Abdul Alkalimat and Rubin Patterson have produced the book that I never had the courage to write—one about my hometown, Toledo, Ohio. Toledo—“Glass City,” “T-town,” “Frog town,” “Baby Detroit,” or more recently, “Mud City,” to natives—is a gritty, working-class small city in Northwestern Ohio. It was founded in the Great Black Swamp in an area originally controlled by the Odawa (Ottawa) peoples. Several groups of subsequent outsiders have made Toledo their home over the centuries, starting with white Americans, fugitive slaves, Irish and Polish immigrants, southern blacks, and more recently, Mexicans and other Latin Americans. Yet, despite the ancestral diversity of Toledo’s residents, its primary identity remains one of a white, working-class, industrial city. The intersection of whiteness and class that defines Toledo’s identity gave birth to a particularly intractable form of racism that proved and still proves to be immobilizing and inescapable to the vast majority of the city’s African Americans. These editors document this racism, as well as the resolve of black Toledoans to fortify their roots, organize, and resist.
Although African Americans settled in the city from its earliest days, the Great Migration of the 20th century radically changed the black community and the larger Toledo population. As Alkalimat and Patterson indicate, Toledo resides at the nexus of the ghettoization and proletarianization of those southern migrants. My own ancestors, landowning farmers from Macon, Georgia who migrated to Toledo and Detroit in the 1920s and 1930s, were subject to the forces of both. Like other southern migrants, they secured low level factory jobs—often as janitors—in the smaller, subsidiary automobile factories. Eventually, they were allowed to work in the main plants and join unions, which provided job stability and better wages. Those African Americans fortunate enough to have factory jobs in Toledo—even low status ones—comprised the foundation of the city’s black middle-class. As a testament to how much of a working-class city Toledo was, several generations of African Americans aspired not to go to college, but to work at an automobile plant. Others with different aspirations found the city too stifling and white-collar opportunities too elusive, and migrated out. They number among the black “brain drain” that has disproportionately taken Toledo’s home-grown talent and commitment to other cities.
Black Toledo’s greatest legacies are in the areas of music, art, literature, and sports. Musicians Art Tatum, Rance Allen, Stanley Cowell, Lyfe Jennings, Shirley Murdock, and Anita Baker; athletes Jim Jackson, Kelvin Ransey, DeShone Kizer, and Robert Easter Jr.; authors Mari Evans and Mildred Taylor, and journalist Zuri Hall are all Toledoans who rose to the tops of their respective fields. What they have in common is a gutsy spirit that was born in the heart of black neighborhoods on streets like Milburn, Indiana, Pinewood, Tecumseh, Collingwood, Dorr, and Maplewood and in churches like Warren A.M.E, Third Baptist Church, and First Church of God. They carried that undeniable Toledo grit into the larger universe.
In recent decades, the economic opportunities that once abounded in Toledo for African Americans are no more. Boarded-up factories dot the landscape; potholes pit up the side streets; the downtown leaves no hints of the booming business center full of international headquarters it once was; the population is declining by the tens of thousands each decade. Toledo has become a Rust Town. Yet, what remains is the resilience of spirit of a people who refused to be silenced, excluded, discounted, or denied their due. Black Toledoans are, today, as hard-working, determined, gritty, and resourceful as they once were, illustrating that their factory jobs are only what they did, and not who they were.
Black Toledo reminds us all that it is impossible to truly appreciate the black, urban, and industrial
Nikki M. Taylor, PhD