Left: Toledo Police crime lab, 1950
A fresh layer of snow covered Tecumseh Street on Toledo’s near South Side, obscuring the presence of abandoned houses and trash-strewn vacant lots where once stood the homes of proud industrial workers. Danny and Rhonda Brown’s neat bungalow, along with those of a few of their neighbors, stands in defiance against creeping urban decay.
Even at the late hour in which we met, people were still walking on Tecumseh Street. Danny, who had come outside to greet me, nodded a silent greeting to a bundled-up man trudging through the slushy street. Many Toledoans find the streets to be safer than the sidewalks for pedestrians in the winter; Danny’s house was one of the few on the block in which a week’s worth of snowfall had been shoveled.
We were meeting to begin the process of documenting the events that led up to Danny’s erroneous conviction and wrongful incarceration for the 1981 murder of Toledoan Bobbie Russell. However, we began to discuss a long-forgotten event from 1950: the shooting and death of a man named Daniel Blanton.
“Let’s talk to my Aunt Mollie; she knows the story better than I do,” Danny said, dialing his maternal aunt.
Danny’s mother, her sister Mollie and other family members moved from Demopolis, Alabama to Toledo in 1945. The post-war North seemed to offer employment opportunities to southern African Americans. Mollie said that conditions in Toledo were a disappointment to the new arrivals.
“We didn’t do any better here than in Alabama,” said Mollie. “There were no jobs, and the discrimination against blacks was almost as bad here as it was down South.”
Mollie talked about riding on a bus with her sister, and how the young black girls were expected to treat whites with deference.
“We used to have to say “yes ma’am” and “no sir” to white children,” she said. “As far as I am concerned, the racism we saw here was not very different than Alabama.”
The family moved into a small two-bedroom house at 1504 Basswood on Toledo’s east side.
“There were three brothers, their wives, and five children living in that house,” she said. “We were a family, but that’s too close for comfort even for a family.”
Left: 1504 Basswood, circa 1955.
Daniel Blanton lived two blocks from the Toledo Terminal Railway. He made an arrangement with the railroad company to pick up coal from along the tracks. He used the coal to light the fires of old people in the neighborhood, said Mollie.
“He would carry a basket with him to collect the pieces of coal,” she said. “When times were bad, this was the only way people could afford to heat their homes.”
Blanton would sometimes sell the coal for extra money, according to Mollie.
“He would do whatever he had to do to feed his family,” she said. “Daniel was a real family man.”
Mollie should know: Daniel Blanton was her father, and Danny Brown’s maternal grandfather.
Blanton was walking the tracks on a winter’s night in 1950, poking in the snow to look for the large chunks of coal that bounced out of the rail cars. The railroad easement in which Blanton made his coal-gathering rounds butted up against the property of a number of industrial facilities.
“My father was walking along the railroad tracks when he passed a factory,” she said. “The night watchman saw a black man walking out there in the night, and made the assumption that he was stealing the company’s coal.”
What happened next is disturbing even by the standards of violence-jaded television viewers. The watchman, convinced that he was observing criminal activity, decided to engage in proactive security measures: he gunned down the unarmed Daniel Blanton next to the Toledo Terminal train tracks.
“He was just walking his regular route, picking up coal, and he was shot while on the railroad’s property,” Mollie said. “Gunned down like a rabid dog.”
Blanton lived for only a short period of time after the shooting, finally succumbing to infections from his wounds a few weeks later. Mollie said that the promise of a better life in the North ended that cold night.
“Who cared about another dead nigger?” she asked. “I have never understood why an unarmed man with permission to be where he was could be killed, and the shooter walks away like nobody’s business.”
This is an unpublished essay derived from research on the case of Toledoan Danny Brown, who spent 19 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. DNA evidence freed him, but the Lucas County Prosecutor's office continues to deny Danny either a retrial or a full exoneration.
Photos were courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library's "Images in Time."