Bricker Hall

Columbus, Ohio is the United States’ oldest and largest city that lacks both identity and history. By history, I mean a tradition of serious, researched, and documented historical writing by trained professionals, with or without advanced degrees. What passes for history in the Sunday edition of the Columbus Dispatch is not historical writing with close attention to context, relevance, and significance. At best, it is anachronistic antiquarianism.

Rooted in disconnected anecdotes, mainly discovered in old newspapers, it bears no relationship to the results of historical study and historical analysis. Let me be clear, this excludes The Ohio State University District: A Neighborhood History and The Ohio State University Neighborhoods—both vanity press publications; Ohio State University Press’ volumes on university presidents and selected decades; Ed Lentz; and the Ohio History Connection.

Underscoring my conclusion is that the city of Columbus has no history—human or natural—museum. That’s a major absence for a 225-year-old city with more than 900,000 population.

A full explanation would require at least a moderate sized historical study. Among many reasons are the city’s lack of identity whether past or present. So much is captured in the simple fact that one can never say, simply, Columbus. To be understood, one must state Columbus, Ohio.

Inseparably interrelated is that of the three major public statues of Christopher Columbus, the City’s two are in wooden crates with no plan to relocate them. Not surprisingly, the third continues to occupy its place in front of the Ohio State House in its capital, Columbus, Ohio.

Seldom recognized is Ohio State University’s Department of History’s almost 150 years of inexplicable disdain for and dismissal of local history combined with the university as whole’s long-term disinterest in its surrounding city.

The contrast with older, more prominent, and prestigious universities is stunning. Harvard, Columbia, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Michigan, as well as UC-Berkeley and UCLA professors and especially doctoral students publish fundamental studies of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and the Bay Area, and Los Angeles. Local history was not too small or lacking in significance for them. But somehow it is for OSU.

This harkens back to the fact that OSU’s original land grant lay outside the city limits. As the city grew to surround it, the university never became a “campus in the city,” an urban university, or recalibrated the relationships of Gown and Town.

With great contradiction, OSU’s private, not-for-profit, and large-scale fiscal loss leader, Campus Partners for Urban Community Development, aids private for-profit developers in building a brick wall of unattractive, unnecessary, and over-priced student apartments. (Note the confusion: “urban community.” “Partners” with private developers, not any “communities.”)

Among the many consequences is Columbus, Ohio’s disreputably ignorant and offensive relationship to its past. Recent events bring this to the fore.

Only as the City of Columbus destroys a small but important piece of its own history does it literally trip and stumble on, and now struggle to dispose of its own history. It has just been revealed publicly that private (not OSU’s excellent department only a few miles to the north) archeological excavation by “environmental consulting firm” Lawson & Associates in June and July 2022 “removed” human remains from “what was once the North Graveyard” cemetery. (Jesse Bethea, “Archeologists Unearthed 40 Graves at North Market in 2022,” ColumbusUnderground, Feb. 7, 2023)

They were preparing for construction of the grossly inappropriate 31 story Merchant Building dominating the historic North Market whose second floor was once part of City Hall.

As a lifelong resident in six cities and an urban historian, I simply do not understand the combined absence of historical memory and failure to conduct the most basic research on the site. This is failure of the City of Columbus which approved the area-crushing private development, the developer itself, the construction firm, and the “environmental consulting archeologist,” if they are in. fact formally trained as an archeologist.

Site preparation and construction have stopped until “the bones have been exhumed.” The discovery, the archeologist tells ColumbusUnderground, who broke the story, predictably was accidental but also expected: “part of a city utilities project preparing the infrastructure for Rockbridge’s imminent development….To date, we’re at about 40 grave shafts.” They range from “articulated bones to disarticulated bones to mere fragments of bones.”

Why did neither the City nor the developer or the “environmental consultant” report this to the public? Are they hiding their negligence and inhumanity? Rather than search for relevant death, burial, cemetery, and local church records, they “are waiting for osteological analysis by Dr. Cheryl Johnson, an anthropologist and co-founder of the Grave Matters Group.” The archeologist admits to knowing nothing.

Grave Matters Group is a private for-profit group, of course. Their website is boldly uninformative, but they were once featured in People magazine.

The State Historic Preservation Office is also involved as “lead reviewer for the North Market development project.” This is required by federal law. But the archeologist in charge, “a cemetery specialist,” apparently did not supervise any preliminary research or planning.

Nowhere in the reported commentary is there any sign of humane respect for the human remains. They sit in a warehouse awaiting future analysis of the “minimum number of individuals,” the MNI.  Identification and proper respectful reburial carry no weight in Columbus, or apparently other Ohio, private development. In this the City and State collude. The state archeologist comments, “There’s rumors and stories of other remains being found over time. Pretty much any time you stick a shovel in the ground out there you’re gonna find somebody.” Do they not know that it is 2023, even in Ohio?

The reporter observes, “The last time a truly professional excavation of the North Graveyard was attempted was in 2001, when a city sewer project had to halted while a team of archeologists exhumed 36 individuals from 38 grave shafts at the edge of the North Market parking lot.”

Site excavators and archeologists knew this. But once again, utilities not “specialists” encountered and uncovered the remains. The reporter concludes where they might have begun, “As the Merchant Building development progresses, whatever human remains are exhumed will ultimately be interred at Green Lawn Cemetery—reinternments that were supposed to happen 150 years ago.”

The sad, profoundly anti-historical and inhumane tale in progress stops with the director of Green Lawn: “It’s something that we always keep our ear to the ground for any kind of construction or development going on in that area, because whenever there is, we kind of expect that there’s gonna be a need for us to be involved and help be part of the solution.” Ear to the ground? Is he making death or deaf humor?

To all of these people whose comments, and actions are riddled with confusion and contradictions: anticipation and foreknowledge: why is there action but no preparation? This is not rocket science. There is little archeology or actuarial science here. But it is the Columbus Way: no respect for the living or the dead.

Only in Columbus could this “discovery” be a surprise. In any other city, there would be historical records and studies—and the practice of using them. The contractors would also have the sense—or requirement—to check local records. But not in Columbus, Ohio.

Also not well-known or publicized is that Upper Arlington built a new high school on top of a nineteenth-century African American freed persons’ burial ground. The sacred grounds were desecrated, the remains roughly relocated. The story was broken only by descendants of the former slaves who settled in the area. This is not part of the Columbus area’s almost completely missing and white-washed historical memories.

This point is baldly underscored by the recent revelation that the poorly-named state agency that substitutes inadequately for state and local historical collection, preservation, and professional display, the Ohio History Connection “has for decades disregarded federal law by holding onto the remains of more than 7,100 Native American that it should have returned to various tribes in the 1990s.” The story was broken by ProPublica, not a Columbus or Ohio news source. (Danae King, “The Ohio History Connection has over 7,100 Native American remains. Will they be returned,” Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 25, 2023)

The so-called “museum” also holds more than 110,000 funerary objects, from tools to personal possessions like jewelry and clothing, most likely buried with individuals.

The US federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 legally mandated expeditious return of human remains by all federally funded universities and museums. Despite the law, the Ohio History Center has returned 17 ancestral remains. This is less than 0.02 percent of those in its possession.

The state agency offered only muddled, contradictory comments, not explanations for its blatant misconduct. Rather than fulfilling its requirements more than 30 years late, the director of the Ohio History Connection’s American Indian Relations Division, himself a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, can only whisper, “Today the museum’s goal is to care for the ancestors’ remains, which includes minimizing their handling and avoiding their destruction, which could happen if DNA or carbon dating was used to identify them….”

Tribal leaders long asked the institution to comply. Despite its massive holdings, the History (Dis)Connection did not hire its first Indigenous employee until 2015 or begin repatriation until 2016, 26 years after the law’s enactment.

This thin justification for historical neglect, inhumanity, and sacrilege somehow does not hold for almost all other institutions who make efforts to repatriate remains, if sometimes late. Ohio is an outlier.

Sometimes, Columbus’ assaults on history are more ignorantly humorous than offensive. For example, there is the Junto Hotel opening in May on the so-called Peninsula development near COSI. It has no idea of the ideologically-tinged meanings and usage of “junto” as both left and right wing extremist and coup-plotting groups. Googling or spanning Wikipedia, let alone looking at a history or political science book or even a legitimate dictionary is far too much for private developers. The coffee shop supposedly is named for a cow.

I will not comment on the historically fictitious self-promotion of the mixed-use hotel co-developer’s—Dallas-based Makeready—claiming that it is the city’s “first independent lifestyle hotel.” Is that in contrast to a “dependent lifestyle” as in prison, reformatory, or mental institution?

East Columbus also touts a new bar room named for Teddy Roosevelt, one of the US’s worst presidents. Teddy is especially well-known for his military mercenaries, the Rough Riders, who he led in committing genocide in Cuba and the Philippines. Why does Columbus celebrate that? He did not play linebacker for the Buckeyes

Are these worthy 21st century Columbus historical markers?

I conclude with The Ohio State University whose obsession with The marks its denial of history, lack of identity, and insecurity.

OSU is Ohio’s land grant university. Its presidents, especially the out-going occupant of the second floor of Bricker Hall, repeat that incessantly as if any one did not know or could forget. But OSU officially says little to nothing about the stark fact that its campus is illegally dispossessed land of Indigenous Native Peoples.

Unlike many other institutions, large and small, prominent or not, OSU has never made a formal statement, issued a public apology, or made any amends, let alone offered reparations for this. Some faculty members, programs, and campus organizations do this, but as an institution, OSU remains out of step.

Similarly, never does OSU acknowledge that the federal Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862 set aside federal lands to create colleges to “benefit the agricultural and mechanical arts.” It was a Civil War-era act of racial and gender segregation for the promotion of industry and agriculture, not what many later called “higher education” for “the pursuit of learning.” It is no model for the so-called but now out of date “modern American university.”

Self-contradictorily, in Kristina Johnson’s ahistorical campaigns to promote OSU as “the model land grant university for the 21st century”—based on the digital technology of the 1990s—her advertising staff managed to identity a total of two female and one Black students before the early 20th century. Not all of them graduated.

If you don’t have a history, you need to fabricate it better than that. But that’s the OSU Way.

Despite years of community and intra-university requests, complaints, and pressures, the name and likeness of former president William Oxley Thompson adorn the main library with his substantial statue occupying dispossessed land at the northern edge of the Oval. Through the first decades of the 20th century, Thompson was one of Columbus leading and most outspoken supporters of racial segregation and opponent of integration before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court.

His name and likeness do not belong prominently on the state’s major public university or anywhere else in public in 2023. The statue should be moved to an indoor location and accompanied by proper historical interpretation and contextualization.

This is the same OSU whose Campus Partners by action and inaction is complicit in the destruction of the namesake University District. It removes all campus-community connective and historical character from High Street—at a financial loss.

OSU now distinguishes itself by its profit-driven, overly expansive Wexner Medical Center planning to demolish an African American historical landmark build to make room for a new, perhaps unnecessary 80-bed rehabilitation hospital on Columbus’ near east side. OSU seeks to demolish Henderson House, a landmark rooted in the city’s Black community.

The house occupies former farm land once owned by the family of US president Rutherford B. Hayes. The Henderson family made their home a social meeting place during and after segregation. In particular, they welcomed traveling entertainers including Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong among many others Black and white.

The community protests loudly.

With no history of attention to anything historical, will OSU respond? Will the a- and anti-historical City of Columbus speak up or out?

I am not holding my breath.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current; Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.