Yellow Springs: 1803-present
9: 1958 to 1973
Massive desegregation demonstrations rocked town
It would be easy to say that Lewis Gegner, owner of the last segregated barber shop in town, was a racist. Modern intuition tells us that the hundreds of Antioch students and civil rights activists who protested Gegner’s business to the point of civil disobedience in the spring of 1964 acted as heroes in the fight for racial equality.
But in the unraveling of the complex and highly publicized struggle, the distinction between right and wrong blurred into a bittersweet haze that shrouded Yellow Springs for some time afterward.
When Squires barbershop desegregated in 1960 under pressure from the Antioch College Chapter of the NAACP, Gegner was the only remaining barber in town who refused to cut black people’s hair, according to a 1963 document by the Antioch Committee for Racial Equality (ACRE). Though students and area residents had found social and legal means to integrate restaurants, beauty shops, and the movie theater, they could not convince Gegner to follow suit.
Gegner and his father, Louis Gegner, had operated a barbershop in town for 35 years. He later described himself as a stubborn man who did not like to be told what to do. Though, according to local resident Naomi McKee, Gegner had done a nice job cutting the hair of at least one young black man before the trouble began, when put to the test he refused. “I don’t know how to cut their (Negro’s) hair,” he is quoted as saying in the ACRE account.
Gegner appeared unfazed when in August 1960 he was fined $1 for violating a Village antidiscrimination ordinance. The following year, local resident Paul Graham, who is black, filed a discrimination complaint against Gegner with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, which issued a “cease and desist” order against the barber. But Gegner appealed the order in Greene County Common Pleas Court, and a year and a half later, it was canceled.
Students and residents became increasingly frustrated with the legal process, so they organized a protest in front of Gegner’s shop in April ’63.
It started out small as the students followed Antioch’s rules for nonviolent direct action. The students took turns parading in twos in front of Gegner’s Xenia Avenue storefront and handing out fliers to passersby. Picketers were to walk in a circle without blocking the shop entrance, and they could not litter or wear beards.
At the end of the month, students Jim Fearn and Hank Richardson, who were both black, returned to the shop to ask for haircuts. When Gegner refused, a group of about 35 students began to file into the shop and attempt to sit in all the chairs. Gegner grew so furious that he jacked a chair up as high as it could go, turned it around and sat in it himself, the ACRE account reported. The situation ended when 18 people were arrested and law enforcement officials turned a fire hose on the crowd outside.
In May, when the courts ruled in favor of protecting Gegner’s rights to run his business the way he wanted, the students organized a march of several hundred people downtown. “It is legitimate and wholesome, when injustices and indignities exist, that there should be a protest to that by the people who hope for better conditions,” former Antioch College President Arthur Morgan said during a speech at the march.
Villagers voiced differing opinions in the News about the growing conflict.
“Harmony and peace cannot be achieved without first gaining justice for all,” the News said in an editorial.
Jean Dewine, who wrote a column for the News, criticized the protesters for seeking childish and irresponsible ways of influencing what was the law.
Members of the Civil Rights Commission advised protesters to stop demonstrating and wait for the next appeal, but ACRE members voted overwhelmingly to continue their actions.
The conflict was particularly taxing on Yellow Springs Police Chief Jim McKee, who was black. He later said that he sympathized with the protesters but he had an obligation to uphold the law.
Many more Yellow Springs residents joined the demonstrations and sit-ins that summer.
In January 1964, the Second District Court of Appeals reinstated the “cease and desist” order against Gegner. But he immediately appealed the case to the Ohio Supreme Court, and neither the Greene County prosecutor nor Village officials would enforce the circuit court’s ruling.
Then on March 13, 1964, Gegner got a Greene County judge to issue an injunction limiting the number of picketers to not more than three at a time.
The next day, March 14, civil rights supporters mobilized a massive and chaotic street demonstration that Chief McKee would later describe as “the worst day of my life.”
Over 200 citizens took to the street around noon and locked arms to form a helix 10 people deep across Xenia Avenue in front of Gegner’s shop, the News reported. Over 150 law enforcement officials from three counties used tear gas and fire hoses to scatter the first surge of demonstrators as hundreds of onlookers stood by in shock. People all over the country watched on TV and listened on the radio to the havoc that ensued.
At 4 p.m. Montgomery County police read the Ohio Riot Act, and a thick line of officers carrying nightsticks advanced on the demonstrators. Finally, local resident Horace Champney encouraged them to disperse, as police arrested 108 people.
No one was in control that day. ACRE leadership broke down before the protest began, and 150 students from Wilberforce, Central State and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee grabbed the reins. Demonstrators violated Antioch’s nonviolent rules of conduct by flipping, kicking and actively resisting arrest. It was unclear who ordered the tear gas, but Greene County Sherriff Russell Bradley took responsibility for it.
Lewis Gegner closed his shop that day, and villagers ruminated on both the cause and the effect of the frightening day.
The March News carried an editorial entitled “When strong men weep.” “A handful of students, a single barber could not have thrown our town into such a turmoil, unless there already existed some deep and serious problems,” the editorial said, emphasizing the need to rebuild mutual respect. In addition, the paper published letters to the editor which described elevated emotions on both sides of the struggle.
Carl and Lorena Hyde acknowledged Gegner’s violation of the law but admonished those who tried to “advance the cause of integration by an act of angry retaliation” that was “natural” and “understandable” but emphatically neither morally right nor constructive. Antioch Bookplate founder Ernest Morgan said the demonstration was unnecessary and that it “degenerated into a fiasco.”
Antioch College officials later conducted an internal investigation and found they were in agreement with the Hydes’ and Morgan’s views. “The popularity of a given point of view can be no criterion for the freedom of its expression, for a crucial test of civil liberties is the ability to tolerate dissent,” the committee said. “It is the judgment of this committee that despite the adherence to the letter of the regulations, important decisions leading to the March 14th demonstration were not made in ways that should be acceptable to the Antioch community.”
Villagers also sought to evaluate their actions and held a public discussion and a community walk the week after the protest. About 700 residents participated in both events, and both sides were given the chance to express their dissatisfaction with the actions of both the police and the demonstrators.
The Human Relations Committee, which was chaired by Arthur Morgan and included both college and village participants, organized committees to address local issues of equal rights, fair employment, integrated housing, good childrearing, civic responsibility and open public accommodations. A group called the “200 citizens,” including 104 local businesses, teamed with the HRC to start an educational campaign to end discrimination, prejudice and racial tension in the area.
Three months and 12 days after the March 14 demonstration, the 1964 Civil Rights Bill became the first federal law requiring all businesses to serve the public regardless of race.
Gegner never reopened his shop, and in July of 1964, he sold his business to local barber Russell Hughes, claiming a total loss of $15,000. Several years later, when he was working as a clerk for a state liquor store in Xenia, Gegner was invited to speak at a Ku Klux Klan meeting in Dayton, according to a Dayton Daily News article from April 1966.
During his speech, he admitted that his stubbornness had something to do with the conflict. “I was determined that none would get into my chair and they didn’t,” he said of blacks.
Gegner also told the Ohio Associated Press that he was not prejudiced. “I was just doing what I thought I had a right to do,” he said, adding, “Everyone’s screaming about civil rights. What about my civil rights?”
Though he said he would do it again if he could, Gegner eventually realized, he said, that he was fighting a losing battle with the civil rights movement.