Tales of Xenia: Euphoric recall “Everything was always great between the races, still is, I swear!”

21 Jun

xenia on the map

Dear Reader, I have been engaged over the past couple of days in discussions with people on Facebook about race in my hometown of Xenia. I have discovered that a lot of the white folks about my age and some other age groups as well, believe things about Xenia that are not true, have never been true and will never be true. Xenia is a typical midwestern small town which has fallen, like most small midwestern towns, on hard times. The devastating Xenia tornado in 1974 changed our town physically, psychologically and most importantly, demographically.

Because the more affluent folks had insurance and the SBA was handing out 4% loans to repair homes damaged, a lot of them chose to move out of Xenia. Xenia was originally an agricultural center, but obviously by 1974, even though we still had a grain elevator downtown, we were no longer living on agriculture. The school system has probably never been more than adequate, there is limited shopping , was even in 1974, although it was better, and therefore, unless you just love the old place like some of us do there was no reason to wait for your house to be rebuilt. They just moved to Beavercreek or Centerville, both towns that were considered more upscale and not coincidentally had very few people of color in them.

So, our doctors and lawyers and successful businessmen took advantage and moved out and on in many cases kind of elevating the pecking order of teachers and minor businessmen and businesswomen. The tax base suffered. Currently the schools are almost totally disconnected from the community and seem to be led by a truly clueless superintendent. I have not met the woman but have heard nothing good said about her from any quarter. The schools are losing 300 students a year.

So this is Xenia. I grew up in the black section of town, the East End. At one point in history it seems that the white people lived in the East End and the black people lived in the west end. Because we continue to be segregated even unto death, there is a black cemetery in the west end and a white cemetery in the East End. Someone said those were both created when they would have been outside of the town before it grew, but even so I presume you would plant your loved ones in their apartheid resting places closer to where the folks who looked like them lived. It is a mystery and the source of many urban legends about why the change occurred. None of them imply that it was for the good of the black folks.

Xenia was, in my childhood seriously segregated. I am not old enough to remember the movie theaters being segregated but I have been told by people I trust that you could not go to some theaters, I believe at one time we had three, we currently have none, and if you could go you had to sit in certain sections. My sister-in-law Thelma Weakley tells of baby sitting white kids and taking them to the movies. They, of course, wanted to sit in the white section so they did. The usher came and told her she had to move. She pointed out the difficulty. If she moved she would have to take the white children to the black section. He would not allow that. She could not leave them alone in the white section so they were at a stalemate, until that is, their father, the movie manager came in and told the usher to leave her alone.

The schools were segregated and the black schools, East High and Lincoln Elementary were next door to my house. We received books that had been marked “discard” and periodically students had to be sent to sit ( quietly) in the superintendent’s office to make them purchase supplies for labs and sports and other things. There were no blacks on the school board. The school system did not fully integrate until the mid1960s despite the Brown v Board of Education decision having been a decade before. There were restaurants in town where black people could cook but not eat. ( One of the Facebook posters took great umbrage at me pointing this out when the picture of one of these restaurants was posted on a site dedicated to Xenia history. Why, she wanted to know did I have to inject race into everything? Perhaps because growing up in Xenia when it came to restaurants and other places that discriminated race is part of my memory? We were all sharing memories, sorry mine is not as rosy as yours!)This not being the South there were no signs, you simply would not be seated or served. When I was one of the winners of a medal for placing third in the state in French on an achievement test and a couple of other black kids placed in other categories it caused a dilemma. Geyer’s Restaurant where they held the awards banquet did not allow black people to eat there. The only hotel in town, a sorry structure called the Xenia Hotel did not allow blacks to stay there. When the school system took the elementary school students to the Cincinnati Zoo on the train they put all the Lincoln students at the back of the train.

I could fill pages with the discrimination, micro-aggressions, insults, slights, exclusions and omissions due to race one was exposed to growing up in Xenia. I was spared many of them for a variety of reasons, including having a well known and well respected and perhaps slightly feared father.

It is fascinating to have white people who grew up in the same town express how oblivious they were to racism. It is mind boggling as a matter of fact. To have them engage in euphoric recall that presumes that all was well because we did not have a lot of demonstrations and marches is hilarious. One person earnestly told me in the Face Book discussion that Xenia Schools were never segregated. I presume he is on some kind of medication. Another told me that he knew Pinecrest was not segregated because it was a private golf club, but they let the integrated high school track team practice there so I needed to get my facts straight! Pinecrest is a swim club, not a golf course. “We all got along well”, is the mantra. What is meant is that I did not know that y’all were being discriminated against because it did not impact or bother me. Race is not generally on the front page for a lot of white people. People of color think and talk and read about and ponder about race virtually every day. Not that all discussions or memories or ideas about race are always negative. Thinking about race can be quite enlightening and entertaining, it certainly is for me.

I first encountered euphoric recall and historical distortion as part of the Women’s History Society of Xenia. I was the baby in the group and I was fifty at the time. We decided to publish a book about Greene County History and because I was the only person still working in academe I was tapped to be the editor. The ladies, two blacks besides me, about 9 white women, all college graduates at least, a couple of PhDs, almost all retired, were to write chapters on certain Xenia populations, individuals or groups. I was charged with writing about Tecumseh, the great Shawnee Chief. One woman proudly brought me her chapter on the Galloways, a prominent Xenia family in the early days of Xenia ( Xenia was founded in 1803). In her chapter she repeated a Xenia myth, that Rebecca Galloway, the teenaged daughter of the family had taught Tecumseh to read and he had promptly fallen in love with her. I had to gently break it to her that there was absolutely no documentary evidence to support this white supremacy myth. The idea that men of color lust after white women is woven into our culture so deeply it pops up and has popped up everywhere. Tecumseh according to all of the documents I could find was not particularly fond of either white people or women.  So, we had to scrap that part of the chapter and stick to the facts that we could establish about the Galloways.

The kids from Antioch College, almost all white, wealthy, and from the northeast, led demonstrations  against discrimination in Xenia  in the 1960s at places like Geyer’s, inspiring the enmity ,which still continues to this day to some extent, of Xenia whites. Why, there was nothing wrong with our town, blacks were treated just like everyone else, how dare those hippie, Communist, outside agitators come to our little halcyon of racial harmony and cause trouble? Even now quite a few Xenia whites consider Yellow Springs, the home of Antioch and Antioch itself to be the bastion of trouble makers. Social justice  is an alien concept to some segments of our population.

Looking back I wonder why it took the Antioch kids to push the topic of segregation in Xenia to the forefront?I do know that the community of Wilberforce, where I now live, the site of two historically black universities, kept itself to itself. My mother was the secretary to the President of Wilberforce University so i spent a lot of time in Wilberforce. The kids from Wilberforce attended Lucinda Cook Elementary on the Central State Campus, a laboratory school. I went there for nursery school as it was called in those days. They also had a secondary school called The Academy which was held in Galloway Hall on campus. That meant that the most educated and powerful black people did not have to deal with the discrimination in the Xenia Schools and they simply did not interact that much with the white people of Xenia.  Xenia and Wilberforce could still be four hundred miles apart rather than the four they actually are, in many ways. I had a white friend once joke that if Jesus Christ was appearing on Central State’s campus the white people of Xenia would say ” We will try to catch him when he goes through downtown on his way out there.”

Xenia’s racial past is nothing to be proud of with few exceptions. Xenia’s racial present is very much improved, but still has a lot of room for improvement. Employment of people of color by the county ( Xenia is the county seat) and the city has always lagged and people in positions of power in any department including the police department and sheriff’s office , are virtually non-existent. We have had two black mayors, James Henry in the 1960s and Marsha Bayless now. The mayor, alas, is basically a ceremonial job in Xenia. If not then I would have presumed certain improvements, at least in the area of hiring a more diverse work force would have been made. But, that is frequently the dilemma of any black leader. If you push for equity then you are considered a special interest person who is not representing everyone. Pissing off white people has always been dangerous and will probably continue to be so for a very long time despite the fact that according to demographers more children of color were born in the US last year than white children, something they had not expected to happen for a few more decades.

I have white friends and colleague and family members who not only get race, they get it better than some blacks. I have white friends and family members who are serious social justice warriors, some of them put me to shame. White scholars like Tim Wise and Peggy McIntosh and Joe Feagin write about white privilege and racism past and present. So, this euphoric recall, obliviousness to past racism and the resilience of racism in our country, exacerbated and exposed to a greater extent recently by the election of a black president, is not a fault in all, or even most white folks.

So, what to do? Do you try to give information to people who are happier not having it? Should you do that? Understanding the past is crucial to understanding the present and planning for the future, but if these people are so wrapped up in their inaccurate memories is it fair to burst their bubble? I have no idea. I am going to continue to correct them when they wander across my path ( most of the white people who were making these outlandish and delusional claims were encountered in a public forum, we are not friends on FB or anywhere else for that matter) and see if I can at least make them think. But you know what they say, you can lead a person towards the truth, but you cannot make them think.

Xenia is my hometown and I love it, warts and all. Sometimes though I wish we had a bit more Yellow Springs in us and a lot less Mayberry.


8 responses to “Tales of Xenia: Euphoric recall “Everything was always great between the races, still is, I swear!”

  1. David Heath

    June 21, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Cookie, my father was on the Xenia School Board for all of my elementary and high school years. Before he died, he wrote a short biography that he wanted to have read at his funeral. In it, he said that beyond his wife and children that his proudest accomplishment was participating in the desegregation of the Xenia Schools, closing East High and Lincoln. He mentions a number of folk from Wilberforce that he worked with.

    I remember so well in 1960 when you and I entered 7th grade at Central, how strange it was to have so many black kids in the school. I know now that we lived in parallel universes, but at the time I was unaware of it. Still, predominantly white Xenia High School students elected Tina Ingels as homecoming queen in 1963 (64?). Looking back, that was a pretty amazing happening. I have no idea if any other black homecoming queens have been elected.

    You are correct–there used to be three movie theatres downtown Xenia. One of them, I think it was the Ohio on the west side of North Detroit that had a “Negroes Only” balcony. I remember wanting to sit in the balcony because I thought it would be fun to be up high. But my mother told me that white people were not allowed to sit in the balcony.

    The idea that Xenia, or another other town in the U.S., doesn’t have it’s full share of racism is just plain ignorant.

    Thank you for sharing your point of view, Cookie. I’m proud to have someone so articulate as a friend.

    • minerva5

      June 23, 2013 at 10:28 pm

      Social justice has nothing to do with reparations. But, for some reason some of my fellow citizens, like yourself, seem to confuse advocating for equal opportunity to be the same thing as asking for a handout. We could cut black unemployment by at least half if all of our citizens of any color would simply ask one question when you are in businesses, agencies, schools, colleges, and civic settings, ” Where are the black people?” or ” Why aren’t there any black people here?” It would not cost you a dime of your precious money, just ask the question and listen carefully to the answer. If they say ” They do not want to be.” that is a lie, if they say, ” None of them are qualified.” that is a lie, if they say ” I don’t know.” that is a lie.

    • Larry Landaker

      November 25, 2013 at 5:38 pm

      I have been a fan of Cookie’s blogs and her honest commentary is rarely found among our friends’ social media. I had forgotten that your dad served on the school board during those days..he had some help from Brown v Topeka of course, but carrying out the law took careful skill in those days and in Xenia it seems that for the MOST part it worked out pretty well…

      Larry Landaker

  2. Harlan Underhill

    June 23, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    This is a wonderful evocation of the disparity between black awareness and white obliviousness. Although I am white, the only triggering phrase for me in the whole story was “social justice” and that because for me it seems to be code for “reparations.”

    Perhaps in Xenia, “social integration” is still problematic, but non-discrimination in employment and real estate purchase is the law of the land and I’m not aware (but I live in a liberal university town) of anyone who is interested in restoring or perpetuating segregation by color. What is of interest is whether the black community is interested in redistribution by taxes of wealth. That, in my simple minded view, is the real sticking point.

    Even in the march in Detroit yesterday, commemorating a march 50 years ago when Dr. Martin Luther King gave a trial version of his I have a dream speech, one of the leaders of the march, a pastor, interviewed on the radio, spoke of how Detroit had been destroyed by the presumably white outstate voters denying the money owed to the city. My memory of the depopulation of the city is somewhat different.

    So, I think the problems of race in the modern day, from my white point of view, come down to economics, exclusively. I’ve benefited from white privilege, but when I’ve tried to help specific individuals get an education, the opportunities have been thrown away. I don’t know what else to do except pay someone’s tuition and offer to tutor so they will know the material so well they cannot fail the course in math or English or whatever.

    I personally sweat blood to acquire what little real knowledge I have. But I persisted. There is no easy way to learn anything that I know of. Now I will grant you, that had I had to endure the traumas perhaps every black person must endure in America, I don’t think I would have survived. But beyond offering to teach, personally, I don’t know what else to do to “give back,” to try to compensate for the benefits I have received from seldom having to compete with black scholars. I am certainly not going to devote any more of my limited cash resources to the project when my offer of myself and my time is not picked up. It’s as if the anger is so deep, that the only way out anyone knows, is either unrecognized or despised.

  3. Larry Landaker

    November 25, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    I have written to you in the past because I enjoy your blogs very much. Like David Heath, I grew up on Xenia’s north end. I went to Shawnee, then Central and XHS, graduating in ’68. My parents were relatively progressive for those times (my stepfather graduated from Antioch). The use of the N word was forbidden in our home and we were taught to respect people of color. I had a handfull of black friends growing up–Mitchell Waterman, Bob Miles, Tom Craft, August Garner…to mention a few. However, not a one was ever in my home, nor I in theirs. Outside of school or sports we rarely interacted. It’s just the way it was then. We lacked a framework for talking about our differences and perceptions. To my recollection, Pinecrest Swim Club did not have a single black member well into the 70’s. Race relations in Xenia were generally polite or supressed though everyone felt the undercurrents of real tension by the late 60’s. There were some truly ugly incidents during my senior year in 1968. Over the course of a lifetime, I grew to better understand other cultures and the black experience in particular… as well as a white man can. I do despair that whites in general still struggle when it comes to seeing racism for what it is…they love to deny it and truly believe it when they do. Maybe race relations are better than they were 50 years ago…but I’m not so sure…

  4. Mariellen

    February 2, 2016 at 11:40 pm

    A friend from Xenia introduced me to your blog and I love it! My family moved from Dayton to Bellbrook in the late 70’s. I worked at Greene Co. pool for many summers in the early 80’s. I saw exactly what you saw. I still see it in some people from Bellbrook and Xenia. Thank you for writing and excellent blog.

  5. kerose98

    October 8, 2016 at 11:51 pm

    The year was 1982. I was a sophomore at Xenia High School. That afternoon we would have the Black History Month assembly put on by United Students. Having been born in 1965 and being brought up on “Sesame Street,” and attending an integrated, albeit mostly white church, I really thought we were beyond racism and prejudice. It was drilled into me from a young age that racism is just plain wrong. We had a number of African American friends who visited our house. The message was further reinforced by my grandparents who lived across town – one day a friend of theirs was visiting who used a racially derogatory term to which they replied, “Please don’t use that word – it offends us.” I think this was in the 1970’s. I am writing this to tell you of two things that shocked me as a teenager.

    It was before the Black History assembly took place that an announcement was made that the place students not wanting to attend the assembly was changed to the auditorium – this was due to the high number of these non-attendees. I remember very well walking to the assembly that was taking place in the gymnasium and seeing some of these people in the “not going to assembly” line. I was surprised by some of the particular people I saw. It was a very eye opening experience. Even though I am white I never understood racism.

    A couple years later, I acquired my first job as a church organist (this happened to be outside of Xenia), and I was surprised that the church I was serving had absolutely no black people! I didn’t understand. When I asked my parents about it, they said, “Most churches are segregated – I’m afraid our church is an exception to the rule.”

    Yes, I am all too well aware of racism in Xenia, even though I live on the west coast now. By the way, how can any sane person vote for Donald Trump for president? You should know that racism is alive and well on the west coast – unfortunately.

    • minerva5

      October 9, 2016 at 12:07 am

      The most disturbing thing for me is the people that deny he is racist and continue to support him now that he has bragged about sexually assaulting women. My only guess is that so many people have become disenchanted with politics that they want to hand the reins over to a lunatic to see what happens.


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