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  • The Racial Desegregation of Dayton, Ohio, Public Schools, 1966–2008
  • Joseph Watras (bio)

According to Gary Orfield, the most racially segregated cities and those the NAACP found most difficult to reform were older, formerly industrial metropolises where smaller, independent suburbs hemmed in the central school district. Orfield added that in 1996 these factors appeared in combination with intense housing segregation in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and New Jersey, making them the most segregated states.1

Dayton, Ohio, fits Orfield's description of an older, formerly industrial metropolis where racial segregation persisted despite many efforts for change. In 1960, it had a population of about 260,000 residents who lived within its fifty square miles. Two decades later, the city's population had dropped to about 190,000, largely because industries such as Frigidaire, Dayton Tire, and National Cash Register moved their production facilities away from the city, taking with them most of the area's manufacturing and related service jobs. Although the city lost middle-class residents steadily throughout the period, the 1976 racial desegregation of schools was not the significant reason for the drop in population. At any rate, racial segregation in housing persisted. In 1988, Douglas Massey found the housing patterns in Dayton and its suburbs to be the third most racially segregated among the fifty largest metropolitan areas in the United States. According to Massey, the metropolitan areas with higher levels of racial segregation than Dayton were Cleveland, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois.2 [End Page 93]

Because Dayton fits the typical image of a midwestern formerly industrial center, the story of the efforts to implement racial desegregation in the schools illuminates how such programs rose and fell in the Midwest. To illustrate these shifts, this article will have three main parts. The first is a brief explanation of how racial segregation began in the city and how conditions in Dayton related to those in some other parts of the country. The second discusses the various factions, the roles they played, and the process leading to the successful integration of the schools. The conclusion will offer some descriptions of how those programs unraveled in subsequent years.3

Racial Segregation in Dayton

Dayton had a long history of racial segregation. In 1849, before the events surrounding the U.S. Civil War ended slavery, the Dayton school district opened a school for black children supported entirely by free African American taxpayers. The practice changed in 1887, when the Ohio General Assembly adopted a resolution saying that regulations about education had to apply to all children regardless of race or color.4 According to R. W. Steele, former president of the Dayton Board of Education, this legislation did not lead to the racial desegregation of Dayton schools, because black parents did not ask to move their children to schools with white children.5

Steele's observation about Dayton was true for most northern states. According to Davison Douglas, when the legislatures in northern states enacted laws prohibiting the exclusion of black students from public schools, school administrators assigned children to separate schools because the children lived in separate neighborhoods. Thus, when school officials created residential attendance zones and so-called neighborhood schools, their policies made the schools racially segregated.6

In Dayton, officials could easily maintain racial segregation because the city had an intensely segregated residential pattern. In part, it resulted from personal choice as white and black immigrants from southern states moved into Dayton between the world wars, searching for work in automobile factories, in the airplane industry, and at the National Cash Register Company. [End Page 94] In addition, the federal government encouraged segregation. Fearing the decline of housing values in racially integrated neighborhoods, the Federal Housing Authority required covenants forbidding sale to African Americans from 1910 to 1950. It made such restrictions to protect the organization from losing money from the mortgages it insured. Recognizing that changing neighborhoods resulted in decreased property values, the FHA asked for the covenants in deeds on all homes in Dayton except on the west side of the city. Because the Great Miami River divided the city from north to south, it separated the races as well.7

When the school board decided...


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