An illustration of Dayton's Paul Laurence Dunbar and James McGee

Rich Black history is one of the many things that makes our Gem City shine. Dayton, Ohio, is celebrated for both its innovation and inspiration. And the city’s stories of industrial excellence and pioneering firsts can’t be told without mentioning its Black visionaries. Early Black Daytonians forged paths of progress with unshaken fortitude, and their collective contributions have changed the course of history.

Dayton’s Trailblazers for Civil Rights

The Dayton we know and love today celebrates diversity and encourages inclusion. Much of the groundwork for a more inclusive community was laid in the early 1960s by civil rights leaders and activists like William “W.S.” McIntosh. As one of the first to challenge segregation in the city, he sought fairness, equity and inclusion for all Daytonians. Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., McIntosh’s fight for equality was nonviolent. During civil unrest and heightened racial tensions spanning across the country, McIntosh organized picketing, sit-ins and boycotts to demand equal employment rights for Dayton’s marginalized.

Named in honor of Dayton’s first Black mayor, James H McGee Boulevard is an ever-present reminder of another civil servant and one of the city’s greatest waymakers. James McGee was one of the first Black major city mayors in the U.S. Prior to taking office, he practiced law in Dayton, working closely with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was one of the first to file a segregation case following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that deemed segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Then from 1970 to 1981, McGee led the city of Dayton with a dedication to civil rights and community development. To date, he is the city’s longest-tenured mayor. His efforts paved the way for Black community leaders like Jeffrey J. Mims, Jr., the current mayor of Dayton.

Dayton’s Historic Contributions to the Arts

The Land of Funk, as some respectfully call Dayton, is a city known for its deep appreciation for music. But before the rise of funk during the mid-1960s, jazz and swing dominated the American music scene. Dayton was home to influential musicians of the time.

American trombonist Mitchell “Booty” Wood played professionally alongside jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Wood went on to play for the Count Basie Orchestra, one of the most prominent jazz groups of the swing era. There, he performed with some of the best soloists, composers, arrangers and vocalists in jazz history.

Present-day Dayton has also shaped up to be a performing arts powerhouse and a hub to world-renowned establishments like the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC).

The DCDC has influenced dance and culture far beyond Dayton’s center stages. Founded by Dayton native Jeraldyne Blunden, the internationally recognized company has broken boundaries to create performance opportunities for dancers of color. Through Blunden’s forward vision, the DCDC is now the tenth-largest modern contemporary dance company in the nation. Five decades after its founding, it still remains rooted in the African American experience and commitments to artist diversity and development.

One of America’s most acclaimed poets, and arguably most important figures in African American history, rose from humble beginnings in Dayton. Born to ex-slaves in 1872, Paul Laurence Dunbar published his first poems at the age of 16 in a Dayton newspaper. After gaining popularity, he became one of the first African American writers ever to establish an international reputation. Dayton visitors can experience the historic Paul Laurence Dunbar House, where he wrote some of his most important works before his passing.

Miami Valley Athletics Shape History

Before the University of Dayton’s (UD) Red Scare was established, Donald Smith dazzled Flyer Faithfuls with his record-breaking talent. He is commemorated as one of the greatest basketball players in UD history. Smith’s single-game scoring record as a Flyer has yet to be surpassed, with 52 points scored against Loyola University Chicago in his 1973–74 junior season.

As a 6'0" point guard, Smith had an immediate impact on the 1971–72 team, averaging 20.2 points per game as a sophomore. Moving into junior year, his average increased to 23.4 points. Smith ended his standout career at UD during the 1974 NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen, scoring 36 points in triple overtime against UCLA.

After college, Smith went on to play the game professionally. He was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers for the 1974–75 NBA season. The Flyer was inducted into UD’s Hall of Fame in 1980.

From UD Arena all the way to former Westwood Field, some of our country’s greatest Black athletes first discovered their talent here in the Miami Valley.

It’s been said that there’s no bigger stage than the Olympics. Today, the Games are a true representation of athletic excellence, unity and culture. But that has not always been the case.

The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin are remembered for much more than their display of athletic distinction. Attempts to promote the German government’s ideology created an atmosphere tense with racial supremacy and divide. Nevertheless, 18 Black Americans went to compete on the world’s stage.

Dunbar High School coach and Ohio State University (OSU) alumnus David D. Albritton went into the 1936 Games as an Olympic Trial world record holder during his sophomore year of college. When he cleared a 6'9¾" high jump, he became one of the first people of African descent to hold the world record in the event. Albritton went on to win a silver medal in the Games’ high-jumping competition. 

Albritton competed alongside OSU teammate Jesse Owens in the 1936 Games. Another of the 18 competing Black Americans, Owens notably won four gold medals at the Games. He is heralded as one of the greatest athletes in track and field history.
Both Albritton and Owens are USA Track and Field Hall of Fame inductees.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM): The Fabric of Dayton

Dayton continues to encourage and support STEM with resources like the Dayton Regional STEM Center. But previously, it was Dayton’s Central High School. There, some of the most brilliant young minds crossed paths during the 19th century. Among them were Dunbar, Orville Wright and William Anderson “Bud” Burns.

After completing his education at Central High, Burns began studying medicine in 1893 under the direction of Dr. J.C. Reeve in Dayton, the first vice-president and one of the initial organizers of the American Gynecological Society. Burns later went on to Cleveland, where he studied medicine at Western Reserve University before returning to Dayton in 1898 as the city’s first Black doctor.

The incredibly bright chemist and innovator James A. Parsons Jr. — who is credited for inventing the Durimet 20 stainless steel alloy, a corrosion-resistant alloy still used today in a wide range of industrial processes — started out right here in Dayton.

Now known as one of the nation’s leading metallurgists, Parsons began his career at Duriron, a Dayton manufacturer of pumps and valves for chemical processes. After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in 1922, he began working for Duriron full-time as an analytical chemist.

In 1929, Parsons received the first of eight patents involving the development and application of non-corrosive metals and began developing the steel formulation known as Durimet 20. This alloy became the basis for a family of stainless-steel alloys used extensively in all industries involving the handling of corrosives. Even now, present-day Flowserve (one of TriComB2B’s clients), is still reiterating many of Parsons’ original patents and developments under its Durco® brand.

After his success, Parsons soon rose to be a chief metallurgist and laboratory manager, creating opportunities for Blacks and minorities in Duriron’s laboratories.

Parsons later spent his retirement dedicated to STEM education. He organized the metallurgy program at Tennessee A&I State University (now Tennessee State University), a historically Black college and university (HBCU).

‘By One’s Own Toil, Effort, Courage’

Since 1837, HBCUs have been devoted to the education of Black Americans, providing a safe space to access higher education during legal segregation. HBCUs continue to contribute substantially to the progress of Black Americans and the economy, and the institutions remain sources of pride and culture.

The Miami Valley’s Wilberforce University is the nation’s oldest private, historically Black university owned and operated by African Americans. The 1856 founding of Wilberforce is said to have represented a “bold, audacious and visionary example of what could happen when men and women of goodwill transcended race and the prevailing social and cultural constructs and norms to pursue a noble purpose.”

Today, HBCUs like Wilberforce offer all students, regardless of race, an opportunity to develop their skills and talents.

Remembrance of Dayton’s Black History

At the heart of Dayton, the Woodland Historic Cemetery and Arboretum is the final resting place for several of its most distinguished residents. The historic grounds serve as a place of remembrance, cultural preservation, and has been a guide through just some of Dayton’s renowned Black history. For more information, please visit