LIMA — Walter Potts was 12 years old when Lima’s Bradfield Center opened in 1938. The center, the News wrote in 2007, “was a lifesaver for him and the city’s black youth.”
Potts, in turn, was a lifesaver for Bradfield Center, Lima businessman Jerome O’Neal told the News. “There have been times when Bradfield was on its last legs,” O’Neal said. “Walter got behind Bradfield and wouldn’t let it go.”
In November 2011, Potts stepped down after 12 years as Bradfield’s director. “Before that he spent five decades on the board of the community center, served on Lima City Council, ran a successful business, sat on more boards than he can likely remember and was the first black in the door of a whole lot of institutions that are hoping I won’t mention their segregationist past,” wrote News columnist Bart Mills, mentioning Shawnee Country Club in the next paragraph. “That’s the part of Mr. Potts story that fascinates me, the thing we all know but fail to mention out of politeness or discomfort or both, that his life, by any standard, is newsworthy, but given the fact that he’s an African-American, it’s remarkable.”
Potts’ remarkable life ended in 2015, although his name lives on in the Walter C. Potts Entrepreneur Center at 144 S. Main St., which was formed in 2007 to support the expansion of small and minority businesses, and in the South Collett Street bridge over the Ottawa River near his former home, which was renamed the Walter C. Potts Memorial Bridge in November 2015.
Born Jan. 4, 1926, in Mann, West Virginia, Potts was the son of John Cornelius and Odessa Crystal Harris Potts. Potts’ father died when he was 5 years old and his mother moved him to Lima where “she and his grandparents raised him in a strict home,” the News wrote in 2007.
The Lima in which Potts grew to manhood was segregated in fact if not in law. In a November 1999 story on the black migration from the South to Lima, the News noted, “In Alabama, the water fountains were marked ‘colored’ and ‘white.’ The biggest difference in Lima was that nothing was marked.” Even the news was segregated. As late as 1951, the News printed a column titled “News in Lima’s Colored Circles.”
In the early 1940s, Potts, who was a student at Lima’s South High School, took his first paying job — shining shoes after school and on Saturdays at the Saratoga Cigar Store in the Public Square. “It was there he understood what it meant to be loyal, dependable and honest,” the News wrote in 2007.
While at South, Potts also became a proficient welterweight boxer and ran track. He would continue boxing even after graduating from South in 1943 and enrolling at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In March 1944, Potts reached the finals of the state amateur boxing tournament before losing; in April 1944, he was inducted into the U.S. military.
In a “News in Colored Circles” column from October 1945, the News wrote that Navy Chief Petty Officer Potts had returned to San Diego after visiting his family at 1610 S. Main St. Potts, the News noted, had attended a Navy school at Hampton College in Virginia and specialized “in an electrical course.”
A little more than a year later, in December 1946, Potts married the former Grace Amanda Ward. The couple raised three sons and four daughters.
In the years following World War II, Potts used the GI Bill to earn a degree from Ohio Northern University, eventually becoming the first black engineering employee at the Lima refinery. He also continued an association with the Bradfield Center that began in his youth when Bradfield operated a community Center on Water Street and was there in 1949 when a new Bradfield Center opened at the corner of Collett Street and North Shore Drive, providing a place for black youth to swim when they were barred from other pools in the city.
“He was on the board of Bradfield Center, too, and chaired the board’s building committee when it came time to start pushing for a new building. Once it was constructed, he ended up being named its executive director,” the News wrote in 2002.
“I’ve tried to be involved in those things that are community oriented,” Potts said. “I’m more looking for my abilities and my input to help better the community, especially for the minorities. I have a dream, and other people have dreams, but if you have a dream and want it to become reality, you have to be actively involved.”
Potts was actively involved. In 2007, the News ticked off a list of his accomplishments: “He served on the Allen Metropolitan Housing Authority Board from 1974 to 1983, and also served many years on the city Civil Service Board,” the newspaper wrote. “He’s served on the Lima-Allen County Chamber of Commerce board of trustees and Better Business Bureau. He was among a group to break color barriers at the Lima Elks Club and Shawnee Country Club. He was the first recipient of the Allen County Visionaries Citizen of the Year Award.”
“Why would we wait until the close of the year 2000 to have a black member of the Elks Club?” Potts asked in 2002. “Why would we wait until the late 1990s to have a black member of the Shawnee County Club? I don’t think we should have to fight, press, fuss, argue to be part of the community.”
Potts, who retired from the Lima refinery in 1991, became the city’s first black electrical contractor in May 1963, when articles of incorporation were filed with the Ohio Secretary of State of Potts Electric Service Inc.
In 2003, Potts was elected to represent the 8th Ward on Lima City Council, serving a single term. “The seat capped a life in public service and has been icing on the cake for a man who’s made history over and over again,” the News wrote before his last city Council meeting in December 2007.
Three and a half years later, as he stepped down from his leadership post at Bradfield, the News praised Potts in an editorial. “Potts not only believes in Bradfield’s mission of providing a cultural and recreation center for youth, but he operates the facility with the love of the young child he used to be and the financial expertise of the businessman he became.”
Potts died at the age of 89 in May 2015, about nine months after the death of Grace, his wife of more than 66 years.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.