Early Columbus, Ohio was a segregated city. Not the physically dangerous or soul sapping segregation of Birmingham, Alabama or Charleston, South Carolina or Ruleville, Mississippi, but segregated just the same. Blacks knew where they could go, what they could do.
By both income and segregation, blacks in Columbus were often forced to live in unsafe and unsanitary housing. During the early part of the 20′ century, eighty-five percent of blacks lived in five of the city’s eight wards. The poorest of them lived in a shanty town known as “The Bottoms” along the shores of the Scioto River southwest of downtown and in the area around Seventh and Main Streets southeast of downtown. Along East Long Street tenements, boarding houses, saloons and chopped up houses could be found. The latter area was known as the Bad Lands where gambling, prostitution, and drug use and abuse were rampant.
Those blacks who could afford to do so began moving away from downtown to inexpensive homes on the far north or west side of Columbus. If they remained on East Long Street, they moved much further east. Whites worked hard to keep blacks from moving near them, but because some realtors and blacks engaged in block busting, this sometimes failed. Still, blacks were concentrated on East Long Street, Ohio, Champion and Mt. Vernon Avenues. In spite of economic hard times and segregation, the 1920 census reported more than 22,000 blacks living in Columbus.
If there can be anything positive about the prejudice and discrimination that blacks in Columbus faced, it is that by the 1920’s, the East Side contained a cornucopia of businesses, churches and cultural establishments owned and patronized by black residents of all socioeconomic classes. Within four consecutive blocks were thirty establishments where blacks could shop, receive beauty and barber services, gas up and maintain their automobiles, eat, worship and bury their loved ones.
Nineteen twenty-six was seven years after the end of the war to end all wars; three years from the stock market crash; a lifetime from Pearl Harbor. It was also the year that a fight broke out between white and black teen aged boys at Columbus’ East High School. over whether the black students could participate in the social life of their own school. (The city followed a policy of neighborhood schools, and so whites who lived south of Broad Street attended East High School-located at the corners of East Broad Street and Taylor Avenue-along with blacks who lived north of Broad Street. Thus, some of the schools were racially integrated.) Tired of being rebuffed, several young black men met on the third floor of 1312 East Long Street under the sponsorship of Truman Gibson and formed their own club, christening themselves the Merry Makers. The original membership quota was set at 25; club members voted in 1958 to increase that number to 30.
There is some confusion about who the original members of the club were; there are no records from those early years. Moreover, according to a history of the Club written by Mrs. Anna Bishop, some of the young men had been members of a club organized in 1924 called the Peri Club, and this has contributed to the confusion about who the founding members were. It is known, however, that at least two founding members were the late Floyd Brown and Harold Ward. In the beginning, the Merry Makers functioned primarily as a social club, sponsoring dances and parties. Surely these activities took a lot of the sting out of not being able to participate in the social life of East High School. However, Mrs. Bishop reported that by 1936-no doubt due to the maturation process of its members and the misery of the Depression-the Merry Makers began to become involved in charitable and civic activities. During the 1930’s the Club purchased furniture for the solarium, to be used by guests and family members of patients at the Franklin County Tuberculosis Sanitarium; distributed Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets to the poor; and donated to a variety of organizations, including Charity Newsies, and the Urban League.
By the 1940’s the Merry Makers could boast that a number of its members distinguished themselves in a variety of professions. Merry Makers served in World War II-all attaining at least the rank of non-commissioned officers-on the staff of the Secretary of War, and as insurance executives, lawyers, physicians, teachers, principals, and labor leaders.
Over the years, the Merry Makers have held a variety of events to support the black community, assist the needy, and have fun. Maryland Park Pool, located on the east side, was for many years the site of beauty contests as local young ladies spiritedly vied for the title of Miss Merry Maker. Raffles-one year a new Ford Thunderbird was the grand prize!-and holiday dances have helped the Merry Makers fund their most successful philanthropic venture, that of assuring African American youth the opportunity to obtain a college education. To date, the club has raised over $200,000 which has allowed many students from Columbus’ black community to earn degrees from The Ohio State University and Columbus State Community College. Today the organization is seeking to strengthen its ties with the African American community-particularly with young people.
Perhaps the Club’s greatest contribution, however, has been the fellowship and haven it has provided black men in Columbus. Generations of Merry Makers wax rhapsodic-ally about the fellowship, camaraderie and love belonging to the group has given them. Members have seen each other through marriages, the births of children and divorces and helped one another in times of sickness. They have buried loved ones and even fellow members. Merry Makers have guided each other and the black community through what could have been crippling discrimination, the Depression, World War II, the second Great Migration, the Korean and Vietnam wars, urban renewal and the War on Poverty. The group worked to desegregate Columbus public schools and have concerned themselves with neighborhood revitalization efforts. Each member has been uplifted by his association with his fellow Merry Makers. The Merry Makers have persevered and continue to serve the community through many worthwhile charitable endeavors.
The Merry Makers have grown into a proud organization. They have become enriched by the realization that whatever gains have been made in the past or whatever gains may come in the future, is based on the real fellowship among its members and between the members of the larger community and through all the wrenching changes, they have stayed true to their motto: