“I lived through it,” Roy S. Hieatt, my father, tells me. The year was 1959, and he was on a racially segregated bus from Biloxi, Mississippi to Corbin, Kentucky, his birthplace. A year later in Greensboro, North Carolina, four black students, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and two others from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat in the whites only section of an F. W. Woolworth’s diner. Their seemingly small initial protest against the hypocrisy of “separate but equal” was a brushfire that ignited a civil rights movement across the nation. Although Roy was on a bus headed further north, the social and cultural flames would make their way to his eventual new home in Xenia, Ohio.
It’s common to think of “the 60s” as a time of hippies, peace, love, Woodstock, and the “summer of love,” but the early years of the decade leading up to those momentous history-makers were turbulent, violent, and uncertain. For my dad, who was on a leave from the Air Force taking that bus north, the question of what to do with his life was met with the rapid changes that flooded every part of America. Indeed, even in a small town like Xenia, Ohio and its neighboring areas, the culture caught fire as much as it did in larger cities and the South.
Years later, on the way home from the state of Washington after his service in the Air Force was finished, Roy made a stop by accident in Xenia “the summer of 1962,” on the way back home to Lebanon, Ohio, “for some reason which I don’t remember,” and suddenly his life was changed. He got a job he wasn’t looking for that same day at the Western Union office. He only “had been in the town once before, when Lebanon played the OSSO home in a football game.” By 1963, the signs of the upcoming hippie years had arrived when two Swedish college girls stopped in the Western Union office to pick up telegrams on their way to enroll at Antioch College. Roy remembered them, when he saw the two some time later again at the office, this time donning the early counter-culture fashions of the peace and love movement.
While still on the first day of the job at Western Union, Roy “met a fellow who owned the Xenia City Delivery company,” and who had stopped by the office to pick up a telegram. He was looking to retire and Roy soon bought the company. “As the business grew, we were delivering everything from telegrams to flowers, to drug prescriptions, to furniture, to appliances, groceries, and the most unique was going to the liquor store for old ladies who didn’t want to go there themselves.” Eventually he made one of his rarest of deliveries in Yellow Springs, witnessing a historic event unfold in its early moments.
March 14, 1964, Jim Fearn, a black student from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, sat in Lewis Gegner’s barber shop chair and wouldn’t move. Gegner asked him to leave, the barber stubbornly refusing to cut the hair of Fearn. The sit-ins were now here in Ohio, and Roy was making a delivery that day. Noticing the commotion from his position “a block north of the group,” Roy picked up a public phone to call the news director at WHBM, the Xenia radio station. By the time the news and police arrived, “200 people took the street . . . in front of Gegner’s shop,” the Yellow Springs News reports. Police officers from three counties were on the scene to gas and hose the crowd. It made the national news and many cite the event as a strong moment on the Civil Rights Movement timeline.
But another rare delivery was in the works. Roy delivered the internal mail for Ohio Bell, the former telephone company. “Between their buildings,” he tells me. It was during one of these trips that he met Carlotta, my future mother. A woman, who Roy says, “was one class act.”
After that, Roy moved on to other work. When he tells me about his twenties during the sixties, trying out all sorts of occupations, I recall I did the exact same thing in my twenties during the noughties. The fact that we both worked at a dry cleaners for a time makes me smile.
1963 to 1964 was a particularly interesting time for Roy. He found himself in a two-year stint at WHBM, the radio station he had called about the barber shop sit-in. For “three months every Sunday morning,” Roy would don the gear of the radio personality and put on “Historical Highlights with Hieatt,” a half-hour show for locals that “featured stories of Ohio’s history.” During the rest of his time at the station, “the weekends from sign on till noon, I played music, did the news, ran the board for the other Sunday morning shows, the church shows. When not on the air, I did the news beat, like checking the police blotter from the previous night.”
Downstairs in the station building was a bar Roy found himself in for two weeks, and not to drink, but to bartend. I ask him how that went. He laughs, and tells me not very well, that he “didn’t know what he was doing.” He was back to driving again before long, shuttling people around the city in a taxi. Roy wasn’t through with cars and newsmakers by 1965 though.
“Desperate Departure” was the headline in the Xenia Daily Gazette. Don Morrow, a friend of Roy’s, had a tiny Austin Sprite sports car. The two of them had a bit of fun when they called the paper and reported that my 260-lb dad was stuck inside the car and finally figured the only way out was by crawling. The paper ran the story and caught the moment of escape on camera.
Roy may not give himself much credit for his adventures in Xenia, Ohio in the sixties, maybe even feeling like the crawling out of a car stunt was not far from the truth, but for a man that took himself from the backwoods of Kentucky to a family that would later sprout in Beavercreek, Ohio, in a time of uncertainty and social upheaval, one where his daughter would follow in her father’s love of history to graduate from college with a degree in it, I have to sit back to ponder all the accidental connections that led to my birth. If Roy hadn’t made that stop in Xenia, I surely wouldn’t be here, and he wouldn’t have been part of a historic moment, and all the moments of change he experienced in the town of Xenia, Ohio of that famous decade.
In my conversation with Roy, we got to talking about the Civil Rights Movement and race relations, and he suddenly blurts out with passion: “People are people! I don’t care if you’re black, white, purple, indigo. There are good people and bad people in every group.”
I’m left thinking on his words for several weeks, and then I stumble on a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., given in a speech in 1966 at the Illinois Wesleyan University: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on Time.'”
And with that, I thank my dad, who I’m secure in saying is one of the good people, for his lack of “silence and indifference” in telling me his story.
T. E. Hieatt is a resident of Dayton, Ohio, a history graduate from Sinclair Community College, pursuing a bachelor’s in history at Wright State University. Her father, Roy, has also lived and worked in the city. When she’s not studying, she loves conquering limitations by kicking at the walls between her writing, music, art, and entrepreneurship.