Lasting Scars, Part 4: ‘Good things on the horizon’ for west Dayton

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Caption
In 1966, one of the worst riots in Dayton history broke out on the west side.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Editor’s note: This is part of a special project looking back at what fueled the 1966 west Dayton riots and exploring how far we have come in addressing those issues, and how much farther we need to go. Go here to read “Lasting Scars, Part 1: Shooting sparked 1966 Dayton riots”. Click here for the entire project: “Lasting Scars: The 1966 west Dayton riot.”

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“Boarded up … space for lease,” Dayton Unit NAACP President Derrick Foward read as his car drove past the once-thriving Consumer Square Shopping Center on Salem Avenue. “Is this all we’re good for on this side of town is Dollar General and Family Dollar? Is that all our money is good for?”

Foward’s father worked for the Mercer Foundry, not far from where racial tensions boiled over in 1966 into one of the city’s worst riots, fueled by sentiment that west Dayton’s mostly black population was marginalized and ignored.

He and others say problems in west Dayton persist.

Foward’s definition of west Dayton today includes Jefferson Twp., Trotwood, and his Northern Hills neighborhood dotted with well-maintained brick homes and meticulously manicured lawns.

But even there, Foward laments signs of decline in a largely black community. Wal-Mart, Target, Bob Evans and numerous other shops, restaurants and grocery stores have shuttered and moved to places such as Clayton. In their place, discount stores with the word “dollar” in their names have popped up.

People with resources in the community go to Miller Lane to eat out, buy groceries in another city, shop for clothes at The Greene.

“None of those tax dollars are staying inside the city,” Foward said.

>>> Map: Segregation in Dayton, Montgomery County today

Ronald Green, 77, who lives in a farm-abutting ranch home with a high-walled courtyard in Jefferson Twp., said investment in the community lagged starting with the aftermath of the riots. He believes drug money confiscated in west Dayton should be reinvested in the community it has harmed.

As Foward drove back into Dayton, his voice rose and frustration grew.

“This is James H. McGee Boulevard, named after the first black mayor of the city of Dayton. Where’s the development?”

After picking up a rack of ribs from Huffie's BBQ on McArthur Avenue — which opened in 1965 — Foward returned to the empty footprint of the Mercer Foundry, Dayton's skyline visible in the background.

“It’s about leadership,” he said. “The same way the leaders (of Butler Twp.) went to market and negotiated with developers to build up Miller Lane, we could have done the same thing on Gettysburg,” he said. “It takes leadership. It takes commitment. It takes belief in your community.”

Shaw’s Cleaners did brisk business on a recent Friday afternoon, though Chris Shaw said most of their business these days comes from commercial contracts. His family decided to stay invested in the community.

Shaw, who began his first term on the city commission in January, said leaders steered $783 million to west Dayton over the past decade and several promising investments are on the horizon:

“There’s some good things on the horizon and we have to make sure we have a good, frank discussion with our community members to see what they want,” Shaw said. “I know that people don’t think we’re moving fast enough. We’re not. But we’re moving as fast as we can with limited resources.”

>>> Read part of the May 1966 story identifying concerns in west Dayton

Shaw agreed that the four issues raised in 1966 persist — housing, jobs, education and investment — but said, “Many of the four issues you have here are inter-related. We have to have a comprehensive approach to solving these problems.”

‘Bright’ future in schools

The old Delphi plant abuts the Westwood neighborhood, which is among the region's poorest and was targeted by Dayton police, county juvenile courts and Wright State University for a program to address rampant juvenile crime.

The first step in that project involved painting a mural on the side of the Wesley Center, which was built 50 years ago in the wake of the 1966 riots. The new mural, designed by Dayton artist James Pate and painted by members of the community, depicts a community rebuilding itself.

“We have a lot of wonderful initiatives going on in this neighborhood,” said Brittini Long, community engagement coordinator for Montgomery County Juvenile Courts, listing Project Safe Neighborhood, Rebuilding Together Dayton, CityWide and more.

“Wonderful initiatives (are) going on behind closed doors, but sometimes young people need something tangible, something they can touch, something they can see, something they can own and say ‘I’m proud of my community and there are people that care about this neighborhood.’ That’s really the message we wanted to send.”

>>> Related: Springtime in Westwood

A few blocks away, principal Akisha Shehee and others rushed through empty halls preparing for the first day of school at Westwood Elementary. The school this year serves PreK through grade 6, whereas in previous years it went through grade 8. It is the second-lowest performing school in Dayton.

School officials and community members do complain that the region’s best teachers and substitutes don’t want to work in west Dayton, but Shehee said, “I train them to be the best, train them to have high expectations of themselves and their students.”

“The challenges that our students currently face would be home support. Families are struggling to find resources, health resources, jobs, homes,” she said. “That affects our children.”

Shehee said the public hears little about successes such as competitive scholarships earned by graduating Dayton high school seniors, decreases in behavioral issues and attempts to improve the school’s culture.

She is particularly excited about the city’s and school district’s hope to help fund preschool for all 4-year-olds in the city, which she said students desperately need but many parents can’t afford. The $4.3 million expansion is contingent upon an income tax increase going to voters in November.

‘The sun rises’

Last month, at West Third and Williams streets in the heart of the area affected by the riots, James Nunez opened the Texas Beef and Cattle Company. The co-op specializes in Texas-style mesquite-smoked meats and is considered by many to boast the best potato salad in Dayton.

“I came and looked at the space and found it’s really attractive,” Nunez said, sitting in the restaurant’s sun-lit dining area. “It’s a historic district, it’s visually appealing and I thought it would be a good fit for us.”

Across the street, camera-toting tourists ambled in and out of the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center, part of a complex of national museums commemorating Paul Laurence Dunbar's and the Wright brothers' time living and working in west Dayton.

Bing Davis, a few doors down, worked on his art, known for its social consciousness and African symbolism.

On West Fifth Street, a diverse stream of people came and went looking at the new homes being erected with garages facing the unmarked spot where Mitchell was fatally shot 50 years ago.

The next day, on Sept. 2, 1966, the city began to rebuild from the riots, and take stock.

“The end of our first day of trouble was so much better than that in so many cities that there must be further reasons,” wrote Dayton Journal Herald editor Glenn Thompson in a piece praising the response of city leaders and the strength of the black community that stood “for what is right and have participated for so long in making our community what it is.”

“Now, the sun rises on another day.”

>>> Go here for “Mitchell slaying unsolved, but detective convinced he talked to killer”

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