Historical Voices

Thanks to the generous support of WQLN Media, in 2018-19 we recorded oral history interviews with five Erie County history-makers. Curated from the interviews, the following excerpts will give listeners some sense of their remarkable life experiences, in particular the transformative power of education. This admittedly small sampling of vital African American voices suggests the extraordinary value of oral history in filling out the written historical record. We hope it will inspire visitors to A Shared Heritage to help document our region’s story through additional oral interviews over time.

Celestine Bell Davis

Laurel, Mississippi native Celestine Davis worked her way up from a teacher’s aide in the 1960s to become one of Erie’s great educators. Her long career was nurtured by the mentorship of Ada Lawrence and a deeply held conviction that “you can do whatever you set your mind to.” Ms. Davis championed the teaching of African American history in the schools, and the local commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.

The Journey Toward a Teaching Career: After remembering an early incident that might have derailed a less determined woman, Ms. Davis recounts the establishment of a program in the mid-1960s at then-Gannon College that allowed her to become a teacher’s aide, and eventually a teacher. 
The Push for a Dr. King Holiday: Years before the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was declared a federal holiday, Ms. Celestine Bell Davis mounted a King Holiday campaign in the School District of the City of Erie—efforts that as she recalls here, inspired letters of praise, and also threatening hate mail from among others, the far-right John Birch Society.
NAACP Efforts to Expose Discrimination: Ms. Davis recalls an NAACP “test case” in which she and fellow long-time activist Kate Buczek revealed overt discriminatory treatment toward African Americans at a local Erie restaurant. 
Black Schools in the Jim Crow South: Ms. Davis describes the poor condition of textbooks and the school system in the segregated Jim Crow South.

Gary Neal Horton

Born on Erie’s west side to a family steeped in civic engagement and profoundly influenced by the power of education and the life and work of Reverend Ernest Franklin Smith, Gary Horton’s many community contributions range from the NAACP to his leadership of the E. F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center, to carrying forward the “Walking in Black History” program. The annual visits south reinforce Horton’s sustained engagement with issues of great importance today—from neighborhood revitalization to voting rights.

Education, Hope, and the Lack of Progress: Gary Horton’s passion for education shines through, as does his disappointment in the “astonishing” lack of progress in the hiring of African American teachers in the Erie School District in his lifetime. 
The Legacies of Reverend Ernest Franklin Smith and Zella Pickins: Gary Horton describes the central importance and enduring impact of faith, family, and hard work from his youth.  Especially revered in both memory and his ongoing work in the community are the lives and legacies of his grandmother, Zella Pickins and Reverend Ernest Franklin Smith.
Rev. Ernest Franklin Smith and His Impact: Gary Horton recounts Reverend Ernest Franklin Smith’s background at Tuskegee Institute working for Dr. George Washington Carver, Rev. Smith’s arrival in Erie, and his establishment of a vital social welfare network, the spirit of which very much continues today in the work of the E.F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center.
Impact of the “Walking in Black History” Program: Gary Neal Horton tells the story of how the “Walking in Black History” program came to be, his involvement in this remarkable African American history initiative, as well as the profound impact of the program on him and other participants.  As Horton remembers, “To know those things, and not be moved or changed by those things…and come back to Erie, Pennsylvania and be silent in the face of a community that needs change” was never an option for him.

Johnny Johnson

Georgia native Johnny Johnson arrived in Erie in the early 1970s, a product of Erie School District efforts to recruit young African American teachers following social unrest. Johnson taught health and physical education in Erie schools for 30 years, coached a number of athletic teams, and was the first African American in Erie to coach varsity basketball. Mentored and inspired by Ada Lawrence, Johnson has worked to preserve the Lawrence Family Archives and brought the family’s extraordinary legacy to the fore of Erie history. He has advanced efforts to celebrate the life of Harry T. Burleigh, contributed to museum exhibits, and supported research for Journey from Jerusalem. Johnny Johnson’s leadership and spirit have been instrumental in ensuring A Shared Heritage came to pass.

Recollections of Growing Up in the Jim Crow South: Mr. Johnson recounts the impact of the Second Great Migration on his life and Erie, as well as his experiences growing up with legal segregation and life-threatening run-ins with racist people.
“I’m playing the life card, not the race card”: In this powerful segment, Mr. Johnson states that for so many years, the lives of Black Americans have not mattered, and the discrimination faced by Black Americans is so very different from any other type of discrimination to have been seen in this country. Unless you have experienced it first-hand, “you can’t fully understand,” he shares. True transformation, or change, will require equitable educational and economic opportunities. 
Inspired to Bring History Alive: Knowledge is key to challenging the status quo. Some of the knowledgeable people in Mr. Johnson’s life have included Erie teacher Ms. Ada Lawrence and musician and champion of Harry T. Burleigh Rev. Charles Kennedy, Jr. Since taking on public history as an avocation, Mr. Johnson has worked to raise awareness of Erie’s Black history. 
“America has a champion, and it’s Black America”: America will be great when we realize that the least of us is as important as the majority, and the untold stories and achievements of Black Americans are shared and valued. A dark cloud has hung over America since 1619, and the time has come to “clean the board” and start anew by acknowledging that we are all human. Mr. Johnson shares that, when we see each other as fellow human beings, our commonalities outweigh our differences.
Let’s Communicate; Let’s Learn About Each Other: Mr. Johnson finishes his interview by again encouraging people to listen to one another with open hearts and minds and quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.” 

Marcus Atkinson

Born on Erie’s West Side, Marcus Atkinson leads ServErie and its mission to develop “transformational partnerships” with local schools and Erie neighborhoods. Atkinson serves as host of WQLN public radio’s NEXT program. Profoundly influenced by his great grandmother, Gertrude Arington, the daughter of Mississippi slaves who became a beloved teacher and revered figure for countless black Mississippians, Atkinson remains deeply committed to civic engagement and to education as “the great equalizer.”

Celestine Bell Davis and African American History: Marcus Atkinson recalls the importance of Celestine Bell Davis in awakening him to the vitality of Black History.
The Failures of the Education System in Teaching Black  History: Continuing to recount the profound, enduring impact of Ms. Davis on his own education, Marcus Atkinson describes a “Sensitivity Training” session on African American history he gave to Erie teachers as revealing of the failures of American education in reinforcing racial inequities in the United States.
“I Am a Man” Great Grandfather Arrington: Marcus Atkinson recounts his Great Grandfather Kane Arrington’s search for respect as a Black man in America in a generation only once removed from slavery.  He recalls how his Great Grandfather embodied the iconic “I Am A Man” insistence of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike.  For Marcus, his Great Grandfather’s demand for dignity, coupled with his work ethic, served as the perfect complement to his Great Grandmother’s emphasis on education as the cornerstone to a better life.  They became the pillars of his own success.
Great Grandmother Arrington: Here, Marcus Atkinson recounts the impact of his Great Grandmother Gertrude Arrington, an extraordinary “academic and intellectual force” not only in his life and that of her family and students, but in the entire region of Mississippi from whence she hailed.  We learn how she was steeped in the works of African American poets and writers and was the first to teach Marcus the value of Black history. 

Rubye Jenkins-Husband

Another daughter of Laurel, Mississippi, Rubye Jenkins Husband has always believed in the power of education to transform one’s life, and also the responsibility to work for positive change. In the 1970s, she led Erie’s JFK Center in forging a positive relationship with neighborhoods around issues of education, economic opportunity, and housing. In 1997 Rubye Jenkins-Husband became the first African American woman elected to Erie city council, serving more than 20 years and helping to advance neighborhood revitalization. Jenkins-Husband’s leadership around the affliction of Sickle-Cell Anemia further solidified her place as one of the most influential women in Erie history.

Making a Difference in America: Rubye Jenkins-Husband reinforces the value of one generation following in the footsteps of those who have gone before, each with the goal of societal improvement, of making a positive difference.  As she says, America, to me, history to me, is about making that difference.”
Importance of JFK/Neighborhood Centers: Rubye Jenkins-Husband recounts the essential role of the neighborhood centers like the JFK Center in the lives of community residents.  Important information on job training, housing and other issues imparted by center staff also helped to build trust between the neighborhoods and city officials.
Erie City Council: A brief excerpt reinforcing the value of public service, specifically referring to her years of leadership on Erie City Council.
Building Rapport with Neighborhood Residents: Rubye Jenkins-Husband remembers fondly the importance of spending time on front porches out in the neighborhoods when she served as director of the JFK center.