Editor’s note: This week marks the 50th anniversary of the worst race riots in Dayton’s history. In a special report, our news partners at the Dayton Daily News look back on what fueled the riots and analyzing how far we have — or have not — come. Read the full “Lasting Scars: The 1966 Dayton Riots” special report here.
Lester Mitchell was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his apartment at 1020 West Fifth Street after 3 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1966, when the shotgun blast tore through his face.
“All I saw was the red (of the car), and the barrel of the gun,” neighbor Tommy Campbell told the Dayton Daily News later that day. “All I could tell was they were white men. Somebody said Les had been shot.”
In a city where housing segregation crammed 60,000 black residents into what many perceived as a ghetto with neglected schools and discriminatory city services, the senseless killing was more than a spark. It was a volcanic eruption.
Before the day was over, looting, arrests, riots and the armed response of National Guardsmen would put Dayton in the national spotlight as the latest American city roiling in the grip of spontaneous rage.
A sort of order was restored that day, but 50 years later many wonder whether the cultural divide that separated east from west, black from white and rich from poor is fundamentally different today.
The Dayton metropolitan area is the 14th most-segregated large metropolitan area in the nation, according to a Brookings Institute analysis of U.S. Census data. The Great Miami River still represents a cultural divide.
The region’s lowest-performing schools are on the west side and overwhelmingly black, more than a decade after Dayton became the last Ohio city released from a federal de-segregation order. Montgomery County’s poorest census tract is in west Dayton and is 99 percent black, while the county’s wealthiest neighborhood in Oakwood is 98 percent white.
It’s a story repeating itself — literally — over the decades.
Today, community and business leaders, and activists, are working and hoping for a long-awaited renaissance in west Dayton. Many have dedicated their livelihoods to it.
But some worry about the lasting scars the riots left behind.
“West Dayton today is worse off than west Dayton 50 years ago before the riots,” said former Dayton mayor Rhine McLin, whose father was active in trying to quell the riots and address the conditions that led to them.
“Those areas were punished for rioting.”
McLin lives on the west side and called it a “desert” devoid of jobs or businesses, still working to overcome damage done by segregation.
“I see another revolution coming,” she said. “And I don’t say it’s going to be a violent revolution, but you have so many oppressed people in the city of Dayton — and I’m talking east and west Dayton — who are trying to make it, and I don’t feel anyone is hearing their voices.”