African Americans in YS

Diversity decline linked to fewer jobs

AFRICAN AMERICANS IN YELLOW SPRINGS
This is the fifth in a series of articles that examine racial diversity in Yellow Springs, including its history, its current decline, and possible causes and solutions.

If Yellow Springs has lost a significant number of jobs in the past 15 years, it follows that villagers have lost employment opportunities, which has a visible effect on an already minority African-American population. There are fewer African Americans employed in the village now than there were 30 years ago, and though there have never been a lot of African Americans who own and operate businesses in town, the current number appears to be lower than ever.

The change in employment for African Americans is no surprise for those who have seen the population of African Americans in the village drop from almost 30 percent in the 1970s to just 15 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. census. And the effect on the village is a less diverse community that cannot provide livable wages for many of those who grew up here.

African-American businesses

There was a time in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s when at any given time there were a good handful of businesses owned by African Americans in the village. In the downtown area in the 1940s, according to village native Phyllis Jackson, Mr. Riddock had a furniture refinishing business, Elmer Lawson ran a blacksmith shop on Limestone Street, James Johnson had a shoe repair shop, and Bill and Camilla Harris owned an electronic repair shop on Xenia Avenue, where Hasser’s is now. Also at that time, J.T. Harnady, the village’s black mayor, owned the Dayton Street building now occupied by the Import House and rented the space to a black barber named Mr. Pemberton. And Oliver Henry ran a grocery store at the corner of High and West Davis Streets.

In the 1950s, Jackson said, Henry Williams operated a grocery and pool hall at the same corner of High and Davis, while the Harrises built the bowling alley at the south end of town by Village Automotive, and Earl Hull ran a trucking and construction business. Lawson switched to an automobile repair shop, and Sandy Pettiford settled in about where Dark Star is and opened the first barbershop in town with two chairs, Jackson said. William Hawkins bought the shoe business from Johnson and ran Hawk Shoe Repair on Dayton Street, while Shelley Blackman ran an upscale wine and state liquor store where Rita Caz is in Kings Yard. Jason Stagner also had Stag’s Dry Cleaners on Dayton Street.

In the 1960s, Eddie Ellington took over the liquor store and made it a drive-through on Xenia Avenue, and Jake and Maxine Jones opened the Majaga Bar and Night Club on Dayton Street, near their Party Pantry at the corner of Corry and Dayton Streets. Gabby Mason also had Gabby’s BBQ at Xenia Avenue and Corry, while William Ross operated a key and lock business from his home on Enon Road, and Emmet Burkes had a barbershop.

Some of those businesses operated through the 1970s and 1980s, but shortly after Mark Crockett opened Rita Caz Jewelry Studio in 1986, Burkes, who was retiring from his business, remarked that it was strange that he and Crockett were the only black-owned businesses in town at the time, Crockett said last week, though actually Hershell Winburn began operating his janitorial service in 1981 and still has three regular employees. In the 1990s and 2000s, several businesses owned by African Americans opened and closed, including Darwin Lang’s beauty salon, Guy and Locksley Orr’s Gypsy Café, and Pyramid Books on Dayton Street, along with several individual contractors. Harvey Keahey ran a small graphic design and printing business in town for 15 years, but after a slow year in 2009, he recently decided to move his operation out of town.

Now, as in 1986, the village is back to just three businesses owned by African Americans, Rita Caz, Winburn Janitorial and YS Shoes and Things, which Pamela Noel opened in November. The village has changed a lot for Winburn, who notices not only the lack of African-American businesses but also the lack of black residents period.

“There used to be plenty of African-American businesses, and now here we are 2010 — nothing,” he said, acknowledging Crockett’s long-standing business. The number of “black folks living here is not what it used to be on High and Dayton Streets — it kinda breaks my heart because this street I live on, Stafford, there was a whole lot of African Americans living on Stafford Street all at once.”

A shrinking job pool

Part of the reason there are fewer African Americans in the village is because of a shortage of jobs, longtime resident Orlando Brown said last week. The village’s entire population has fallen by 20 percent to about 3,700 over the past 30 years, although that includes a drop of more than 1,000 Antioch College students. Over that same period the percentage of African Americans has been cut in half, partly because of a lack of jobs in the village, but also because there aren’t as many people who advocate for and look to hire African Americans like past village leaders once did, Brown said.

When Vernay Laboratories was operating full bore in the 1970s and 80s, the Dayton Street plants and the headquarters on East South College Street employed about 500 to 600 people, and according to Isabel Newman, whose sister worked there, likely a good 10 to 15 percent of the employees were African Americans. The same was true at YSI, where there were several hundred fewer employees, but at least 10 percent of them were African Americans, according to founder Hardy Trolander. While Antioch Publishing had just under 100 employees, that company too made an effort to employ African Americans, Jackson said, because the founders of all of those companies were committed to diversity and racial equality.

“Ernest Morgan really became a fair employment operation — there were opportunities there, especially for women,” Jackson said. “[Sergius] Vernet was very, very liberal and encouraged African Americans, and YSI also had a reputation as a liberal employer.”

Perhaps a similar percentage of African Americans worked at Antioch College, largely in the food service and housekeeping departments, according to Jackson. Her father worked as a janitor at Antioch before the war, and Kenneth Hamilton was maître d’ of the cafeteria and tea room, which was a place where African Americans in the village knew they could get a job, Jackson said. After 1946, when Walter Anderson became the first African American to lead a music department in a non-black college, Antioch began hiring African Americans as secretaries and clerical personnel, Jackson said. Because as a full professor Anderson had broken a glass ceiling, local African Americans hailed him.

“We welcomed Walter Anderson with open arms — he was a celebrity to us,” Jackson said.

While Antioch continued to promote racial equality, the college may have struggled to put its values into practice. According to both college archivist Scott Sanders and former Dean of Students Jimmy Williams, while the college did hire a handful of black professors and administrators, for the most part, African Americans tended to occupy positions in food service, housekeeping and as physical plant managers. During Williams’ time in the 1990s, there were about 20 to 25 black employees on campus out of a total work force of about 150.

Williams attributed the employment disparity to institutional racism, which he said existed at all the institutions he has worked at, including Brown, Davidson, Middlebury and St. Lawrence.

“With Antioch there was this perception that Antioch was above that, that those kinds of things didn’t happen,” he said. “In my 18 years there I had tremendous support, but I also encountered acts of unfairness or racism, and it was kind of like, ‘oh, it exists here too.’”

Still, Antioch was perhaps better than most schools in terms of making an effort to hire blacks at all levels, Williams said. And when the college began its worst period of attrition in the early 2000s and then closed in 2008, the jobs as well as the opportunities were squelched completely.

Concurrently, Vernay Labs decided to move its Dayton Street plant to Georgia and South Carolina, leaving about 20 research and management jobs in the village. Then the Antioch Company’s main subsidiary Creative Memories began losing business and consolidated most of its remaining operations in St. Cloud, Minn. While at its peak the company employed 175 people in Yellow Springs, now there are about 40 jobs at the local facility.

The Yellow Springs job market

The loss of those three major employers changed the job landscape for all villagers, not just African Americans, Orlando Brown said. And it added to a problem that existed for his children’s generation, who graduated from high school in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and went on to get higher degrees. That cohort was looking for higher paid jobs and a more mobile lifestyle than Yellow Springs could offer them, both Brown and Winburn said.

“Of our children’s generation, ninety-plus percent have at least a bachelors or higher degree, so the kind of jobs they’re looking for are not here, and they have to go other places,” Brown said. “The town is not large enough, there’s not the industry or the academic institutions to absorb all of them.”

Wright Patterson Air Force Base was a “Mecca” of jobs for African Americans, who chose to live in the village because of its high level of racial integration relative to surrounding communities, both Brown and Jackson said. While the base likely continues to hire a fair number of black employees (the public affairs representative did not have figures broken down by city), African Americans who work there are no longer limited to living in Yellow Springs because surrounding communities are more welcoming, and in some instances, more affordable than the village, according to Brown.

YSI has continued to grow, and the company now employs 160 people in Yellow Springs, though only about 15 live in the village. Several company spokesmen on Monday said they were not prepared or authorized to estimate the number or ratio of African Americans employed at YSI because the management team was on its way to California.

At Antioch University McGregor, which employs a total of 102 people, 51 fulltime and 51 part-time, six are African American, according to Suzette Castonguay, director of human resources for Antioch University. That number is down slightly from 13 African-American employees out of 117 total in 2004. Approximately 20 percent of the 100 people Friends Care Community employs campus-wide are African American, according to human resources manager Linda Coburn. And the Village of Yellow Springs currently employs four African Americans fulltime out of a total 47, which has decreased since 15 years ago, when the Village employed 10 African Americans full-time, according to Suzie Yount, the Village’s accounting/payroll technician.

Different work ethic, climate

As for the state of the small businesses in town, the number of young people, including African Americans, who open retail and other small businesses isn’t likely to increase soon, according to both Winburn and Crockett. Operating a small business is hard work and doesn’t offer a high level of pay, both said. Those who stay in it do it for the love of their craft and dedication to their trade, which is its own reward.

Winburn started working as a janitor at the college when he was 19, and he was dedicated, as he felt he had to be in order to keep his job. He took pride in the work he and others did to help maintain the school and its campus. He recalled a group of older folks, such as Garfield Fox, who took care of the college’s physical plant for many years, and when they retired they would go to the campus to talk, hang out and admire the place because they felt it was partly theirs.

Winburn also recalled a more recent time in the 1980s when young middle and high school students would come to him looking for work. But none of the young people in the village ask him about work opportunities anymore, he guesses because they are too busy doing indoor activities such as playing computer games.

Perhaps times have changed such that young people are looking for something other than simply pride in their work, said Winburn. But in order to live in a relatively expensive village, one has to work, he said. “You gotta have a job to live here, I don’t care what color you are,” he said.

The Chamber of Commerce includes 180 local member businesses and organizations, out of which three were African Americans and two were largely African American churches. The number of African Americans in the group is low, according to Chamber director Karen Wintrow, who sees a decline in the number of African American residents and leaders in the village, but wonders whether there have ever been very many African Americans operating small businesses in town.

“A lot of retailers, they do it because it’s what they love, not because it’s an easy living,” she said. “Running a shop in Yellow Springs is one of the most difficult jobs there are.”

Phyllis Jackson agreed that jobs in the small business sector are not likely to draw a lot of interest from the current generation of younger people, including African Americans.

“You have to really be dedicated in a small business, and most of the young people around here are looking for money,” she said. “To open a small business would really require dedication.”

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