A history of racial diversity
- Published: February 4, 2010
AFRICAN AMERICANS IN YS
This is the first in a series of articles that examine racial diversity in Yellow Springs, including its history, its current decline, and possible causes and solutions.
When Robert Harris graduated from college with a degree in physics and math, he sought an engineering job in his hometown of Philadelphia. But the year was 1952, and companies weren’t hiring blacks for professional positions.
“I walked the streets for the better part of months trying to find a job there,” Harris said in an interview last week.
When he got a job offer, it was as head of maintenance at Philco Corporation. He turned it down.
About that time, Harris was solicited by recruiters for Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. The government was hiring blacks for professional jobs, and Harris and his wife, Olga, relocated to the area so that Harris could pursue his chosen field. Initially they lived in west Dayton, but African-American colleagues at work said the family should move to Yellow Springs.
“They raved about how good the schools were,” he said.
The Harrises then moved to the village, raised their daughters, and have now lived here for more than 50 years.
It was the progressive hiring practice of Sergius Vernet that brought Orlando and Leanora Brown to Yellow Springs. Also in the early 1950s, the Browns were traveling to a new life in Chicago when they stopped in Yellow Springs to visit a relative. The relative encouraged the couple to settle here instead; unlike other small towns in the area, blacks were welcome here, he said. Within two days, Brown was hired on at Vernay Laboratories in a factory line position. But after 13 years, he aspired to more challenging work, and finished his college degree, then his masters, finally becoming a middle school principal in Springfield. The Browns also stayed in Yellow Springs to raise their family, and from the perspective of five decades on, they look back on those years as a golden time.
“It was a great time to be here,” Orlando Brown said. “There was a large black population with growing families. Everyone had good jobs.”
That robust African-American community was a fact of Yellow Springs life during the growing up years of John Gudgel, now principal of Yellow Springs High School. But things seem very different now to Gudgel, and to many other African-American villagers as well.
“I think diversity has declined,” Gudgel said, stating that he and several others started the group 365 to address the issue because “my contemporaries and I noticed a significant change.”
The census figures bear out these observations. While in 1970 the African-American population in Yellow Springs was about 27 percent of the total population — an unusually high percentage for a small midwestern town — in 2000 the number had dropped to about 15 percent. Most interviewed for this article expect that the 2010 census will show a further decline.
In fact, according to Gudgel, it could be inaccurate to speak of current African-American village residents as a cohesive group.
“I don’t know if you can say there’s an African-American community in Yellow Springs,” he said. “You can say there are African-American individuals. But the community is not as evident as it was 25 or 30 years ago.”
A unique diversity
A variety of factors contributed to the emergence in Yellow Springs of a vibrant African-American community. In the 1800s, these factors included the reputation of Antioch College’s first president, Horace Mann, as an abolitionist; the proximity of Wilberforce, established in 1856 as the country’s first private college for blacks; the relative proximity of Cincinnati, where ex-slaves crossed the Ohio River to freedom; and the relocation here of a large group of those emancipated slaves.
While Ohio outlawed slavery in its 1803 Constitution, life was by no means easy in the state for African Americans in the 19th century. Laws passed in the early part of the century forbade blacks from voting and attending public schools with whites, and blacks who wanted to settle in the state were charged $500, according to “Colored People in Greene County, Ohio,” a 1953 Antioch College senior thesis by Jennie Braddock. There were about 178 blacks in Greene County in 1830, and about 650 by 1850, according to The Color Line in Ohio by Frank W. Quillen. And while the state did not officially promote slavery, editorials in the Xenia newspaper in the 1860s supported the “colonization” movement, which advocated sending blacks back to Africa.
But an abolitionist spirit blew into Greene County in the form of Horace Mann, a former Massachusetts senator and advocate for public education, when he came to Yellow Springs in 1853 as the college’s first president.
Because Mann had made his anti-slavery views clear during his political career, it’s a bit surprising, according to Antioch College archivist Scott Sanders, that the college did not have a statement forbidding racial discrimination in its charter when it opened. That statement came about a decade later, after Mann had died.
But the evidence shows that Mann lived by his abolitionist beliefs. When the college opened, two African-American sisters attended its preparatory school. A college trustee who found out the black girls were being educated threatened Mann with his resignation unless the girls were turned away. Mann refused to back down, Sanders said, and the girls stayed.
“He stood by his ethics, even when threatened with the loss of support and money,” Sanders said.
Further south, in Cincinnati, Quakers and other abolitionists were actively helping escaped slaves find freedom after they crossed the Ohio River. One well-known Quaker, Levi Coffin, advised escaped slaves to make a home in the Springfield area due to the fertile farmland, according to Quillen.
While there were rumors of Underground Railroad activity in the village, it’s not known for sure how extensive that activity actually was, according to local historian Phyllis Lawson Jackson. One “old stone house near the mill” in Glen Helen that was thought to be on the railroad was torn down in 1900, the Quillen book says.
The single biggest factor in creating a racially diverse Yellow Springs was probably the 1862 arrival of the Conway Colony, a group of about 30 former slaves who had made a harrowing trip to freedom. The group had been brought here by Cincinnati minister Moncure Conway, the son of the slaves’ former owner, who was an admirer of Mann and his abolitionist views.
“He felt this was a safe place to bring them,” Jackson said.
The group settled in an area that is now in the Glen, near Grinnell Road. They brought with them a strong work ethic and respect for the value of education, according to Yellow Springs Historical Society board member Nancy Noonan.
While former slaves also settled in Wilberforce, they did so with the financial help and sponsorship of their former owners, according to Wilhelmena Robinson, former associate professior of history at Central State in an article “The Negro in the Village of Yellow Springs, Ohio.”
“It appears that the origin of the Negroes in the Yellow Springs area was not of the sponsored former master relationship as that of the Wilberforce settlers,” Robinson wrote. “Instead, they represented more of the free-willed, independent type who purchased their freedom with their own latent talents or escaped slavery through the aid of the abolitionists. They became an integrated part of the white community and shared in the growth and development of the area.”
The descendants of the Conway group include the sisters Naomi McKee, Isabelle Newman and Evelyn Hill, according to Jackson. Soon after their arrival, the group began a church, which is now the First Baptist Church of Yellow Sprngs.
Even if things were better for blacks in Yellow Springs than in surrounding areas, they weren’t without difficulties. While Ohio schools were officially desegregated in 1887, it took an African-American ex-slave, Si Willis, to bring the change to the village. According to Robinson’s article, the night before the school year began that year, Willis visited the homes of black parents to plead with them to send their children to the white school the following day. His plea, according to Robinson, was, “You must cease being a Negro and become an American citizen.”
Although some black parents expressed fear at sending their children, integration took place without incident, according to 200 Years of Yellow Springs, by the Yellow Springs News staff. However, a member of that group remembered that black students sat in the back of the class.
Through the years, blacks assumed leadership roles in the village, with Jeff Williams the first ex-slave to serve on Village Council in the 1880s, according to Robinson. When ex-slave Wheeling Gaunt, who had become a wealthy man, died in 1894, he left nine acres of land to the Village, which is now Gaunt Park.
Numbers rise, then fall
While life for blacks may have been better in Yellow Springs compared to surrounding communities, they still experienced a second-class citizenship in many respects. Blacks who wanted to see a show at the Little Art Theatre had to sit in the last two rows, until Antioch College and Wilberforce faculty and students staged protests in 1942 that led to integration.
Blacks and whites largely lived segregated lives at that time, according to Jackson in 200 Years of Yellow Springs.
“There was very little integration other than the public schools,” she said. “Social life was segregated. Churches were segregated.”
The push for civil rights and equality was linked to the return of servicemen after World War II, and about 200 people joined the newly-formed Yellow Springs Committee for Racial Equality, according to 200 Years of Yellow Springs. Efforts to integrate local establishments focused on Ye Olde Trail Tavern and the Glen Café. While Trail owner Pat Patton opened his doors to blacks in the late 1940s, it took a change of ownership to integrate the Glen Café. The last holdout of segregation, Lewis Gegner’s downtown barbershop, was the site of a large 1964 protest that resulted in Gegner leaving town rather than integrating his shop.
While land was largely available to blacks who could pay the price in Yellow Springs, some housing segregation remained. Many African Americans with means purchased houses in Omar Circle, developed by black businessman Omar Robinson. The new developments of Fair Acres and Meadow Lane were initially white, according to “The Negro Community of Yellow Springs,” a 1961 article in the Antioch College Record by student Peter Ackerberg.
And when Robert and Olga Harris sought housing in Yellow Springs, they were encouraged by many to buy in Omar Circle, Harris said. While a sheriff’s sale enabled him to purchase his Miami Drive home, the local bank would not provide a loan, and he had to get one through a Springfield bank.
The national civil rights movement energized the village in the ’60s, and ’70s, evidenced by an increase in black leadership. Longtime former Police Chief Jim McKee was the first African-American police chief in Ohio, according to Robinson. Joe Dowdell served as mayor, Paul Ford was a longtime school board member, and over the years Village Council included many members of the local African-American community, although generally there has been only one black Council member at a time.
Sometime between 1970 and 2000, the African-American population decline began. While the generation that moved here in the 1950s and ’60s remained, their children grew up and moved away, according to Jackson.
“The ones who are still here are all seniors, and there’s no young people,” Jackson said. “We’re sorry about that.”
This new demographic inevitably changes the nature of village life, and not for the better, according to several interviewed for this article.
“It added a sense of vitality to the community,” Gudgel said about the racial diversity in Yellow Springs when he was growing up. “It was more inclusive. A wider spectrum of voices was being heard.”