Washington Gladden Social Justice Park hosts a birthday celebration for Rev. Dr. James Preston Poindexter, the 'Martin Luther King of the 1800s'

When Reita Smith speaks of Rev. Dr. James Preston Poindexter, she doesn’t just mention the 19th-century religious leader and trailblazing abolitionist’s accomplishments, of which there are many. To Smith, the legacy of Poindexter is personal.

“My great-great-grandfather was on the Underground Railroad, as well as his son, my great-grandfather, and they were friends with Rev. Poindexter,” Smith said. “He married my grandparents right there on Hawthorne Avenue. … He was a part of my family, and he affected my family personally. My passion runs deep.”

Poindexter died in 1907, and in 1940 he became the namesake for one of the first public housing projects in the United States here in Columbus as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The housing complex’s opening was so momentous that Roosevelt himself came to dedicate the village. “My older sisters can remember that day when he came. They're in their 90s now,” Smith said. “The village ended up being a symbol of what Poindexter provided, and that was a sense of hope for everybody.”

Smith also lived in Poindexter Village for a time in the 1950s, but over the ensuing decades the complex fell victim to crime and decay, and in 2013 the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority began demolishing the buildings. Smith, the founding chair of the James Preston Poindexter Foundation, and others rallied to save two of the village’s North Champion Avenue structures, which are currently being rehabbed to house a museum and cultural center.

The completion of that project is still “two years out, at least,” Smith said, but state Sen. Hearcel Craig recently introduced Senate Bill 192, which seeks to designate the buildings at 290 N. Champion Ave. as a state historic site. (“Poindexter Village represents the birth and history of public housing in this country and reflects Ohio’s place in the national story of the Great Migration,” the bill states.)

In the meantime, Smith and others continue to celebrate the life and impact of Rev. Poindexter, whom she described as “the Martin Luther King of the 1800s.” Saturday, Oct. 26, would be the statesman’s 200th birthday, and to honor the occasion, several organizations are partnering to hold a celebration at 11 a.m. with music, food, and representatives from the James Preston Poindexter Foundation, Ohio History Connection, Second Baptist church, Columbus Landmarks and Washington Gladden Social Justice Park (404 E. Broad St.), where the event will be held. (The rain-out location will be next door at First Congregational Church.)

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Smith said Poindexter, who was pastor of Second Baptist Church and the first black member of Columbus City Council, was known far and wide for his honesty and integrity, and he hasn’t gotten his due in the history books. Poindexter was of African, Native American and European descent (“He represented all of this country,” Smith said), and his influence reached far beyond his Downtown address on the Underground Railroad.

“He was right across the street from the state Capitol, so he had the ear of many politicians, [some of whom] became presidents,” Smith said. “It wasn't just Columbus; it was statewide and nationally.”

Smith hopes Saturday’s birthday celebration for Poindexter and the forthcoming museum and cultural center will help bring to life the names from history that some in Columbus may know only in passing. “A lot of people look at the pictures on the wall on Long Street [along the bridge], but there's no explanation of who they are. So we have to tell the story of all of our individuals that have meant something and are part of the legacy of this community,” she said. “And we have quite a story to tell.”