There is no historical marker noting the crime scene where Lester Mitchell was fatally shot on Sept. 1, 1966 by what witnesses described as a white man in a passing car. The killing sparked one of the city’s worst race riots.
West Fifth Street then was part of a bustling business district, the heart of a black community beset by decades of institutionalized segregation and yearning for equality in housing, jobs, education and city services.
Today, many of those businesses have been boarded up or torn down. The region remains segregated, and many of the grievances have persisted for a half century.
The location of Mitchell’s homicide is on the edge of the rehabbed homes of Wright Dunbar Village. Pop Mason’s Flamingo Club, across the street from the shooting, was torn down long ago and new homes are for sale there.
>>> Related: Who killed Lester Mitchell?
Mitchell’s apartment and many of the businesses there were bulldozed and remain empty fields, some now home to small community gardens.
General Motors retiree Paul Miller recently stood on the empty lot where men once worked in the Mercer Foundry, downtown Dayton visible over his shoulder.
“They made steel, castings,” he said of Mercer, calling the area in the 1960s “vibrant.”
“We didn’t used to go downtown for anything but to pay my water, electric and phone,” he said.
Former NAACP president Jessie Gooding Jr. wrote in his memoir published three years ago that the heyday of the west Dayton business community was from the 1930s to 1960s.
“What led to their demise? Contrary to popular belief, it was not only the riots, but the highway system first, in my opinion,” he wrote. “Before the riots, moves were being made by the city and the state to acquire land on the west side for the highway system.
“After the riots, when many of the businesses were closed and white flight began in earnest, the promised economic boom to the west side did not happen and small black businesses were affected.”
An effort to desegregate Dayton schools with busing began in the 1970s, spurring many middle-class white residents to leave the city to the east and south. Black residents who had money were increasingly free to live where they wanted and they tended to move west to areas such as Trotwood and Jefferson Twp.
>>> Photo Gallery: Dayton race riots in the 1960s
From the 1960 census to 2010, Dayton’s population has dropped from 262,332 to 141,527. The flight was almost entirely white. While more than 130,000 white people left the city, the black population slightly increased. This led the percent of the city’s population that is black to increase from about 22 percent then to nearly 43 percent today.
Dayton Public Schools in 2002 was the last school system in Ohio released from a federal desegregation order. In the 2014-15 school year, seven Dayton city schools were at least 90 percent black. Three schools are less than 20 percent black.
An effort to diversify Dayton’s police department likewise has met limited success. In 1966, there were 14 black police officers out of 380. The city was released from a U.S. Department of Justice order to recruit more minority officers in 2013 and currently 32 of the city’s 356 officers are black.
>>> Map: Segregation in Dayton, Montgomery County today
While Dayton’s population shrank, the sprawling region remained segregated. The Brookings Institute has for decades ranked Dayton as one of the nation’s most segregated large metropolitan areas, though the trend has improved.
In 1990, Brookings determined that nearly 76.6 percent of the region’s black residents would need to move in order to be as equally distributed as whites. In 2010, that number was 66.4 percent, placing Dayton 14th in the nation among areas with a population of half a million or more. Cleveland, Cincinnati and Youngstown ranked worse in the 2010 census.
GM departure ‘devastating’
Ricky Poole, who now owns Natural Foods Plus on Philadelphia Drive, opened a popular nightclub called Spunky’s in 1980. It was located on Germantown Street on the border of Jefferson Twp. The now-razed shopping center held a grocery store and barbershop among other offerings.
“There was an era we were beginning to become prosperous,” said Poole, who was at the University of Wisconsin on a track scholarship during the 1966 riots. “There was change happening for the positive … not only in our community, but in every community.”
The club opened with one doorman, but by 1995 he had 14 security guards on duty. Poole calls gangster rap “the most devastating cultural trend that has ever affected us as a people,” and remembers how crack cocaine ravaged the community.
“What I began to experience within the nightclub was what society is experiencing today,” he said.
He and others remember how crack cocaine was handled with a heavy hand by law enforcement, with addicts facing hard sentences. Compare that, they say, to how heroin addicts today — more likely to be white — are in line for treatment.
“Because when it happens to the least of us, it’s not a national crisis. But when it happens to the affluent among us, it’s a national problem,” said Derrick Foward, current president of the Dayton NAACP.
The biggest blow to west Dayton, however, came with the closure of GM plants and affiliated manufacturing. The Inland Plant and Delphi plants employed scores of west side residents with well-paying jobs.
>>> VIDEO: Lasting Scars: West Dayton and the 1966 riots, a documentary video
“Many of our customers around here worked for General Motors, or some subsidiary of General Motors, or NCR, Standard,” said Chris Shaw, Dayton city commissioner, standing in his family’s 106-year-old dry cleaning store on Germantown Street.
Housing values plummeted. Homes behind the boarded-up storefronts across the street from Shaw’s business are appraised for tax purposes in the $30,000 range. Several hold less value than they did in 2000.
Shaw said this has robbed GM retirees and their children of equity and has made it harder to relocate.
“When their companies left the region it was devastating, for our business and for many of the businesses around here, and now you see what the result of that it is,” he said. “It was just a comprehensive decline in the economy for us.”
>>> Go here for “Lasting Scars, Part 4: ‘Good things on the horizon’ for west Dayton”