolis of Cincinnati, Fountain Square was a key point of convergence. The square has remained the symbolic center of the Queen City since 1871, when the Tyler Davidson Fountain was dedicated. By the mid-twentieth-century, Fountain Square had become the default downtown setting for major rallies and public gatherings. In 1964, the “Plan for Downtown Cincinnati” detailed how the transformation of Fountain Square would help to underpin the “reconstruction” of downtown. Completed in 1971, this project helped to re-cement the Square’s importance as a gathering space and community focal point.

The redevelopment of Fountain Square occurred against the backdrop of continued postwar Black migration and white flight that transformed the city’s demographic makeup. Between 1940 and 1970 Cincinnati’s Black population increased by 226 percent. During the same period, its white population decreased by 12 percent. Prior to the 1940s, the meetings held at Fountain Square and the people who congregated there had been predominantly white. However, by the time that Tom Hubbard began his DOCUMERICA assignment in 1973, this balance had shifted.

Hubbard made Fountain Square the focal point for his DOCUMERICA assignment, which he shot during the spring and summer of 1973. Born in the early 1930s, Hubbard worked as a local television director in Norfolk, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia, before making the switch to newspaper photojournalism. In 1966 he relocated from the South to Ohio to work for the Cincinnati Enquirer. By the time the EPA came calling, Hubbard was well acquainted with Fountain Square, believing it to be the ideal location from which to capture the Queen City’s “social and cultural life.”

Through his DOCUMERICA assignment, Hubbard cataloged the different ways in which Black Cincinnatians had embraced Fountain Square by the early 1970s. This included participation in events such as “D’Aug Days,” described by Hubbard as “a month-long festival of arts presented to, for, and sometimes by, the people.” One striking image features a Black dance group leading a banner parade with conga drums. Another photographer features two Black men—“far-out style setters”—enjoying music by the Fountain Square Band.

Beyond annual festivals or one-off music events, Hubbard’s photographs offered a reflective and, at times, deeply intimate portrayal of “a public square that works for the city and its people in a myriad of ways.” For Black Cincinnatians, Fountain Square was a space to hang loose and shoot the breeze, meet for a date, or simply find a quiet spot to relax amid the hustle and bustle of modern urban life. Such images are a reminder that, in a city where many majority-Black neighborhoods continued to lack public facilities or dedicated meeting spaces, Fountain Square was a key site of Black community and cultural exchange.

In turn, Hubbard’s photographs help to make concrete the demographic shifts that continued to re-shape Cincinnati, and many other American cities, into the 1970s. In one image, three white people sit on a wall along one side of Fountain Square, where they are flanked by Black people on both sides. Whether by accident or design, the subtext of Hubbard’s photograph is hard to ignore. For some whites, the present of Black people in Fountain Square was an unwelcome intrusion, and these resentments endured. During the 1990s the Ku Klux Klan erected crosses in Fountain Square on an annual basis, maintaining the square’s longstanding role as a staging ground for white backlash. Conversely, in a city with a long history of anti-Black racism and civil rights activism, the simple act of inhabiting Fountain Square carried significant political ramifications. Hubbard’s images articulate this political potency and the racially charged politics of urban space.

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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.