Tom Archdeacon: Recalling Charlie Black and his magical garage

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Charles Black owned a garage in West Dayton in which he built and maintained race cars.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

It began as a shortcut from his house on Wisconsin Boulevard in West Dayton to Burkham Park, but often it ended up with a detour to Krug Street.

That’s where he found lessons about the realities of the world and the power dreams could take on when they added horsepower, a Mickey Mouse paint job and unwavering passion.

“When I was maybe 8 or 9, I could walk over there on my own from our house,” Steve Ross said. “I’d cut through the B&O freight yard and I’d come out at the railroad tracks on South Broadway. Then I’d just slip around the corner to Mr. Charlie Black’s garage.

“It was a big block place with a flat roof and it was huge. You coulda parked a school bus in there. Outside were all the people’s cars that would be worked on, but inside, off to one side, was his race car.

“He had those old jalopy cars (Model A roadsters) and later he had modifieds and because he could tell I was really interested in them, he used to let me sit in ‘em.

“I’d sit there and listen to the fellas talk — bench racing they called it — and they’d go on and on about racing.”

It was another world for a young black kid in the late 1950s and early ’60s. It was the same for Charlie’s granddaughter, JoAnn Jackson (now Williams) and, before that, neighborhood kids who were a little older like Jerome Johnson and Kenny Richardson, both of whom also visited the garage on Broadway before it moved to Krug.

There was no one like Mr. Charlie Black in Dayton, especially no black man.

He built his own race cars, maintained them and campaigned them from the late 1940s through the 1960s at tracks throughout southwest Ohio and into Indiana and especially around the Dayton area, from the old dirt oval at the Argonne Forest Speedway to the track at Frankie’s Forest Park Amusement Park off North Main and later the high-banked Dayton Speedway.

And he did so at a time when black drivers not only were mostly prohibited from competing alongside whites on tracks, but when owners, mechanics and crew members of color often were kept out of the pits. And if black race fans showed up at a track, they likely would be relegated to some out of the way stands, segregated from whites.

Yet, Charlie Black’s cars were well known by all.

“His car was No. 11 and he always had Mickey Mouse painted on one side of the car and Minnie Mouse on the other,” laughed the 76-year-old Johnson, a University of Dayton-educated engineer who worked at the Mound Lab before retirement.

“The kids just loved that car,” added Richardson, also 76, and a well-known area musician who teamed with Connie Lawson and toured the world as Connie and Kenny. “Everybody knew those cars.”

Many folks didn’t know they were built and run by a black man because Black was forced to use white drivers — guys like Hank Naylor and Al Meager — if he wanted to compete against cars piloted by whites.

While she said her granddad’s cars often did well, JoAnn — who parlayed degrees from Central State and UD into a more than 40-year career as a middle and elementary school math teacher in Trotwood and Dayton — said Richardson told her how “sometimes white guys tried to run into the car on purpose. And that didn’t surprise me. Racism was a lot of places back then.”

Ross, a former Chaminade High School and college football player who taught autistic kids, coached locally and raced as a young man, agreed with JoAnn:

“Back before the 1960s, the AAA (the American Automobile Association) was the sanctioning body of stock car races and it banned black folks from driving “

That led to the Gold and Glory sweepstakes races that, under the auspices of the Colored Speedway Association, were run all over the country, including Dayton.

Yet even when blacks got the OK to run, trouble could come crashing in.

The dashing Charlie Wiggins — known as “The Negro Speed King” for his domination in the Gold and Glory races of the late 1920s — was set for a prequalifying run at the Kentucky Speedway in Louisville in 1928 when a mob of white fans burst through the fences to protest a black man running at what they considered a “whites only” track.

Police held the mob back, but race officials called in the Kentucky militia to arrest Wiggns “for his own safety” and hold him in a jail cell until he could slip out of town at nightfall.

Later Wendell Scott, a black man from Virginia, found fame on the NASCAR Grand National (later known as Winston Cup) circuit. He ran 495 races, had 147 top-10 finishes and had one win — at a 100-mile race in Jacksonville on Dec. 1, 1964.

But as soon as he took the checkered flag, NASCAR officials announced there had been a scoring error and gave a white driver the victory.

“Everybody knew I’d won, but the promoter and the NASCAR people didn’t want me kissing the beauty queen and being up there on the victory stand,” he once told me.

Today things are better and Lewis Hamilton, a British driver who is black, is a three-time Formula One world champion. And yet sometimes things don’t change.

When the F1 series came to Barcelona’s Montmelo track in 2008, fans of a popular Spanish driver wore black face, Afro wigs and t-shirts that said “Hamilton’s Family” as they spewed taunts and profanity.

All this makes what Charlie Black did 50, 60 and almost 70 years ago all the more impressive.

“Back then, looking through the eyes of a young kid like me and seeing a black man doing everything you want to do when you get grown — ‘cept I wanted to drive, too — well, it kind of validated my inner drives and my dreams.” said the now 64-year-old Ross. “That dude was a trend-setter. He was the first black man I knew in racing and he showed me that I really could do what I wanted to do one day.

“I could go to his garage and experience racing. In there I could touch it and feel it and see it and sit in it.

“That place was magical.”

‘Mechanical brain’

Black was born in 1900 and raised on Tibbets Avenue in Springfield, JoAnn said.

She doesn’t believe he had any extensive schooling when it came to cars, but when she discussed the matter the other afternoon with her godmother, 91-year-old Virginia Taylor, who grew up in Springfield, too, they came to the conclusion he “had a mechanical brain.”

“Oh I remember him well,” Taylor laughed. “I was just a young girl, but everybody knew Charlie Black. He always drove a Cadillac and it had two horns on it. As he came down the street he’d blow ‘em: ‘Ooo-owoo!….Ooo-owoo!’ Mother would go to the door and say, ‘Here comes that Charlie Black!’ ”

Black married twice and had four children, Charles II, Marjorie, Anna, who was JoAnn’s mother, and Mary (Goins), who is 93, lives in Cleveland and is the only one of the four still living. Of the seven grandkids, JoAnn was the only one who lived in Dayton and she became her granddad’s pal.

“He had one (dolly) that he’d put a towel on and he’d say, ‘You lay on this one,’ ” she remembered. “He’d get on the wooden one and then we’d both slide under the cars so he could work.

“When they’d come to get his race car to go to the track, he’d say, ‘OK, help Grandpa push it up on the trailer.’ I was just a little girl, but I wanted to help.”

Over the years, once the car left the garage, it might head to any one of numerous regional tracks from New Bremen and Eldora to, in the early years, the tight-paved oval at Mount Lawn Speedway, near New Castle, Indiana, a prime stop on the old Mutual Racing Association roadster circuit of the late 1940s.

When the cars returned home, the repair work would begin along with the race talk.

That’s where Ross said he first learned of Wendell Scott and soon was so enamored that he began to clip out every mention of him he found in newspapers and magazines and pasted them in a scrapbook.

After starring at Chaminade in football and getting some college interest, Ross announced to his parents he instead planned to go racing after graduation.

They put their foot down and that’s when he found an unexpected compromise. He got an offer from Bethune Cookman, an HBCU that happens to be in Daytona Beach, Florida, home of the Daytona 500.

He went down, wrangled a side job from a white radio station to spin records for a black audience on Saturday mornings and managed to get a press pass to cover the 500. As soon as he got in the Speedway, he beelined for Scott, they hit it off and over the years — although Ross would end up back at Ball State and then Central State — the two stayed friends.

“Charlie Black and Wendell Scott became the two biggest influences in my racing,” Ross said.

Ross eventually began racing at Queen City Speedway in West Chester, but the aging Black never had a chance to see him compete before he died in 1986.

“I really regret that.” Ross said. “I wanted him to be proud of me.”

Going places

As she sat in her North Dayton home the other day, JoAnn held up a photo of one of her grandfather’s modified cars:

“This is the car I knew. I’d sit in it and go ‘rrrrrr….rrrrrr….rrrrrr.’ ” And I remember my grandfather telling me, ‘One day Grandpa’s gonna put his baby a race car!’

“And I said, ‘I don’t want no race car, Grandpa. I want a baby doll!’”

And while she never did take him up on his offer, JoAnn did get something out of all that time in her granddad’s garage.

“Changing a tire was simple for me,” she said. “Working the jack, shoot, that was no problem. And I could check the radiator fluid and slide under there and change the oil.”

She started to laugh: “Well, at least I used to. If I did now I’d be stuck under the car.”

Kenny Richardson learned a thing or two at that garage, as well: “When I started riding bicycles, I’d take them to Charlie and he’d help me fix ‘em.”

But when it came to discovering the bigger world beyond West Dayton, he did it not through horsepower, but with the Hammond organ he played.

He and Connie knew each other since second grade and both had attended Roosevelt High. They formed a duo and as they once told me, their big break came when they were playing “between the bumps and the grinds “ at the Pink Pussycat strip club south of town.

They signed with an agent they met there and soon were on a six-month tour of the Orient. Two years later, in 1973, they were playing in New Zealand, Thailand and the Figi Islands.

In over 20 years on the road, they played all across the U.S. — and the Miami Valley — and shared the stage with the likes of Little Richard, Joe Tex, Bobby “Blue” Bland and The Fifth Dimension.

While Kenny is now at the Maria Joseph rehabilitation center recovering from a broken hip, the warmth and laughter that came as he talked about Charlie Black’s garage seemed to be good medicine for him.

Jerome Johnson, who gravitated to the garage after his father died when he was 10, had a similar response and Steve Ross said he still feels the influence of Charlie Black.

Along with Virgil Oatts, Ross has been a guiding force in the Spirit 4 Racing youth program that was launched here over a year ago and has provided on-track instruction and go-kart competition while also using racing in the classroom to teach mathematics, science, engineering and the arts.

And that brings us to one last remembrance by JoAnn:

“I can remember the men bringing the car back to Grandpa after they’d gone racing and when they backed it into the garage, they said, ‘Here Charlie, we got this for you.’ It was the money they’d won. He took it and pulled off $3 and gave it to me.

“I was like ‘Hot diggity! Hot diggity dog!’ ”

Like Steve Ross said, there was some magic in that garage.

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