Dunbar's Dayton

Population Trends
From 1870 to 1920 Dayton's African-American community grew steadily, with the largest increase in the decade 1910-1920, the time of the "Great Migration" from the South to the North.

% of total population

African-Americans migrated to Dayton both from the South and from Ohio's rural areas and small towns. This was part of a great rural-to-urban trend in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1870 38% of Ohio's black population lived in urban areas; by 1920 it was 74%. (The corresponding figures for the general Ohio population were 25% urban in 1870 and 64% urban in 1920.) Furthermore, the percentage of Ohio's African-Americans living in just the seven largest metropolitan areas of the state had grown from 18% to 49% during this same period, 1870-1920.

Residential Patterns
Before 1880 African-Americans in Dayton lived in various neighborhoods, usually located near the central business district. One such area, known as "Little Africa", was a district just south of downtown, between the Great Miami River on the west and the Miami and Erie Canal on the east, on Washington, Zeigler, and Bayard streets. Paul Laurence Dunbar and his mother lived at 140 Zeigler Street for a time during the 1890s. After 1880 many blacks in Dayton chose to reside on the West Side, west of the Miami River, where a real estate boom was taking place. Several blocks of West Fifth Street became the social, commercial, and cultural center of the African-American community. Usually denied access to downtown businesses and institutions, many shops, restaurants, and theaters on West Fifth catered to black customers. A separate branch of the Dayton YMCA was built here. Paul Laurence Dunbar's last home, on Summit Street (now Paul Laurence Dunbar Avenue) was just a few blocks away, but so was the Hawthorn Street home of Bishop Milton Wright and his sons Wilbur and Orville. Dayton's West Side at the turn of the 20th century was not yet the almost completely segregated black ghetto that it would become in later years.

Paul Laurence Dunbar graduated from Dayton's Central High School in 1891, the only African-American member of the class, and he had been an excellent student and very active in extra-curricular activities. But what was the larger picture as far as education for Dayton's African-Americans went in those years? Ohio had begun to establish a system of segregated schools for blacks in 1849, but they were few in number, with extremely poor facilities and resources and few qualified teachers. As late as 1870 only about half of black children in Ohio attended these schools, which in any case only offered work up to the sixth grade (or even less). About 70% of whites attended school in this period. In the 1880s Ohio began to strengthen compulsory education requirements, and in 1887 it officially abolished the segregated nature of the educational system. School integration usually meant that many black teachers lost their positions. In Dayton this did happen, but some black teachers kept their jobs teaching in schools or classrooms that were unofficially designated as "black" despite the new state law. In fact, blacks were far more likely to attend and graduate from high school in places where this kind of "informal" segregation persisted. In 1905, for example, the eleven blacks who graduated from nearby Xenia's "black" high school was greater than the combined total of black high school graduates that year in Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Springfield. ,A few talented and ambitious blacks like Dunbar did receive an educational opportunity in Ohio's public schools, but in the late 19th century they were the exception, not the rule.

Most African-Americans throughout Ohio and the nation in the late 19th and early 20th century looked to the Republican Party as their natural affiliation, if they looked to politics at all. The "Grand Old Party" looked back to its founding opposition to slavery expansion and its role in leading the Union to victory in the Civil War. By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, though, new social and economic issues competed for attention and tended to re-define the character of Republicanism. Blacks in northern states did sometimes obtain patronage appointments from the Republicans, and occasionally white Republicans denounced racial discrimination or supported formal equality, as in the repeal of the segregated school laws in 1887. Dayton's African-American community lagged well behind its counterparts in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati in terms of political power and privilege. At a time when these larger cities routinely elected state representatives and local councilmen, the best that Dayton blacks could do was to form an informal "Black Cabinet" of businessmen and professionals to advise white politicians on issues of importance to them. As late as 1910, black political appointees in Dayton consisted merely of two deputy clerks, two policemen, and one court messenger.

Employment, Business, and Professions
Economic opportunity was real, but starkly limited by racial prejudice and discrimination. Before the turn of the century Dayton's African-Americans most frequently toiled as domestic servants or unskilled laborers. Craft unions generally excluded blacks from the building trades. A few had positions as teachers, ministers, lawyers, and doctors, working in the context of a segregated community and serving a predominantly black clientele. William Burns, Dayton's first black physician, was a close personal friend of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Some black businessmen also prospered with the growth of the West Side. Moses Moore opened the nation's first black-owned and operated amusement park, called Dahomey Park, in 1910. White patronage was allowed but not encouraged. A professional black baseball team owned by Moore, the Dayton Marcos, also played in a stadium on the grounds of Dahomey Park. Opportunities for employment in white-owned businesses and industries was highly restricted, depending on the beliefs and policies of the management. National Cash Register Company had hired some blacks as plant clean-up personnel, but replaced all of them in 1906 with young white men. The stated rationale was that these workers, unlike the blacks, would have the opportunity to work their way up to higher-level positions with the company. A few smaller white-owned businesses and factories did hire black workers, usually because of the personal beliefs and attitudes of the owner.

SOURCE: David Gerber, Black Ohio and the Color Line, 1860-1915 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976), passim.