Coloring the Gem City: Redlining and the Legacy of Discriminatory Housing in Dayton, Ohio 1900-Present

Eric Rhodes (History, Class of 2016, Antioch College)

“In 1988, Douglas Massey found the housing patterns in Dayton and its suburbs to be the third most racially segregated among the fifty largest metropolitain 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.”
–Watras, Joseph. “The Racial Desegregation of Dayton, Ohio, Public Schools, 1966–2008.” Ohio History: 93-107.
Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

How did Dayton come to be the third most segregated city in the United States?

By 1970, the upper midwest city had changed. Cities like Cleveland, Chicago, and Dayton had seen massive growth in population as both white and black southerners moved to urban areas in the midwest to participate in an industrial boom spurred on by the creation of consumer and war economies. In many ways, Detroit was the ideal type of the mid­century manufacturing megalopolis. Its contribution to the market in war manufacture earned it the title of “Arsenal of Democracy.” While these cities prided themselves in protecting democracy abroad, they would come to disallow many of their denizens basic rights on account of race in the decades following the war. The legacy of discriminatory housing practices continue to haunt the midwest to this day. This legacy is most visible when one looks at a map of the Dayton Metropolitan Area.

In 1960, the Human Relations Institute of Dayton, Ohio proclaimed in its annual report that, based on new census data, the Gem City was unequivocally “more segregated” than it had been in 1950. This was a statement that rang true for nearly all midwestern cities. In that same year, the US Census defined a new unit of measurement for urban populations. The creation of the “Metro Area” was a nod to the increasing amount of workers who lived outside of the city bounds in mass­-produced suburban subdivisions.

The two phenomena of racial segregation and suburbanization of the American city turned out to be interrelated. The traditional narrative is that the interpersonal racism of real estate agents and suburbanites is solely to blame for the creation of separate and unequal metro areas: whites living in the suburbs and blacks in the city. However, close examination of the case of Dayton, Ohio seems to suggest that other forces were also at play, namely those linked to government policy. In a perfect storm of federal, state, and local housing policy, the segregated metro area was forged. (Rothstein, The Making of Ferguson) Federally funded highways, which had exploded during the ten year period before the issuing of the 1960 Census Summary, came to serve as the economic umbilical cord which allowed white suburbanites to commute from their “bedroom communities” to their skilled jobs downtown. The Federal Housing Administration underwrote loans given to racially biased contracting companies who attached restrictive covenants to whole subdivisions, which stated explicitly that African Americans were not to be offered housing in their suburbs (Rothstein, The Making of Feguson). Today, black wealth is a mere 6% of white wealth, and almost all of this discrepancy is due to the exclusion of black families from the boon of suburban home­ ownership, increasingly the bedrock of the “American Dream” in that it enabled families to finance the purchase of automobiles and education for their children (Rothstein, The Making of Ferguson).

The state of Ohio’s policy of encouraging municipal competition for businesses drained the City of Dayton of their GM plant, which relocated to the new town of Kettering, some five miles outside of the city limits. Because African Americans had less access to automobiles, which were increasingly the only modes of transportation offered in the midwest, their wealth, which had already been reduced by the FHA’s complicity in the exclusion of black families in the suburbs, was negatively affected because of their inability to become gainfully employed in the disinvested city.

Local zoning policies in suburbs like Kettering allowed the new towns to rezone areas where black families lived under the auspices of eminent domain schemes to “create new jobs” and “grow the economy.” Public housing complexes such as the De Soto Bass projects on the west side of Dayton were often the only place to go after having been forcibly displaced, and Kettering became even whiter.

Coloring the Gem City: An Urban History of Housing and Race in Dayton Ohio 1930-­Present is a senior thesis in History at Antioch College. While the national story of suburbanization and its disparate effects has been told by such authorities as Colin Gordon, Richard Rothstein, and Kenneth T. Jackson, a comprehensive attempt to tell the local story of the Dayton Metro Area has not been essayed. Eric Rhodes is attempting to tell this narrative and fits into this scholarly context/historiographical tradition.

Digital Aspects

Coloring the Gem City is enabled by digital media and spatial analysis.

It is also a public humanities project. The project uses two nascent digital humanities methodologies in the pursuit of preliminary research. With the support of Brooke Bryan’s Great Lakes Colleges’ Association­-sanctioned Oral History in the Liberal Arts initiative, Eric is collecting digitally native interviews with local scholars such as Steve Conn (Miami U., Americans Against the City, 2014), Joe Watras (Univ. of Dayton, The Desegregation of Dayton City Schools, 2008) to ascertain how the story of the suburbanization of Dayton differs and is similar to the national story. Beginning in the winter of 2016, Eric will be conducting interviews with those Daytonians whose lives were intertwined with the city’s suburbanization. These interviews will be collated and uploaded to the project’s website via Doug Boyd’s Oral History Metadata Synchronizer Viewer Application (University of Kentucky) for interested community members and fair housing activists to consult. Oral histories will be conducted within the framework of OHLA’s new Oral History Toolkit, a resource for hopeful oral history scholars. To boot, the project’s website will serve as an archive (omeka­based) for oral histories related to the subject of study.

The second DH methodology which Eric is using is that of GIS­-enabled spatial analysis. In an effort to ascertain the historic demographic contours of Dayton from 1930 to the present, he is collating US census data regarding race and income to trace the development of the East-­West dichotomy of segregation in the area. The maps (one for each decade from 1930 to present) will be uploaded to aforementioned site. A timeline of significant events in the history of Dayton’s segregation will be attached to the maps, and concerned community members will be able to slide through the timeline, calling up each decennial demographic map to draw conclusions about which state, federal, and local policy may have contributed most to these trends.


Eric’s Senior Capstone adviser is Dr. Kevin McGruder, Prof. of History at Antioch College and author of Race and Real Estate (Colimbia Univ. Press, 2014). Along with working closely with Kevin, Eric is conducting interviews with federal policy experts at the FHA and HUD in Washington, as well as scholars of discriminatory housing practices at UMaryland’s TRACES Project and the University of Pennsylvania. He is consulting the National Archives (Washington DC) files on Dayton­s-pecific FHA policy and mid­-century loans during an internship with the agency.

On the state and local policy front, Eric has been working with archivists at Wright State University Special Collections, Antioch College’s Antiochiana, the Ohio State Library, and the Dayton Daily News archive.

Historiography and Methodology

The project will borrow from intellectual history methodologies by examining rhetoric around the creation of housing policy from Homer Hoyt to Mayor Bloomberg. It is very much an urban history, as it takes the unit of analysis as a metropolitan history. The African American history of Dayton (best exempified by Dr. Margaret Peters) will also take the stage.

Coloring the Gem City is the title of an Antioch College History Senior Thesis undertaken by Eric Rhodes ’16. The project examines the creation of racial segregation in Dayton from roughly 1930 through 2015. The focus will be on the role of the nexus of federal, state, and local housing policy and suburbanization. It also touches on the intellectual history of urban planning in Dayton, Ohio and the social sciences’ treatment of urbanity throughout the 20th century.

As a component of his preliminary research, Eric is conducting interviews with national and area scholars, as well as people whose lives have been affected by segregation in Dayton. He’s also doing GIS analysis of racial demographics in Dayton in order to visually illustrate the contours of segregation during the past 85 years. The end result will be a public resource which community members can consult for information on the subject.​