Benjamin W. Arnett

Benjamin W. Arnett, a free African American born in Pennsylvania in 1838, moved to Walnut Hills in 1867 to pastor Brown Chapel, the AME church organized in educator Peter Clark’s home. Arnett stayed at Brown Chapel through 1870; he occupied many pulpits in Ohio, including long service at Cincinnati’s much larger Allen Temple at Sixth and Broadway. The AME later elected him bishop, and Arnett moved in the 1880’s to Wilberforce College, the oldest Historically Black College in the county.
In 1885 Arnett won election to the Ohio State legislature from Greene County, the seat of Wilberforce. Arnett guided two signal pieces of legislation. One funded an industrial school and a Normal School (teachers’ college) at Wilberforce, saving the financially shaky college. The other required the integration of Ohio’s white schools. Arnett’s speech to the legislature, using a theme famously developed by Martin Luther King, declared “One would think that at this time of our Civilization, that character, not color, would form the line of distinction in society, but this is not the case.” Arnett’s legislative triumphs represented a high-water mark for African Americans in Ohio. Ironically, they came at the very time that Southern Jim Crow laws brought an end to progressive Reconstruction.
The Arnett Law mandating school integration in 1887 caused a split in the African American educational community in Cincinnati. Peter Clark opposed integration, arguing that it would end teaching as a career for African Americans in the city and create a hostile learning environment for the students served so well by the Colored schools. Many other Black leaders supported the legislation. Clark’s prophecy proved prescient; Gaines High School closed and Clark left Cincinnati.
During his single term in the Ohio legislature, Benjamin Arnett became friends with William McKinley. In 1896 McKinley won the presidential election; Arnett became his primary advisor on African American affairs.