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The Ohio Roots of 1964’s Freedom Summer

The Ohio Roots of Freedom Summer

Photograph Courtesy the University of Southern Mississippi




(Note — Aug. 5, 2020: Oxford, Ohio recently announced a self-guided Black History tour of the city, which includes the site of the 1964 Freedom Summer training. You can  download a PDF of the tour  here.)

ORIGINAL STORY: Across the street from the office of Jacqueline Johnson, archivist for Oxford’s historic Western College for Women, is a small amphitheater where she can break for meditation and reflection. A curved bench faces semi-circular rows of rugged Indiana limestone and provides a view of foliage beyond. It’s a little sanctuary within the Western campus, which itself is part of ever-growing Miami University. But this haven isn’t a retreat from reality. Instead, it’s the understated and somewhat-underappreciated Freedom Summer Memorial, which pays tribute to a time, 50 years ago this month, when Western played a crucial role in events that forever changed the nation.

In June 1964, approximately 800 Northern college students and experienced Southern civil rights workers gathered on the Western campus for two week-long training sessions. Berea College in Kentucky, the original host site, had cancelled, so Western, then an independent school, stepped up. They had come at the beckoning of Southern activist groups—especially the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee—and the National Council of Churches. The Southerners were young, African-American and determined; the Northerners idealistic and outraged about racist violence in the South. Both were hopeful they could hurry along change by their efforts. The mission was to travel to segregated Mississippi to register black voters and teach at “freedom schools.”

The inscriptions on the memorial recall just how dangerous Freedom Summer was—Molotov cocktail explodes in basement of Sweet Rest Church of Christ Holiness; Civil rights car hit by bullet; Students told to watch out for Klan. Some are actual newspaper headlines from the era. The most chilling refer to three young men who came to the first week’s training session, left for Mississippi before it was finished, and soon went missing. Their disappearance haunted the second session. That August the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were found near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Their deaths helped galvanize the nation to force the South to end institutionalized racism.

Miami plans a special 50th year recognition of the three, says former university architect emeritus Robert Keller—something that will complement the existing memorial. “It helped plant Western’s role in civil rights history,” says Johnson, standing near the amphitheater and as proud of her employer as if she had actually founded the school. Last year, she edited the book Finding Freedom:  Memorializing the Voices of Freedom Summer (Miami University Press), about the 14-year-old memorial. Western, which started as a female seminary in 1855, merged with Miami in 1974.

“This is the actual place where they trained,” Johnson says, looking toward Western College Drive and the campus’s heart. She then nods toward 66-year-old Clawson Hall, and speaks as if conjuring ghosts. “That’s the actual hall where they lived and ate, where they did physical exercises, where trainers were teaching them how to protect limbs if beaten, if attacked by dogs, if sprayed with water hoses.”

By Johnson’s research, only one Western student attended the Freedom Summer training sessions. Judi Hampton, an African-American student who had attended Western in the early 1960s did civil rights work in Mississippi in 1964. She now is president of Boston-based Blackside, Inc., which produced the documentary series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize, which aired on PBS. (In one episode, Schwerner and Goodman can be glimpsed at Western.)

“When I was at Western the community had its racial sensitivities, so I was really surprised when I heard the college was hosting,” she explains. “As a student, I was well aware the community had not had that much interaction with African-Americans.” Still, she has visited and guest-taught there since. “I’m very proud of Western,” she says.

Miami has hosted two Freedom Summer Reunion Conferences with a third slated for October 12–14. Those reunions can be wrenching—and the memorial plays a role in making it so. “When they make their first visit back, a lot of their emotions come back about what the experience in Mississippi was like and what their experience on the Western campus was like in 1964,” Johnson says. “This is a place where they can sit down and think about it.”

Regional History Books Focus on What We’ve Lost

Are we haunted by our past?


AC1Lost Books HBA few book titles that focus on lost, abandoned or haunted regional historyHAILEY BOLLINGER

IT USED TO BE that regional history books were about our accomplishments — the people, places and things that gave us ongoing civic pride.

Such books continue to be published, but increasingly our history seems to be about what haunts us — what we regret, or at least, have overlooked. You can’t scan a bookstore’s “local interest” section now and not notice how many titles use the words “lost,” “abandoned,” “forgotten,” “hidden” or “ghosts.” Those are not words that make you instantly proud to be a Cincinnatian or Ohioan.

There is, for instance, Karen Abbott’s brand-new The Ghosts of Eden Park — a true crime drama that brings the once-forgotten Prohibition-era Cincinnati gangster/bootlegger George Remus to the fore. Published by Crown Publishing and benefitting from a national push, Abbott appears at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Rookwood Pavilion at 7 p.m. on Aug. 6.

But there are also such choices as Lost CincinnatiLost Tea Rooms of Downtown Cincinnati, Hidden History of Cincinnati, Lost Northern Kentucky and Lost River Towns of Boone County (Kentucky). Moving beyond books exclusively about Cincinnati, you’ll find Lost AkronLost Dayton OhioAbandoned OhioLost Restaurants of Central Ohio & ColumbusLost Circuses of OhioBuried Beneath Cleveland: Lost Cemeteries of Cuyahoga CountyLost YoungstownLost Toledo and Lost Amusement Parks of Kentuckiana. You can find this trend happening everywhere else, too — one variation on the theme consists of Never Built Los AngelesNever Built New York and Unbuilt Toronto.

Jeff Suess, the author of both Lost Cincinnati and Hidden History of Cincinnati (as well as Cincinnati: Then and Now), says his publisher wanted the “lost” and “hidden” titles for those two books.

“But it wasn’t too hard to find a number of lost things that resonated with current readers,” he says. “Technically, most of the city is long gone, but I chose things that, when you see a picture, you say, ‘Why in the world did we ever get rid of it?’ I think that’s indicative to where we are now — we find value in the architectural side of history, or in the parts of our history that long have been pushed aside.”

As examples, he mentions continued regrets over the destruction of downtown movie palaces and the 1955 demolition of the beautiful 19th-century Old Main Library.

“I think part of the key to this interest in things lost and forgotten, or in ‘ghosts,’ is to learn from this and not repeat it,” Suess says. “When I was writing Lost Cincinnati, it was kind of saying, ‘Look at what we used to have. If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose the Terrace Plaza next.’ ”

Suess’ publisher for Lost Cincinnati and Hidden History of Cincinnati is The History Press — part of South Carolina-based Arcadia Publishing, which nationally releases up to 500 regional books a year that try to include appropriate images with well-researched text by local authors.

Adam Ferrell, Arcadia’s publishing director, says it has published or currently distributes more than 250 books with the word “lost” or “abandoned” in their titles. Among their subjects are local restaurants (an especially hot topic), circuses, tea rooms, amusement parks, hotels, asylums, industries, roads, farms, estates and waterfronts. It also publishes books about ghost towns, including one called Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County (Colorado).

“One of our more successful series is where the branding is ‘lost,’ ” Ferrell says. “Lost eras resonate with people, probably because it’s somewhat nostalgic, but also people can see what a place used to look like.”

He also says that books about dearly departed department stores — such as Columbus’ Lazarus or California’s Bullock’s — have been strong sellers, whether they specifically have “lost” in their titles or not.

“Department stores were a major shopping experience for people in the middle 20th-century to the 1980s or ’90s, and then were bought by Macy’s or another big company and fizzled over time,” he says. “Baby boomers might remember going with their parents, and they had tea rooms and restaurants and big Christmas displays.”

Abbott’s Ghosts of Eden Park has a very colorful and exciting narrative, making it quite novelistic. While the bootlegger Remus was in jail, a federal agent began an affair with his wife, Imogene. Subsequently, she tried to divorce Remus upon his release, but in 1927 he shot her to death in Eden Park, after a car chase. A jury found him temporarily insane.

Abbott is trying to use “ghosts” as a buzzword to equate that sensational murder to a colorful time — Prohibition — in the city’s and nation’s history. In an interview, she said she does see parallels with the way she uses “ghosts” in her title and the way other books use terms like “lost” or “abandoned.”

“I think Remus is an over-the-top character, so outlandish and brazen and clearly one of a kind and larger than life,” she says. “Therefore, the title has the kind of evocative idea of something that’s lost or gone.”

She also notes that it could have a literal meaning — the 2009 book Ghosts of Cincinnati: The Dark Side of the Queen City tells reports of people that have seen a mysterious woman in a dark dress near Eden Park’s Spring House Gazebo, where Imogene was shot.

Randy McNutt’s 1996 book Ghosts: Ohio’s Haunted Landscapes, Lost Arts and Forgotten Places was groundbreaking in using the word to signify a sometimes-melancholy exploration of small-town Ohio’s fading past. For the book, he drove around the state to find stories in its “dying towns, dead towns, forgotten people and places,” he says.

When he first wrote his manuscript, he had a different name for the book. But his editor — John Baskin of Wilmington, Ohio’s Orange Frazer Press — came up with Ghosts. (As an author, Baskin had written 1976’s classic New Burlington, about a “lost” Ohio town that was flooded to create Caesar Creek Lake Reservoir in southwestern Ohio, about 44 miles northeast of Cincinnati.)

The book proved so popular that McNutt has done two others for The Kent State University Press — Lost Ohio: More Travels into Haunted Landscapes, Ghost Towns and Forgotten Lives and Finding Utopia: Another Journey into Lost Ohio.

“I was surprised when (Baskin) showed me a copy of what the cover would look like and I said, ‘Do you think people are going to understand this?’ ” McNutt says. “He said, ‘Yes, it’s a metaphor.’ ”


(Contact Steven Rosen at

Remembering Gene Autry in Kenton, Ohio



Reporting from Kenton, OH.

During last weekend’s Gene Autry Days festival here, a prominently displayed photograph showed the singing-cowboy movie star standing outside a local factory, surrounded by the proud employees.
It was taken on Aug. 8, 1938 – famously remembered by locals as the day Autry came to pay his respects to this small city in northwestern Ohio, about 75 miles south of Toledo. Kenton Hardware Co., a key employer that made cast-iron toys but was struggling to survive the Depression, had that year introduced the new Gene Autry Repeating Cap Pistol.
An immediate bestseller to young cowpokes worldwide at 50 cents per gun, a million had already been manufactured by the time Autry arrived to visit. For licensing his name and allowing a mold to be made of his own gun, Autry became the hero who saved the town’s main employer — and yes, he also got a cut of revenue.
That same day, Autry with his horse Champion did five performances at downtown’s Kenton Theatre. Some 4,500 people attended, according to contemporary accounts.
Kenton Hardware is long-gone, its factory shutting down in 1952 as America lost interest in cast-iron toys. But Autry’s impact on the city of 8,300 lives on via the festival. It just concluded its 16th year at the Hardin County Fairgrounds – not far from the still-standing but vacant factory. It’s a salute not only to The Cowboy but to a slice of American history that seems both similar to our own age (tough economic times) and very different (making toys in a Midwest factory).
Among those the event attracted this year was 70-year-old Richard Dzwonkiewicz, from Grayslake, Ill, a retired military careerist dressed as a white-hatted cowboy Autry for the festival’s look-alike contest.
“As you participate in this, that long-ago event becomes more meaningful,” he explains, as visitors come over to take his picture. “It’s still being remembered today, and all of us are part of that memory.”
The festival, run by the Hardin County Chamber & Business Alliance, started as a way to help pay for a new Community Building at the fairgrounds. Autry, still alive in 1994, approved it. (He died in 1998, at age 91.)
As a remembrance of him, Kenton’s event certainly isn’t as high profile as Los Angeles’ Autry National Center of the American West. It is a relatively small, mostly indoor affair where visitors can buy Autry and other Western-related collectibles and hear singers such as Paul Belanger (The Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy) perform songs associated with Autry, like “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” and “Back in the Saddle Again.”
The festival also offers an opportunity to teach and celebrate the way Kenton’s manufacturing past once intersected with pop culture. The history museum, for instance, had a booth with photos and other information about Autry’s 1938 visit. One of the vendors and festival organizers, 77-year-old Bob Bailey, can recall meeting Autry in 1938.
For the many older attendees, Autry represents a vanished aspect of pop culture.
“His movies were wholesome and had moral values – the bad guys didn’t win,” says 72-year-old Richard Gearhart, of nearby Bucyrus. He had come to the festival and then went downtown to snap photos of the five-year-old civic mural showing a waving Autry, on his rearing horse Champion, in front of a vibrantly red-brick Kenton Hardware Co.
Vendors at the festival were eager to show off and discuss the changes and additions that Kenton Hardware made over the years to its line of Autry repeating cap guns. For instance, Autry’s signature initially was only on the frame, but it soon was added to the red- or pearl-covered grip. In 1951, after it lost the Autry contract, the company briefly made a non-endorsed cap gun known as the Lawmaker.
Today, some models can bring hundreds of dollars, although vendors say sales have slowed in this economy. Also of value – and offered for sale at the festival – were the cardboard boxes the guns came in. They had Autry’s picture on them and noted that the gun was patterned after “the original six shooter of Public Cowboy No. 1.”
“The price is going up on mint guns in the box,” says vendor Joe Krock, 77, also a member of the Gene Autry Days Committee. “They’re hard to find in a box. These were meant for kids to play with, not put away.”
Kenton isn’t the only small American town still honoring Autry.
In September, there is a festival in Gene Autry, Oklahoma, which changed its name from Berwyn after he purchased a ranch there at the height of his fame. He came to that town on Nov. 16, 1941 to celebrate the name change. But just three weeks later, World War II started and he enlisted. Afterward, he sold the ranch but the town kept the name.
And also in September, this year’s Walk of Fame Music Festival and Induction in Richmond, Ind., will be dedicated to Autry. Very early in his career, he recorded for the city’s Gennett Records, a now-defunct but historic record label whose heritage city leaders want to promote.
Born in rural Tioga, Texas, Autry first found fame as a singer and performer on Chicago’s WLS Barn Dance radio show, branching out in the 1930s to movies while still keeping active in radio, recordings and personal appearances. He later became the owner of the California Angels based in Orange County.
“He always put across this man-of-the-people, everyman vibe that people picked up on,” says Holly George-Warren, author of the Autry biography “Public Cowboy No. 1” and a past attendee at Kenton’s festival, in a phone interview.
“And during the Great Depression, someone with that reassuring presence, who had become successful but still had a plainspoken and conversant tone, really got to people.”

Freedom fighter Marian Spencer fights on

At 95, Marian Spencer is anything but quietly retired.

Cincinnati’s longtime civil rights advocate, voice of conscience and its first African-American woman elected to City Council came home after a summer away in Indiana and, not so quietly, entered the civic fray once again.

Spencer, who most know as a staunch city parks supporter, made it clear she was no fan of the parks levy. A new property tax, she believed, should not be codified into a Charter amendment. And she should know. Spencer had been a member of the city’s good-government Charter Committee for 75 years. Her late husband, Donald, had also been a legendary parks supporter.

Spencer’s opposition to Mayor John Cranley’s parks plan, then, made headlines and was one reason, some say, the levy failed. That kind of clout doesn’t come without a lot of preface. It’s been a long journey, said Spencer, one chronicled most recently in Dorothy H. Christenson’s “Keep on Fighting: The Life and Civil Rights Legacy of Marian A. Spencer.”

 The first volume of that work – some 25 copies – were printed in 2012 and distributed as Christmas gifts to family and friends. The personal stories of Spencer’s life were worth more than that, Christenson thought, and deserved a wider audience.

The expanded version of “Keep on Fighting” was published by for Ohio University Press. The book is widely available.

Spencer’s good-natured, optimistic personality and love for her late husband is evident throughout. He, too, was a civil-rights activist and NAACP member and civic leader, as well as a teacher and realtor. They married in 1940; he died at age 95 in 2010.

 Her story is a triumphant one, but her remembrances of life in Cincinnati, recounted in the book, form a history of the pervasiveness of Queen City racism. Spencer tells how segregation wasn’t just a Southern thing – it was an accepted fact of life in “polite” society in Cincinnati and elsewhere.


She and twin sister Mildred were born and raised in the Ohio River city of Gallipolis, where their parents – Harry and Rosanna Alexander – lived above a general/hardware store that they owned. There were also two brothers, the older Harry Jr. and the younger Vernon (known as Mac). The girls were inseparable and loved school. Their family stressed education. Gallipolis had a history of accepting black citizens, but it also had segregation.

And it had the Klan.

Not just a Southern problem

In 1928, the Ku Klux Klan marched through town, right past the store. “I’ll never forget we had a balcony on the second story,” Spencer said. “Dad took me and my twin sister to the balcony at night – we didn’t have street lights. Here were these men marching down the middle of our street with their faces totally covered, full Klan outfits, flaming tapers.

“Dad said, ‘Girls, look. These men are white men. And they’re trying to scare you. You don’t have to be afraid of them.’ ”

Their mother chose University of Cincinnati for Marian and Mildred, as they could live with a cousin in the city. They arrived in 1938. As students at UC, African-Americans faced numerous restrictions.

“Mildred and I couldn’t take swimming when we were students. We had to take modern dance,” Spencer recalls in the book. “On Friday afternoons the dance teacher would unlock the pool to give black students our only opportunity to swim on campus.” (In 1975, Cincinnati’s first African-American mayor, Ted Berry, appointed her to the UC Board of Trustees.)

She also recalls the “sundown towns” like Mariemont – suburban cities surrounded by or surrounding Cincinnati – where blacks weren’t welcome after dark.

Perhaps her greatest fight in Cincinnati involved integrating Coney Island, the “beloved” amusement park on the Ohio River. In 1952, her sons – 10-year-old Donald Jr. and 8-year-old Edward – were watching “The Uncle Al Show,” a local children’s program, when he said “Everyone come to Coney Island.”

They wanted to go.

“I went to the kitchen and closed the door and had a telephone conversation with a girl (at Coney Island),” she said in the interview. “I said, ‘We are Negroes’ and there was a long silence. Then she said, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t come. But I don’t make the rules.’ I said, ‘I know you don’t, but I’ll find out who does.”

Head of the NAACP’s Legislative Committee at the time, she convinced a young black attorney, Michael Turpeau, to take her case against Coney Island. “I said we’ve got to do something about this because children couldn’t fight for themselves,” she said.

The amusement park was owned by powerful business people, Edward Schott and Ralph Wachs, and the legal battle was tense. Black and white protesters both tried to buy admission tickets to establish the park’s pattern of intentionally barring African-Americans. Some of those were women, because men feared losing their jobs. Besides the NAACP, protesters came from the Woman’s City Club of Greater Cincinnati, where Spencer had been among the first African-American members.

“They were people in a system they didn’t like and knew was wrong, and they supported me because they knew they were fighting for their right as well as mine,” Spencer said of those women.

Although the original suit was settled in favor of integration, it only applied to the portion of Coney Island in Hamilton County. Progress was slow. The Spencers knew that all too well.

The family loved to travel America by car during the summer when Donald, a teacher for 18 years, was free. But they carried with them the Negro Motorist Green-Book, so they could plan where to stay, dine and shop.

It was frequently infuriating, as when she discovered that Salt Lake City’s Mormon Tabernacle Choir – affiliated with a major American religion – had segregated seating. She didn’t attend a concert, though her husband took the boys. “I was so angry at the fact they would have segregation out there,” she said. “It was a big deal – I didn’t want to sit in the back.”

Facing segregation strengthened her resolve to fight it. “They said if you have one drop of black blood, you’re black legally. And I thought to myself, ‘If it’s that valuable, why should I disown that?’ ”