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ITH WILLIAM McKinley’s 1896 election to the presidency, Bishop Benjamin Arnett became the most powerful African American in Ohio and perhaps the nation. Arnett rose from humble origins to this position by serving two constituencies, the African American community and the Republican Party. Not only did he lead two of the most important black institutions in Ohio, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and Wilberforce University, but he had spent twenty-five years organizing African Americans for the Republicans. By mobilizing both constituencies, Arnett accomplished astonishing things. In the 1880s, for example, he won election to the Ohio General Assembly from an 85 percent white county, helped pass legislation desegregating the state’s public schools, and convinced the General Assembly to provide the financial support needed to allow Wilberforce to survive. During the 1896 presidential campaign, Arnett had served McKinley and the Republicans, speaking at rallies and coordinating the campaign among African Americans. After the election, African Americans considered Arnett to be their most effective advocate with the new administration as well as the gatekeeper for blacks seeking federal appointments. Arnett looked forward to the new administration knowing that McKinley, with whom he had worked for decades, had defended African American rights at great political risk. Arnett’s high hopes gave way to disappointment. After the election, the goals of Arnett’s two constituencies—the African American community and the Republican Party—began to diverge. Seeking to heal the tensions between North and South, McKinley’s administration 14 178 Benjamin Arnett and the Color Line in Gilded Age Ohio MICHAEL PIERCE  W vantne_3rd_chap14.qxd 11/10/2003 3:32 PM Page 178 turned its back on the nation’s blacks, ignoring some of the most outrageous violations of civil rights since Reconstruction. Arnett was caught in the middle. Having devoted his career to both constituencies , he was not ready to abandon either. Like a tragic figure, Arnett was unable to please either side and fell from grace in the eyes of both. The five years of McKinley’s presidency transformed Arnett from one of the African American community’s most powerful figures into one of its most abused. Those who knew Arnett characterized him as a man driven by ambition. Writing in the late 1950s about events over sixty years in the past, the scholar and activist W. E. B. DuBois still had vivid memories of Arnett and his will to power. DuBois described him as a “ruthless politician” and a “thick-set man with a sharp, dark face, a blazing eye, a rare smile and a will to do.” Although DuBois personally disliked Arnett, who forced him to leave a teaching position at Wilberforce, he had a grudging respect for Arnett, grouping him with 179 BENJAMIN ARNETT FIG. 10 Bishop Benjamin Arnet and family. From Lucretia Newman Coleman, Poor Ben: A Story of Real Life (Nashville: Publication of the AME Sunday School Union, 1890), 132. vantne_3rd_chap14.qxd 11/10/2003 3:32 PM Page 179 the men who “with high ideals and brute force” had transformed Wilberforce into “a force in the whole nation.” Information about Arnett’s early life comes from his biographer, Lucretia Coleman, who obviously worked very closely with Arnett. Published in 1890 by the AME Church, the biography reveals as much about Arnett at that time as it does about his past. Arnett was born on March 6, 1838, in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, about fifty miles south of Pittsburgh. At the intersection of the National Road and the Monongahela River, Brownsville was an important mercantile hub for the region, and its factories built many of the keel and steamboats that worked the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Coleman did not mention how Arnett’s family earned a living, but this is hardly surprising. Because of limited opportunities, few African Americans defined themselves in terms of occupation, preferring instead to emphasize relationships with voluntary organizations, especially churches. Arnett’s parents were devout members of the AME Church. His father provided the land for the local church, served as a trustee and steward for thirty years, and taught Sunday school for twenty-five. His father was seven-eighths African American and one-eighth Irish, while his mother was six-eighths Scottish, oneeighth African American, and one-eighth Native American. Arnett was proud of his mixed-race heritage and saw it as proof of the existence of a more harmonious time when the color line was more porous. The oldest of eight children, Arnett began working as an eightyear...


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