Earlier in the summer of 1933, Dayton Daily News photographer Myron “Scottie” Scott invented what would become the All-American Soap Box Derby. While searching for photos to fill a Sunday feature page, Scott came across four boys with gravity-powered cars they’d built.
So that he could fill out a full page, he asked that they return with friends two weeks later for a photo shoot. Nineteen showed up.
He leveraged the appeal of those pictures in the paper with inspiration, hustle and the backing of James Cox’s Dayton flagship paper to organize an Aug. 19 race that drew an estimated 40,000 to watch 362 contestants vie for the Dayton Championship at Burkhard Hill.
Given the excitement the event generated, it seemed folly not to share the idea with the Cox sister papers in Springfield. So on Sept. 9, cars were poised at the start line on Plum Street Hill.
Seeing the chance to earn a measure of respect for his race, Paul Jackson focused building a car that would carry the names of the city’s two black theaters to the finish line faster than any other.
Jackson was the son of George C. Jackson, who owned the smaller Lincoln Theater at 606 S. Center St., and the more expansive Southern Theater at 541 Fair St.
And with designs of winning in mind, he found his driver across the street from the Southern Theater.
So when Sept. 9, 1933 arrived, it fell to 11-year-old George “Abe” Welch to carry the hopes of a Springfield African American community that was visible and vocal in a crowd estimated at 20,000.
“I think every black person in Springfield was down there” to cheer him on, said Hazel Welch Carter, 92, whose brother was 18 months her senior and still lives in Springfield.
Young Abe and the Southern-Lincoln Special did well. He won the event for his age group, earning himself a silver cup, a case of Coca Cola and three tickets to an upcoming Wittenberg College football game against the University of Detroit. That earned Abe, who died two years ago, the distinction of being the first black city champion in Soap Box Derby history.
But in the city sweepstakes he lost to 9-year-old Bernard Thrasher, whose victory seemed pre-ordained when it was learned that Bernard went to St. Bernard School, lived on Thrasher Street and had been entry No. 1 in the whole shebang.
Whether young Thrasher’s being white caused organizers to exhale a sigh of relief wasn’t recorded.
But upon learning there would be another derby in 1934 — and that the winner would advance to the national championships in Dayton — Paul Jackson and his young driver went back to work, determined to make history.
Growing up in that time, “My brother feared nothing or no one,” said Carter, who lived with Abe, her mother and her aunt and cousins at 538 Fair St. The location was significant in two ways.
First, as mentioned, it was right across the street from the Southern Theater, originally named the Washington, not for George Washington but for Booker T. The proximity helped young Abe and sister Hazel to land jobs dusting off the theater seats for the Sunday-only performances.
If their mother deemed the movie suitable for children, the dusting earned the two admission. If she did not, they got a nickel apiece from the building’s custodian, Mr. Leroy.
“Everybody was mister or miss in those days,” Carter said.
The second thing significant about the house’s location is that it was a block south of Clark Street, then the neighborhood racial divide. No blacks lived north of Clark Street in those days for the same reason white theaters didn’t admit blacks: that’s the way it was.
The Soap Box Derby rules allowed fathers from all over the city to help their sons build race entries, something the newspaper reported the older Howard Weber did on behalf of his 7-year-old son, Howdy, for that first race.
But Carter said that in her neighborhood, “Most of the fathers were dead or gone.”
“Our father was from the islands. He just breezed in, left two babies and breezed out.”
When he breezed in, the George Sr. was a 28-year-old cook at the Hotel Shawnee, where he caught the eye of 16-year-old salad maker Alice Lee. Her father signed the papers that allowed the two of them to marry.
When George Sr. left, the Hotel Shawnee proved to be a steadier presence in the family’s life. Alice continued to work there, and Hazel ran the elevator on weekends for $2 a day.
Meanwhile Abe, also called Abie, made money tap dancing on the streets and outside of downtown bars, where patrons would show their appreciation with pocket change.
He’d add up the earnings in the brick home his grandfather, brick mason Charles Rufus Lee, had given to Abe’s uncle and Charles’ son, Elding. The gift came in return for a promise that Elding would look after the two Lee daughters and their fatherless children.
From that house, the blended family was across from a theater that was a stopping place for heavyweight champion Joe Louis, musicians Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, and other black notables on bus or car tours across the country.
Carter’s childhood memories recollect a huge stage up front, with doors that opened to let a breeze in on hot summer days, and the fact that the water wasn’t always turned on. The latter led patrons to show up at her house to get water from the faucet.
She remembers, too, excitedly following the exploits of another star, her brother, on the radio on Aug. 20, 1934, when the Red network of the National Broadcasting Co. provided coverage of the national Soap Box Derby finals in Dayton.
Having won that summer’s dash down Plum Street Hill in the refurbished Southern-Lincoln Special, Abe Welch collected another silver trophy and advanced to the national competition. There, the road turned rocky.
As the Springfield Daily News reported, “Welch … encountered misfortune in the fourth heat of the semi-finals of the All-American Derby, after winning the third heat of the time trials. Car No. 23, the Skiddoo racer, of Knoxville, Tenn. … went into a spin about halfway down the hill and stopped crosswise on the track with two broken wheels.
“Welch … headed directly into the Knoxville car, with the result that the two front wheels on his car were damaged. With two spare wheels on his damaged mount, Welch … was only able to finish in fourth place.”
Like the other 34 city champions in the race, Welch was presented with a Waltham wrist watch by sponsor Chevrolet Motor Co. and a baseball by the Quaker Oats Co. What he was not allowed to do, because of his race, was to dine with the other racers in Dayton’s Van Cleve Hotel.
Carter said the slight angered Paul Jackson, who, when the Southern-Lincoln Special won the Springfield city championships, had said, maybe on behalf of the whole black community: “They can’t take this away from us, Abie.”
The next year, the Soap Box Derby relocated to Akron, attracted by support from the Knight Newspapers and Chevrolet, and a promise that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration project would build a permanent track.
Childhood didn’t get easier for Abe. In 1936, he quit school and changed his last name to Jackson so he could add two years to his 14 and qualify for work in the Civilian Conservation Corps.
By then, the world was coasting downhill into a world war, which would take Abe Welch into the service along with other derby boys, including Howdy Weber. Never the beneficiary of higher education, Abe Welch nonetheless made his way, writing and reading poetry, becoming an expert in collectible Japanese swords, hanging a portrait of the black French writer Dumas in his rooms and eventually running his own electronics shop in Yellow Springs.
Told the City Hospital School of Nursing in Springfield didn’t teach “coloreds,” after high school, his sister, Hazel, went for training at Grady Hospital in Atlanta in 1941.
“Colored Grady was on this side of the street, White Grady was on the other side of the street,” she said. And she’s convinced to this day the tunnel under the street was to keep the “colored” students from being seen going into the white school.
“It’s good that I’ve lived so long that I have no malice,” she said.
The Southern and Lincoln theaters were important to the next generation of black children, too.
Robert Echols, now 85, remembers going “junkin” with his best friend Benny Bray, picking up glass bottles and taking them to grocery stores for the two-cent deposit money until they had enough to pay admission to a show.
Like Abe Welch before him, Echols had to fight his way through childhood and was angry enough to put a much larger Mr. Moss into a wall during a basketball game at the Center Street YMCA.
He, too, went into the service, and said he “wouldn’t join the Salvation Army” after getting out two months before the Korean War.
He did, however, join Champion Lodge 15 of the Free & Accepted Masons, which bought the Southern, which had closed during his time in the service, and now lives next door to it.
In 1953, Joyce Howard had a graduation party at the lodge with her cousins, Marjorie and Earlene Morgan. Music was provided by DJ Snookie Reed, and the discrimination line had weakened slightly.
Although her mother was a strict Christian woman, “when the chance permitted itself, my cousins and I, in the early days, went downtown and attended the Hippodrome and the Ohio Theater,” Howard said.
Blacks were largely relegated to the balcony of the formerly all-white theaters, though some children climbed the fire escape of the Fairbanks to enter the “crow’s nest,” as it was called.
Excited just to see the movies, they weren’t upset by discriminatory practices that had always been part of their lives. “It was something we just understood,” she said.
The Lincoln, always the smaller theater, began to decline along with other black-owned and -operated businesses on Center and Yellow Springs streets, and now has fallen apart.
Seats and stanchions from the Southern Theater days recently were donated by Champion Lodge 15 to the Clark County Historical Society, which has them on display as a part of its Black History Month exhibit. The exhibit mentions the Soap Box Derby triumph.
Carter, who had six children with the man who’s never left her in 72 years, still has her brother’s Soap Box Derby trophies, too.
And in their presence it’s almost possible to hear an echo of the triumph Paul Jackson had in his voice in 1934 when said, “They can’t take this away from us, Abie.”
Thank you for reading the Springfield News-Sun and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Springfield News-Sun. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.