LIMA — Something becomes disturbingly clear when you scan the recent headline-grabbing report: “Top Ten Worst Cities for Black Americans.”
The Midwest is not a friendly place for African-Americans.
All the cities on the list, which has Lima at No. 7, are in the Midwest: There’s Minneapolis, Minnesota; Cedar Falls and Des Moines in Iowa; Kankakee, Peoria, Chicago and Rockford in Illinois; Grand Rapids in Michigan; and the list-topper, No. 1 Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The findings by the online financial news company, 24/7 Wall St., fly in the face of an American narrative that thinks cities such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Selma and Birmingham — all former slave states of the Deep South — would be the worst for blacks.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as the saying goes, and the searing spotlight that shown on those places 50 years ago hastened the demise of the South’s segregationist Jim Crow policies.
Now that spotlight has swung around to Midwestern cities such as Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland. With the attention comes the opportunity to expose and heal a different type of segregation, one that shows up in wide socioeconomic inequities and offers a new front in the civil rights movement.
Why the Midwest?
Asked about the geographical clustering of its Top Ten list, Valerie Wilson, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, told 24/7 Wall St. that it was due to the Great Migration that occured between 1916 and 1970, when nearly 6 million African-Americans fled the South’s segregationist Jim Crow policies for new lives and better jobs elsewhere. The Midwest, she said, was especially attractive because it was experiencing a manufacturing boom.
Lima was one of those Midwestern cities.
At the turn of the 20th century, the city had thriving industries in oil, natural gas and railroad transportation. Later, it would be home to auto manufacturer Ford.
Thousands of blacks from the rural South began to come to Lima for work. Many were actively recruited during the 1930s by Ohio Steel founder John Galvin.
Galvin, needing workers, figured that black labor would work as well as white, writes Bluffton University professor Perry Bush in his 2012 book on Lima, “Rust Belt Resistance,” and he sent recruiters into the rural South promising decent wages and free rail fare to come to Lima.
“Hundreds of African Americans from Alabama, Mississippi, and elsewhere across the South began arriving in Lima on the B&O Railroad and immediately reporting for work at Ohio Steel at wages above 72 cents an hour,” writes Bush. Many, he said, settled on Lima’s south side.
The new arrivals found that even in the North, Jim Crow had a say in where they were allowed to go and what they were allowed to do, even if the segregationist policies weren’t codified in law.
“Buses would not stop for African-Americans north of the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, and blacks avoided the entire north end of town at night for fear of being attacked,” writes Bush, who conducted scores of oral interviews for his book. “Adults found themselves barred from restaurants, stores, and restrooms, and confined to the balcony in Lima’s movie houses.”
The boom didn’t last. The oil fields around Lima dried up. And manufacturing jobs did, too, here and across the Midwest. Economists point to a number of reasons, including periods of recession, trade deficits with China and India, technological advances and trade policies.
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1965, manufacturing accounted for 53 percent of the economy. That percentage slid to 39 percent in 1988 and skidded to 8.8 percent in 2015. Five million jobs alone vanished between 2000 and 2014.
This has meant rough going for Midwestern states like Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio, where manufacturing jobs make up more than 10 percent of the total labor market.
And blacks, Valerie Wilson said, have been disproportionately affected because a higher percentage of the black population relied on these jobs compared to whites.
Bureau of Labor Statistics show blacks, who made up 21 percent of Ohio’s manufacturing work force in 2000, comprised just 9.5 percent in 2013. Whites, too, saw a drop in manufacturing jobs, but it was not as severe: from approximately 23 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2013.
“Those industries have essentially dried up and the opportunities are no longer there, but the people still are,” Wilson told 24/7 Wall St.
What remains in these communities, said John Logan, a professor of sociology at Brown University, is a persistent underclass.
The Great Migration “created large, very disadvantaged urban communities that were predominantly black and are difficult to change today,” he said.
Just how difficult this change is can be seen in research by the US2010 Project, an initiative directed by Brown University’s John Logan that tracks changes in American metropolitan areas. Its analysis of U.S. Census data from 1970 to 2010 found that even though racial segregation in communities is slowly declining, blacks are still likely to live in the least desirable and most disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Case in point: St. Louis and its surrounding suburbs. Using the”index of dissimilarity,” a measure of segregation that captures how evenly two groups are dispersed among census tracks, US2010 Project researchers found that segregation in St. Louis slipped from a value of 82 in 1980 to 71 in 2010. Scores at 60 or above reflect high segregation, Logan said, but at least the value fell over the last thirty years.
Despite decreasing racial segregation overall, Logan found that on average, blacks were living in poorer, more disadvantaged communities, such as the majority-black suburb of Ferguson, than were whites.
Ferguson was the scene of racial unrest after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, by a white police officer.
“Suburban whites in St. Louis live in neighborhoods with a 6.2 percent poverty rate, while suburban black neighborhoods average 16.4 percent,” he said.
This held true, Logan found, even when blacks could afford to live in better neighborhoods.
“Blacks with incomes over $57,000 live in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates than do whites who earn less than $40,000,” Logan said. “It’s very important for readers to be aware that segregation is not just about people living separately by race, but also living in very different kinds of local environments.”
He found the disparity between blacks’ exposure to poverty compared to whites was greater in Midwestern and Northeastern cities like Newark, Milwaukee and Cleveland than in cities in the South and West like Las Vegas, Orlando and Columbia, South Carolina.
Logan believes it’s because of racial segregation in the housing market.
“Middle class black people have a restricted range of neighborhoods they can get into, or where they think people will rent or sell to them, or where their kids won’t be the only black kid in the schools,” he explained. “It’s partly related to the history of how these places were settled in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and clearly, it’s still having an effect today.”
The new South?
Such a persistent socioeconomic and neighborhood divisions between blacks and whites appear to be opening up a Midwest front in the ongoing fight for civil rights.
Deuel Ross, assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Ferguson may be the Selma of its day.
In Selma, Alabama, in 1965, the televised beating of nonviolent black demonstrators by white officers shocked the country and spurred Congress’ passage of the Voting Rights Act later that same year.
“With Ferguson, it’s the first time in a long time that the country has seen mass protests and mass movements focused on racial justice,” Ross said by telephone from his office in New York City.
He said the NAACP LDF is dedicating more attention and resources to civil rights cases emerging in the Midwest.
“That’s not to say that everything’s grand for black people in New York and Los Angeles and Dallas and Houston and Atlanta,” he said. But the smaller black communities in places such as Lima, Ferguson and Des Moines, he said, need more help.
“It’s more difficult to organize,” he said.
Pastor Ron Fails, head of the NAACP’s Lima chapter, agreed that Lima and the Midwest are to the 21st Century civil rights movement what the Deep South was in the 1960s.
“I was born in Selma, I lived through it,” said the 58-year-old Fails of the comparison. “The community was socialized to behave in a certain manner. In order to change it, it wasn’t a matter of sitting down and having a conversation with people who was a part of that system, because they didn’t see the system as being broke. The same thing holds true in this community. It’s difficult to have a conversation and come up with solutions because there’s such a denial.”
Fails said the 24/7 list holds an opportunity for his members. He said he plans to reach out to business leaders and the area’s college deans and presidents to talk about increasing opportunities for blacks in Lima.
Marcia McCoy, president of the Cleveland chapter of the National Action Network, said the black community there is “galvanized” following the highly-publicized fatal shooting in 2014 of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a white police officer. A grand jury earlier this year declined to prosecute the officer.
Voting rights and minority representation in government are a top concern, she said.
“When you look at our governor, our county executive, the attorney general, the county prosecutors, the chair of the board of elections, when you have whites in place, and not people of color, that’s when you know that you’ve got a race issue,” said McCoy.
Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or Twitter, @lima_eddings.