Village elders reflect on the Black experience, Pt. II
- Published: December 4, 2021
This is the second article in a three-part series featuring African American elders who live in Yellow Springs. Click here for the first part of the series.
Villagers Paul Graham and Phillip Lawson spoke about their experiences growing up and living in integrated communities in Dayton and Yellow Springs.
Their experiences were part of a larger discussion that included James Felder, Geneva Brisbane and Frances Smith on Oct. 28, and was sponsored by The 365 Project and moderated by activist and writer Bomani Moyenda.
Growing up as a child in Dayton, longtime villager Paul Graham attended two integrated elementary schools before graduating from predominantly African American Dunbar High School in the 1940s. But according to Graham, while the student body was integrated, the teaching staff was segregated — all his teachers were white. Nevertheless, Graham was encouraged to thrive academically by his teachers.
“The staff was all white, but I recall getting a great deal of support, particularly from the elementary school math teacher who provided me with unusual support in terms of … any assistance I needed in making sure that I participated in a number of special exams in math, etc. So it was sort of a mixed bag,” he said.
Graham is a graduate of Antioch College and a retired chemist who worked at Vernay Labs. He became a resident of Yellow Springs in 1956.
Graham also said that, while the schools were integrated, the neighborhoods remained segregated for the most part, with most of the African American community of all walks of life residing on Dayton’s west side.
“There were a number of whites living on the west side also, but they were usually, in terms of economic status, the poor whites who lived on the west side for economic reasons,” Graham said.
Yet despite the academic support from some white teachers, overall societal treatment of Blacks leaned toward pervasive racism, especially before World War II.
“Racism in general — I feel that the line in terms of any changes was after World War II. Prior to that, we all experienced the same type of environment, subtly slight differences. But in terms of how we were treated, we were accepted, etc., stories were pretty much the same no matter where, north, or south, no matter who, no matter what type of institution,” Graham said.
Graham reasoned that the shift in treatment came with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
“I feel to a great extent, it was because many Blacks served in the armed forces during the Second World War, which was a war supposedly to fight for equality, to dispel the type of activities in society that people like Hitler were promoting,” he said.
Moyenda zeroed in on Graham’s comments, encapsulating why WWII may have sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
“As you [Graham] were talking about the ramping up of the response after World War II, I was reflecting. The veterans … were overseas fighting to liberate people from foreign countries and fighting valiantly, and came back here expecting some respect and freedom, for society to open up and welcome them. It was a similar response after World War I, which I think led to a lot of the incidents of the Red Summer of 1919,” he said.
Named the Red Summer because of the amount of violence and bloodshed, it was a time when African American servicemen returning from the First World War were targeted and lynched.
These attacks were initiated by white servicemen. The violence spread to cities across the country.
According to Graham, the period after WWII is a pivotal moment in history for him personally as well as societally, as both his career and activism expanded.
“I was a chemist, and this was the result of mainly getting a great deal of encouragement and following the careers of Black scientists,” he said.
Graham explained that one of his influences was inventor and scientist George Washington Carver. Another was Percy Julian, whose work contributed to medical breakthroughs for glaucoma and advancements in the production of both cortisone and hydrocortisone. Graham worked for Julian as an Antioch co-op student working in Chicago. It was not lost on him that Julian — despite his contributions to science — was physically threatened.
“He [Julian] encountered a great deal of difficulty, even in Chicago, Ill. — where he was at times protected by law enforcement, because of the reactions of people who could not accept this individual for what he was worth,” Graham said.
When discussing his burgeoning activism, Graham said, “I think I most focused on ‘What can I do to change the situation,’ and that was not possible to any great extent until World War II. Personally, after graduating from Antioch College and working as a chemist in Yellow Springs, I decided that like many Black people during that time, that I would do whatever I could to try to change the situation.”
Graham decided to get involved in organizing for civil rights in the local community.
“I was involved in a number of organized activities, one in Yellow Springs. There was an organization called the Miami Township Committee for Fair Practices, which consisted mostly of Blacks, but there were many supportive whites who were part of the organization. It was through that organization that I personally got involved in the Civil Rights Movement,” he said.
Some of the organized activities that Graham was involved in were the 1963 Gegner protests in the village when village activists protested Lewis Gegner’s refusal to integrate his barbershop.
Ultimately, Graham sees the struggle for equality on a continuum that includes present times.
“For me, the sort of ‘then’ is preceding the Second World War, and the ‘now’ is from World War II forward,” he said.
Born and raised in the village, Phillip Lawson said he has a lot of family, friends and community memories that “fortify” him. He lived and traveled in many parts of the world, before moving back to the village.
“I am very proud to be in this conversation, particularly because for me emotionally it upholds a real virile tradition of how Yellow Springs represents, as best as it can, equality among people,” Lawson said.
“I played music professionally and was an educator most of my adult life in California and was able to include culture into what I had learned from my upbringing in Yellow Springs,” he said.
Lawson grew up near Antioch’s campus on the south side of the village.
“Obviously, it wasn’t an inner-city environment. People lived … next door to white folks or across the street or around the corner. We lived in the south part of Livermore Street — that house isn’t there anymore. I lived there with my great-grandmother, Virginia Cordell,” he said.
According to Lawson, his family lived near Antioch faculty.
“Professors would have to walk from their homes, which were closer to Allen Street, and walk by grandma’s house … to work.
Lawson got to know some of the Antioch faculty and administration.
“A good friend of mine was [Antioch college] Dean [J.D.] Dawson. As he walked by [he would say], ‘Hey, how you doin’ Phil?’ because I played basketball with his son. So it was that kind of integration,” he said.
Lawson spoke fondly of the integrated education he received as a student in Yellow Springs, as well as the natural resources.
“School was fun. Yellow Springs to me as a kid was very natural, that gave you a kind of confidence. Some of your best friends were streams and trees and not 9 mm [guns] and parking lots. So again, that fortified me for my future,” he said.
Lawson also said that although Yellow Springs had some racism, it was the communities surrounding Yellow Springs where there were more issues, which he experienced as a student athlete.
“We had some racism, but it was mostly like, if we were playing basketball, we would go out of town, there would be some catcalling,” he said.
However, Lawson found support from his teammates.
“On the baseball team, basketball team, your teammates rooted for you, like you did them,” he said.
After high school, Lawson went to California for college, and encountered more ethnic diversity for the first time.
“Moving to that part of the country — there were Chinese people, Latino/Mexican people, and their culture and their food — man that sure was a difference from canned green beans and tomatoes and carrying on in the Midwest,” he said.
However, racism in the United States did inform Lawson’s desire to expatriate himself. Lawson was drafted during a time when Muhammad Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War.
“I was kinda like Muhammad Ali, because I had a literature degree, and I considered myself well-read and well-spoken, and in a sense almost well-traveled. I was ready to expatriate myself,” he said.
During the 1960s, Lawson was also a musician who sang and played the trumpet and flute.
“I was in the music corps, so I traveled all around Europe performing. Again, that kind of isolated me from racism and racist attitudes, because European people were nicer to us than our own hometown folks. Germany and France in particular were very hospitable,” Lawson said.
Despite the more welcoming racial environment of Europe, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had a profound effect on Lawson.
“I was challenged towards the end of my military career because that’s when MLK was shot and killed. I was stationed in Germany, Heidelberg, the center of the military headquarters there, and we burned some barracks, that was what that was about. That happened in April, and in August I was honorably discharged,” he said.
Many of Lawson’s friends decided to stay in Europe after leaving the military, but Lawson was determined to return to Yellow Springs. “I’ve got Yellow Springs to go to, my grandma,” he said, although he lived in California when he got out. But after eight months in the States, he couldn’t find a job, and civil unrest in the country troubled him.
“I remember I was living in East Oakland because my sister lived in San Francisco, and I’d gotten out of the army to stay with her, couldn’t find a job, so that’s why I was looking back to Europe, too. But more, it was the violence, there was a lot of violence in 1968, particularly East Oakland,” Lawson said.
According to Lawson, he was lucky to catch a charter plane bound for Europe. Remarking on the differences between the situation he was leaving in the States and his arrival in Europe, Lawson said, “I remember leaving where cops were shooting without even thinking and getting off the plane in England — where the cops had bicycles and Billy clubs and said, ‘Welcome to England, old chum.’”
Lawson said the racial attitudes he encountered in Europe were a reason he stayed abroad — “It boosted my faith about equal play, but still was challenging. It was quite a few years before I moved back to the States.”
Lawson believed that there were more opportunities in Europe for him at the time, describing the experiences of some of the men he’d served with.
“The guys I was in the service with, they had stayed over there and even married European women, and had careers in music,” he said.
Lawson traveled around Europe in search of his army buddies, who he had trouble locating. With money getting low, Lawson was able to survive through the guidance of the travel book “Europe on $5 a Day,” which advised visitors on how to live in Europe on a low budget.
“I wore that book out. Matter of fact, I was able to do much better than that,” Lawson said.
Eventually, Lawson found his way to Greece, where he lived for two years.
“It was kind of what I wanted to do anyway as a kid — I read a lot of Marco Polo stuff, and I also felt like it would keep me out of trouble. I thought I was going to go around the world and get back to Yellow Springs. I got back to Yellow Springs, but not by traveling around the world,” Lawson quipped.