Dayton 1966 riots 55 years later: Black business leader shot, killed set off days of riots

DAYTON — Fifty-five years ago this week, a black businessman was shot, setting off days of rioting on the west side of Dayton.

It only came to an end after Ohio’s governor deployed the Ohio National Guard.

In WHIO’s continuing series “Dayton Gets Real,” News Center 7′s Letitia Perry took a look at the Dayton Race Riots of 1966.

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On Sept. 1, 1966, Dayton police said an unidentified man was driving around, looking to make trouble.

“He just waited ‘til he saw someone standing out on the street,” said retired Dayton Lt. Daniel Baker, a beat cop at the time. Part of Baker’s patrol area was Broadway at Fifth streets.

The white man pulled up to 30-year-old Lester Mitchell, a known businessman in the neighborhood, as he was sweeping the sidewalk.

“He opened fire,” Baker said. “Shot him in the face and drove away.”

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Mitchell died, and despite witness descriptions, the gunman was never caught.

For the following several days, fires were set, rocks shattered windows, and Molotov cocktails were tossed into business store fronts, costing the City of Dayton hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It was shock. I remember the fear. I remember the chaos, but we were sheltered,” said Daria Dillard Stone, who lived on Broadway Street and was in the 10th grade at the time. “Our parents would not let us go out by ourselves.”

At the time, the Dayton Police Department only had about 350 officers, and only 14 were black. Police were unable to contain the rioters, and Ohio’s then governor, James Rhodes, sent in armed national guardsmen to restore order.

Up and coming democratic leader CJ McLin, wanting to help, reached out to young black professionals including Willis ‘Bing’ Davis. Davis was a young art teacher at Colonel White High School and was one of several who got the call from McLin’s office.

Davis and the rest of the group were charged with a huge task — hit the streets where the rioting was happening and try to bring peace, encourage young people to stop looting and rioting. Essentially, keep them from getting arrested, or worse, shot.

“We had to raise our hand and take a pledge,” Davis said. “We was also given a white hat, so we were the ‘white hats.’”

When officers saw the “white hats,” they knew it was a sign of peace making, not trouble making.

It was a difficult job, but Willis and others were ready.

The riots, using today’s figures, cost the city nearly $380,000, many casualties and the loss of black businesses and livelihoods. About 150 people were arrested.

“We’ve come a long way, but we’re poisoned,” Stone said. “It’s so much poison where it needs to be peace.”

Baker said remembering the riots is important.

“Well, I really believe in that phrase Winston Churchill said about people — when we forget history, we’ll repeat it.”