Village elders reflect on the Black experience, Pt. III
- Published: January 3, 2022
This is the final article in a three-part series featuring African American elders who live in Yellow Springs. Their experiences were part of a larger discussion that included James Felder, Geneva Brisbane, Frances Smith, Paul Graham and Phillip Lawson on Oct. 28. The participants are all in their 80s and 90s. Sponsored by The 365 Project and moderated by activist and writer Bomani Moyenda, panelist conversations on the then-predominantly Black neighborhood Omar Circle, education, racism and the changing demographics of the Village were front and center. Participants also answered questions from a Zoom audience. Two previous articles appeared in the Nov. 4 and Nov. 18 issues of the News.
Geneva Brisbane, a native of North Carolina, is a retired educator who worked as a teacher and guidance counselor in the Yellow Springs and Springfield school districts. Francis Smith, a Mississippi native, pursued a lifelong profession in the Girl Scouts organization and was inducted into the Girl Scouts of Buckeye Trails Hall of Fame. South Carolina native James Felder is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and microbiologist. He is also an actor and singer who has participated in numerous community theater productions over the decades. Yellow Springs native Phillip Lawson is a retired educator and musician. He is the only participant whose family has been in the village since before the 1950s. Lawson lived in Europe and California for several years before returning to the village. Civil rights activist Paul Graham grew up in Dayton, and is an Antioch College alumni and retired chemist for Vernay Labs.
Charting the momentum of memory
“There is a way for us to think through this, so that we can see the rhythms, see the patterns, and so that we can recover, what we always talk about, the momentum of memory,” writes Greg Carr, an associate professor of Africana Studies and chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University.
In the world of Africana Studies, the lived experiences of people of African descent all over the globe are viewed through a lens called an “Africana studies framework.” Through six categories accompanying questions are raised. The categories: Social structure — Who are Africans to other people? Governance — Who are Africans to each other? Ways of knowing — What kinds of systems do African people develop to explain their existence and address fundamental issues of living?
Science and technology — What types of devices were developed to shape nature and human relationships with animals and each other and what were their affects on Africans and others? Movement and memory — How did/do Africans remember this experience? And Cultural meaning making — What specific music, art, dance and/or literature did Africans create during this period?
This framework for discussion unfolded throughout the Elder’s Speak program, the format of which was based in oral tradition. Participants wove together a lifetime of memories that culminated in messages of concern for the future of the village. This News article features threads of conversation among participants, but are given headings for greater topic context. The conversation can be seen in its entirety on The 365 Project’s Facebook page.
Omar Circle: safe space for Blacks
Geneva Brisbane, Frances Smith and James Felder were part of a first wave of Black residents who moved to Omar Circle in the 1950s and ’60s. The neighborhood development project was the brainchild of U.S. Air Force veteran, Tuskegee airman and property developer Omar Robinson. In the 1950s, Robinson purchased several acres of land and sold parcels to African American families — many of them college-educated professionals. Brisbane, Smith and Felder said they, along with their spouses, chose to build homes here because of the village’s welcoming environment towards Black people.
Question via Zoom: For those who lived on Omar Circle, how did life there affect your life and the life of your children?
Frances Smith: We were the second family on Omar Circle. Both of my children were born there and comradery between the children on that street was so tremendous — they thought they had the world by a string. They could go anywhere on Omar Circle, just as long as they didn’t leave the circle. They had instant companionship, no matter the hour of the day, because there were eventually so many children. I think by the time our children were 6 or 7 years old, there must have been 50 children on the circle, and it was a great place for children to grow up.
Geneva Brisbane: The same as Frances mentioned, it was like one big family. And you knew if you did something that was not right, it was going home before you do, because the neighbors looked out for each other. And the kids really had fun.
James Felder: There were so many young officers coming into Wright-Patt [Air Force Base] that the base didn’t have room for them, especially the Black officers. There is a place near Wright State called Skyway and there was a dormitory. I met people that would be my friends for life and they all moved onto Omar Circle. We were young officers. … How we got to Omar Circle is that after Betty and I got married, we came over to visit … and boy, we liked the place. … I mean you see all these Black kids and these nice families and they’re doing so well, so they convinced us to go buy property. … Omar Circle was a haven for our kids and other kids on the circle, and the friendships lasted forever. At this stage of the game, of the original men, I am the only male left on the circle.
Bomani Moyenda: Do you know if Mr. Robinson caught any backlash for putting up Omar Circle for Black families?
Felder: Oh yeah, oh yes. We had this conversation — he told me out of his mouth that the Village Council called him in and asked him why he wasn’t selling to whites. He said that he would sell to anybody as long as you pay the price. And we know exactly what he was talking about. Because it was an all-Black neighborhood, white people thought that they could pay less money for the land and move in. And he refused to do that.
Karen Gardner question via Zoom: My family was one of the first white families to move onto Omar Circle, and we always felt welcomed. But how did you, and how do you feel, about so many non-Black families being there now?
Smith: You want a truthful answer?
Moyenda: That’s the only one we want.
Smith: I am not as happy as I was when it was all Black because, first of all, the opportunities were not great for Blacks to buy property and whites could buy anywhere. And I just feel it was a great enclave for Black families. And I recognize the value of the property — it’s close to a school and park. There was a person that approached me before all the houses were built on Omar Circle, wanting to know why just Blacks were living there, and that it ought to be integrated. I didn’t feel that way, I felt that what we had was a great experience for us and our children.
Blacks educated in the village
Phillip Lawson: We all had white teachers. We had very integrated classrooms, but the teachers never showed a preference, just the opposite. If you showed that you had an aptitude or wanted to learn, they were making sure you would achieve and exceed. Kind of naïve you know, 12, 13, 14, 16 years old, all you had to do was open a refrigerator, all you had to do was go to bed, go to school, come home, everything’s cool. But behind that there was real activism going to get a Black teacher in the school system. Fortunately, while I was still in school, one of my classmates — Charles Hatcher — his mother was hired to be the first Black teacher at the elementary school. Mrs. Hatcher, her [first] name was Laura.
Moyenda: Considering the changing face and nature of Omar Circle these days, there’s been a lot of talk about the decreasing diversity over the years, I see Mr. Gudgel, our classmate Al Freeman, Kenny Durgans [brother of this News reporter], people who came through high school in the late ’60s, early ’70s — I think I am speaking for more than myself, but there was just a great presence, you know of African American families and students. By the time my kids started graduating Yellow Springs high school in the early ’90s, the difference was just amazing. I remember going to my oldest daughter’s graduation and I almost fell out of my chair. What happened to all the Black people?
Shrinking diversity in the village
Paul Graham: One thing that I want to quickly point out is that there have been tremendous changes in Yellow Springs in terms of diversity. There was one point in time when about 25% of the population was Black. Yellow Springs was a welcoming community, particularly for professional people. There were many people who worked at the field [Wright-Patterston], surrounding colleges, etc., during the early ’50s, who had a great deal of difficulty finding places to live in the area. Yellow Springs was a welcoming community for many of those people, so our population in terms of numbers of Blacks was really inflated, because the surrounding communities did not welcome them. Even though things were not perfect here, Yellow Springs did provide housing and was a welcoming community. So the population of Blacks in this town was really unusually high for a small town in this part of Ohio, particularly a county that is not and was not particularly supportive of Blacks. I think that was primarily because Yellow Springs, with all of its problems, was much more welcoming than the surrounding communities.
Smith: That’s probably true.
Moyenda: I think the sentiment today is that its not as welcoming as what it used to be.
Graham: Probably true.
Lawson: I agree.
Smith: I agree, it’s changed.
Graham: Part of that is racial, part of that is economic. When I look at the new houses going up in Yellow Springs, especially in my part of town, the southern part of town, the houses which are going up, most Blacks you know then and now couldn’t afford, and so its an economic problem.
Moyenda: That’s that magic word.
Lawson: You know, I agree with Mr. Graham. I was out there the other day, I thought I was in Connecticut or something.