By: Sarah Sidlow
The Korean War Memorial on Riverside Drive serves as one of the few indicators of Korean heritage in the area; photo: Andrew Thompson
Munsup Seoh was born in Kyung-Ju, Korea. He studied Mathematics at Sogang University in Seoul, and received additional advanced degrees at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. Like many immigrants, Seoh was drawn to Dayton because of its rich opportunities for university educators. He began teaching at Wright State University in 1983.
Seoh helps Korean groups represent Korea in Asian Culture Night, an event organized and hosted every April by Wright State’s Asian/Hispanic/Native American Center (AHNA). The AHNA, as indicated by its name, represents a myriad of cultural interests – a volume made even larger when you consider the word “Asian” actually represents six major and distinct groups in the United States, let alone in the Dayton area.
“[Those groups are] namely, Chinese, Asian Indians, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos and Vietnamese, among many other groups, but in smaller numbers,” Seoh said. “These different groups do not share any common language. This fact makes us quite unique even though we are called ‘Asians’ by federally-termed identification.”
In fact, the 2010 U.S. Census paints an unclear picture of Koreans in Dayton. It tells us that of the 141,762 people living in the city of Dayton, 1,206 are Asian – a figure up from 1,075 in 2000. There are no more than 168 Asians living in any single Dayton neighborhood – that neighborhood being Shroyer Park – and, according to zipatlas,com, there is no more than a 0.57 percent Asian demographic in any single Dayton-area zip code. Outside of the Korean War Memorial on Riverside Drive, much of the Korean story remains untold.
“The only area you can see signs in Korean is [on] Kauffman Avenue in Fairborn, where several Korean groceries and Korean restaurants [are] located,” Seoh said. “Otherwise, Korean businesses are blended in [among] local businesses and cannot be recognized like in big cities like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.”
Seoh estimated, however, there are as many as 2,000 to 3,000 Koreans living in eight counties, including and surrounding Montgomery County. Korean immigration to Dayton likely began when Korean women who had married American soldiers in Korea came to the area – which houses the Wright Patterson Air Force Base, another large draw for many immigrant communities – with their husbands.
“Once they came to the States, family invitation started, and many came here as a whole family,” Seoh explained.
Another wave certainly occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when Ohio State University opened its doors to foreign doctors, allowing many Korean doctors to settle in Ohio, including in the Dayton area.
“Most recently, business opportunities [have brought] some Koreans to the area,” Seoh said. “During the ’70s and ’80s, study abroad became open to the public and a popular option for higher education, and some of them chose jobs to teach in colleges including [the Air Force Institute of Technology]. Now, we can see Koreans in various fields: retail stores of clothing, beauty supplies, groceries, dry cleaners, dental works, physicians, college professors, realtors, etc.”
While Korean businesses are dispersed throughout the greater Dayton area, facets of the Korean community, including its cultural centers, are tucked away into small pockets outside the mainstream. In fact, Seoh said he does not believe the Korean population is well-represented in Dayton.
“Besides businesses, Koreans, like other Asian country/ethnic groups […] are severely segregated from the mainstream Americans, mainly gathering and socializing among 10 Christian churches in the Greater Dayton area,” he explained.
However, there are groups in the Dayton area that represent Korean culture, like the Dayton Area Korean Association (DAKA), which participates in January’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. walk, and in the World A’fair international culture and heritage festival.
“In August, we celebrate liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945 when World War II ended,” Seoh, who has served as DAKA secretary, newsletter editor, president and chair of the Board of Trustees, said. “We have an annual party at the end of the year. Other than that, there are about 10 churches where some local people attend and worship together.”
Seoh has served as webmaster, past vice president, president and current treasurer of the Asian American Council of Dayton, and was involved in coordinating activities in Dayton for the Asian American Youth Against Tobacco project, which is now the Asian American Youth Council of Dayton.
Yet, many of the causes taken up by Dayton’s Korean population are not necessarily related only to the Korean-American experience. For example, since 9/11, a group of Asian individuals, including Koreans, showed an interest in educating Daytonians about bigotry and prejudice against Muslim residents and began a campaign against discrimination towards Islam.
An accomplished representative of community outreach, Seoh is a member of the Steering Committee for the Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration and has been involved in the Community Summit on Eliminating Racism and the Friends Against Intolerance and Racism of the Dayton Region. He has also served as executive committee member for the Ohio Conference of the NAACP.
Editor’s note: This is part one of a 10-part monthly series about the many immigrant communities in the Dayton area. Look for the next installment of Multicultural Dayton on Tuesday, March 4.
Reach DCP freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.