If one thing has been made clear in this past half century of local African American history, it is that even as significant progress has been made over the past two centuries, the great American project to create, as the Framers of the Constitution put it, “a more perfect union” here in Erie and across the United States, remains very much unfinished.
Take, for example, the arena of local print and television communications. In the 1970s Mili Roberts, Fred Rush, Jr., and Bobby Harrison became pioneer black journalists for the Erie Times, while Harold Shields became the region’s first black broadcaster as a WICU commentator. And yet frequent distorted misrepresentations of the African American community in the local media remained a point of serious contention for the NAACP, and black citizens remain severely underrepresented in the local communications industry.
Notwithstanding a legendary run of six terms in office, Lou Tullio generally failed to overcome the longstanding resistance to hiring African Americans in the city police and fire departments. The appalling failure to hire more black policemen and women and firefighters would remain symbolic of the city’s failure to root out systemic racism. The treatment of Martha Sanders, director of the Human Relations Commission in the 1970s, stands as a revealing episode in the lingering disappointment on the issue of police hiring. After Sanders leveled successful charges in court against the city, the HRC was defunded. When funding was reinstated, Sanders was not rehired—an action widely seen as retaliatory. The episode sent a chilling message. Sanders left Erie, returning in 1984 to speak at a dinner honoring the officers she helped to successfully get on the force. Nothing would ever change, she declared, “unless someone has the guts to demand it.” And in a further comment that rings hauntingly true today, Sanders declared, “Our minds and hearts have been divided, and not by accident.” This story stands alongside the backsliding on progress toward hiring more black teachers, an upward trajectory that plateaued by the late 1970s.
Facing an often-obstinate bureaucracy at city hall, African Americans seized the initiative on their own, determining to run for school board and city council themselves. For more than a century, groups like the “Colored Republicans Club” and the Republican Women’s Club had helped foster political activism in the black community. Pioneering runs in the 60s by Margaret Bowers, Zach Boyd and Ellen Curry helped pave the way for eventual success. In the 1970s, Alex Thompson, revered leader of the MLK Center, organized the Erie County Black Democrats, helping to build support outside the African American community for aspiring candidates.
Nineteen seventy-seven proved a breakthrough year. In January, Jimmy Carter became president, largely on the strength of the African American vote in the South made possible only through the bloody struggle for the Voting Rights Act. That November, black Erietes celebrated the election of Larry D. Meredith as the first African American to win a seat on city council, as well as a school board victory by Harold Shields. It would, however, be another 18 years (1995) before another African American, Mel Witherspoon, would win a seat on city council. Successful runs for the Erie School Board proved only slightly more frequent, with leaders like Eva Tucker and Mazie Smith Purdue assuming seats in the 1980s and early 90s.
Two years later and two decades after the historic Meredith win, in 1997 Rubye Jenkins-Husband became the first African American woman elected to city council. Serving for more than 20 years, Jenkins-Husband worked hard to advance greater equal opportunity in hiring in Erie, including an affirmative plan for the City Water Authority. Another daughter of Mississippi, Jenkins-Husband advanced economic revitalization in distressed parts of the community on Erie’s Eastside, including government and private foundation funding for historic Parade Street, as well as the landing of a WalMart on Elm Street.
Also part of the forward progress achieved in this still-unfolding chapter of our history are the immeasurable contributions of the Greater Erie Community Action Center (GECAC). Established in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s epic War on Poverty, GECAC offered occupational training and job placement through its Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC). The OIC offered a wide range of programs that helped prepare young people for success in a range of occupations, from welding to professional and data processing fields, and also delivered English as a Second Language and GED preparation courses. Decades after the OIC’s termination, its legacy continues to reverberate throughout the region.
From 1969 forward, Robert Benjamin Wiley led GECAC’s phenomenal growth as a force for good in Erie, serving tens of thousands through a staff numbering in the hundreds. Wiley forged collaborative GECAC partnerships with Gannon University and other Erie institutions and also served as the CEO of the Greater Erie Economic Development Corporation. Wiley’s leadership helped GECAC endure Reagan-era budget cuts in the 1980s that forced layoffs of staff and a restructuring or termination of a number of its programs, including the OIC.
More recently, in 2002 the Urban Erie Community Development Corporation (UECDC) merged with the Reverend E.F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center (QLLC). Originally established in 1993, the QLLC is a faith-based organization working to address the disproportionate amount of poverty and crime in the distressed and long-neglected southeast section of the city. Activities carried out by the QLLC continue to honor the name and legacy of Rev. E.F. Smith through employment, workforce development, and education services that improve the quality of life for local community residents.
Emerging as vibrant celebrations of the cultural “Black Pride” movement of the late 60s were the annual “Miss Tawny Pageant” for young black women, African American history programs, and other activities of the Society for the Improvement of Negro Youth Association (SINYA). In addition, through the efforts of figures like Bruce Morton Wright, the Bayfront Ballet and Bayfront Orchestra nurtured the cultural development of young African Americans. In the same spirit, Celestine Davis spearheaded the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in the schools, many years before it became a federal observance. And for more than two decades, Gary Horton has led the annual “Walking in Black History” educational journey of Civil Rights sites throughout the South.
Although a new generation of emerging leaders is being cultivated through the work of individuals like Gary Horton at UECDC and Marcus Atkinson of ServErie, the lack of progress can sometimes be disheartening. In 2018, a national study reported Erie to be the worst city in America for African Americans. An astounding 47 percent of the city’s black residents live at or below the poverty line, more than four times the white poverty rate in the city. Median income is about half that for whites. Of 173 police officers, just 8 are black. The advances made at city hall a half century ago seem increasingly distant and irrelevant to many African Americans living on the Eastside.
For many, the fate of the McBride Viaduct came to symbolize the socioeconomic and racial divide that continues to plague the city. Built in 1938 at the urging of a Catholic pastor after a child was killed trying to cross the railroad tracks, the McBride Viaduct carried three generations of pedestrians and vehicular traffic onto East Avenue, the Eastside’s main artery. Due to its deteriorating condition, the span was closed to automobiles in 2010 but continued to serve as an important pedestrian thruway into the heart of the Eastside where many do not own cars. The viaduct was what landscape architects call a natural “desire line.”
A determined multiracial group of local residents and clergy, along with architects and historic preservationists imagined a restored McBride bridge serving as a catalyst to neighborhood renewal. Many in the African American community rightly saw it as a civil rights issue, its planned demolition yet another indication of a city that seemed determined to continue policies of willful neglect. As Rev. Charles Mock put it, “I guess when you don’t have to walk the Bayfront because of the privilege of a car, you are spared worry about your clothes being drenched by puddles of water or dirtied by the sludge of melted snow from cars, trucks and tractor-trailers traveling at speeds over 50 mph only inches away.”
Despite citizens’ relentless efforts, city authorities pushed forward and the viaduct came down in 2018. Gary Horton, president of the NAACP and director of the E.F. Smith QLLC summarized it this way: “The viaduct doesn’t seem important to people in City Hall. But for people looking to get ahead, it is not a side issue. It’s about hope.”
Hope is to be found in history, in the shared heritage of generations of African Americans and other people of good will who have strived to build a more just future for the greater Erie area. It is upon their shoulders that we stand and in their stories that we can take inspiration as we write the next chapter of this story. Evidence of that was already unfolding in the summer of 2020 following the horrific death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The multiracial, multi-generational Black Lives Matter movement has inspired an unprecedented reckoning with centuries of systemic, structural racism. The re-energized BLM Movement offers the promise of a more truthful understanding of our past and a more equitable and just future. For as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth once said, “If you don’t tell it like it was, it can never be as it ought to be.
Kimmelman, Michael, “In Erie, One Block is a Trek of Disrespect,” New York Times, March 12, 2018; at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/12/us/erie-mcbride-viaduct.html; retrieved July 21, 2020.
African Americans in Erie County: A Trail of Shared Heritage, Oral History Interviews with Marcus Atkinson, Celestine Davis, Rubye Jenkins-Husband, Johnny Johnson, Gary Neal Horton. (Erie: WQLN Media Studios, September 2018, July 2019); excerpts and links to full interviews found on this web site.
Thompson, Sarah S., with additional research and an essay by Karen James. Journey From Jerusalem, 1795-1995 (Erie County Historical Society, 1996), pp. 70-89.
- Courtesy Johnny Johnson, The Lawrence Family Archives
- Courtesy Johnny Johnson, The Lawrence Family Archives
- Courtesy PA Post: https://papost.org/2020/06/10/13-ideas-to-improve-policing-in-pennsylvania/