Ex-mayor still casts impressive shadow

James McGee broke ground in many ways

Note: Originally published Feb. 28, 1993

From the perspective of former Dayton mayor James Howell McGee, the world is a simple place.

When he was mayor, policies either were fair to all his constituents or they were unfair; decisions were either best for the city or they were not best for the city; and actions were either honorable or they were corrupt.

And that perspective made being mayor a simple job.

"You really only have to remember three things if you want to be a mayor and stay a mayor," McGee says. "You don't take any money, you try not to fire anybody, and you don't get involved with a lot of women."

McGee, now 74, has not been a central figure in local politics since leaving office in 1982. But he remains an important figure in local history because of his legacy: He was the first black mayor of Dayton and one of the first large-city black mayors in America.

His 11-year stint in office is the longest anyone has served as mayor of the city.

His leadership, though he was not universally popular, shaped the personality of Dayton city government through the 1970s.

Abner Orick, who now directs the Montgomery County Board of Elections, often disagreed with McGee when Orick was a city commissioner.

But today, Orick says McGee made Dayton a better place.

"Jim should go down in history as one of the greatest mayors we ever had in terms of race relations and everything," Orick says.

NAACP attorney

After serving in the Army during World War II, McGee used veterans benefits to pay his way through law school at Ohio State University.

Miley O. Williamson, a longtime friend and associate from the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says McGee came back to Dayton after law school and immediately started bringing discrimination cases against bars, restaurants, hotels and theaters.

"He became known as that radical NAACP lawyer," Williamson says.

McGee says any black seeking equal treatment was considered radical in the 1940s.

"I was surprised when I came to Dayton," McGee says. "The only place you could go to eat downtown was at the bus station, and they weren't too happy to have you there even.

"I came from a smaller town, and there was only one theater. They might ask you to sit in the back, but they would at least let you come inside."

Williamson says the NAACP couldn't pay for McGee's work in courts across the Miami Valley.

"If he didn't have other clients he would have starved," she says.

McGee says he handled all kinds of minor cases and made less than $2,000 a year his first few years in practice.

He depended on his wife Elizabeth - they married his last year in law school - to provide family income. She was a school librarian until the first of the couple's two daughters was born.

"There were two or three times I could have quit," McGee says. "Then one year I made $13,000, and I knew I could make a living as a lawyer."

Williamson says McGee's work laid the foundation for racial progress that came later in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Once he had won a case on a particular practice, the decision became the law," Williamson says.

Commissioner, mayor

Don Crawford, Dayton's first black city commissioner, resigned in 1967 to take an administrative post with the city, and he suggested McGee as a replacement.

"At first, he wasn't terribly anxious to take it," Crawford says.

But McGee settled into the job and pushed, as Crawford had, for improved minority hiring and equitable distribution of city resources.

In March 1970, Dave Hall, the mayor at the time, resigned for health reasons, and McGee, the most experienced of four commissioners, was chosen as Hall's successor after about four months of debate.

McGee's clear, uncomplicated view of issues could make him stubborn and confrontational as mayor. He was not known for his diplomacy or willingness to compromise.

But at the same time he was known for his honesty, his directness and his passionate love for the city of Dayton.

"If they hired me to protect this town, who was going to do it if I didn't?" McGee says.

"This is my town. My town."

McGee often became emotional while conducting meetings, and he was known for his breathy voice that would rise sharply in pitch if he became excited.

He sometimes would interrupt speakers addressing the commission and particularly disliked speakers living outside Dayton who criticized the city or its workers.

"You let a lot of these guys talk and they think you're afraid of them," he says. "Well, to hell with that!"

Paul Brown, a Harrison Twp. trustee from 1972 to 1980, says he and his colleagues were kept busy trying to keep Dayton from gobbling up township land and tax base through annexation.

He says McGee and other city commissioners didn't give much consideration to the rights and desires of surrounding townships and other governments.

"McGee was very narrow-minded as far as what could advance the city of Dayton," Brown says. "The mayor and the rest of the commission felt that if the central city died, the region died, so you'd better do what they were saying.

"I'm sure he believed what he was doing was best, but there was never much cooperation between the city and the township. That's gotten better since the '70s."

McGee's most controversial stand was his opposition of Interstate 675, the beltway connecting interstates 70 and 75 through the south and southeast suburbs.

The highway was built after McGee left office in 1982. His replacement by former mayor Paul Leonard gave I-675 supporters the third vote they needed to change the city's position on the beltway.

"You can see what 675 did to downtown," McGee says. "That's what highways like that can do: They suck the vitality out of a city."

Friend and father

McGee is rarely seen in public not wearing his "uniform," a conservative three-piece suit.

"But there were times when he was with his friends and family when he would let his hair down," Williamson says.

His daughter, Frances McGee-Cromartie, recalled that her father loved to cook and made spaghetti or stew on Saturday nights.

"Then on Sunday morning, he'd make breakfast," she says. "It was always that high-cholesterol type breakfast we know now we shouldn't be eating."

McGee says eating was one of the great parts of being mayor.

"You could eat out three or four times a week," he says. "That's how I got the shape I have today."

But Crawford says McGee never abused his traveling and dining privileges.

"He'd come back from a trip and turn in as little as $1.20," Crawford says. "He was always careful with city money."

McGee-Cromartie says her father often took her and her sister Annette along when he traveled to city functions. But he spent a lot of time away from the family.

"We understood he was busy, and I don't think we missed having him home all the time," she says. "My mother and father were like a team. He did things outside, and she took care of the home.

"I always knew he loved us, though. Men in his generation didn't verbalize their feelings a lot, but he always let us know he cared.

"It's only been in the years since my mother died that he sometimes actually will say that he loves us."

Crawford says McGee had a sensitive side as mayor, too.

"If there was one thing that hurt him deeply, it was when he disagreed with some black leader and that person accused him of not being for the black cause," Crawford says.

McGee says some people never understood that his vote on city business counted no more than other commissioners, and he could only do things he could persuade two other commissioners to support.

"People can turn on each other," McGee says. "A crab will grab another crab and pull him down if he's trying to climb out of the bucket."

Today, McGee practices law from a small office on West Third Street, a stone's throw from James H. McGee Boulevard, which was named in his honor in 1988.

He's "trying to retire" and takes only enough cases to keep himself occupied. Still, he likes spending time at his office and goes there seven days a week if only to read newspapers and keep up with local politics.

Williamson says McGee still has an army of admirers, 11 years after leaving office.

"I used to call him Mac," she says. "Now I call him Mayor McGee.

"Any time a group of us are out anywhere, people always are walking up and saying, 'Hi, Mayor McGee. How're you doing?' It's a sign of respect.

"It's kind of a shame, but I feel he is admired more now than he was appreciated when he was in office."

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