Although Southeast Ohio may not spring to mind when considering the topic of ethnic and racial diversity, the region in fact boasts a rich history of racial integration unique to the formative years of our country. One such story arrived in the form of Chicago businessman W. P. Rend. Stories of the Underground Railroad are plentiful from Marietta to Zanesville. Athens County in particular housed such historical gems as the Albany Enterprise Academy, which provided education to both sexes and to people of all color in the mid-19th century, and the Berry Hotel (commonly referred to as the ‘finest hotel in Athens’ while owned and operated from 1892 – 1921 by Edward Berry, an African-American man.) Rend’s chapter in this tale is one of socially progressive business practices which created lasting cultural impact on a regional as well as a national scale.
Attracted by tales of vast mineral reserves and booming industry, Mr. Rend leased land from the Ohio Central Coal Company about one mile north of Corning along the newly opened train line, and named the village “Rendville.” By March of 1879 the village contained multiple small residential structures as well as a grist mill, a company store and several saloons. Rendville continued to grow, and attracted a greater variety of ethnic nationalities than any other town in the Hocking valley. The hiring practices of both Rend and the Ohio Central Coal Company contributed to this situation, which also led to early tensions and some violence. Mr. Rend’s assertion that ‘all men are the same color underground’ made equal pay regardless of race seem only logical, but his opinion was not universally held. In September of 1880, “The Corning War” became the most extreme example of that tension. With nerves rubbed raw by recent changes to wage policies and the arrival of more African-American workers, several hundred miners from Nelsonville, Shawnee and New Straitsville, as well as locals, gathered in Corning with intentions of driving out the non-white population. The Perry County Sherriff called upon Ohio’s governor who dispatched State Troopers and the Nation Guard to keep the peace. The Guard and the white miners briefly skirmished on September 19th, however no fatalities resulted. The Guard remained in the area for several more days without further incident.
As unsettling as this event must have been, the African-American community in Southeast Ohio not only endured, but also flourished. In 1881, new schools were opened in Corning and Rendville. Both welcomed racially diverse students as well as faculty. Many more remarkable accomplishments were still to come. The small town of Rendville, inspired by its namesake, became a place of many historical firsts for African-Americans in Ohio, including: The first African-American female postmaster in the United States; the first African-American mayor in Ohio; the first female African-American mayor in Ohio; the first African-American to serve on the national board of the United Mine Workers; and the first African-American to graduate from medical school in Ohio.
Today the Rendville Historic Preservation Society works to preserve the rich history of what is now the smallest incorporated town in Ohio. On Saturday, September 24th, 2016, Rendville will host an Emancipation Day celebration, the second year of reviving a long standing but recently defunct tradition. W. P. Rend’s contribution will be readily apparent this weekend in Rendville, and perhaps, in these waning days of our first African-American presidency, it may be appropriate to look for his name on one of those foundation blocks as well.
Tribe, Ivan M. Little Cities of Black Diamonds: Urban Development in the Hocking Coal Region, 1870-1900. Athens, OH: Athens Ancestree, 1986. Print.