Friday, October 22, 2004

Civil rights fighter Ernest Waits dies

By Rebecca Goodman
Enquirer staff writer

HARTWELL - Ernest J. Waits Sr. - a pioneering civil rights activist and the dean of local African-American radio - died Tuesday at his home. He was 84.

Mr. Waits was the first African-American radio DJ in Cincinnati, the first black manager of a local car dealership, the first black executive at the Cincinnati & Suburban Bell Telephone Co., and the city's first black registered investment counselor.

Mr. Waits grew up in the West End, where he attended Sands School. In second grade, the teacher told students to share textbooks, which were in short supply. When Mr. Waits scooted next to a white student, the teacher told him no, he and the other black children should share a book in the back of the classroom.

"They made a civil rights fighter out of me that day," Mr. Waits told the Enquirer in 1968. "I was hurt. The next time something like that happened, I challenged it - and I've been challenging things all the way through."

At Woodward High School in 1935, he called for integration of the swimming pool and the proms. The next year, the school desegregated both.

In 1939, when he was 19, he decided to integrate the Schubert Theater downtown. With $5 in his pocket and a determination to see Eddie "Rochester" Anderson - a black comedian - he committed an act of civil disobedience that presaged the strategy later embraced by the Rev. Martin Luther King.

"I decided way back then that I wasn't going to accept segregation," Mr. Waits told the Enquirer in 2000. "I was very young and didn't know much, but I knew I wasn't going to take it."

He insisted on being admitted. "I thought that if a black man could be on the stage, surely a black man could be in the audience," he recalled. The theater manager called police, and Mr. Waits was arrested.

"They beat me up pretty good, too," he said.

Theodore Berry, counsel for the Cincinnati NAACP chapter, bailed him out.

"From that day on, he was like my big brother," Mr. Waits said. He joined Berry and others who pushed for desegregation and equal rights in Cincinnati through the 1940s and '50s.

He was part of the group that integrated Cincinnati restaurants, the Wright factory in Lockland, and Coney Island.

"A lot of things I did, I did individually. And they didn't win you any popularity contests in those days," he said. His forehead bore scars from beatings with clubs.

Mr. Waits "liked to be referred to as a 'change agent,' " said his friend Courtis Fuller, a reporter and anchor for WLWT (Channel 5). "He really was about changing the conditions in which we live."

Mr. Waits served in the then-segregated U.S. Army and worked as a mechanic in Biloxi, Miss., from 1942 to 1945.

He ran for the Ohio House of Representatives in 1946, and he became the first black disc jockey in Cincinnati radio in 1947. He played jazz for WZIP, WNOP, WCPO and WLW for the next 12 years.

From 1958 to 1960, Mr. Waits was assistant sales manager for two local car dealers, the first African-American in the city to hold such a position. He studied investment banking at Northwestern University in 1960 and returned home to become the city's first black registered broker's representative. Mr. Waits worked for Westheimer & Co. He became the first black manager to work for Cincinnati & Suburban Bell Co. in 1965.

In the late 1960s, he turned his attention to helping other blacks find good jobs. He started his own employment consulting firm and served as president of the Cincinnati Business League.

"He was very committed to his positions - his ideas - but soft enough and compassionate enough to be willing to take in other people's opinions," Fuller said.

Mr. Waits' son, Ernie Jr. of Paddock Hills, said: "My father was just living proof that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything."

Mr. Waits' wife, Betty, died in 1986 and a son, Eric Wilson Waits, died in March.

Other survivors include: three daughters, Kim Zimmers of North Avondale, Dane Taffi Weaver of Forest Park and Shelley Terry of Los Angeles; nine grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

Visitation is 1 p.m. Thursday, followed by the funeral at 2 p.m. at Spring Grove Cemetery Chapel in Winton Place.

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