Diversity gap creates social divide
- Published: February 11, 2010
AFRICAN AMERICANS IN YELLOW SPRINGS
This is the second in a series of articles that examine racial diversity in Yellow Springs, including its history, its current decline, and possible causes and solutions.
When Isabel Newman graduated from Bryan High School in 1943, Antioch Bookplate President Ernest Morgan hired her to work for the company. Soon after, he sent her to a six-week course at the Mergenthaler linotype school in New York, and upon her return, she worked for the company for over 40 years, retiring as a manager. At that company, whose president actively promoted racial integration, she recalled that typically a fourth of the employees were minorities. The support for a racially diverse staff appeared to be the same at Vernay Laboratories, where two of Newman’s sisters worked, Yellow Springs Instruments and Antioch College, the place that bred all three companies and their socially minded leaders.
Compared to that time of proactive support for a diverse community, Yellow Springs has changed quite a bit, Newman said.
“I really think that Ernest Morgan did an awful lot for blacks in this community, and I hold him in the highest regard,” she said. “He’s the kind of person we just don’t have around anymore.”
If diversity and racial equality were once some of the attributes that made Yellow Springs unique, the community has become less unique over the past four decades. The population of people of color in the village has dropped, as has the percentage of minorities who own or work at local businesses, teach in the schools, serve on the boards of local organizations and participate in the leadership of the community, according to villagers interviewed for this article. The reasons are various, but the effect on the community, according to some, has been alienating, especially for African Americans.
Villagers who have been involved with groups addressing issues of diversity and human rights, such as The 365 Project, Village Human Relations Commission, and African-American Cross Cultural Works, cited the many ways in which the change has affected them and the community at large. And most agreed that increased dialogue, both as a way to get to know each other and as a step toward resolving the issues, would go a long way toward meeting the community’s needs.
Fewer blacks, greater gaps
While the population of African Americans in the village rose from 15 percent in the 1950s, according to Jeanne Higginbotham’s student research, to 27 percent in 1970, the community’s nonwhite population had dropped back to 15 percent by the year 2000, according to the U.S. census figures in the Village Visioning report. The drop in numbers of African Americans in the village has been accompanied by a growing gap in educational achievement and what some perceive as the standard of living between black and white residents.
Village natives Jocelyn Robinson and Robin Jordan-Henry, both of The 365 Project, remember growing up in the ’70s with many active black role models as community leaders, coaches and teachers who taught about black history in the schools. Many of them had moved to the village as employees of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Antioch College or one of the local companies, and they were educated, middle class black families, Robinson said, who sat on the school board and Village Council, wrote for the Yellow Springs News, taught at the college and helped make decisions that affected the direction of Yellow Springs. Jim McKee was the chief of police for 34 years, Randall Newsome, Hazel Latson and Earl Holliday were school principals, and the Village traditionally employed many black residents.
Long-time village resident Newman remembers a time in the 1950s when the African-American community was more active in general with supporting black candidates for public office and getting African Americans to vote. Village resident Teresa Bondurant-Wagner recalled that in the 1970s when her family moved to Yellow Springs to live on Omar Circle, “We thought we hit the jackpot.” Not only did she feel “a huge African-American presence” in town, she also remembers as a high school student that both black and white students were actively united by cultural tastes and social events.
Bondurant-Wagner left the village for a time and came back with her husband, Lee, to raise their family here. While she loves Yellow Springs and finds that both she and her children feel at home here, she is concerned about the sheer drop in the number of African-American families living in town.
“I feel sad for my children, who are sometimes the only two African-American children in their classes,” she said. “They are missing out on the melting pot we had here.”
In addition to lower numbers, there are also fewer black leaders in visible positions of influence in the town, Village native Wayne Baker said. It is especially noticeable in the reemergence of Antioch College that there are so far few black leaders involved at an institution founded in social justice, he said. He notices every day the lack of black business owners and patrons downtown. Though currently Winburn Janitorial Services, Keahey Graphics, Rita Caz and YS Shoes and Things are owned by African Americans, there was recently also Lang’s Beauty Shop, The Gypsy Café and Pyramid Books, which have closed or moved out of town. And the local business advocacy group, the Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce, appears to Robinson to be nearly exclusively an all-white crowd, she said.
Baker believes that many of the African Americans he used to see downtown have retired or moved away, and very few are left to fill that void, he said.
“You know the black population has decreased even without seeing the numbers because you just don’t see the faces anymore,” he said.
In addition to a drop in numbers, Robinson perceives that African Americans in Yellow Springs as a cohort are less affluent than that group was 40 years ago. As the nation went into its most recent economic recession, African Americans suffered more intensely, including those in the village, she said. And often residents with reduced incomes don’t have time to serve on boards and get involved in the community in between jobs and caring for their families, she said.
Another vulnerable group is the youth, whose disenfranchisement is most evident in the achievement gap in the local schools, where African American student performance is markedly below that of other groups. An article in the July 20 issue of the News reported that at Yellow Springs High School, the 2008–09 graduation rate for black students was 80 percent, compared to 90.5 for white students. And while African Americans make up about 30 percent of the overall student body, from 2005 to 2008 an average of just 10 percent of those enrolled in advanced placement courses were African American.
Effect of change on community
Last year HRC and Village Council member John Booth interviewed groups from the Central Chapel A.M.E. and First Baptist Churches in town about their concerns regarding the African-American population in the village. Those groups cited the displacement of African Americans who cannot afford to live in Yellow Springs by wealthier white residents; the lack of black leaders and role models; and the unwillingness of police to handle issues locally through community court, Booth said.
Booth is also aware of several complaints from black residents who have appealed to property owners for flexibility on lease agreements and have been given no slack. In the discussions he has had, the complainants call it discrimination, he said.
“The perception here is that African Americans are content, but people would be surprised,” he said. “Some feel there’s almost an organized attempt to make African Americans not want to stay here.”
Reduced participation in community events can mean a loss of voice and representation, which is what Robinson feels may have occurred during the most recent Village visioning efforts. In November when the Village asked residents to give input on their needs for the future of Yellow Springs, a very low percentage of African Americans participated. The Village then organized a special session by invitation for a group of African Americans, including Robinson. But when the community’s views were collated and the final summary presented back to residents the following month, Robinson felt that most of the views expressed in her group were not represented.
In a manner that feeds on itself, less representation of people of color leads to less participation from that group, many of whom feel that their voices will not be heard, Robinson said.
Baker echoed that sentiment. “It’s sad when you’re not as diverse as you think you are, and the people who are still around don’t feel a sense of being included,” he said. “It’s like you’re on the outside looking in, and it can be hard to connect with the community.”
Racial tension in the village can also be connected to a loss of voice for some black villagers who have complained about feelings of discrimination by both the police and the Village government. According to Booth, one person felt that he was not given due consideration for a position with the Village. And six or seven villagers have lodged complaints with the HRC against the local police and the Greene County ACE Task Force for incidents involving unfair targeting and raiding of African-American homes without just cause, which HRC member Joan Chappelle said so far in HRC’s investigation did not appear to indicate police misconduct.
Altogether, these things create a disadvantage for African Americans with regard to “participation, engagement and visibility,” said Chappelle, who is an active participant with The 365 Project.
Reasons for culture gap
Among the causes for the drop in diversity, several residents said, are the high cost of living in the village coupled with increased receptiveness toward minorities in surrounding communities. Along with the high cost of housing and property taxes, the lack of jobs and public transportation affects the ability of younger people, especially black families, to afford living here as well, Booth said.
A lack of critical mass of African Americans in town draws fewer to the village, a trend which is reinforced by the lack of marketing specifically designed to draw black residents and business owners into town, according to Jordan-Henry. In addition, there is a tendency within the black community to gravitate toward more popular and commercial culture and entertainment, while traditionally Yellow Springs has tended to support more counterculture art and events, she said. The village then gets labeled from the outside as a predominantly white, bedroom community whose atmosphere is not very welcoming to blacks, she said.
Newman has noticed that the community has become more anonymous, and that people are less friendly than they used to be. With new people moving into the community who aren’t necessarily sensitized to the Antioch style of an engaged community or the history of early integration in the village, people know each other less and appear less willing to get to know each other too, she said.
Villager Charles Scott, who went to Wilberforce in the 1960s and then moved to Yellow Springs to work for Vernay, was at first drawn into the community activism and practice of peaceful demonstration. But raising a family and running a contracting business here, he has perceived a lack of willingness to talk about religion. A member of the Assembly of God Christian Center on Dayton-Yellow Springs Road, Scott feels that the only way to achieve a truly unified community is to honor Jesus and his ways as the source of justice for all the world’s problems.
Feeling less connected to and therefore less engaged in the community at large, both Newman and Scott have turned their attention to their church organizations, where they feel their hearts now lie.
Perhaps part of the reason African Americans used to be more active in the civic life of Yellow Springs was because they had to be to get their civil rights met in areas of housing, education and jobs, Newman said. But while the victories in the 1970s may have gained African Americans official equality under the law, according to Robinson, the institutional discrimination based on history, habit and popular images has contributed to a decline in diversity and a lack of parity in standard of living between white residents and their less affluent black counterparts. The issue plagues Yellow Springs especially because its reputation as an integrated and socially activist community belies what is really going on. Believing that issues of racial discrimination are behind them, people tend to become complacent, “opiated,” she said, adding that villagers have lost their awareness of the continued disparity between the white and black communities in Yellow Springs.
“I don’t believe utopia is in our future, but I believe we have to acknowledge the experience that other people have and not make assumptions about others,” Robinson said. “So let’s talk about what’s the most appropriate way to address it.”
African-American Cross Culture Works has been addressing the issue of diversity and unity from a celebratory approach for nearly 20 years, and current leader Faith Patterson intends to keep on doing more, she said. Recent annual events include Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Kwanzaa, International Day, the Martin Luther King Day march, Blues Fest, and this summer’s new Roots Fest and Juneteenth, a commemoration of the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation of 1865.
The 365 Project leaders are also working to create more community dialogue through programs such as the upcoming Elaine Comegys Black Film Festival and the leadership workshops Wright State Bolinga Center Director Dana Patterson continues to hold for YSHS students. The 365 Project is close to receiving official nonprofit status so that it can begin to fundraise and host leaders to facilitate “courageous conversations” in the community.
Race isn’t something that Karen Durgans thought much about before joining The 365 Project, she said. But she found that systemic racism exists and that in order to produce any change, residents must first understand the subtle but deep differences that divide them. According to Courageous Conversations, the guide that members of The 365 Project are using to promote race dialogue in the community, issues as insidious as communication styles impact interpersonal trust. According to the book, for example, whites speak in a “task oriented” manner, while blacks speak in a “process oriented” manner, which can lead to miscommunications and subconscious divisions, Durgans said.
“Our ways are so different, and people can be really sincere in trying to bring about change in the community, but if they’re not trusted in the black community,” it won’t be a lasting solution, she said.
Sometimes, according to Booth, behavior that appears racist is merely insensitivity or ignorance of the history of oppression that continues to disenfranchise African Americans. Creating ways to interact and talk with each other more is Booth’s solution to all of those issues as well. Without direct and personal connections with people of other cultures, we tend to operate on stereo-types based on the few individuals we know, or worse, the images we’ve seen on television, he said. Booth hopes dialogue can get community members to understand the idea, “If you took the time to know me there’s no way you could hate me — you might not like me, but there’s no way you could hate me.”
Yellow Springs may still be a desirable place for people of color to live and raise families, if they can afford it, Patterson said. And while others work to resolve the affordability issue, she plans to remain focused on bringing people together to understand and appreciate their differences.
“There are problems in anything you do, but it’s how you work to solve them in my opinion,” she said. “Ask yourself, ‘What are you doing to make a difference?’”