After driving two days from New Orleans, MobileEast arrived in Dayton, Ohio where Supervisor Whitney Henry-Lester, seasoned Facilitator Jeremy Helton, and I were warmly welcomed by staff and members of WYSO, our local broadcast partner in the Miami Valley.
On our first day of recording, an enthusiastic group of participants made their way to the Booth, in front of the Schuster Performing Arts Center in downtown Dayton, and introduced us to the area by sharing their stories.
One of the first participants was Margaret E. Peters who came in to interview her friend and colleague Willis “Bing” Davis. During the interview, Mr. Davis shared stories about growing up in East Dayton’s small African American community. In the 1940s West Dayton could boast a significant African American population, but only about 200 African American families lived on the east side of town, he explained. The four streets around Diamond Avenue, with their community center, church, and playground, created a unique environment for its youngest residents. “The extended family concept of the South and Africa was prevalent all the time, which could not have happened in a larger community,” he said. “Someone you hardly even knew could chastise you and correct you right there, take you home and tell your parents exactly what was going on,” he remembered.
But both Margaret and Bing agreed that the smallness also meant a lot of camaraderie and mentoring from older members in the community. Bing talked about his high school teacher and coach, Dean Dooley: “More than a teacher, he was there, he talked with my family, talked to my mother, aunts and uncles, to point me in the right direction.”
Bing remembered that when Coach Dooley found out he was planning to drop out of Wilbur Wright High School, he took him and three other boys on an impromptu road trip to visit DePaul University. The trip changed his life, not only because he ended up attending DePaul and went on to become a prominent artist, but because his coach’s interest in him showed him the importance of having supportive, encouraging mentors reaching out to you. “If someone had not nurtured me, I would not have been able to do it. The potential might have been there, but I would not have done it.” The work Bing does as an educator is his way of giving back for all he received.
In addition to being archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the conversation between Mr. Davis and Ms. Peters will be archived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture as part of StoryCorps’ Griot Initiative.