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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.