Gegner event: YS civil rights legacy
- Published: June 24, 2010
As idealistic Antioch students, Hardy Trolander, Paul Graham, Joni Rabinowitz and Prexy Nesbitt participated in local civil rights actions to desegregate Yellow Springs, culminating in the famous 1964 Gegner barbershop incident that led to the arrests of more than 100 people. Last weekend, during a forum at the Antioch College alumni reunion, they reflected on their role in the incident, and its role in the civil rights movement.
“Too much of the civil rights movement is focused on big names and big figures,” said Nesbitt, now a trustee on the Antioch College pro tempore board. “These small, local actions together made the movement.”
The forum was organized around this year’s reunion theme, “Race and Social Justice,” and coincided with a Freedom Summer exhibition at the Herndon Gallery, which features a slideshow of images and newspaper headlines on the Gegner incident, as well as a WYSO Public Radio oral history project documenting the civil rights era in Yellow Springs.
By the early 1960s, most Yellow Springs institutions, including its restaurants and the Little Art Theatre, were integrated due to an anti-discrimination ordinance and the work of activists, Graham said at the forum. But a downtown businessman still reluctant to integrate was local barbershop owner Louis Gegner, who became the focal point of a desegregation campaign by Antioch students and local residents.
“It’s ironic that one of the most active northern sites of the civil rights movement was the relatively progressive community of Yellow Springs,” said Graham, a retired Vernay Laboratories chemist.
Several years of picketing and acts of civil disobedience at the shop ensued, with the biracial student organization, Antioch Committee for Racial Equality (ACRE), playing a central role. A black ACRE member, Prexy Nesbitt was arrested by then Yellow Springs Police Chief James McKee after sitting in a chair at Gegner’s barbershop and asking for a hair cut.
“[The experience] was one thing that said to me, when you believe things you have to work on them — work for change,” Nesbitt said.
Initially planned as a large demonstration, the incident, which took place on March 14, 1964, escalated when Gegner filed an injunction request in Greene County and obtained a court order limiting the number of protesters to three at a time, Rabinowitz said. The ACRE leadership was split about the decision to violate the injunction, causing a rift between students and the college administration, who told students they would be suspended if they demonstrated.
“If we look at history, most large changes have civil disobedience in them and it’s mostly done by young people,” said Rabinowitz, a former anti-poverty and anti-hunger advocate.
Despite the threats, the student protesters walked downtown, sat in the middle of Xenia Avenue and linked their arms, said Rabinowitz, who recalled the image of police coming towards the group with batons. Other panelists lamented the use of outside police forces during the incident and repressive measures such as tear gas and fire hoses.
Although the national media labeled the incident a riot, Graham said, “There had not been a riot — the only abuse was on the part of the police.”
“The bringing in of outside forces was entirely overwhelming,” said Trolander, the co-founder and former president of Yellow Springs Instruments. “We put our arms around each other and wept.”
Panel members recalled the unprecedented collaboration at the demonstration between Antioch students and students from Wilberforce and Central State, as well as the involvement of the local community.
“Throughout the period there was support from the town of Yellow Springs, especially the black community,” Nesbitt said. “People came up to us and said, ‘We’re with you.’”
Over the next few months, WYSO (91.3 FM), will spearhead an oral history project on African-American culture in the village that focuses on the civil rights movement in Yellow Springs.
Also participating in the project are the Yellow Springs Historical Society and the James A. McKee Group, a local civic organization founded by and named after the former police chief, who died in 2003.
“There’s a lot of history that’s in the minds of the elders of the community and it hasn’t been documented,” said James McKee Group president Rick Kristensen. “The population is aging and we need to make sure that we get that information.”
The forum, which was videotaped and streamed live on the Antioch College Web site, provided additional documentation for the WYSO project on Yellow Springs during the civil rights era, through the stories of those who were there. And as part of the alumni reunion, it showed how Antioch was a pioneer in the civil rights movement.
“Antioch has a history of being on the cutting edge on all things of getting a better society,” Nesbitt said. “It’s education that says you can make change — that’s the fundamental principle.”