A history of overcoming

Local author keeps Dayton’s black history alive

By Katie Fender

Photo: The 1995 update was renamed “Dayton’s African American Heritage” and features dancers from the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company

 

It’s impossible to look at the history of Dayton, Ohio, without looking at the city’s black history. The black community of Dayton has shaped this city into what it is today.

No one knows this better than Dayton native Margaret Peters. After all, she is the woman who wrote the city of Dayton’s black history, literally. Author of “Dayton’s African American Heritage,” Peters has been writing and educating on the history of Dayton for 55 years.

Peters has written several books, beginning in 1969 with “Striving to Overcome: Negro Achievers,” published in Dayton Public Schools in cooperation with the Dayton Daily News.

Peters wrote the book and conducted the research herself. To shake her hand is to shake the hands of many people whose family names live on in local businesses all over Dayton.

“I walked around and called a lot of people,” Peters said. “Called Joe Shaw. You know, Shaw cleaners. One lady walked to my house from her house because she wanted to make sure her father was in it.” Peters researched and interviewed many important black historical figures for this book, which includes historical pictures and descriptions written about the presence and importance of black history in Dayton.

From Negro, to Black, to African American

In 1970, “The Ebony Book of Black Achievement,” an updated edition of Peters’ earlier work, was published by Johnson Publishing Company.

Her work was revisited a third time in 1995, when Donning Publishers released “Dayton’s African American Heritage.” The book contains the same content as its first two iterations, but with additional information and a notable change in name – from “negro” to “black” to “African American.”

“Dr. John Henrik Clarke stressed the need to be tied to an ancestral home,” Peters said of the term “African American.” “There is no country called ‘Colored,’ ‘Negro’ or ‘Black.’ ‘African American’ links us with the continent where man originated, the site of great civilizations and with the country in which we live. Some African Americans, such as Maya Angelou, have been able to trace their roots to specific tribes and to meet their African family members.”

When asked about the changing descriptors, and whether the term “negro” was offensive, Peters responded, “I have no problem with any of the three terms. Years ago, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois told how he had answered a young black girl’s question about how she should respond when she was called colored or Negro. His response was, in effect, that she knew who she was, and should not be concerned with what others said.”

A legacy of social activism

In addition to being an author, educator and historian, Peters is a social figure in Dayton. Peters was born on March 12, 1936 in Dayton. She grew up in Edgemont and lived there until the freeway came and tore her neighborhood down. She now resides within city limits. Peters’ parents were big influences in her career, as both were stalwarts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her father was the president of Dayton’s NAACP chapter in 1924.

“My father was president of the NAACP in the ’20s when the NAACP sued the Board [of Education] because all the black kids were separated [at Garfield Elementary School],” Peters said. “They had to go into separate buildings and their reason of course was, ‘well they’re backwards.’ So we took them to court and we won.”

Peters’ father, Joseph, was a historical figure in Dayton not only through his work for the NAACP, but also for his service in World War I and through his public speaking.

“There was a speech he gave about how black people had been in service in every war we’ve been involved in, in spite of the segregation within our country and the military,” Peters said. “He also went into ancient history and talked about the black people who were in the Trojan War. My niece Karen, who has exhibits over in Berlin, included one of his speeches in her exhibits there.”

Although her father was an important influence, Peters carved out her own path in her career and in her impact on the city of Dayton. Peters’ influential career began with earning a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Dayton in 1959 and a Bachelor of Science in 1963. Peters also received her Master’s degree in 1972 and a supervisor’s certificate from the University of Dayton in 1974.

Peters’ first job out of college was teaching remedial reading at Roth High School in the 1960s.

“My first teaching job was to teach remedial reading at Roth to high school kids who kind of bluffed their way through and didn’t really know how to read,” she said. “So, I went back to school, took some courses on how to teach remedial reading to kids in high school because you can’t really teach them the same stuff to primary kids because they’d be embarrassed. Years later, at one of the black cultural festivals, this young man came up to me and said, ‘Oh Ms. Peters you taught me how to read.’ He even remembered the first book he read.”

Her passion for education didn’t stop there. Not only did Peters have a passion for teaching, she had a passion for the truth. She took up the cause of black history, ensuring that it was taught in the Dayton City Schools.

Teaching black history

In the 1960s, Peters said, there was a big push to start teaching black history. She teamed up with the Dayton Urban League, trying to get this subject into schools. Their success was short-lived. Shortly after they got black history into public schools, the Ohio Department of Education mandated a change to the order of courses and replaced black history with world history.

“We had problems with the world history course they put in because when they listed ancient civilizations that contributed to other civilizations guess which one was not there?” Peters said. “Egypt was not there. They started ancient civilizations before Greece and Rome. So we had to write letters and explain to them that the Greeks actually went to Egypt to study. And the Greeks didn’t have any problem that they were going over there learning from black people. So we finally got them to put Egypt in and we had to write letters and go to state meetings. We went to the one where they were thinking about including Egypt and after about two and a half hours they agreed to include Egypt but they removed the term ‘classical’ – they didn’t want to admit that Egypt was a classical civilization.”

Although Dayton City Schools have come a long way in teaching black history, Peters said there will always be need for improvement. And as long as there is the need, she will continue to push for the improvement.

“It’s hard to teach what’s right because what has been taught has been taught for so long and people guard it,” Peters said. However, she knows people like herself will never give up.

“It’s a lot to overcome but we have a lot of good people trying really hard,” she said.

Peters has always made sure her students know the truth when it comes to black history and does so through her stories and the stories of others.

“I had veterans that came in to speak from World War II and Vietnam when I was teaching at Sinclair,” she said. “I had one of them talk about the fact that he went overseas and fought and came back and still couldn’t vote and he still got pushed off the sidewalk. He told the students, ‘Whose freedom did I fight for?’ And he’s crying when he is saying this and the students are crying and some of them in their responses say, ‘How can they treat Americans that way?’ Not, ‘How can they treat blacks that way?’”

Peters still teaches at Sinclair, but now she teaches adults. Her class watches films on ancient African civilizations and they take field trips, like visiting the gravesite of Martin Delaney, a doctor and a general in the civil war.

But mostly, in her passion for education and preserving history, her class shares their own stories.

“We do a lot of sharing of our own stories since it’s for people who are 60 or better and a lot of them have taken part in some of these activities,” Peters said. “One of the things I did years ago with CityFolk is a StoryFolk, and we have people tell their own stories and it was really excellent. We did one here with my family and we did one with people in Zion [Baptist Church] and they told stories about coming here to work for Wright-Patt and what it was like to work in Dayton when it was really, really segregated.”

Peters said these stories are what bring the people together in the community. She and her class put their stories into a play at Sinclair College called “My Story.”

“It was really interesting to listen to ordinary people tell their stories,” Peters said. “When the Jewish group was speaking about not being able to live in certain areas, you could see the black group really relate that and nod their heads and say, ‘Yeah that’s my story, too.”

Although Peters only teaches adults at Sinclair now, she is still involved in the Dayton City Schools with the Martin Luther King Jr. contest, which just finished its 30th year. The contest gives kids in Dayton City Schools an opportunity to win scholarships from Wright State University.

“What we did in our contest two years ago is we gave our kids the chance to write about what has improved and what still needs to be done,” Peters said. “And some of them look back to that period and we have to keep plugging away. It’s not something people are just going to give up on. These are their ancestors.”

Peters also does a lot of public speaking.

“I speak at different organizations and one of the things I do is go back in history and let people see stuff didn’t just pop up now – it goes all the way back,” she said. “The big problem started when slavery got here. There was slavery in other parts of the world but the problem started when it came here.”

Peters wants people to know that what black Daytonians have done and are doing can have a national or international impact. She does this through literature, teaching Paul Lawrence Dunbar and his impact on London; blacks in the military and various fields so “people don’t think that in Dayton you can’t have a national or international impact – because you can,” Peters said. For her, this is the message to drive home.

“People have to constantly be doing something,” Peters said. “There’s no encouragement to sit and think or read. Children have a much more difficult time than me growing up. I lived in Edgemont and everybody on the block went to the same school and we all walked to school. But we’ve been gone since the freeway came and tore down our neighborhood. But we still have an Edgemont reunion every year. Those ties are formed since when we were little.”

Peters is also the president of the Association for the Study of African American Life & History (ASALH) in Dayton, as well as a member of Leaders for Equality and Action in Dayton (L.E.A.D) and a trustee for the Muse Machine, an organization committed to teaching children about art. She also writes a weekly column for the Dayton Weekly News.

Through her writing, speaking and educating, Peters has been a preserver of Dayton’s history for over five decades.

“People ask me, ‘when are you going to retire?’” Peters said. “‘And do what? I say.’”

It looks like there is no end in sight for her.

Reach DCP freelance writer Katie Fender at KatieFender@DaytonCityPaper.comIt’s impossible to look at the history of Dayton, Ohio, without looking at the city’s black history. The black community of Dayton has shaped this city into what it is today.

No one knows this better than Dayton native Margaret Peters. After all, she is the woman who wrote the city of Dayton’s black history, literally. Author of “Dayton’s African American Heritage,” Peters has been writing and educating on the history of Dayton for 55 years.

Peters has written several books, beginning in 1969 with “Striving to Overcome: Negro Achievers,” published in Dayton Public Schools in cooperation with the Dayton Daily News.

Peters wrote the book and conducted the research herself. To shake her hand is to shake the hands of many people whose family names live on in local businesses all over Dayton.

“I walked around and called a lot of people,” Peters said. “Called Joe Shaw. You know, Shaw cleaners. One lady walked to my house from her house because she wanted to make sure her father was in it.” Peters researched and interviewed many important black historical figures for this book, which includes historical pictures and descriptions written about the presence and importance of black history in Dayton.

From Negro, to Black, to African American

In 1970, “The Ebony Book of Black Achievement,” an updated edition of Peters’ earlier work, was published by Johnson Publishing Company.

Her work was revisited a third time in 1995, when Donning Publishers released “Dayton’s African American Heritage.” The book contains the same content as its first two iterations, but with additional information and a notable change in name – from “negro” to “black” to “African American.”

“Dr. John Henrik Clarke stressed the need to be tied to an ancestral home,” Peters said of the term “African American.” “There is no country called ‘Colored,’ ‘Negro’ or ‘Black.’ ‘African American’ links us with the continent where man originated, the site of great civilizations and with the country in which we live. Some African Americans, such as Maya Angelou, have been able to trace their roots to specific tribes and to meet their African family members.”

When asked about the changing descriptors, and whether the term “negro” was offensive, Peters responded, “I have no problem with any of the three terms. Years ago, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois told how he had answered a young black girl’s question about how she should respond when she was called colored or Negro. His response was, in effect, that she knew who she was, and should not be concerned with what others said.”

A legacy of social activism

In addition to being an author, educator and historian, Peters is a social figure in Dayton. Peters was born on March 12, 1936 in Dayton. She grew up in Edgemont and lived there until the freeway came and tore her neighborhood down. She now resides within city limits. Peters’ parents were big influences in her career, as both were stalwarts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her father was the president of Dayton’s NAACP chapter in 1924.

“My father was president of the NAACP in the ’20s when the NAACP sued the Board [of Education] because all the black kids were separated,” Peters said. “They had to go into separate buildings and their reason of course was, ‘well they’re backwards.’ So we took them to court and we won.”

Peters’ father, Joseph, was a historical figure in Dayton not only through his work for the NAACP, but also for his service in World War I and through his public speaking.

“There was a speech he gave about how black people had been in service in every war we’ve been involved in, in spite of the segregation within our country and the military,” Peters said. “He also went into ancient history and talked about the black people who were in the Trojan War. My niece Karen, who has exhibits over in Berlin, included one of his speeches in her exhibits there.”

Although her father was an important influence, Peters carved out her own path in her career and in her impact on the city of Dayton. Peters’ influential career began with earning a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Dayton in 1959 and a Bachelor of Science in 1963. Peters also received her Master’s degree in 1972 and a supervisor’s certificate from the University of Dayton in 1974.

Peters’ first job out of college was teaching remedial reading at Roth High School in the 1960s.

“My first teaching job was to teach remedial reading at Roth to high school kids who kind of bluffed their way through and didn’t really know how to read,” she said. “So, I went back to school, took some courses on how to teach remedial reading to kids in high school because you can’t really teach them the same stuff to primary kids because they’d be embarrassed. Years later, at one of the black cultural festivals, this young man came up to me and said, ‘Oh Ms. Peters you taught me how to read.’ He even remembered the first book he read.”

Her passion for education didn’t stop there. Not only did Peters have a passion for teaching, she had a passion for the truth. She took up the cause of black history, ensuring that it was taught in the Dayton City Schools.

Teaching black history

In the 1960s, Peters said, there was a big push to start teaching black history. She teamed up with the Dayton Urban League, trying to get this subject into schools. Their success was short-lived. Shortly after they got black history into public schools, the school board changed the order of courses and replaced black history with world history.

“We had problems with the world history course they put in because when they listed ancient civilizations that contributed to other civilizations guess which one was not there?” Peters said. “Egypt was not there. They started ancient civilizations before Greece and Rome. So we had to write letters and explain to them that the Greeks actually went to Egypt to study. And the Greeks didn’t have any problem that they were going over there learning from black people. So we finally got them to put Egypt in and we had to write letters and go to state meetings. We went to the one where they were thinking about including Egypt and after about two and a half hours they agreed to include Egypt but they removed the term ‘classical’ – they didn’t want to admit that Egypt was a classical civilization.”

Although Dayton City Schools have come a long way in teaching black history, Peters said there will always be need for improvement. And as long as there is the need, she will continue to push for the improvement.

“It’s hard to teach what’s right because what has been taught has been taught for so long and people guard it,” Peters said. However, she knows people like herself will never give up.

“It’s a lot to overcome but we have a lot of good people trying really hard,” she said.

Peters has always made sure her students know the truth when it comes to black history and does so through her stories and the stories of others.

“I had veterans that came in to speak from World War II and Vietnam when I was teaching at Sinclair,” she said. “I had one of them talk about the fact that he went overseas and fought and came back and still couldn’t vote and he still got pushed off the sidewalk. He told the students, ‘Whose freedom did I fight for?’ And he’s crying when he is saying this and the students are crying and some of them in their responses say, ‘How can they treat Americans that way?’ Not, ‘How can they treat blacks that way?’”

Peters still teaches at Sinclair, but now she teaches adults. Her class watches films on ancient African civilizations and they take field trips, like visiting the gravesite of Martin Delaney, a doctor and a general in the civil war.

But mostly, in her passion for education and preserving history, her class shares their own stories.

“We do a lot of sharing of our own stories since it’s for people who are 60 or better and a lot of them have taken part in some of these activities,” Peters said. “One of the things I did years ago with CityFolk is a StoryFolk, and we have people tell their own stories and it was really excellent. We did one here with my family and we did one with people in Zion [Baptist Church] and they told stories about coming here to work for Wright-Patt and what it was like to work in Dayton when it was really, really segregated.”

Peters said these stories are what bring the people together in the community. She and her class put their stories into a play at Sinclair College called “My Story.”

“It was really interesting to listen to ordinary people tell their stories,” Peters said. “When the Jewish group was speaking about not being able to live in certain areas, you could see the black group really relate that and nod their heads and say, ‘Yeah that’s my story, too.”

Although Peters only teaches adults at Sinclair now, she is still involved in the Dayton City Schools with the Martin Luther King Jr. contest, which just finished its 30th year. The contest gives kids in Dayton City Schools an opportunity to win scholarships from Wright State University.

“What we did in our contest two years ago is we gave our kids the chance to write about what has improved and what still needs to be done,” Peters said. “And some of them look back to that period and we have to keep plugging away. It’s not something people are just going to give up on. These are their ancestors.”

Peters also does a lot of public speaking.

“I speak at different organizations and one of the things I do is go back in history and let people see stuff didn’t just pop up now – it goes all the way back,” she said. “The big problem started when slavery got here. There was slavery in other parts of the world but the problem started when it came here.”

Peters wants people to know that what black Daytonians have done and are doing can have a national or international impact. She does this through literature, teaching Paul Lawrence Dunbar and his impact on London; blacks in the military and various fields so “people don’t think that in Dayton you can’t have a national or international impact – because you can,” Peters said. For her, this is the message to drive home.

“People have to constantly be doing something,” Peters said. “There’s no encouragement to sit and think or read. Children have a much more difficult time than me growing up. I lived in Edgemont and everybody on the block went to the same school and we all walked to school. But we’ve been gone since the freeway came and tore down our neighborhood. But we still have an Edgemont reunion every year. Those ties are formed since when we were little.”

Peters is also the president of the Association for the Study of African American Life & History (ASALH) in Dayton, as well as a member of Leaders for Equality and Action in Dayton (L.E.A.D) and a trustee for the Muse Machine, an organization committed to teaching children about art. She also writes a weekly column for the Dayton Weekly News.

Through her writing, speaking and educating, Peters has been a preserver of Dayton’s history for over five decades.

“People ask me, ‘when are you going to retire?’” Peters said. “‘And do what? I say.’”

It looks like there is no end in sight for her.

Reach DCP freelance writer Katie Fender at KatieFender@DaytonCityPaper.com

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Katie Fender
Reach DCP freelance writer Katie Fender at KatieFender@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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