The Dorr Street Project — “History the Perfect Gift”

By Robert Smith, President, African American Legacy Project
Guest Column

“Walk like you have 3000 ancestors behind you.”  — African Proverb

It was always a sense of community, a sense of pride and a sense of purpose. Losing the Dorr Street Corridor in the “1970’s” sometimes feels like …we lost the biggest part of us” The Dorr Street Corridor was after all the central thesis for African American life in this community.

The Dorr Street Corridor was… the very best of us.  Most of our primary businesses, organizations and institutions were located on, near or … adjacent to Dorr Street.   Clearly, the Dorr Street Corridor served as the pulse/hub/nerve center connecting neighborhoods who were dependent upon the area [the corridor] for their primary “goods and services.”

In reality, the Dorr Street Corridor also served smaller towns like Fremont, Fostoria, Port Clinton, Gibsonburg and other regional communities with smaller African American populations like Monroe, MI.

Fifty plus years later Toledo’s African American community is still reeling from the dissolution of Dorr Street.   The complete loss of its economic vitality and to date limited opportunities to develop jobs and create and/or pursue generational wealth are footnotes to what some may view as  historical apathy.

On Monday, February 6, 2023 residents and former residents of the Dorr Street Corridor gathered to share their memoires, commitment and excitement as The African American Legacy Project unveiled its Dorr Street Project. The Dorr Street Project – quoting legendary jazz pianist Horace Silver – is a Song to Our Fathers. The Dorr Street Project is also a collection of love letters to future generations.

The Dorr Street Project is a volunteer-driven effort designed with the expressed intent of telling the story of how this community evolved.  The Dorr Street Project celebrates those who came before us with the hope of stimulating both young and old to search for the intersect where investment meets opportunity.

We want to ensure future generations understand the possibilities. We want them to walk with a confidence, work with pride and purpose as they begin to imagine what their futures could be. We want them to “walk like they have 3,000 ancestors behind them – to be inspired by the past and not fear the future. We believe – through their own history – these young people will understand success is inside of them and not necessarily in another zip code.

For far too long a young person’s success has been measured by how far they move away from home.  Good or bad, we’ve actually promoted that kind of thinking for a while now.

Sadly, there are several generations of young men and women who can’t imagine rows and city blocks of African American businesses, organizations and cultural symbols who directly catered to, influenced or stimulated  the residents of this community. While there has been some recent activity, decades have passed since opportunities have presented themselves to create – have access to the tools to create – or consider creating generational wealth.

Just as importantly, more than 50 years have passed since there was any substantive which would point to the existence of a once vibrant community. Today, the corridor is a vacuum — a shell of itself. Our goal is to collect, develop and share information regarding Toledo’s African American community – most specifically – the Dorr Street Corridor to help future generations understand the possibilities. We want them to walk with a confidence work with a pride and purpose as they begin to imagine what their futures could be. We want them to “walk like they have 3,000 ancestors behind them – to be inspired by the past and not fear the future.

We want them to know the story of Mr. James Billups who owned an operated his own full line appliance center both servicing and selling new and used equipment. We want them to know Mr. Billups Fix-All Appliance aka Black Giant Appliance contributed to the economic vitality of the community while growing and sustaining his family.  We want them to know about Mr. Jim Cobham the owner of multiple McDonalds restaurants and how used his platform McDonalds who used his platform to give jobs and  take on a serious leadership role in the community

It is incumbent upon us to leave a legacy for [inspire] succeeding generations.  It is important to tell our story, lest we forget. We are interviewing residents and past residents recording their stories to share with the community. In April, we will unveil a 10’ by 10’ map [permanent display] where residents will be able to visit the Legacy Project to register and record their first family home. During our Juneteenth celebration we will host the Gunckel/Washington/Roosevelt reunion honoring and celebrating those students and educators who whose lives were very much intwined in the Dorr Street Legacy.

Get involved our journey would be incomplete without your footprint. We want to paint a complete picture of our wins and losses, joys and sorrows and in the interim, we want to utilize our history so our community can begin to think differently about its future. We want use our history to teach our kids the importance of developing a spirit of cooperation across community. We want to use our history to begin to reimagine what our community’s future can be?  What want to use our history to remind us of what can be. What want to use our history as the NorthStar to guide subsequent generations. It is -after all –  the perfect gift to the future,

For more information on how to get involved in the Dorr Street Project call 419-720-4369