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Published: Sunday, 2/24/2008

Discontent turned into call for disobedience over time

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Barber Ray Oliver trims Keith Harris' hair at Tapers Barber Shop, a good place to catch up on local history. Barber Ray Oliver trims Keith Harris' hair at Tapers Barber Shop, a good place to catch up on local history.
JETTA FRASER/THE TOLEDO BLADE / THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER Enlarge | Buy This Photo

A visitor can find more than a $12 haircut inside Tapers Barber Shop in Toledo's central city.

Frequented by many longtime residents of the largely African-American neighborhood, the three-chair barber shop on Dorr Street is a prime spot for catching firsthand narratives of local history. For two regular customers on a recent afternoon, reminiscences dwelt on the days when employment, night life, and thriving black-owned businesses seemed as plentiful in the central city as vacant lots and boarded-up buildings do today.

"Dorr Street was flourishing," recalled Larry Mack, 57, drawing nods from Keith Harris in a barber's chair.

"Everything you would need was right down there," added Mr. Harris, 52.

Yet this heart of Toledo's black community already was changing quickly by their teenage years.

During the summer of 1967,

Dorr Street became the center of rioting that spilled over from Detroit and resulted here in 179 arrests and the looting and arson of several central-city businesses.

Three years later, the neighborhood was the setting for the shooting death of Toledo police Officer William Miscannon, who sat inside his patrol wagon on Junction Avenue and Dorr Street outside the city's Black Panther headquarters. Dozens of officers responded by opening fire on the Panther's headquarters, shooting 16-year-old Troy Montgomery, who would survive after months in the hospital.

And then came urban renewal. By the mid-1970s, more than 300 homes and stores, two theaters, a bowling alley, and several offices had been demolished within a nine-block area that as late as 1971 contained 70 black-owned enterprises.

"There were a lot of promises to rebuild things, but it never progressed - it never happened," Mr. Harris said.

Both men agree that one can't stop progress. Yet they also share an opinion held by some figures in Toledo's African-American community that city hall, and particularly Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, is continuing - if not escalating - a decades-long practice of neglect toward the central city and its many black residents.

With that, their barber, Ray Oliver, gave his buzzing clippers a rest.

"Carty Finkbeiner - he needs to get on the ball in the 'hood," he said.

Long-standing dissatisfaction and anxieties over race relations in Toledo have risen to the forefront of local politics after a recent string of perceived slights to the black community by white city leaders. Such sentiments have contributed to a growing movement, led by the city's newly established Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter, to vote down the 0.75 percent city income tax renewal on the March 4 ballot.

For some such as Perlean Griffin, the chapter's president, next month's tax vote is tantamount to an opinion poll with teeth on whether the city is giving proper respect to its black community. Blacks make up roughly a quarter of Toledo's population.

"The thing that tears race relations apart is when you have a part of the community where people feel you don't care about them, and that they're basically being ignored," Mrs. Griffin said. "People will only beg and plead for so long before they take other measures."

For his part, Mayor Finkbeiner said aside from "a small group of individuals who seem to have a personal grievance against me," he has not heard black residents accuse him of ignoring their community.

"I believe that the vast majority of the men and women of color in this community do understand that I am open and accessible and comfortable, and like all of the residents of this city," he said.

Mrs. Griffin, who wants to have greater investment in and attention to Toledo's African-American neighborhoods and schools, has become a pivotal figure in the present controversy.

In March, 2007, she was fired as executive director of the city's Office of Affirmative Action/Contract Compliance for her refusal to support the mayor's move to downgrade the affirmative action office to save money. Her firing went on to become a key moment in the buildup of frustrations that led to the campaign against the tax renewal.

Three days after losing her job, Mrs. Griffin stood outside Government Center and declared that Mayor Finkbeiner, a white man for whom she campaigned just two years earlier in his bid to unseat African-American Jack Ford, was a racist who was "running the 22nd floor like a plantation."

Mayor Finkbeiner said last week that any accusations that he is racist "couldn't be further from the truth."

"I am an imperfect human being. I make mistakes, I do make errors, but I don't make mistakes or errors by being unfair on the basis of race," the mayor said. "Somebody would say if Finkbeiner is anything, he is a guy who is equally demanding and tough upon blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Latinos."

Late last month, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission found "probable cause" that Mrs. Griffin and two other black former city employees had been fired or laid off as the result of "unlawful discriminatory practice" by the mayor's administration.

The commission said the other two, Dwayne Morehead, the former co-executive director of the Youth Commission, and Gary Daugherty, a former manager of environmental services, were retaliated against for associating with Mrs. Griffin.

The final straw for some occurred in early January when Mayor Finkbeiner broke a 6-6 tie among City Council members to give the council presidency to Mark Sobczak, who is white, rather than Michael Ashford, who is black and had been president since September. All three men are Democrats.

"That was so offensive to the African-American community," Mrs. Griffin said. "They saw this as the mayor taking away another voice of the African-American community."

These grievances and others from the past coalesced the night of Jan. 24 when the Rev. Floyd Rose, a former and controversial president of the Toledo NAACP who left the city in 1995 for his Georgia hometown, delivered a fiery speech to an audience of 150 on how Toledo's African-American community has been disrespected by white leaders for too long.

"I have received several calls, e-mails, letters, asking me to return. I was told that things were not better, but worse," he said to rousing applause from the mostly black crowd.

Mr. Rose went on to describe what he considered the recent affronts to Toledo's black community, as well as the more long-standing issue of Dorr Street's decline. He adopted a grave tone while naming scores of old black-owned shops, offices, and restaurants in the central city that long ago disappeared.

"They came along with something called 'urban renewal,' which we called "negro removal,'•" he said.

The evening climaxed with Mr. Rose's call for the black community and its allies to rise up against the March tax levy in civil disobedience.

"We have been locked out and hemmed in so long that we must shock Toledo's political and economic establishments into the reality of our presence and our needs," Mr. Rose later wrote in an open letter in The Toledo Journal, a black-focused newspaper.

Not everyone believes race relations are worse than they were when Mr. Rose left town a decade ago.

Juanita Greene, executive director of the city's Board of Community Relations, said she feels current tensions "are more of a perception issue and trust issue."

"Compared to 10 years ago, our city is not worse off in race relations," she said in an e-mail. "However, our economic condition has declined over the last 10 years. This economic downturn is causing strain in our community."

In that regard, Mrs. Griffin said she understands that many segments of Toledo's population - not just the black community - have felt some economic pain in recent years. Yet these problems "are more intense when you look at our community," she said.

Phillip Copeland, one of three black City Council members, said he feels the movement to vote down the income tax grew from general frustration in the black community with city leaders. "They feel like they're being ignored in many ways," Mr. Copeland said. "Floyd [Rose] serves a purpose. I feel that he is going to bring a lot of attention to things that weren't getting much attention."

Nevertheless, Mr. Copeland said he does not support the movement to vote down the income tax renewal. Money raised from the tax would go to police, fire, and other safety departments, along with the general operating fund and the capital improvements fund.

"I understand there is a lot of frustration out there, and they're trying to get the mayor's attention, but that's not the way to do it," Mr. Copeland said. "I think we would feel it the worst. The old saying, 'when white gets a cold, black gets pneumonia.'•"

The Rev. Cedric Brock, pastor of Mount Nebo Baptist Church and president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said he and other alliance ministers cannot take a public stance on the income tax matter because it could jeopardize the alliance's nonprofit status.

"There is a good reason for us to be angry, but we have to control our anger," he said of Toledo's black community. "My prayer is that anger can be turned into a seed of reason."

Clarence Gafeney, Jr., 59, is one black Toledo voter who plans to heed Mr. Rose's call to turn down the income tax.

"I don't want to hold the city hostage, but we've got to get [the mayor's] attention," Mr. Gafeney said. "I think it is worse now than it was then," in 1995 when Mr. Rose left.

Along with greater attention to the black community, Mrs. Griffin said she wants the city's administration to treat all of its employees and elected officials better. If the tax is voted down next month and the city finally does change, Mrs. Griffin said that her conference chapter may support the income tax levy on the November ballot.

The tax's collection will continue until the end of the year, regardless of the outcome of the March 4 vote.

Contact JC Reindl at: jreindl@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.



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