LIMA — It is plastered all over the airwaves, images of angry young men dealing drugs on street corners or rappers with grills in their mouths and scantily clad women at their sides. That imagery can influence how young black adults in Lima are treated.
“As an African-American male, there’s already one strike against us,” said Jamie Dixon, a 27-year-old service coordinator for National Church Residences, an organization that helps provide affordable senior housing. “If you grew up on the other side of the tracks, that’s another strike. I have to dig myself out of a hole that I didn’t even create. I have to prove myself that I’m reliable and quick to do the job and that I have morals and respect.”
For Dixon, along with many other young black men, these stereotypes can also be difficult to overcome, especially in Lima, where 45 percent of all black families live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That perception can also be reinforced by the fact that Lima schools, with 40 percent black attendance, had 30 percent of the student population not graduate within four years in 2013, earning an F on the Ohio School Report Card.
“People would hear I went to Lima Senior, and they’d ask me, ‘Did you have metal detectors there?’” Dixon said.
Living in poverty with potentially fewer prospects for higher education, the temptation is to go for “easy” money.
“Everyone wants this fast money so they can live the lives of these rappers, models and such,” said Chris Collier, a 30-year-old Nickles Bakery plant employee. “More black people want that life. You don’t hear that as much from white people. I’ve never heard a white person say, ‘I want to be One Direction.’ But you hear all these black people saying, ‘I want to be Lil Wayne. I want to be LeBron James.’ A lot of people want to live that dream, but they don’t want to work.”
Off to a bad start?
Dixon, who now lives in Shawnee Township, grew up in a two-parent household in a close-knit community on Lima’s south end. Both parents had factory jobs in Lima.
“They were both active in our daily lives and our extracurricular activities,” Dixon said. “They established morals and standards for us. That was a tremendous help.”
Marquise Valentine, a 22-year-old aspiring professional boxer, was born in Chicago but moved to Lima at age 5, growing up with his mother and sister.
“It was safer here,” he said. “I stayed in the apartments where Lima Senior is now. We used to call that the ‘Snake Pit’. It was a pretty close community. Everybody knew everybody.”
Collier, like Dixon, was raised in a two-parent household, living in the Lima Apartments on Fourth Street.
“My parents always had a job,” he said. “My dad may have had a hundred different jobs, but I can’t remember a time when he was not working. My mom has worked at the same place for 35 years.”
Although all three men do not contribute to the violent thug stereotype, that does not mean that violence and the drug lifestyle didn’t have an impact on them. Even coming from a two-parent home, Collier admitted that hardship and even tragedy did not escape his family.
“It was real bad back in the day, in the ’90s,” he said. “My cousin got shot and killed in the laundry room. My aunt cut her boyfriend’s nose to where it was hanging off. There were so many drugs going in and out of that place, it was so bad back then. I had cousins in and out of prison, aunts and uncles in jail, aunts and uncles who were addicts.”
Although Collier emphasized that his parents tried to shield him from it, drugs hit closer to home that he realized growing up.
“I couldn’t have even told you that my dad was an addict then,” he said. “They kept me away from it.”
Sharetta Smith, 37, now lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but she remembers her experiences growing up in Lima.
“I always say I came from in a two-parent household, but I was raised by a village,” she said. “That’s from blood aunts and uncles to people who were friends of my parents.”
Smith attended Perry for most of her education and had received a scholarship to Ohio State when an unexpected development occurred.
“It has nothing to do with being black or with socioeconomic status, but I got pregnant my senior year,” she said.
Her journey eventually took her from completing one year at Ohio State to coming back to Lima, going to Toledo to fiinsh her bachelor’s and settling in at Ohio Northern University to study law. Even as a single mother of three by this time, however, she remained committed to her education, even as law school prohibited her working for her first year.
“I was on welfare, public housing, food stamps, everything,” she said.
For Valentine, he was also able to stay out of the drug lifestyle that promised quick, easy money. For him, however, it was thanks to sports. He moved to the Dayton area as a teenager to play high school football, winning a state championship in 2011 with Trotwood Madison. In college, however, he had to “mature in a hurry,” with his mother going to prison for three years.
“I had to get into the work force,” he said. “It’s pretty hard for young black guys like me to get into the work force and find good jobs.”
Looking for work
Valentine was able to use a staffing agency to get a job in a factory.
“Most guys don’t like that, which is why you get a lot of guys wanting to go the other route and looking to the streets,” he said. ” Factory work was okay for me because my body could take the labor.”
Even for those who want to work, however, the sins of the past can often hinder their future, according to Valentine.
“One of the big problems with Lima is that there’s been this war on drugs, but there hasn’t been anything to rehabilitate these kids who started in it,” he said. “Most places won’t hire you if you had a penalty in the last five years. So it makes it hard for guys who maybe messed up one time and now feel like they couldn’t get a job even if they wanted to.”
By her third year of law school, Smith felt she needed to get back to work, so she began to work for a subcontractor at Proctor & Gamble, quickly working her way up the ranks to where she was faced with a choice.
“They came to me and said that it was either going to have to be working full-time or not working here.”
She chose the job and eventually got transferred to Louisiana and then up to Tennessee. The 2008 economic downturn, however, forced her to reconsider her career options, taking her back to law school, where she graduated and eventually went on to become a magistrate in Chattanooga.
Smith said she would love to be able to live and work in Lima, but there are simply not the opportunities there, unless you want to work in the medical field or in factory work.
“It does have a disparate impact on the African-American community, but I’m still not sure if there’s an intent there,” she said. “I say that because the ‘good ol’ boy’ network that people talk about exists in every community, and if you traditionally have people from one ethnic group in certain positions who can make certain decisions, they normally extend olive branches to people they live with and go to church with and are in the community with.”
Collier agreed that it is difficult for young black people in Lima to get good jobs, but he also blames it on the city’s economy in general, rather than any racial bias.
“It has nothing to do with being black or white,” he said. “Everyone’s going out of town because there’s more money.”
Dixon agreed, noting that many young black people leave the city to find other jobs because of a lack of opportunities, with many older workers forced to find jobs typically reserved for younger workers.
“It’s sad when most of Lima works at Ford or at the hospitals,” he said. “Nowadays, you have individuals who are 30, 40 years old who are out of work, so they’re going to work in fast food or at restaurants, waitressing or flipping burgers. So it takes away from the jobs that our youth could have.”
That does not mean that Lima’s young black people can not be successful, however. Dixon noted he has several friends and acquaintances from high school who became successful in their occupations, but they had to go to places like Columbus, Cincinnati or even out of state to do it. Collier noted that he has a sister who is a high school principal. However, that school is in Atlanta.
Valentine also plans on moving out of Lima if he can make it as a boxer.
“It’s a shame that people have to go out of town to be successful,” he said.
For Dixon, nothing will change as long as there is an “us and them” mentality between whites and blacks in Lima.
“We need to come together,” he said. “We need to look past color, gender, religion, everything.”
Dixon and Valentine also maintained that until young black people get involved in the political process, systemic change will be difficult in coming.
“We’ve had the same leaders and nothing has changed on the south side,” Valentine said.
“We don’t vote for our leaders,” Dixon said. “If you’re not looking for change, wanting change and going out and making change, nothing will happen.”
Young black adults have just as much potential as anyone else, Smith said, but there needs to be a more deliberate push to see that potential realized at home and not out of state.
“I’ve never seen so many black people in government until I moved south,” she said. “Black police officers, firefighters, clerks, everything. I don’t know how, but there needs to be an urgency from all stakeholders to address it, because if not, I’m not sure what’s going to happen to Lima.”
Reach Craig Kelly at 567-242-0390 or on Twitter @Lima_CKelly.