A Brief History of Blacks in Yellow Springs
Yellow Springs Early History, 1830s-1900
The Yellow Spring, in what is now Glen Helen Nature Preserve, is central to the development of the Village of Yellow Springs. In the early 1800s, the Spring was frequented by the Shawnee, (including their leader Tecumseh) who believed that the waters contained healing powers.
In 1803, Lewis Davis, a surveyor from Dayton, his brother-in-law Benjamin Whiteman, and Martin Baum purchased land in the area. Davis and his family became some of the first white settlers in the area, and Davis built a tavern and inn from which he traded with the Shawnee. The Yellow Spring attracted Baum’s wealthy friends from Cincinnati who stayed at the inn. In the early 1800s springs were appealing in many parts of the new country and were seen as positive influences on health.
Ohio had an ambivalent relationship with African Americans. When the state was established in 1803, slavery was outlawed. But in 1804 the Ohio General Assembly enacted the Ohio Black Codes that made it clear that Black people were not really welcome in the state. Concerned about the new state becoming a refuge for Black freedom seekers, Section 1 of these codes read:
"Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Ohio, That from and after the first day of June next. No black or mulatto person shall be permitted to settle or reside in this state, unless he or she shall first produce a fair certificate from some court within the United States, of his or her actual freedom, which certificate shall be attested by the clerk of said court, and the seal thereof annexed thereto, by said clerk."
According to these Codes, free blacks and mulattos (biracial people) were required to have their names registered with their local court. This registration process required providing emancipation papers or witnesses that could corroborate a person’s “free” status. Laws passed in the early part of the century forbade blacks from voting and attending public schools with whites, and blacks who wanted to settle in the state had to post a bond of $500 that served as insurance and could be drawn on if they became destitute. With these many barriers, the Black population in Greene County was modest in the early decades of the 1800s.
In spite of the barriers meant to discourage African Americans moving to Ohio, the fact that the state had outlawed slavery, the existence of the secret network of the Underground Railroad safehouses throughout the state, and after 1856 the presence of Wilberforce College, eight miles from Yellow Springs, all attracted Black people to Ohio and to the Yellow Springs area during the 1800s.
In 1826, Elisha Mills, a lawyer who had moved with is family from Connecticut to Cincinnati, purchased land that included the Yellow Spring and what is now Glen Helen nature preserve and began advertising his “water cure” spa, a day’s ride north of Cincinnati.
In 1830, 178 African Americans lived in Greene County, out of a population of 14,800.
In 1840, Mills gave his son William 600 acres of land in what is now Yellow Springs and the Glen. As railroad lines began to be developed in Ohio, William Mills understood the importance of a railroad line to the future of Yellow Springs, and obtained a $500,000 loan for the Little Miami Railroad that influenced it to run its route through Yellow Springs instead of its original planned route through Clifton, then the largest and most prosperous community in Miami Township.
In 1850 when The Christian Connexion and Unitarian denominations decided to establish a College, William Mills promoted the presence of the railroad in Yellow Springs, a required element in their location criteria, and raised money that led to a decision to build Antioch College in Yellow Springs, with the College opening in 1853.
By that time William Mills had platted a village of 436 lots and 37 streets, six of which were over one mile in length. He even went so far as to have the streets graded and graveled at his own expense. By 1850, 600 African Americans lived in the County out of a population of 21,900.
In 1862, during the Civil War, the Black population in Yellow Springs increased substantially when Rev. Moncure Conway guided from Washington, D.C. to Yellow Springs, over thirty men, women and children, who had formerly been enslaved on his family’s Virginia plantation. Many member of the “Conway Colony” as the group became known, remained in the area. Eliza and Dunmore Gwinn were among this group. They eventually owned five acres of land on what is now Grinnell Road.
A sign of the growing presence of Black people in Yellow Springs was the establishment of African American churches. In 1863, First Baptist Church, also known as the Anti-Slavery Baptist Church, was established. In 1866 Central Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed.
By the latter part of the 1800s, Yellow Springs had a small, but thriving Black community comprised of farmers who owned their own land, craftsmen, and laborers. Their families were scattered throughout the village, although at various times there were concentrations of Black families on some streets.
Yellow Springs had a number of small segregated neighborhood schools. Black children attended Colored schools such as the school at High and West South College Streets, and the Elm Street School. In 1887 Ohio required schools to be desegregated, and Black children began attending the Union School, built in the 1870s on Dayton Street.
Yellow Springs More Recent History, 1900 to the Present
By the twentieth century Yellow Springs had developed a relatively welcoming reputation for African Americans, particularly compared to some of the surrounding towns which maintained informal policies prohibiting black residency.
In the early 1900s Black men and women established businesses in the Yellow Springs downtown area, and also participated in various aspects of community life. African Americans were well represented among Village employees. The African American Benning brothers were the primary utility workers for the Village for many years. In addition Blacks served on the police force, and in the 1940s began to gain employment within Yellow Springs Schools.
By the 1950s and 1960s, the prosperity of Vernay Laboratories, Antioch Bookplate, and Yellow Springs Instruments created employment opportunities for African Americans in Yellow Springs, with many moving up to senior ranks in these companies as they gained experience and seniority.
Wright Patterson Air Force Base brought Black military and civilian employees to the area, many of whom lived in Yellow Springs. Black residents also sought elective office in the Village, serving on the Board of Education, Village Council, and as Mayor. Black men served on the police force, and in the 1960s James McKee, became one of the first Black police chiefs in a predominantly white town. He served in this office for thirty years.
In explaining the reasons for the unusual level of African American participation in the leadership of a predominantly white town even before the modern Civil Rights area, some African Americans note that there was a cadre of white residents who made a point of including them in community discussions and encouraging them to seek opportunities where their voices could be heard. By 1950 there were 410 non-white people (most likely predominantly African Americans) in the Village which had a total population of 2,900.
In the 1950s and 1960s the Omar Circle housing development of over sixty houses on the western edge of the Village was developed by Omar Robinson, and became an enclave for African American professionals.
By the 1970s Yellow Springs had a minority population of 28%, but in the ensuing decades, the Black population in Yellow Springs began to gradually decline, most likely in part due to Civil Rights successes such as the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that prohibited discrimination in housing. Black families, considering locating to the region, had other choices. Black children, raised in the small Village, often moved away to larger cities after high school.
In 2018 the Yellow Springs Black population is estimated at 13%.
The decline in the Black population in Yellow Springs has been one of the motivating factors for the creation of this Blacks In Yellow Springs Encyclopedia as a means of capturing the rich history of African Americans in the Village particularly for those who may not see such a visible presence in contemporary times.
Sources: –Diane Chiddester, “Antioch Struggled from the Start”, Yellow Springs News; Lauren Heaton, “An Ex-Slave, Wheeling Gaunt Started Annual Charitable Tradition”; Lauren Heaton, “Yellow Springs Schools Integrated in 1887,” Yellow Springs News; Robert Mihalek, “The Journey of the Conway Colony,” Yellow Springs News ; “William Mills, “The Yellow Springs Man, ” Yellow Springs News; Richard Wright, “Negroes of Xenia, Ohio: A Social Study” Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor; Census of Population, Population of Counties by Minor Civil Divisions, 1930 to 1950; 1950 Census of Population, General Characteristics- Ohio; Yellow Springs Cost of Living Report