One of my all-time favorite collections at the Ohio History Connection has always been the papers of the Vanguard League. This organization was formed on Columbus’s Near East Side in the early 1940s with the mission of eliminating discrimination against African Americans in the city.
Imagine my excitement when I recently had the opportunity to meet with Constance Curtis Nichols’s niece and nephew to discuss her life and the Vanguard League. They have very kindly donated a new collection of papers and photographs to the Ohio History Connection. Forty-two years after the initial donation of the Vanguard League Papers, we have the opportunity to add new information to the collection. This is very exciting news.
Constance, circa 1940.
Here’s a little look at what I have learned about Constance Curtis Nichols this week.
Constance Jean Curtis was born and raised in Marietta, Ohio. Her father was a barber, and as she later said, “a very progressive thinking man.” He sent his children to college, and Constance in particular wanted to go to business school, an uncommon choice for women at the time. She initially applied to Marietta College however, as she later recalled, “The president of Marietta college came to my house and told my father they didn’t take any black people. Right then and there my father started organizing people to do something about prejudice in the schools.”
Constance ended up at the Ohio State University, in the School of Business, from 1927-1931. She was one of the only women in her class, and the only black woman. She was not allowed to live on campus and had to travel across town to her classes every day, like all black students at OSU at the time. While at Ohio State, Constance was a member of the Inter-Racial Council, and during the 1930s she began organizing for the Democratic Party and the NAACP.
As the story goes, in 1940, Constance Nichols and aspiring lawyer Frank Shearer were both working for Joe Ferguson, the State Auditor. The two had become friends, and they went together to see Grapes of Wrath one night at the Ohio Theatre. Black moviegoers were not allowed to buy tickets at this theater, however Connie was able to “pass” and buy two tickets.
An employee at the theater noticed Frank Shearer and stopped the two friends from entering. The police were called to settle the situation. Having anticipated this reaction, Frank and Constance had brought a copy of Section 12940 of the Ohio General Code which makes discrimination in public places illegal. The police had to let the pair into the theater, but the manager commented, “Don’t let this be a precedent.” In reply Constance said, “Brother, you don’t know what a precedent this is going to be.” Not long after this incident, the Vanguard League was formed at Constance’s home.Around 1950, the Vanguard League disbanded, but that was not the end for Constance Nichols. She remained very active in the Columbus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), ran for city council, wrote for various newspapers, and was appointed to the Columbus Human Relations Committee (and these are only a few of her accomplishments).
In 1947, Constance and her husband opened their own successful business, Curtis and Nichols Business Service. It was here that Nichols put her business degree to great use while continuing to give back to the community.
Despite her interest in business, Constance also had a creative side. She wrote plays and poems throughout her life. In 1980, her poems won her first prize in a competition at the state fair. Constance even wrote a poem that was read at her own memorial service.There is so much that we can learn from the remarkable life of Constance Curtis Nichols. She is an important figure in Columbus history and Ohio history. I am very excited that her accomplishments will be preserved for future generations at the Ohio History Connection.
Constance winning an award, circa 1965.