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Remnants of the struggle
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It sits in downtown Akron. Quietly nestled between East Market Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. In this building, lie the remnants of one of the most liberating moments in the history of Akron.
It was Jan. 25, 1851, and thousands of women had gathered in a church on North High Street for the Women’s Convention. The convention was the first of its kind, drawing as many hecklers as supporters.
Frances Dana Gage was the presiding officer of the convention. As people began to enter the building, the leaders of the movement trembled upon seeing a tall, gaunt black woman in a gray dress and white turban, surmounted with an uncouth sun bonnet, march deliberately into the church, walking with the air of a queen up the aisle, and taking her seat upon the pulpit steps. The room was in disarray as people began to expel their blatant disgust for the woman. “An abolition affair!” one gentleman cried out. “Woman’s rights and niggers! I told you so!” said another.
During this time, there were very few women who dared to speak in public, let alone voice their opinions regarding equal rights for women. The hecklers in the galleries and the naysayers among the pews were hugely enjoying the air of discomfort in the room, as they opposed the idea of a “strong-minded” woman. Having had enough, she slowly rose from her seat in the corner. Until now, she had scarcely lifted her head. “Don’t let her speak!” gasped half a dozen people. She moved slowly and solemnly to the front, laid her old bonnet at her feet and turned her intense eyes to face the crowd. There was a hissing sound of disapprobation coming from above and below. Gage rose to introduce Sojourner Truth and begged the audience to keep silent for a few moments.
The tumult subsided at once, and every eye was fixed on her almost Amazon form, which stood nearly 6 feet high, head erect and eyes piercing through every person in the audience. With her first words came a profound hush. She spoke in deep tones, which, though not loud, reached every ear in the house. From her mouth came one truly captivating question: Ain’t I a woman?
Now, more than a century later, the Sojourner Truth building stands in this place, housing the memory of the former slave who has become a symbol for equality to people all over the world. Trapped within its walls lies the history of blacks in Akron. It’s a history littered with stories like this. Each one tumultuous, captivating and integrally a part of what has made this city as imperative to black history as the Harlem Renaissance. From abolitionists like John Brown to being home to the first African-American to make it to the final round in the national spelling bee, the history of blacks in Akron has an impact that shatters barriers, for it is to Akron what Goodyear is to rubber.
The road to emancipation
From 1910 to 1930, the booming rubber business in Akron served as the major reason for the black migration from the south. Usually, they could only get menial jobs. Most of the time, they were janitors on the assembly floors in factories.
By the turn of the century, Akron’s total population had reached 42,728. Less than 2 percent of that total was black. Although the black population remained small, blacks continued to be conscious of their own needs in a society that had not fully absorbed them, nor yet considered them equals. In the first decade of the 20th century, Akron’s black residents were involved politically, civically, socially and educationally.
The Colored Men’s Square Deal Club was formed in 1910 to enhance the political voice of blacks in Akron. Their first task was to get a black policeman. Their dream became a reality when Marvin Kendrick began his short-lived career with the Akron police. Then, on Oct. 13, 1922, John L. Suddieth became the second black patrolman to work for the Akron police.
By the 1930s, the effect of discrimination, coupled with a severe economic decline, resulted in the unemployment of many black Akronites. In 1934, statistics released by the Federal Relief Administration indicated that blacks constituted 20 percent of the total population on relief—although they only comprised 4 percent of Akron’s population. Suffering under the double handicap of racial discrimination and limited opportunity for employment, black families had to motivate and encourage themselves to pursue education as a means of emancipation.
As blacks continued to make strides toward equality, the racial divide between blacks and whites in the city began to grow. “People felt they could take advantage of you if you were black,” Leona Farris says. Farris and her husband, the late Dr. Melvin Farris, moved to Akron in the 1940s. She recalls moving to 376 Fountain St. when she was seven months pregnant with her first child. “A former social worker offered my husband and I a two-year contract,” Farris says. “He was a widower, and we lived there with the expectation that I’d cook and clean.”
Agreements like this weren’t uncommon. As more blacks moved to Akron, they found it harder and harder to obtain housing because of mounting racial discrimination in the city. Many blacks either lived with or worked for
the people who owned their houses. It was in these moments that many blacks became disgruntled with their inferior status and began to speak out against discrimination.
Ronald J. Fowler, senior pastor at Arlington Church of God, moved back to Akron in the 1960s. “When I came back, the city hadn’t changed that much, other than economically,” Fowler recalls. “People were doing a lot better. It wasn’t the city that changed. It was the fact that blacks became more articulate and began to challenge certain boundaries. Blacks were more enlightened. They were more secure about their rights and began to press for them because they deserved equality.”
In the Heat of the Night
During the 1960s, outbreaks of racial disturbances exploded in cities throughout the country. “The whole nation was like a tinderbox just waiting for a spark to explode,” says Reggie Brooks, a former city councilman and lifelong Akron resident.
That explosion hit Akron in the summer of 1968. The first real sign of trouble occurred on Tuesday, July 16. It was one of the hottest nights of the year. A fight broke out between two groups of black teens at a dance at Elizabeth Park. Before the ordeal ended, 40 youths surrounded a police car, and a rock was thrown through the windshield of the cruiser.
The following night, there was a tussle on the city’s west side. The police were called after a group of teenagers broke a window at a market. When the officer arrived, he was pelted with bottles. He fired one shot into the air to disperse the crowd and the youths retreated. As the teens began to run, cruisers filled the street, and several of the teenagers were arrested.
“Word hit the street that police were killing people,” says Eddie Davis, Akron’s first black councilman. “After the lies spread that police had killed people, people took to the streets. ...It was the heat of the summer and everything was in disarray.”
Wooster Avenue had turned into a battlefield. On one side were the disgruntled residents demanding equal treatment and an end to police brutality. On the other side were hundreds of police.
On Thursday, motorists who entered the Wooster Avenue area were dragged from their cars and beaten. Rocks and firebombs were lobbed through the windows of businesses that lined the streets. “My husband’s office was located right in that area,” Farris says. “Fortunately, it wasn’t damaged during the riots, but a lot of other businesses were.”
By nightfall, the crowd on Wooster grew to about 500. The police requested that residents leave the area. Their demands were answered by residents sitting in the
streets insisting that they would not leave until the police did. By the next morning, 42 people had been arrested. Trash and debris littered the streets. The city closed down the street and the National Guard was called in to help silence the riots. As the first guardsmen arrived, Mayor John Ballard imposed
the dusk-to-dawn curfew.
The Wooster Avenue Riots continued for nearly a week. It was usually quiet during the day, but as dusk set in, fires and firebombs illuminated the Akron skyline, followed by a fog of tear gas and the screams of a people who demanded change.
Things We Lost
in the Fire
“I’ve always thought that what happened to blacks and our successes didn’t come from the peaceful moments, it came from the tough moments,” says Floyd Maxwell, who was a mail carrier on Wooster Avenue during the riots. “It was our struggles that made change.”
After the Wooster Riots, the city faced the enormous task of rebuilding and moving forward. During this period, the city began to pay more attention to its growing black community. The Akron chapter of the NAACP pushed for equality for all minorities living within the city with regard to police brutality, alleged de facto segregation and discrimination in housing and employment. As a result of their efforts, eight black firemen were hired in 1973. It was through strong leadership, both civically and politically, that blacks truly began to advance in the city.
“I think once an oppressed people gain the attention of policy makers and civil leadership, there’s a sense in which we’re moving forward,” Fowler says. “There’s that sense of accomplishment that eases tension. I’m sure from the white perspective they think ‘Well, we gave them this, aren’t they satisfied?’ But an oppressed people can never be satisfied until they are able to fully enjoy their rights.”
And today, the aura of Akron has changed. The termagant and boisterous events that shaped the city
still lingers in the air for many of its residents because it’s a history that is deeply intertwined with the history of Akron. Through their pain and struggles, they have grown, not only as a people, but also as a community. And if you listen closely, you can still hear the remnants of their struggle scattered all throughout the city.
*Parts of the story were recreated from eyewitness accounts and/or police reports.