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.