Madisonville's Dunbar Neighborhood Gone, But Not Forgotten
Madisonville is one of Cincinnati's largest neighborhoods, but, in 1970, an important part of its heart and soul was paved over and disappeared with barely a trace when the Red Bank Expressway was built.
It was a neighborhood called Dunbar, which ran along the western edge of Madisonville. Dunbar was one of the first all-black neighborhoods in the region, settled by the families of former slaves in the mid-19th century.
For over a hundred years, generations were born, lived and died in that small conclave of a few hundred houses. Those who grew up there have carried the memory of a place people were poor but didn't know it, because everyone helped everyone else survive.
On a sweltering hot day in mid-August, dozens of former Dunbar residents and many of their neighbors from around Madisonville gathered for the annual picnic, as they have each summer for 20 years, with smoke from the grill swirling in the thick summer air and music blasting from a boom box.
Luevenia Spruell, born and raised in Dunbar of one of the neighborhood's founding families, recalled what her neighborhood was like.
"There was a song called 'Down in the Valley Where the Green Grass Grows" and that's the way I felt about Dunbar,'' Spruell said. "It was a lot of greenery and it was horses in the corral and it was like everybody played together. We had a good time, like Southern people would do."
Several years ago, Spruell wrote a short history of Dunbar for the Madisonville Community Council.
In it, she wrote about Dunbar's church, New Mission Baptist, which was founded in the 19th century and was the spiritual and social center of the community. It exists today, although in a new location on Ravenna Street in Madisonville.
She wrote, too, about what it is was like growing up in Dunbar in the 1960s, before the expressway came in and took it all away.
"On any day you would wake to the sound of Mr. White's rooster; watch Mr. Jenkins' horses galloping about in Mr. Murphy's corral,'' she wrote.
"In the summer, it was a tradition for all the children to get together and go blackberry picking on the hill across Duck Creek,'' Spruell wrote. "In the winter, on the first big snow, all the children and teens would come out for sleigh riding down Bush Hill and roasting anything edible in the hull of the big oak tree that stood at the top of the hill."
The kids, she wrote, would "swim in Duck Creek, which ran in the back of Dunbar and is now the Red Bank Expressway."
Luevenia Spruell and her sister, Deborah Pilgrim, sat in the shade at the picnic and talked about how happy their childhoods were and how much of Madisonville's African-American history was wiped out by the construction of the Red Bank Expressway.
And they spoke too, of Dunbar as one big family. Deborah Pilgrim says it was a place where every family knew each other and everyone was willing to share what they had.
"A lot of the families had gardens and they would share their food with each other and whoever was having a hard time,'' Pilgrim said.
Bob Bronaugh, raised in Dunbar from the age of four, brought his RV and set it up in the park as sort of a headquarters for the picnic and a place for people to escape the heat.
He remembers how people in the modest working-class homes of the neighborhood helped each other.
"True enough, there was times when we may have to eat the same food, the same kind of food every day for a while, until we got something else,'' Bronaugh said. "But we had food. And if we had nothing, our neighbors would wind up giving us something: 'Miss Anna Mae, I got a bushel of corn over here; would you want some of that? I've got some greens over here, you want some of that?'''
In Dunbar, many of the men supported their families working as construction workers or at factory jobs in the area. They were, for the most part, the working poor, but Dunbar native Roger Peterson says they didn't know how poor they were.
"We had a lot of hard times, but everybody down there had hard times, so it didn't seem like hard times until you got older and realized that it was hard times,'' Peterson said, with a laugh.
"But it was good,'' Peterson said. "I don't regret growing up there because it makes me respect what I've got now."
Deborah Pilgrim says the closeness of the few hundred families in Dunbar even extended to helping each other bury their dead.
"I know there was a lady named Mrs. White,'' Pilgrim said. "If someone died, she would go around and collect money to bury this person, from everybody. And I'm talking about people that really didn't have a lot."
In the years and months leading up to the building of the expressway, the authorities came in and claimed eminent domain on most of the houses in Dunbar. Most people were forced to move. Many of them stayed in Madisonville and raised families of children and grandchildren who know little of the neighborhood that was buried under an asphalt highway.
Willie Gardner, who is 67 and moved to Dunbar as a small child, said it is almost impossible to get his children and grandchildren interested in the history of the now long-gone neighborhood where he was raised.
"The younger ones was interested in modern technology rather than what old people had to say,'' Gardner said. "They say 'We don't want to hear those old wives' tales; we don't want to hear about whether you had to chop wood or pack coal or you had to have your own garden, raise your own food.'
"They don't want to hear nothing about that,'' Gardner said, sitting in a lawn chair under one of the few shady trees in Desmond Park. "So the history, it all gets lost.'
But Bronaugh said the former Dunbar residents will keep telling their tales of the neighborhood that was paved over; and keep holding their annual picnics, as long as there are former Dunbar residents to come, wearing the red T-shirts that denote someone who grew up in the now-gone neighborhood.
"We do it because we love our people,'' Bronaugh said. "And because we celebrate where we came from. This is where we came from – Dunbar. We haven't forgotten the people that raised us."