Lester Mitchell was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his apartment at 1020 West Fifth Street after 3 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1966, when the shotgun blast tore through his face.
“All I saw was the red (of the car), and the barrel of the gun,” neighbor Tommy Campbell told the Dayton Daily News later that day. “All I could tell was they were white men. Somebody said Les had been shot.”
In a city where housing segregation crammed 60,000 black residents into what many perceived as a ghetto with neglected schools and discriminatory city services, the senseless killing was more than a spark. It was a volcanic eruption.
Before the day was over, looting, arrests, riots and the armed response of National Guardsmen would put Dayton in the national spotlight as the latest American city roiling in the grip of spontaneous rage.
“Police responded to the scene, and it was chaos,” said Dan Baker, a retired Dayton police officer who worked the west-side beat with one year under his belt as a rookie cop in September 1966. “Many people had been drinking and they were pouring out of bars and the joints and they were very, very upset about what had just happened.
>>> Photo gallery: Dayton race riots in the 1960s
“Rocks and bottles started being thrown, the crime scene was disrupted and it began to get completely out of control and spread down Hawthorn Street, Williams Street and Fourth Street, people making their way down to West Third Street.”
At about 10:30 a.m., Dayton Mayor Dave Hall’s voice quivered as he spoke into a bullhorn from a police car parked on West Third, surrounded by twisted mannequins and shattered glass.
He announced that the National Guard was on its way.
“(These actions) resulted in disturbance of the peace, which assumed the proportions of a riot and mob violence,” he declared, the burglar alarm from a looted pawn shop wailing in the background. Police in plastic helmets armed with shotguns stood an uneasy guard.
“I have called upon the military forces ordered here by the governor of Ohio at my request to accomplish the restoration of order.”
A sort of order was restored that day, but 50 years later many wonder whether the cultural divide that separated east from west, black from white and rich from poor is fundamentally different today.
The Dayton metropolitan area is the 14th most-segregated large metropolitan area in the nation, according to a Brookings Institute analysis of U.S. Census data. The Great Miami River still represents a cultural divide.
The region’s lowest-performing schools are on the west side and overwhelmingly black, more than a decade after Dayton became the last Ohio city released from a federal de-segregation order. Montgomery County’s poorest census tract is in west Dayton and is 99 percent black, while the county’s wealthiest neighborhood in Oakwood is 98 percent white.
It’s a story repeating itself — literally — over the decades.
>>> Read part of the May 1966 story by Dave Allbaugh
Just four months before the September 1966 riot, Daily News reporter Dave Allbaugh spoke to two dozen people identified as black leaders and found west Dayton seething under the surface.
“Just don’t let the temperature get above 95 degrees,” civic leader Lloyd Lewis Jr. was quoted as saying in a May 1966 story.
Activists and community leaders interviewed by Allbaugh identified four major issues: education, joblessness, housing and city services.
‘Path of resurgence’
“It’s still a mess,” said former Dayton NAACP president Jessie Gooding in a recent interview in his Jefferson Twp. home.
Gooding spent part of the 1966 riots trying to direct traffic and telling the city to stop sending buses down Fifth Street because they were being pelted by rocks.
He and other current black activists and community leaders said the west side still bears the scars of the riots — many businesses left or never reopened — and the issues that boiled over five decades ago are similar to those voiced today.
Asked to identify the major issues facing west Dayton, Gooding said: “Still jobs. Lack of education, drugs. There’s a lack of business opportunities on the west side.”
Today’s leaders hope the west side is on the cusp of another kind of uprising: a renaissance.
"We see a really great turnaround coming for this community," said Yvette Kelly-Fields, executive director of the Wesley Community Center, which was founded 50 years ago in response to the riots.
“Having grown up in this community I have to say it reminds me of so many other cities where you just have those moments of decline, and resurgence,” Kelly-Fields said. “And I really feel like we’re on that path of resurgence.”
Parts of west Dayton have seen success, though it has acutely suffered the same body blows as the entire Midwest: Urban sprawl emptied the city core, drugs have spurred crime, and closure of manufacturing plants led to fewer jobs and lower wages.
Twelve years ago, renowned Dayton artist Bing Davis joined an effort to revitalize the struggling West Third Street business district roughly a quarter mile from the Peace Bridge, where thousands of marchers converge every year to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I could have afforded to live any place I wanted to live, and I chose to retire from academia and move my studio,” Davis said. “I took it out of my home and put it in the heart of this neighborhood, to be a part of this revitalization.”
Fifty years ago, Davis — then an art teacher at Colonel White High School — was one of many young black professionals and athletes crowded into the hot office of C.J. McLin Jr., a funeral director and Democratic organizer who that year would be elected to his first term in the Ohio House of Representatives.
“(He) swore us in under the title of ‘White Hats,’ and gave us a card with our name on it and this white hat and encouraged us to go into the community to help to quell the disturbances to keep the calm,” said Davis in an interview in his studio.
Davis’ studio is roughly two blocks from where Mitchell was killed 50 years ago, sparking the riots.
Gooding’s 2013 memoir “Freedom and Justice For All” lists 75 businesses that filled the business district between Germantown Street and West Third. There were theaters such as The Classic and Regal; Ben’s Hotel and Lou Max Hotel; barber shops; dinner clubs; restaurants such as Frank James’ Chili Place and Ken’s; bars; Harvey’s Clothing Store; Turner’s Hat Stop; furniture stores and many more.
>>> Read the Sept. 1, 1966 Dayton Daily News coverage of the riot
Gooding remembers that the angry mob attacked buses with white occupants, and a 40-year-old truck driver from Eaton suffered a broken jaw when a brick was thrown through his window as he drove through town.
Many tried to stem the violence. W. Sumpter McIntosh held an angry group at bay while McLin and others went downtown and met with the city manager and police chief to get concessions to appease the mob. A major demand was that a pair of police officers known to west side residents as Batman and Robin be taken off their beat.
“They’re rotten,” one resident said. “They think they own the west side.”
The city manager and police chief agreed to this and to release several of the first people arrested for rioting. But the bargain ultimately had little effect as Dayton police retreated from the violence as it spread.
‘Rage and destruction’
McLin, who died in 1988 while still a state representative, returned to west Dayton in dismay.
“It was hard for me to believe,” he told the Daily News as looting raged around him. Black kids smashed windows and stole clothing, lamps and other merchandise.
“Pantorium Cleaners, next door to McIntosh’s (Ohio Freedom Movement) headquarters, was cleaned out,” the newspaper reported. “Next door Harvey’s Fashions was cleaned out in like manner. Across the street the display window of the Famous Clothing Store was shattered and clothing stolen. Several mannequins lay on the sidewalk in front.”
Baker recalls how police, in a rush to arm officers and disarm rioters, borrowed all of the shotguns from nearby pawn shops.
“There was a lot of glass breakage, a lot of rocks thrown, a lot of fires attempted set and a lot of thievery underway,” he said in a recent interview standing on the corner of Third Street and Broadway.
“Looters were going through a jewelry store that used to sit across from here. There was a bar here called the Golden Lantern that was ransacked and the liquor stolen. There was a pharmacy down the street that was cleaned out. People tried to get into the loan companies and any other business that had anything of value.
“And sometimes it was just rage and destruction, people upset about what had just happened, and all the festering that had been going on for years about the conditions in the west side simply exploded.”
>>> Go here to read “Lasting Scars, Part 2: Fifty years later, Dayton remains segregated”