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Does Racism Exist in Rural Northwest Ohio?

etch a sketch
The Etch-a-Sketch is made by Ohio Art, a Bryan, Ohio company. Once manufactured in Bryan, it is now made overseas.

I used to be a member of the Growing Up in Bryan, Ohio Facebook group. The group is made up of people who live/lived in Bryan, Ohio. Recently, the subject of racism was brought up and this provoked a lively discussion about the state of race relations in Bryan. This got me to thinking: does racism still exist in rural northwest Ohio and Bryan? Have we reached a place where we live in a post-racial era, even here in homogenous rural Ohio? Before I answer this question, I want to spend some time talking about demographics and my own experiences as a resident of rural northwest Ohio.

My father grew up on a hundred-acre farm three miles south of Bryan and attended Ney High School. My mother moved to Bryan as a teenager. Both of them worked for local Bryan businesses such as K&R Cleaners, The Hub, Carroll Ames, and Bryan Trucking. My father was part of a close-knit ethnic Hungarian group that settled in the Bryan area in the 1920s and 1930s. My parents considered Bryan home, and in 1957 it became my home. My brother and sister were also born in Bryan.

Even though I have spent most of my life living in other places, Bryan is home to me. Try as I might to flee the topographically boring flatlands of rural northwest Ohio, I consider Bryan my home. Over the years, I’ve lived in California, Michigan, Texas, Arizona, and southeast Ohio. I’ve also lived in or near the northwest Ohio communities of Farmer, Deshler, Harrod, Alvordton, Mt. Blanchard, and Findlay. Currently, I live in Ney, a one-stoplight, two-bars village six miles south of Bryan.

Bryan was settled in 1840 and is the seat of Williams County. In 1950, the population was 6,365 people. In 2010, the population was 8,545 people. Bryan saw a 12.9% population growth between 1970 and 1980 and 5.9% growth between 1980 and 1990. Since 1990, the population has grown 8.2%.

According to the 2010 US Census:

  • 94.3% (8,056) of Bryan residents are white
  • .6% (47) Black
  • .9% (73) Asian
  • .2% (14) Native American
  • .1% (5) Pacific Islander
  • 2.0% (170) Mixed Race
  • 5.1% (436) Hispanic or Latino

Statistics are taken from the 2010 US Census Report

The Bryan of today is more racially diverse than at any time in its 175-year history. While this is good news, the reason for the diversity is non-white medical professionals moving to Bryan to work for the local hospital and medical group and white-collar professionals moving here to work for local companies. This diversity is primarily driven by economics.

The Bryan of my youth was 100% white. I was five years old before I saw a black person for the first time — a porter at the Chicago train station. As a teenager, I was told by one proud and ignorant Bryanite that Bryan was 100% white and proud of it. According to him, back in the day, any black caught in town after dark was run out of town. I suspect his attitude was quite common.

In the 1970s, I attended high school in Findlay, Ohio, a community 75 miles southeast of Bryan. The 1970 population of Findlay was 35,800 people. Like Bryan, Findlay was as white as white could be. There were two black students who attended Findlay High School, and they were brother and sister. Today, .3% (886) of Findlay residents are black.

In the mid-1970s, I attended First Baptist Church in Bryan. I can still remember the day that a woman who once attended the church and moved away, returned home with her new black husband. Oh, the racist gossip that ran wild through the church: why, what was she thinkin . . . marrying a black man! Think of the children! It was not long before she and her husband moved on to another church.

It was not until I moved to Pontiac, Michigan to attend Midwestern Baptist College that I came into close contact with blacks. Freshman year, one of my roommates was a black man from Philadelphia. The college was connected with nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. Emmanuel ran numerous bus routes into Pontiac and Detroit, busing in thousands of blacks. Most of the children from Detroit attended B Sunday school. The B was the designation given for the afternoon Sunday school. It was not long before I figured out that the B stood for black. When an overtly racist man became the bus pastor, one of the first things he did was stop running the buses to Detroit. We were told this was due to budget restraints, but many of us thought the real reason was race.

The college and church were located in a bad part of Pontiac. (Some might argue, is there a good part of Pontiac?) The projects were nearby and the area east of the college was decidedly black. My experiences with the local black community, with its rundown housing and rampant crime, helped to reinforce the racist stereotypes I had been taught by my parents. It didn’t help that gangs of black youth repeatedly broke into the dormitory and ransacked the place while everyone was at church. A few years back, the college relocated to an overwhelmingly white community.

My parents, typical of their generation, were racists. It is impossible to paint the picture any other way. Whether their racism was from their own upbringing or their membership in the John Birch Society, they made no apology for their fundamentalist Christian-driven racism. They had a special hatred for Martin Luther King, Jr. My mother thought King got exactly what he deserved when he was assassinated in 1968. Like it or not, this is my heritage.

In the 1980s, Polly and I lived in southeast Ohio. For a number of years, we were foster parents. One of the children we cared for was black. We had made arrangements to rent a house outside of Somerset, Ohio — where I was pastoring at the time — from a retired school teacher. When we looked at the house, we did not have our foster child with us. Several days before we supposed to move in, the matronly pillar of the community called and said that she decided to not rent the house. We found out later that she told people that she was not going to have a “nigger” living in her house.

We moved to New Lexington, Ohio, and enrolled our foster child in the local public school, thinking little about how hard it might be for her to be the only black kid in the school. Needless to say, she was subjected to daily racial taunts. One day, the principal called us and said our foster child had created a disturbance in class. One of her classmates had called her a “nigger” and she threw her book at her taunter and stormed out of class.

I was quite upset at her behavior. Having never walked in her shoes, I had no way of knowing what it was like to be singled out and taunted for the color of my skin. I gave her the stern Pastor Gerencser lecture, reminding her that she was accountable for behavior and that she couldn’t respond this way every time someone called her a “nigger.” While my words had a ring of truth to them, they were quite insensitive and showed that I didn’t have a clue about how difficult it was for her as a young black woman.

In the mid-1980s, the church I pastored had a black missionary come and present his work. I took the missionary on a tour of the area and we stopped at the Somerset Snack Bar for lunch. The Snack Bar was where locals hung out, and it was always a busy hive of storytelling, gossip, and news. The Snack Bar was quite noisy when we walked in the door, but as patrons glanced up to see who was coming in, the noise quickly dissipated. I later learned that several of the locals were upset over the Baptist preacher bringing a “nigger” into the Snack Bar.

In 1995, I moved back home to northwest Ohio, pastoring a church in Alvordton for a short time, and then pastoring a church in West Unity for seven years. Polly and I have lived in this area now for 23 years. This is our home. Our 6 children and 13 grandchildren all live within 20 minutes of our home.

It was during my time as pastor of Our Father’s House in West Unity that I began to address my own latent racism and the racism that percolated under the surface of the local community. As my politics began to move to the left, my preaching took on a social gospel flavor, and this included preaching on racism.

When a church member would talk about “colored” people, I would ask them, so what color were they? Oh, you know what I mean, preacher! Yes, I do. So, how is the color of their skin germane to the story you are telling? I did the same when members talked about “those” people — “those” meaning blacks, Mexicans, or people perceived to be welfare bums.

What made things difficult was that we had a black man attending the church. He was a racist’s dream — the perfect stereotype. He was on welfare, didn’t work, lived in Section 8 housing, had an illegitimate child, and spent most of his waking hours trying to figure out how to keep from working. The church financially helped him several times, and we brought him groceries on numerous occasions. One time he called and told me he needed groceries. I told him that I would have someone bring them over to him later that day. He then told me, preacher, I’m a meat and potato man, so I don’t want no canned food. Bring me some meat. He’s still waiting for those groceries to be delivered.

As I read the comments on the Growing Up in Bryan, Ohio Facebook group (the post is no longer available), I noticed that there was an age divide. Older people such as I thought Bryan was still, to some degree, racist, while younger people were less inclined to think Bryanites were racist, or they thought local racists were a few bad apples. I think that this reflects the fact that race relations are markedly “better” now in this area.

The reasons are many:

  • Older generations, those raised in the days of race riots, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jim Crow are dying off.
  • Local residents are treated by doctors who are not white. My wife’s gynecologist is a dark-skinned Muslim.
  • Interracial couples now live in the area.
  • Migrants workers, once a part of the ebb and flow of the farming season, are now primarily permanent residents.
  • Younger adults and teenagers no longer think race is a big deal.
  • Music, television, and the Internet have brought the world to our doorstep, allowing us to experience other cultures.
  • Sports, in which the majority of athletes in the three major professional sports — football, basketball, and baseball — are non-white. Cable and satellite TV broadcast thousands of college and professional games featuring non-white players.

Exposure breeds tolerance. Bigoted attitudes about gays and same-sex marriage are on prominent display in rural northwest Ohio. These attitudes remind me of how things once were when it came to race. Time and exposure to people who are different from us can’t help but change how we view things like race and sexual orientation. My children are quite accepting and tolerant of others, and I hope that these attitudes will be passed on to my grandchildren. We are closer today than we ever have been to Martin Luther King’s hope of “a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

We haven’t arrived. Latent, institutional racism must continue to be challenged. Recent protests and riots across the United States reveal that we have a long, long, long way to go before we reach King’s hope and dream. Unfortunately, there are those who use race and fear to stoke distrust and hate of those who are different. We must forcefully marginalize (and vote out of office) those who want to return America to the 1950s. We must also be willing to judge our own attitudes about race. We enlightened liberals gleefully look at the extreme right and we see racism and bigotry in all its glory. Yet, if we are honest, such things exist in our own backyard. None of us can rest until we have achieved a post-racial world. We have much work to do.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Becky Wiren

    Well! Do you know there is a list for towns that were “sundown towns,” that is, no blacks allowed after sunset? And Bryan, Ohio is on that list. When I read it I couldn’t believe it. So, since you heard a man say exactly that, that means I live in a formerly highly bigoted town. Oh, and most of the towns around here are on that list. I find that quite depressing. However, the fact that the younger people are more open is a great thing.

  2. Avatar
    Jerri Love

    I’ve lived in Texas for 42 of my 47 years. My kinfolk come from rural southern Illinois, which resembles your Ohio area. I’d never seen a black or latino person until we came to Texas. I know my parents wondered how things would be different for us. But we were poor white folk, so things were relatively easy back then. The white families with money had just started moving to the suburbs in the 70’s. In the city, the school district loaded buses with black children from east Waco and sent them across town to attend predominantly middle class white schools. The city also pulled poorer whites from our area and bused us to east Waco to predominantly black schools. My mother wanted to raise a ruckus over the busing, but I wanted to ride the bus. I was more comfortable with people who had a different skin color than people who had a little money. Those kids were mean.

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    Bruce, thank you for addressing this issue. Racism is still a problem in this country, though many people argue it is not. I have experienced it with my biracial son in many different places and on many different levels. I agree that it is changing because the upcoming generations are changing and becoming more accepting of people who are different. Also because of our exposure to different types of people on TV and through the internet and sports, as you said.

  4. Avatar

    I live in a very multi cultural community in Richmond Hill ON. a lot of Chinese, Persians (Iranians), Italians, Egyptians,.Philippino’s ….etc. we are less then 50% white. If you are a racist, you keep it to yourself or YOU will get run out of town.

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    I lived in Findlay in 2002-2004, my wife is a physician that worked in this place. I can tell you without a doubt that this town, a close knit farming community, is a very racist town. I could not stay or think of raising a family in this closed minded community. I though that people would overcome racism as the parents who may of grown up in the Jim Crow era died off, but the opposite is true – It will never die. It is bred in them!

  6. Avatar
    King Jackson

    Yes, in Findlay, Ohio and similar area if you belong to a former royal family. They will target you to the fullest extent like job call and then speak ill will about everything…. However, as a kid this confused as I grown I pray. You can depend on own or other but be grateful.. your a royal. ADC

  7. Avatar

    I was raised in the deep South, around many black people. My family employed a number of blacks through the years as maids, housekeepers, gardeners, drivers, etc.. and the Catholic schools I attended had black students. In fact, when I saw the movie ‘The Help’ I could relate because that’s the type of world and time frame I was raised in, that the people that gave you the most love, care and acceptance as a small child were the blacks employed in your own household. My parents and most of my family was extremely racist, I was always very ashamed of that and was convicted early on that there was no real difference between people no matter what their skin tone is. I’ve always tried to be fair, decent and not racist.

    I grew up with the sort of universal liberal guilt over the plight of blacks in the South, but years of traveling around and living in different parts of the country have disabused me of the notion that racism is primarily a problem of the deep South only. Some of the worst racism I’ve seen seems to come from places well north of the Mason-Dixon line, like Ohio. It’s wrong wherever it happens, kudos Bruce for acknowledging your own struggles with it and changing.

  8. Avatar

    I have never understood racism, though I live very near the place where the largest KKK rally ever was held back in the 1920’s. My entire county is on the list of sundown towns. There was a black farming community here though and the road that led to it was called “Colored Pike”. No, I’m not kidding. In 1969, rioting broke out due racial tensions and I recall being a 9-year old on my paternal grandparents’ porch and hearing my father tell my grandfather that the sheriff had told him to “shoot any n—-r that crosses North Street.” Comments like “n—-r-rigged” and “I love n—-rs- I think everyone should own a couple,” were heard almost daily in the home I grew up in. It bothered me immensely, even as a child. I once almost lost a job because I spoke up when the manager told another employee to stop doing a tedious cleaning task because she “wasn’t a n—-r”.
    The racism I grew up with didn’t stick. My family is now multi-racial. My sister has been with her partner, who is black, for 15+ years and my paternal cousin has been married to her wonderful Hispanic husband for over 30. I still fear that some traces of racism linger, without me even being aware they are there (aka white privilege) and I work to ensure it is banished if I discover it in myself or those around me. It was going to the Quaker church with my maternal grandparents that prevented me from becoming racist. In particular, it was learning a children’s hymn at such a young age I don’t remember not knowing it. That hymn was called “Jesus Loves the Little Children”, made famous by Ray Stevens in 1971 as the opening to “Everything is Beautiful”. It is one instance where a church did good.

  9. Avatar
    Joyce N

    I think xenophobia, which is at the true root of racism, is present in most humans. It is corrected through education and exposure to diversity. We need to consistently work on it and we can never allow ourselves to think that it’s over, solved or what-have-you because if we stop “working on it” we will see its return. I too live in largely white northern NYS; we have the added irritant of having numerous prisons whose guards tend, in their minds, to ‘other’ inmates who are often not white. The attitude slips out into the community and feeds racism.

    It’s sad, really. We all have to work on it and talk about it. We have to incorporate into our discussion that fearing ‘different’ (racism) is as much a part of our make-up as greed, gluttony, or laziness. None of these will ever end; they are simply controlled, to whatever degree.

  10. Avatar

    MY family was never racist. We gave handouts to negros and white hobos and my father even let them smoke in our house if they would use the hems of their pants for ashtrays cuz we never had such evil things as ashtrays…. Christians love everybody who understands that Jeeszus is the one true way and that is all there is to it, according to the Bible. Everybody is precious in his sight but we white folks etc.

  11. Avatar

    The world is a mess and yet God made it and said it was good. So the mess is the sin of man. For you bible study folks, remember, Satan and his helpers were cast down to earth. Evil runs to and fro…If you want to end racism, you have to pray, confess your sins and ask God to change your heart. I am a middle age Catholic African American who have the same struggles. I fight not to hate folks who look at me or treat me less than a dog. Americans great Sin is Racism! AMERICA deal with your Sin or God will deal with you!

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    Bruce, I recall the Gerencser name. You may know what a “beet honkie” is (or was). My family were known by
    that, as perhaps yours was. Sounds like you know Williams county as well as I do, (or once did). Thanks for distilling the experience of Bryan as a sundown town. My last taste of it was in the 1990s. After visiting Williams County relatives for Christmas, weather grounded me at the Bryan airport. Gossiping with the airport manager to pass time, I mentioned that in the sixties when last I lived there, everyone knew an unwritten law of no blacks allowed in Bryan. As you know, everyone knows everyone and everything happening there. As a free range kid on a bike, I knew and saw everyone and everything and I’m sure no black person lived there during my 15 years on Bryan streets. Zero blacks ever seen. The airport manager knew Bryan’s sundown history and said nothing had changed in the 90s. He said a black family (of a schoolteacher, as I recall), had tried it awhile but after some uncomfortable experiences had left town. I’m out of touch now but I expect it’s the same.

    • Avatar
      Brian Vanderlip

      Ignorant hatreds are passed down through generations. But once you have discerned the lie of holy Jesus Christianity in good ol’ USA, you can never be hookwinked like that again. Pity that Gerencser is ostracized and only included at the atheist kook! The blind are best at leading the blind and since Bruce saw the light, he is of no use there, in the land of endless hatred.

  13. Avatar

    I think the younger people don’t care about people being in the LGBTQ community either. Still, I’ve noticed that some white young people around here assume that since they aren’t prejudiced, that prejudice no longer exists. I’d like to believe that but since so many people here are Trump voters, I doubt it.

  14. Avatar

    Latent prejudice exists everywhere – my kids’ high school is about 35% Asian, about 5% other (meaning African American, Latinx, etc) and the rest white. Most kids are from middle class to wealthy families. There’s a lot of stereotyping about the Asian kids – most are Korean, so woe to the Japanese, Chinese, Philippino, etc kids who get labeled incorrectly. Yet the kids are pretty tolerant of others – but the micro differences still are commented on. However, a lot of these kids are out protesting, trying to organize protests, to the point that the high school issued a statement that while it supports diversity and free speech in the form of protest, the campus is closed to protesting events.

    I grew up in Tennessee, so a lot of overt and subversive racism. I was sent to a fundamentalist Christian school due to a rumor that in our area kids were going to be bused to an African American neighborhood. My great-grandmother used the N word and “colored” to describe African Americans even though my mom told her until she was blue in the face not to use those words. To be fair, my mom tried to teach me about equality of all races, but my grandfather, great-grandmother, and various other relatives would say racist things. She used to take me to one specific park so I could play with African American kids.

    At the public school I attended grades 1-4 there were only white kids. There was a special ed wing which was mostly African American kids bused in. At the fundamentalist Christian school there were only white kids, until in high school two families of Indian kids and a family of Korean kids enrolled. And eventually a black-latinx family with 2 elementary school kids enrolled. That’s it. All the teachers and most students were white. My friends who went to public high school had much more diversity, but not until high school as the middle school was 99.9% white.

    A lot of the problem is lack of exposure to those of other races and backgrounds. If you don’t personally know people from a variety of backgrounds you have no idea what you have in common.

    That being said, we white people need to recognize that we receive certain privileges just because we are white. My friends who aren’t white are treated differently in a traffic stop than I am as a middle class middle-aged white woman. It’s not my fault or the fault of my friends, it’s how it is now. That’s what needs to change.

  15. Avatar

    Also, I went to college with a guy who was from the family that owned Ohio Art company – I remember being stunned that he had 2 cars, one that was new and an old car he was refurbishing. He was the 5th generation to carry the male family name….just something I remembered….

    • Avatar
      Brian Vanderlip

      Sharon Drosehn, please go directly to your local police recruitment office…. you are sorely needed on the force.

  16. Avatar
    George J DeVos

    Re-reading the posts here, I am reminded of a childhood experience in Bryan. It was not about racism but a similar attitude that for lack of a better word I will call bigotry. My family, all but me, was born in The Netherlands and unlike modern Dutch people, my parents hadn’t learned English in school. They learned it on the streets of America and had a heavy accent sounding German since Dutch and German are very similar. During the 2nd war, there was constant anti-enemy propaganda. Everyone saw “BUY WAR BONDS” posters with the Japanese and/or German soldiers with a baby impaled on his bayonet. Germans and/or Japanese did not advertise their origin. To avoid hostility, Japanese passed as Chinese to explain their appearance and Germans passed as Dutch to explain names and accents. My parents were suspected of being German, due to their heavy accents. One day near the end of the war, (about 1945) as many as a hundred children appeared in front of our house on south Williams St yelling krauts get out and words to that affect. Stones were thrown and windows broken. I was about seven and I only recall the broad outline, not how it ended. Deputy Sheriff Dan Zuvers lived directly across the street and I think he intervened. Ironically our family in Holland was under brutal occupation and both my Grandfathers had by that time died, the deprivation being particularly hard on elderly folk. I never got over the experience and as an adult the irony became obvious. Any phone book in northwest Ohio, Bryan included, looks like a phone book in a suburb of Berlin. Almost solidly German names. Did those children come on a nice sunny day to stone our house and call us krauts on their own initiative? It seems unlikely. Their parents caused it, one way or another. That was northwest Ohio and Bryan about 1945. A sundown town where everyone understood black folks were not allowed after dark and a kraut accent was not a good thing during the war. Bruce I hope you are well there in Ney. My dear friend Herb Mack whom you must have known recently passed away there. I appreciate your thoughtful commentaries.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I knew Herb. We talked on occasion when he came to read our meter.

      The Gerencsers are part of a group of Hungarians who moved to rural northwest Ohio in the 20s and 30s. They faced bigotry from locals. My grandparents never spoke English, so that added to the negative view locals had of Hungarians. Over time, this group of Hungarians assimilated into our rule culture. The only way you would know they live here today is by their last names.

      I come from German and Scandinavian stock. My grandparents/great-grandparents carried surnames such as Rausch and Schultz. Some of them lived in Bryan, others lived in Detroit

      I have several photos of a KKK march that took place here in Ney in 1925 — right in front of our home. There had been a huge KKK funeral at the local Church of God — two blocks from our house. Racism still exists in this area. It has just taken on a different form.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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Bruce Gerencser