466 McMicken / by Leigh Wells

While living in Cincinnati a friend introduced me to a used book palace hidden away near the downtown/OTR area. This palace was an old multi-story home chock-full (attic to basement) of books. It was run by a retired math teacher who opened the place to people when he felt like it and served the occasional espresso on the concrete patio out back. I was lucky enough to catch it open a few times.

During one of these trips to the house in the sometimes oh so hot summers in the valley of the seven hills of Cincinnati, we passed a family hanging out on their porch playing cards and drinking cold beers. The house was nearly empty of furniture but full of life. I can't remember how the conversation started, but they invited us to join them. It was a lovely afternoon talking about life in Cincinnati, eating hot dogs, and drinking ball cups full of beer.

The Cincinnati Race Riots were in April of 2001. Depending on who you asked at the time, there had been between 13-17 unarmed, African American men wrongfully killed by Cincinnati police. Some estimates put that number closer to thirty. The death of Timothy Thomas was the beginning of the riots in 2001. In 2002, especially around the anniversary of Timothy’s death, you could feel tension buzzing in the pavement. Dissatisfied with lack of change and discussion over the previous year, protesters marched downtown. It was around that time, that I met the family at 466 McMicken on their porch enjoying a summer day. 

There were two goals for me while working on this project; one was simply to learn about the life of a family that was not mine. The second goal was to use the visits and photographs as a way to talk about racial tension in Cincinnati, even if it was only for a way for those involved to have a conversation.

It's hard to assess how the images I took measure up to those goals. Reflecting on this series now with a greater (though still growing) understanding of how poor black American family stories have been so misrepresented and abused in the name of the unending wars on crime and drugs...especially inner city families like those living in Over the Rhine, I hope that others will tell real family stories of black America with dimensionality and humanity, that storytellers will combat the stereotypes maintained and validated by biased policy and procedure.

The family at 466 moved to Atlanta last I heard. I'm hoping they found a community that had something more to offer than the one we lived in.