“Sitting life out was not an option” for Gary Neal Horton. Born on Erie’s west side to a large family that was involved throughout his young life in civic affairs, Horton’s first act of civic engagement was to canvass for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. As was the case for all who grew up on West 11th Street in those years, Horton was profoundly influenced by the good public works of Rev. Ernest Franklin Smith, founder of the Good Samaritan A.M.E. Zion Church and the Negro Welfare Mission who believed in the transformative power of education. He left Erie to attend Hampton Institute and Cheney University and worked in state government for several years before returning home to work in the mayor’s office for a time. Inspired by one of the most important figures in Erie’s history, Horton’s mother, father, brother and he have all served as the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, while his father served as president of the local 603 Laborers Union. Horton currently serves as the executive director of the Reverend Ernest Franklin Smith Quality of Life Learning Center of the Urban Erie Economic Development Corporation. Here he leads any number of educational programs and self-help initiatives, finding it a “privilege to provide young people a vehicle to help them move their lives forward,” carrying on the legacy of Rev. Smith.
In addition, Gary Horton has led the “Walking in Black History” program for decades, carrying on the initiative started by Rev. Herlies Murphy that takes Erie school children to hallowed Civil Rights sites throughout the South, from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to the streets of Birmingham to Tuskegee Institute. “To walk across [that] bridge . . . to know these things and see these places and not be moved,” said Horton, “is unthinkable,” he told us in his 2019 interview. The annual visits south reinforce his sustained engagement with issues of great importance today—from neighborhood revitalization to voting rights. “There’s power in protest, there’s power in marching, there’s power in voting, and all those things have been reinforced in my life just by making that trip these past 27 years.”