On an overcast September morning, a month after John Crawford died, I stood in front of the Wal-Mart where police gunned him down. Years had passed since I had spent any amount of time at the department store, and I had not lived in the Dayton area in well over a decade. But while visiting family in Ohio, I wanted to attend the protest of the killing. By then the Ferguson shooting had created ripples of dissent throughout the nation, and these had already reached me.
Along with nearly a hundred others, my long-time best friend, Tessa, and I were planning to walk eleven heavy-hearted miles in an attempt to rouse social consciousness. We would start from the Wal-Mart in Beavercreek where we stood and end at Xenia’s courthouse, where the county’s cases were handled. A grand jury was hearing evidence on whether to indict the police officers that had killed Crawford over a month before, on August 5th.
The shooting had occurred just four days before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. Their stories were quite distinct but the result was the same: another young Black male dead at the hands of police. Although Crawford’s case received less national attention, the local community had been riled into several occasions of gathering, chanting, and calling for accountability.
A key difference in the cases was that, unlike in Ferguson, there was clear-cut evidence: video footage from the Wal-Mart security cameras. But at that time, the recording had not yet been released to the public; so some of the protestors’ black t-shirts demanded in bold white lettering, “Release the Tape!” Others implicated the officer in the Ferguson killing with “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
To commemorate Crawford, we formed a giant circle on the sidewalk near the outdoor vending machines. I was trembling slightly from the cold as my right hand found the warmth of Tessa’s left, which enveloped mine. I looked over at her, a rare “six-foot Asian,” as she liked to call herself, with long black hair, and an almost mythological presence in my life. We had been best friends since we were nine years old. Being at the store invoked memories of our teenage years when we would drift up and down the aisles at 1:00 a.m., sniffing beauty products or scanning the newest CD selections while gushing about boy crushes and our dream careers.
On the way to the event, we had discussed the shooting.
“I just think about how the world sees anyone with brown skin and I think about my children,” Tessa told me.
I thanked god out loud that her two bi-racial children were girls. She looked at me with raised eyebrows.
“That doesn’t mean they are safe.”
We railed against the needlessness, the sadness, the absolute tragedy of another shooting, another life gone, and so much potential lost.
Later, the release of the tape to the public confirmed these beliefs.
In the video, twenty-two-year-old Crawford is roaming the aisles of the department store and gabbing into the phone with the mother of his two children when he comes across an air rifle openly resting on a shelf. He absent-mindedly picks up the fake, unloaded gun and begins to fidget with it while he continues to hold the phone to his ear with his other hand. He swings it at his side, and up to his shoulder as if he is a kid playing a soldier in a game.
What Crawford does not know is that meanwhile a man named Ronald Ritchie is calling 911, telling the dispatcher that a six-foot-tall “Black male” has a gun. Of course, nothing is more frightening to America than a Black man with a weapon, and certainly these words on their own can trigger a full response from the police. But Ritchie is not completely satisfied with the impact of the story he is telling, so he falsifies details, adding that Crawford is “pointing it at children.”
Crawford is completely unaware of the alarm he has raised, and there are no outward signs to give him a hint. A customer with two children strolls casually by him. He continues to twiddle the bee-bee gun, pointed downward, at his side, never shouldering or aiming it.
Then, suddenly, the police appear with guns drawn. Immediately upon seeing him, they shoot him. He is down before he could possibly register what is happening. While Crawford tries to crawl away from the officers to safety, they shoot him again.
At the rally before the walk, a priest delivered blessings to uplift our spirits, a poet summoned healing with his spoken word, and we offered roses to an improvised memorial. A young woman, dressed in a shirt that read “Unapologetically Black,” sang an old civil rights hymn. As I listened to her, the chilled air seemed to settle right into me, and my eyes filled with tears. I hadn’t known Crawford, so the depth of my grief surprised me. But I guess the depth of it is also what makes it less surprising. That kind of grief goes way beyond one man.
When I tell people I experienced overt racism and intolerance while growing up they are often shocked. I’m only thirty-three years old, and they thought racism was a relic of the past, something worn and tired, gathering dust on the shelves of civil rights museums. They also thought it was regionally confined, so they are even more surprised when I tell them, “near Dayton, Ohio.” They were expecting Mississippi or Alabama, or some other southern state that is notorious for its history of Confederate flags and midnight cross-burnings.
But racism is everywhere in America. Its roots were planted in Plymouth, and it spread in every direction, not just the south. The difference is that some land was more fertile. The difference is the degree to which it sprouted and thrived in some places more than others.
My father once told me that he and my mother had chosen to live in Xenia because it was “integrated.” That was important to them because he was a liberal and she was an immigrant from El Salvador.
At the time, I didn’t know what integrated meant. I only knew that at my elementary school, I was nestled securely in the middle of the color scale. My friends’ names were Felicia as well as Jane, and it didn’t matter whether their dolls had brown skin or blonde hair; I played with both. My teachers were Ms. Johnson, a young white brunette who kissed the tops of Band-Aids she placed on my hand and Ms. Jackson, a Black woman whose deep voice carried gospel when she taught math. My school sponsored an annual fieldtrip to visit the house of a white abolitionist who had run a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Mildred Taylor was recommended reading at the book fairs. This was what ‘integrated’ meant.
In 1903, sociologist Richard R. Wright Jr, published his research, “The Negroes of Xenia, Ohio: A Social Study (1830-1900).” At the time of the study, Blacks constituted 22.9% of Xenia’s population, making it the largest percentage in the state and a source of interest. The area, with a number of free people of color and white abolitionists, played a significant role in the Underground Railroad.
Then, in the decade after the Civil War, the Black population doubled. Over a hundred years later, in 1990, a year after my family moved away from Xenia, the African American population had fallen, but was still substantial, at approximately 14% of about 25,000 residents.
My racial ‘coming of age’ happened the first day at my new school. As I entered my new classroom, I immediately noticed that something was odd, even if I couldn’t understand what it meant. There was a likeness among the other students that I did not share, with my thick black hair and tanned skin. The other kids snubbed me, and then at mid-day in the cafeteria, over the roar of high-pitched voices and clanging trays, a boy shouted at me that I was a “dirty Mexican.”
By the end of middle school I knew almost every racial slur, because all of them had been aimed at me. But at the time I didn’t fully understand how much these words mattered, how widely and deeply they could seep into an area’s culture, or how long they could last. But perhaps our middle school’s mascot, the Indian Valley Redskins, could have given me a hint.
When Census employees trekked through housing developments and across corn and soy fields to go door to door in Enon for the 1990 Census, they counted only twelve African Americans of the 2,600 residents. The largest minority population was Asians, at thirty-nine, because overseas military men had brought home wives and settled near Wright Patterson Air Force Base, just ten miles from Enon. In total, the minority population was only fifty-seven; so Enon was 98% white.
I sometimes wonder if I could list a majority of the families and the names that comprised that census number. I suppose that my sister, brother, mother, and I were four of the five listed as “other”; and perhaps my father was thrown in as the fifth as punishment for his miscegeny.
The Douglas family would be counted in the twelve African Americans. The twin brothers, Shawn and Deylon, were the same age as me, and as a sixth grader I had a crush on the latter. I would crayon different shades of brown into my coloring books as I filled in pictures of little boys on playgrounds that I imagined were Deylon.
Tessa, her brother, mother, and grandmother, were four of the thirty-nine Asians. Tessa’s mother, Sophie, came to the United States from Taiwan when she was thirteen years old, after her mother had met an airman. Part of what made Tessa’s and my friendship special was that we could laugh together at our mothers’ botched idioms, exchange ethnic recipes of pot stickers and pupusas, and band against anyone who had the nerve to ask “what are you?” when they meant “what is your heritage?”
Throughout my adolescence, most of my friends belonged in one category or another of the 2% who were not white. Most of us were “half-breeds,” half-Taiwanese, half-Korean, half-Apache Indian. Half-whatever. We instinctively knew we needed to stick together, that perhaps together we could form a whole.
In his book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, James Loewen describes a sundown town as a community that purposefully excludes African Americans, or sometimes other minorities, by force, law, or custom. The terminology comes from signage that towns displayed in the early 20th century, such as “"Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Go Down On You In ___." Moreover, in order to debunk popular beliefs that overt racism was mainly confined to the South, Loewen’s research included the entire United States, although focused mainly on his home state of Illinois and the broader Midwest. The research indicated that there are nearly 140 suspected sundown towns in Ohio.
One day, when Tessa and I were in high school, we met two African American boys just before the sun had fallen completely behind the horizon. The gray skies around us still had whispers of red, orange and purple. We stood in the town’s center, where there was one lone traffic light and a few commercial buildings: the U.S. Post Office, the Corner Feed and Seed store, and a random knick knack shop. I had barely just learned and forgotten the boys’ names when suddenly the lights from a police car illuminated us. I looked over at Tessa, nervously.
The exchange between the policeman and us was brief. He told us to go home, and we followed his orders. There was no point in arguing that it was at least a couple of hours before curfew, that we had done nothing wrong, and that we were just two teenage girls who had met two teenage boys. Instead, we nodded and walked home. I had never seen our two companions before and didn’t know where home was for them, but I knew it wasn’t there in our town, Enon.
Loewen explains that the creation of sundown towns occurred following the end of the civil war, when newly freed slaves migrated all over the United States and these new settlement patterns led to a backlash. Whites began expelling Blacks from their towns in the 1890s and continued through the next few decades. Sometimes there was a triggering event: a labor dispute or an act of violence, such as a Black man killing a white one.
In Springfield, OH, one such triggering event occurred on March 5, 1904, when Richard Dickerson allegedly shot a white police officer. Afterward a mob seized Dickerson from the jail, shot him, tied a rope around his neck, and hanged him eighteen feet from the ground on a telephone pole. The mob then shot at Dickerson’s corpse for half an hour, passing revolvers from hand to hand. One newspaper account describes how “as the body swayed about from the force of the bullets the mob hooted and yelled with delight.” Afterward, Dickerson’s body hung in the air for nearly four hours.
In the days that followed the lynching, Whites also terrorized Springfield’s Black neighborhood known as the “Levee,” bombarding dwellings with bricks, stones, and bullets as the crowds cheered. The governor finally ordered militia into the area to control the riots. A couple of years later, a mob burned another Black section of town following the murder of a white railroad worker, and in 1921 Springfield had its third race riot after an eleven-year-old girl had been assaulted.
Springfield, became notorious nationwide for its racial intolerance. In African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 1915-1930, William Giffin points out that while the intolerance existed in other parts of Ohio, there were no other lynchings or race riots “comparable” to what occurred in Springfield. Yet, despite the violence, Springfield did not become a sundown town. It has maintained a large Black population, which was 17% in 1990.
But the city’s racial terrorism continued. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan began recruiting members from an operations base in Indiana. One of its very first units was set up in Springfield. The Ohio Historical Society’s website features a photograph of a 1923 Klan parade in the city’s streets.
I remember rumors of KKK rallies while I was in high school: hushed gossip about the family of so and so attending, news that there would be a counter protest, and disgust shared among my friends that this was still happening in this day and age. At the time, I wasn’t sure if the rallies were a myth or real. Later, my research revealed that the Southern Poverty Law Center documented some of the major incidents of white supremacist activity in the area. Indeed, in 1994 members of the Knights of the KKK held a rally. In 1992, unknown offenders set a cross on fire at a racially mixed family's home.
Although Enon claimed my high school, Greenon, it technically belonged to Springfield, its adjoining city. The address is in Springfield, and a large number of its students were counted in the Springfield statistical area, which included about 70,000 residents in 1990. Many of those students lived and worked on the farms that formed the city’s outer rim, which is why the Future Farmers of America had one of the fullest membership rosters of all the student organizations at our school. One look at Greenon’s parking lot was a testament to this demographic: pick-up trucks of all sizes and colors filled the gravel lot. Many of the trucks had confederate flags draped from their back windows or secured on their bumpers in the form of a sticker. This seemed to counter Ohio’s proud history of contributing more soldiers to the Union army than any other state.
But this historical fact did not stop some of the other students from shoving me in the hallways, from carving the N-word into my desk, or threatening to burn a flag in my yard. Then again, my reality never seemed to match the history books, so I quickly realized who was constructing those narratives. And my pain and anger only fueled my resolve to write my own version.
My sophomore year I pointed out their hypocrisy in a poem, entitled “Ode to the Ohio Rebel,” published in the school newspaper. Although it was an unsophisticated exercise in poetic composition, the phrases lend texture to my memory of what school was like at the time: “tight Wrangler jeans, tucked in shirts, Cowboy boots and belt buckles,” “ignorant, hateful words,” and a “weak imitation of Southern pride.” In the poem I questioned the other students’ seeming obliviousness to Ohio’s geographic location in the north. The poem caused uproar but ultimately led to victory. The harassment hit such a peak of hostility that the school administration was forced to ban the Confederate flag.
Despite the ban, the 1996 school yearbook features a photograph of five student members of the Future Farmers of America holding a Confederate flag at their waistline. The book went to print before the photo was noticed, and so the yearbook staff covered it with a Greenon Pride sticker normally given to parents and students in the orientation’s promotional materials.
A large part of Loewen’s research is dedicated to sundown suburbs, which arose between 1900 and 1968. His explanation of the rise more or less resembles what is commonly known as “white flight.” During the Great Migration, Blacks left the South to relocate in the North. However, because they were met with resistance in smaller cities and more rural towns, they became concentrated in urban ghettoes. Loewen’s research indicates that later, as the automobile gained popularity, whites achieved social status by moving away from the city and into the suburbs. In order to maintain social status, whites excluded Blacks from these newly designed spaces through violence or legal ordinances that prevented them from buying or renting in the suburbs.
My mother worked for several years as a seamstress in Beavercreek, which is a Dayton suburb. The dry cleaner’s shop where she tailored dresses and suits was situated in a shopping center that catered to students at Wright State University, which was directly across the street. I remember the days when beyond that small shopping center, there was practically nothing but fields. Over the course of time, on car rides to and from the desolate area, my family watched as the bulldozers razed the land, and construction workers mounted beams into the air. The roads were widened and soon they were jammed with traffic headed to and from the two-story mall, chain restaurants, plazas, and Wal-Mart.
Before the new commercial area was constructed, in 1990 there were just over 32,000 residents in Beavercreek. Of those, there was a sparse number of 309 African Americans. In 2013 Beavercreek came under fire from national social justice groups for the city’s race-based policies. One news source headlined that the “lily-white suburb” was “fighting to prevent Blacks from entering the community.” In 2010, Dayton’s public Regional Transportation Agency had proposed adding transit stops to Beavercreek to allow Dayton residents to access the litter of shops and restaurants in the area. According to advocates, the City of Beavercreek was purposely creating bureaucratic hurdles to prevent access to the RTA bus riders, 73% of whom were minorities. A discrimination lawsuit finally settled the matter, when the Federal Highway Administration ruled against Beavercreek.
Tessa and I walked with the other protestors the eleven miles from the Beavercreek Wal-mart to Xenia’s courthouse. The cold and gray morning turned into a cool but sunny afternoon. On the journey, we passed by miles of fields, some half-razed with spatterings of dried stalks, and some that were already barren, gathered into giant cylinders of hay. Others looked as if they were a couple of weeks behind the autumn season, with patches of grass and small purple wildflowers, a few languid butterflies fluttering across.
When the rural landscapes began to merge with Xenia’s residential neighborhoods, the group began singing. Our steps became quicker, lighter. I struggled to match the scenes with my memories, to recognize street names or predict what building I might come upon next. But the majority of what I saw was no longer familiar. And I couldn’t even say whether it had changed, or I’d simply forgotten.
We reached the town center in a frenzy of song, rally cries, and fist-pumps. Our chants crescendoed as we reached the courthouse. Then, as planned, we lowered our voices slowly, methodically, until we were whispering. Then, quietly, we lay down on the lawn in front of the courthouse for a moment of silence and a die-in for John Crawford.
As I lay sprawled on the ground, blades of grass pricked at my back through my thin t-shirt. I closed my eyes to protect them against the force of the sun, which over the past several hours had already emblazoned my cheeks, forehead, and chest with a glowing red burn. I wondered whether a younger version of myself had trotted across this very same piece of earth. I wondered what seeds I had planted here that remained: in what ways my life had touched this place or the people in it.
Although many of the memories of Xenia had faded, I knew the past was still alive around me. I saw the tailor shop where my mother had hunched for hours over a sewing machine, carefully guiding fabrics to meet the needle. The fast food restaurants roused memories of my small shifty legs on church pews, as I tried to behave in order to claim the rewarded cheeseburger I might get after mass. I imagined the fluorescent bulbs and musty smell of the library would still cause a rush of the same light-headed glee I had felt decades before. My memories were so non-specific, yet they were still attached to these places. The past was living all around me, for miles in every direction of the city, in my old neighborhood, in the old house my family had occupied, the trees I had climbed, the dirt I had tasted on a dare.
Our actions bleed into places. They dig in, plant roots, and grow. They live on.
In turn, places are the keepers of the memories, our histories. We need only to return to them and they will give us back a token of childhood delight or a glimmer of a lost love’s smile. They stir longings and regrets. More importantly, places are where we see the harvests of the seeds we have sown. If we are willing to see, they can show us if we have done right or wrong.
I don’t know if Tessa reached for me first, or if it was the other way around, but as we lay on the grounds of the courthouse, our hands found each other and our fingers intertwined. As we held onto each other, I opened my eyes. There were still a couple of hours until dusk but the sun had lost some of its strength and a few clouds also lessened its impact. Looking into the endless blue sky, I knew a trace of this moment would be left here forever.
Two days later the grand jury decided not to indict the officers who killed Crawford.
Florentina Staigers is a student in the non-fiction MFA program at the University of New Orleans. She is also a social justice attorney with a background in sociology.