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The Negro History Mixtape: Learning About Local Black Historians

Charles Mosley Austin recorded histories of Black Daytonians and distributed them on cassette tapes and in self-published books.
Charles Mosley Austin recorded histories of Black Daytonians and distributed them on cassette tapes and in self-published books.

February is Black History Month in the United States –set aside to honor the achievements of Black Americans. It grew out of Negro History week, created in 1926 by Dr. Carter G Woodson .

Senior producer Basim Blunt of the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices introduces us to Larry Crowe, an oral historian, fine artist and community activist from Dayton. Mr. Crowe has interviewed more than 15 hundred African Americans for the HistoryMakers, an oral history project collecting stories from around the world.

Transcript (edited for length and clarity):

Basim Blunt: Just for our listeners that may not know, why was there a need to create a Negro History Week?

Larry Crowe: Here's a story from John Henrik Clarke, another great historian of ours.

Clarke, as a young boy in Columbus, Georgia, asked the lawyer that he worked for, he cleaned out the lawyer's office. He thought the lawyer, since he was a very smart white man, liberal white man, would know something. He had a library of books. He asked, do you have any books on Negro history? And he said the lawyer took his glasses off and looked him square in the eye. And he tried to let him down easy. He said, "John, I'm sorry to tell you, but the Negro has no history." I mean, that’s cold! The Negro has no history.

Basim Blunt: And he believe that, he's a lawyer, an educated man

Larry Crowe: Yeah. Well, John Henrik Clarke didn't believe it. He looked at him and said, "There's something, I've got to find the missing pages."

Basin Blunt: Let's talk about Dayton now. Were you born and raised in Dayton, Larry Crowe?

Larry Crowe: Yes, I was. I was born in Dayton in 1949 and I went to Fairview for the rest of the high school term and then to Wright State after I graduated from Fairview. I think at the beginning, I'm the only Black student who wasn't from Shawen Acres Children's Home.

Basim Blunt: So it was integrated then, right?

Larry Crowe: Yeah, me and the students from Shawen Acres were the integrators of Fairview.

Basim Blunt: You brought out the names of three Black African-American Daytonians that have carried the mantle. Who do you want to start with first?

Larry Crowe: The first one I heard of was Mr. Robert Rice. He was born around 1915. He taught history at Dunbar. I heard him speak in 1973. Well, I never heard anyone speak specifically about the Black history of Dayton before. I think a lot of us take our local history for granted. Like we think like what could have ever happened here. You know, Robert Rice, his father, Lucius Rice, was one of the first Black police officers on the force. The story of his father's demise being shot by escapee from a Mississippi chain gang in 1936 over on College Street. In fact, my my mother says we used to live in the house where it happened.

Basim Blunt: There's a small placard in the Carillon Park Historical Museum to Robert Rice's dad, Dayton's first Black police officer, and there's a little history and a photo at Carillon Park. Tell us about Margaret Peters.

Larry Crowe: Margaret Peters, she was a school teacher, an educator. She had gone to Weaver School and to Roosevelt and to the University of Dayton. She started teaching in 68, and in 1970, she put together a book for Johnson Publishing Company called the Ebony Book of Black Achievement that had nationwide distribution. It had illustrations of great Black leaders of the past, African and African-American. And I think it's Mansa Musa on the cover.

Basim Blunt: Mansa Musa, is he still known as the wealthiest human that ever lived? I mean, we talk about Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, but he's known as the wealthiest person that ever lived.

Larry Crowe: Yeah, he lived during the 1400s in Mali you know, in medieval Mali Empire. He was the the king of Mali, I guess you would say.

Basim Blunt: Now, her signature book that I saw when I when I moved to Dayton, what's it called?

Larry Crowe: It's called Dayton's African American Heritage. I found one at the library book sale in the first edition and it has Mack Ross on the cover. He was a Dayton Tuskegee Airman. You know, standing in front of this plane. And the second edition has Dayton Contemporary Dance Company on the cover.

Basim Blunt: You can Google her, Margaret Peters. You can go to the library and get the book out and share it with your family if you really want to get a deep understanding of Dayton's Black history.

Larry Crowe: Yeah, she's been very important to studying Black history in Dayton.

Basim Blunt: Robert Rice and Margaret Peters, I guess we could say, are trained historians who did this scholarly research through academia and through graduate work at college. Let's get to our third historian that you want to share with our audience and tell us about this person.

Larry Crowe: Oh, yeah. This is Charles Mosley Austin. He's a year younger than Miss Peters or would be if he was still alive. He was born in 1937 and died in 2016. He worked for the Dayton Black Press. You know, I'm not a doctor, but I think he had bipolar disorder. And that doesn't account for his interest, but it accounts for his focus because he could focus. He was known for getting in fights with librarians, receptionists. I mean, not physical fights, but —

Basim Blunt: Because he lived at the library, I mean, that's where would you find him.

Larry Crowe: He was obsessive about it, Black history.

Basim Blunt: And I was honored to meet him when I moved here. And someone said, have you met Charles Austin? And I said, No, who is he? He's a historian. And I said, well, where can I find him? You know, at Wright State, at UD or whatever. And they were like, go down to the library and you'll see him

Larry Crowe: He was in the tradition of Jay A. Rogers and John G. Jackson, John Henrik Clarke and others. Charles Austin went back into the public library, the depths of the old newspapers, and uncovered just stuff that would knock your socks off. Black history, the information is just incredible. You know, he goes back to the founding of Dayton in 1796 and goes forward with any time a Black person is mentioned in any publication that's in the library. He records that.

Basin Blunt: We talked about Margaret Peters actually publishing through Johnson publication. Charles Austen photocopied and used a typewriter, but it had a "I made this at home" kind of feel to it. That's how diligent and focused he was.

Larry Crowe: He never states anything without attribution. And he qualifies the information as books by saying, "to the best of my knowledge" - according to this oldest source I've been able to find, if there's an older source, then you find it. You know, according to what I've been able to find, this is what it says. He doesn't think that everything he says is right. He's not getting it from Revelation or anything. He's getting it from a source. But he had, like, information that you just would not find anywhere else. He had Black people gathering at Third and Main to take advantage of tickets to expatriate to Haiti. You know, that's a chapter in African American history we don't know anything about. But the Haitian government actually sent 6000 tickets to Black Americans and 25 Black people met at the corner of Third Man in 1825 to take advantage of 25 tickets to go to Haiti. And they left town, which is in a Dayton newspaper.

Basim Blunt: I'm so glad I got to meet him, because you could see him walking downtown and in different neighborhoods, walking with, like a little leather bag over his shoulders with his books in them to sell. Then he went from the written word. He started recording, he would just record his voice on a tape recorder telling oral histories of Dayton, and he would package those cassettes, type the labels out on a typewriter and photocopy like images of Dunbar and then shrink-wrapped the cassette in plastic. And he would carry all this in his bag. And so you he would engage you in a great conversation, chain smoke a cigarette and then he'd pull out these cassettes or these self published books and, you know, at the RTA bus hub.

Larry Crowe: So, yeah, I was lucky like you, like you’re saying Basim, I was lucky enough to meet him. I met him at Kwanza, this is what we call Kugichagulia, self-determination. To define yourself, name yourself and speak for yourself. Instead of being defined or spoken about from somebody else.

Basin Blunt: I'm going to end this with a challenge. You talk about local history and not only in Dayton, but the small towns in Ohio. I'm going to test you because I'm a DJ. You're a historian, so I love music.

Larry Crowe: I love music, too.

Basim Blunt: I stunned people with this little known fact of Black history. But do you remember the Mills Brothers?

(music plays)

Larry Crowe: Yes, yeah, they were my father's favorite group.

Basim Blunt: They're your dad's favorite group. What town of Ohio do they hail from?

Larry Crowe: All right, the clock ticking is here. Piqua, of course.

Basim Blunt: Oh, you got me all right away. (laughs) All right. You've earned your keep, sir. Thank you for sharing with us. Larry Crow, that history of Robert Rice, Margaret Peters and Charles Mosley Austin, three Black Daytonian that we should all be proud of.

Larry Crowe: All right. Thank you, brother Basim.

This story was produced at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

The Negro History Mixtape: Learning About Local Black Historians