‘Police would come to our door and they would tell us we needed to move,’ Dayton CEO recalls

Note from Community Impact Editor Amelia Robinson: This piece about the Roots of Racism project appeared on the Dayton Daily News Ideas and Voices page Sunday, Oct. 18.

The origins of racial inequality in our community are being explored as part of a three-part series hosted on DaytonDailyNews.com.

The Roots of Racism,” a three-part series, includes interviews conducted by Dayton Daily News Community Impact Editor Amelia Robinson of community members who experienced or witnessed racism.

ExploreOUR VIEW: Racism inequality can be overcome in our community, should be taken on

The project was designed to shine a light on how laws and policies such as segregation and redlining shaped the Dayton of today. The project is being held in hopes it will enable residents to build a better tomorrow.

Interviews were conducted with artist Willis Bing Davis; community volunteers Dr. Burt and Alice Saidel; Mary Tyler, the former executive director of The National Conference for Community and Justice of Greater Dayton, and Ro Nita Hawes-Saunders, CEO of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and founder of WROU radio.

Alice and Burt Saidel
Alice and Burt Saidel

The sessions were recorded in September by a team lead by Dayton Access Television Volunteer Coordinator Dale Grow at the Dayton Metro Library in downtown Dayton.

Below are excerpts from two of the interviews edited for length and clarity.

Find the complete videos on Dayton Daily News' Facebook page or at bit.ly/DaytonRootsofRacism.

RO NITA HAWES-SAUNDERS

Ro Nita Hawes-Saunders is CEO of the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC).
Ro Nita Hawes-Saunders is CEO of the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC).

Credit: SCOTT ROBBINS

Credit: SCOTT ROBBINS

Hawes-Saunders' parent were civil rights workers and real estate agents beginning in the 1950s.

Question: When did you realize people had a problem with your family?

Hawes-Saunders: I actually don’t think I realized how difficult the problem was until my parents purchased the home in Residence Park. This was before Residence Park was an all-black neighborhood.

We were one of the first African American families In Residence Park.

I was seven years old. We moved into the neighborhood and that’s when I really began to realize that something was different.

I couldn’t just go outside and play with the neighborhood children because they wouldn’t play with me. They were calling me names that I hadn’t heard before. I went to school and my teacher didn’t want to teach me.

WATCH THE SERIES

“The Roots of Racism” premiered Wednesday on our Facebook page.

The first part covers the 1700s through the 1800s and can be replayed on our Facebook page and our website.

The next section on the early 1900s and will premiere at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21.

The final presentation, mid-to-late 1900s, will debut at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28.


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This was at Residence Park Elementary School at that particular time. The very first day of school, I had an experience.

I love school. I just loved learning when I was little. The teacher said that I didn’t know the spelling words that first day and that I wasn’t going to be able to to stay in the school.

ExploreRoots of Racism: Videos to explore how historic policies affect Dayton today

They kept me after school and my mother showed up to pick me up. She didn’t know where I was and she came into the school and looked for me. I was in the classroom by myself crying.

The teacher told my mother that she didn’t think I was going to be able to make it in this school and that we needed to move because this was not where we needed to be.

My mother was this short woman: 4 foot 11.

Mary Tyler, Executive Director of the National Conference for Community and Justice Greater Dayton. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Mary Tyler, Executive Director of the National Conference for Community and Justice Greater Dayton. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Honestly, I’d never seen her actually look like that. It’s like she grew. She talked to the teacher told the teacher that I had a right to be there just like all the other kids and that I was a smart little girl. Then she was going down to talk to the principal and she did.

And I remember at that moment, something is different about me.

I had gone to Gracie Greene School in West Dayton. I went to school with with white children so I didn’t know why they were treating me so different. Both my parents had to explain something very very difficult for a child to hear.

There’s a question that we often ask ourselves, when did you know that you were black or a negro?

What point in your life did that become clear?

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That’s when it became clear. That experience continued to be difficult because people would shoot at our home.

They would burn crosses on our lawn. My father who still was working at General Motors at the time, at Frigidaire.

He was working the night shift so that during the day he could he could do real estate.

He decided that he had to give up working the night shift so he could be home to protect his family.

Police would come to our door and they would tell us we needed to move. They didn’t want us there.

ExploreData shows inequities span cradle to grave for local Black residents

I just remember that experience. But my parents were very determined.

Later in life my mother said it was a hard lesson for a youngster.

And yet, I believe that it helped me to understand and to continue knowing what it is not to be looked upon as an equal even though you know that you are.

BING DAVIS

Willis “Bing” Davis is the curator of the 2018 Visual Voices art exhibit, “The Preacher, The Poet, The Vision.” Artists were tasked with commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through the literary voice of Dayton poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The display can be seen in the Wintergarden at the Schuster Center in Dayton. LISA POWELL / STAFF
Willis “Bing” Davis is the curator of the 2018 Visual Voices art exhibit, “The Preacher, The Poet, The Vision.” Artists were tasked with commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through the literary voice of Dayton poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The display can be seen in the Wintergarden at the Schuster Center in Dayton. LISA POWELL / STAFF

Davis, a native of Greer S.C., was raised in a section of East Dayton then known as Little Africa. It included Springfield and Irvin streets and Pruden and Diamond avenues.

QUESTION: Do you think your racism ever held you back from what you wanted to do.

DAVIS: If you have a certain level of commitment it is not going to stop you, but it certainly can get in your way, impede you and slow you down, and sometimes be very discouraging.

(For example if) you were going into a store and you were being followed as you were looking at products. You could feel it and you knew it. Sometimes you reacted in different ways.

Sometimes you resent it and go out of the store and don’t buy. Other times, you may need to say something.

I Remember coming from downtown and deciding to get off (the bus) early to stop at a Kroger’s just before my neighborhood to get a Sunkist and Hostess cupcake.

I remember standing in line with my Hostess cupcake and my Sunkist drink. (It was) one of the first time I heard the (n-word).

This little kid was in front of me with his mother and his mother sort of pulled him up there and he’s looking at me. He said, ‘Mommy, mommy, look, a (n-word).’

‘I said where. I know he’s not talking about me.’

She said ‘I told you never to say that in public.’

So you experience it and you are aware of it. You have to decide how you are going to deal with it.

QUESTION: What do young people need to know about how people from your generation grew up in Dayton?

DAVIS: I think it is very vital. I have two children and I’ve often in talking with them wished they could have had my experience of growing up in east Dayton. It looks in some areas as having been very difficult and a bad experience, but it was very rich.

The people that were around us, and the nurturing we got and that extended family concept, it made it possible for me to feel a sense of self-worth.

I had heroes before I left the neighborhood. I am working doing certain things at this age because one of my main heroes is still working. That’s John Moore Sr. who is in his 90s... Male and female, we had wonderful role models.

Amelia Robinson
Amelia Robinson

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

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