The first of a series on the historic urban geography of the African American community.
Notes on Sources
Some of the sources for this are (primarily) the very detailed multi-volume genealogical history compiled by Charles Mosley Austin (particularly the church history section), the Pictorial History Dayton’s African American Heritage, by Margaret Peters, the draft history by Marjorie Loycarno at the Dayton Dialogue on Race Relations web page, and various other sources.
Since I don’t have access to census data I will use the location of churches and schools to draw some inference as to the location of African-American neighborhoods, and how they developed. This method is based on the first chapter of “Race Relations in the Urban South”, by Howard Rabinowitz. That chapter provides the geographic setting for the rest of Rabinowitzes’ book, and, together with the footnotes, provides a methodology for locating 19th century black communities.
Black Dayton in the early-mid 19th Century
Given Dayton’s proximity to the slave-holding three western counties of Virginia, later to become Kentucky, African-Americans were bound to be among the early settlers. In Dayton they came as indentured servants, which is one way Kentucky and Virginia settlers brought their slaves to the new states of the free Northwest Territory.
There were some early free black settlers, too, as old histories mention two blacks, one a barber, as partners in running an early stage line to Cincinnati.
Black population expands with the arrival of the canal, dips due to a race riot, then expands slowly, then faster after the Civil War and Emancipation
Africa, Dayton’s lost Canal Workers Settlement
The first identifiably black neighborhood was on the edge of town. Know as “Africa”, the settlement was along Seelys Ditch, east of the Oregon, the area later known as the Haymarket. The blacks here came to dig and build the canal (perhaps they also worked on Seelys Ditch?). The first black church was organized in this settlement, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME for short) congregation. Austin’s table of congregations locates the AME church at the corner of McCain & Plum.
This settlement brings to mind the famous Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport,which was also a settlement of (Irish) canal workers on the outskirts of town. Unlike Bridgeport it did not survive to our time.
Africa settlement was the victim of the first racial disturbance recorded in Dayton. There are two accounts. This is from Michael Ohmers’ memoir
The Negro Settlement was along Seeley's Ditch about that time. One night it was reported that they held a white woman there against her will. A lot of men went to take her away with the result that a white man, McLarey, was stabbed to death, the following night the Negro town was reduced to ashes, the murderer was captured and sent to the Pen for life.
It was a pitiful sight the morning of the fire to see the Negroes carrying their belongings. The men and women had bundles and the children had chickens. They left the country. For a while negroes were scarce in Dayton
The other from the Dayton Dialogue on Race Relations history, based on the Edgar memoir
In 1841 Dayton experienced its first race riot. According to some accounts, the violence began after a light -skinned black woman, believed to be white, moved to a black resort known as the Paul Pry. A white, pro-slavery mob stormed the area in late January, and the owner of one cabin stabbed and killed the leader of the mob, Nat McCleary.
A week later, in the sub -zero temperatures of early February, whites retaliated by driving black people out of their homes and burning several cabins. A number of black residents died from exposure, and many left town.
(The Paul Pry was probably an inn or tavern of some sort)
Later in history, in the South, the fear of miscegenation was often a spark that set off white lynch mobs, but they usually didn’t burn out the black neighborhoods. There are examples of that though. .
The end of “Africa” also was the end of the AME congregation; the AME denomination didn’t return until after the Civil War.
This neighborhood was later rebuilt and was mostly German, an extention of the Orgeon, though, as we have seen, the Dunbars and their relatives did live there in the 1870s.
Today, nothing is left of the Haymarket as urban renewal there removed the old streets, except for one ghost street, so it would be difficult find the location of the old church.
Developing Congregations and Insitutions
“Africa” was not the only places African Americans lived in Dayton. Apparently blacks were attending the abolitionist Union Church on Main Street, and formed the Wesleyan Church around 1841 in the neighborhood between South Ludlow and Perry Streets.
This congregation continues today as First Wesleyan probably the oldest in the city. The Short Wilkinson church was the place where the Emancipation Proclamation was first read in Dayton.
Austin’s table of churches mentions other congregations. One that predated the Civil War was the United Brethren Colored Mission, which met at various places, starting in 1858 in the Oregon, but settled in at the intersection of Court & Ludlow, near the old Union Station. The U.B.s had a second mission, which eventually relocated to the west side and became McKinley Methodist Church.
There were other denominations and insitution, like the Colored Methodist Episcopal CME) and the Episcopalean St Mary Mission, and the various locations of the “colored school” (segregated education ended in Ohio 1887, by statute, though it might have continued informally).
Like other immigrant groups the black community developed mutual aid socities, like the Colored First Voters and the early (1849) American Sons of Protection, and fraternal socities, with a black Masonic lodge forming in 1871. These met, at first, at locations in downtown Dayton.
(you will have to click on the map to enlarge due to the tiny text)
The Cradle of Black Dayton: South of Union Station
A close up of the neighborhoods south of downtown, showing some key locations in early black history, based on an 1875 map. Austin’s table of congregations notes that the Wesleyan Church started on Washington Street (probably in a home) but then moved to Short Wilkinson. Note that when this church was established this was on the edge of town, a fairly new plat.
The blacks apparently shared this area with Catholics, mostly Germans, from the start, due to the first Catholic church , Emmanuel, being located here in the late 1830s.
Wesleyan built a brick church in the 1850s, similar in style to the old German Baptist church on St Annes Hill, or the old brick church in Liberty (Jefferson Twp).
Blacks were prohibited from the public schools until 1840s when laws changed to permit their attendance. The first black public school in First Wesleyan, but then moved nearby to a building on Ziegler Street.
The black YMCA also got its start here, as one of the very early institutions in the black community, as a women’s club at the Eaker Street Church
The AME denomination returned in the 1867 after the Civil War, starting at Court & Ludlow meeting in halls downtown and eslewhere. One was McLausland’s Hall on Wayne Avenue ( which also hosted a black Baptist congregation), which makes one wonder if there was a connection between the Dunbar’s, and their relatives, first living in the vicinity of Wayne.
The AME eventually settled on Eaker Street, directy across from the railroad yards and Union Station.
And a brief look at Court Street. The corner building at Court and Ludlow appears as the home for three black congregations at different times, so perhaps this street was an early black neighborhood. The areas directly north of Union Station and the Joint Tracks, Mead, Fifth, and maybe Maple, might have had a small black community as the school relocated to Fifth, Dunbars’ father lived on Mead briefly, and the Episcopal mission was on Fifth.
Early Black Neighborhoods
One can infer due to the location of the congregations and school that where the early black communities where. One can see how they clustered around the railroad yards and station, reminiscent of Chicago’s early Black Belt on Federal Street, next the railroad lines coming into the city.
(The black stars show the locations of the Dunbars, both Paul and Matilda, but also Joshua, who appears in the city directory at some of these locations)
Perhaps there was a bit of a port-of-entry function to these early neighborhoods around the tracks? Black migrants would be arriving by train, and there is evidence of two black hotels on Ludlow Street right at the tracks, so they might have been places of first settlement.
Eventually the one to the south of Union Station, between Ludlow and the river, would be nicknamed “Hells Half Acre” around 1910.
None of these old 19th century close-in neighborhoods survive, torn down by commercial expansion, freeway construction, and urban renewal. About the only institution left in this part of Dayton with a connection to this early black community is the congregation on Buckeye Street, at Pulaski, which was the home to two of the UB Colored Missions..
But its interesting to see that the black community really started out east of the river, but never expanded in this area to the east, into South Park or the Oregon, or north of 4th Street. And the early "Africa" community never got a chance to grow.
The story of the expansion of the black commuity really belongs to the west side.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
The first of a series on the historic urban geography of the African American community.