In 2019, I had the honor of writing the forward for “African Americans of Canton, Ohio,” edited by Geraldine Radcliffe Nadine McIlwain-Massey and Lois Jacobson.
It is a treasure chest of a book that capsulizes some of the stories that have helped to shape Black Stark County.
One lesson from the pages is clear: We owe an immeasurable debt to men and women whose courage, conviction and optimism laid the foundation for Black Stark Countians yet unborn.
Those of us lucky enough to be born and raised here stand on the shoulders of those who persevered to carve out a life in this community.
They gifted us with a history that goes back as far as 1810, when Isaac and Rachel Robinson, arrived in Massillon. They became the first of many notable Black residents, including Robert A. Pinn, who won a Congressional Medal of Honor during the Civil War; Mary Johnson, who once cooked for Abraham Lincoln; and John “Big Jenny” Lowery, the city’s first Black millionaire. There was Oscar Ritchie, a Kent State music professor, who made history as the first Black instructor at an Ohio university; Essie Wooten, co-founder and a president of the Massillon Urban League; athlete Bill Willis; and civil-rights legends Rev. Jim Lawson, Homer Floyd, the late Charles McDew and local historian Marva Dotson.
There are many others whose stories remain untold; people who sought and found freedom through the Underground Railroad stop at Massillon’s Spring Hill Farm.
In 1817, Jacob Haskins, an ex-slave from Virginia, bought a total of 375 acres in Plain and Jackson townships. It, too, was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Stark County’s Black history is made from a long honor roll of names, such as David Hall, who became Canton’s first Black resident in 1865. Hall later co-founded St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Black congregations in the county and the place where my family has worshiped since 1959.
History is connective. The Rev. L.L. Slaughter, a member of St. Paul, served as the first Black Boy Scout leader in the United States. At the Canton City Schools Memorial Fieldhouse, a historical marker commemorates a speech made there in 1964 by The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was invited to Canton by a St. Paul pastor, The Rev. Sheridan Lancaster.
In the 1920s, Dr. William Ross sparked a boon in Black businesses when he opened his medical offices on Cherry Avenue SE in downtown Canton. Born out of necessity and segregation, Cherry Avenue’s Black business district endured for more than four decades.
During the 1940s, Canton’s Esther Archer made history by becoming the first Black councilwoman in Ohio. She served, enduring silence from many of her white, male colleagues.
The Alliance Historical Black History Museum opened in 2012 to highlight Black inventors and the contributions of such leaders as Councilman Curvis Rhyne, who served for 48 years. Dr. K.T. Thompson, the city’s first Black physician, led the way for present-day Cleveland Clinic surgeon Dr. Lee Kirksey. There are exhibits on police Capt. Charlie Everett III, whose flamboyant way of directing traffic landed him on national TV, Central State University Professor Harry S. Johns and Obama Administration official Donny Warren.
There once was a golden age of Black social and civic clubs, including the Fort Knight Men’s Club, the Penguins, BBs and the Jane Hunters, the Frontiers, the Juneites, the Prince Hall Masons, the African American Luncheon Club and the Canton Negro Oldtimers Athletic Association.
Black Stark County has produced world leaders and history-makers, including Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, a world-renowned expert on race and gender, and PGA Hall of Famer Renee Powell and her legendary late father, William, creator of the Clearview Golf Club. The community owes a debt to educators Norma Marcere, Virginia Jeffries, Paralee Compton, Leila Green, Stephanie Patrick, Walter and Marion Crenshaw; The Revs. W.C. Henderson, Floyd Summer, Warren Chavers and Walter Arrington; Dr. Raymond Ballinger, Joe Smith, Clarence Thomas, A.A. Andrews, Fred Johnson, Albert McIlwain, Paul Martin, Viola Fisher, Diane Stevens Robinson, Robert Fisher and many more who are equally deserving of our respect.
The community has produced literally dozens of Black athletes who have gone on to become professionals, including olympians Phil Hubbard and Carlin Isles and Pro Football Hall of Famers Marion Motley and Alan Page, a retired Minnesota Supreme Court judge.
Much work remains to be done. Stark County isn’t nearly as advanced and diverse as we should be, which hampers our ability to compete for business and people.
The community had lost too much Black talent because of a lack of opportunity.
There has yet to be a Black county commissioner, mayor or fire chief. The recent election of Stark County Prosecutor-elect Kyle Stone broke a drought in leadership in the Stark County Courts, which have not had a Black judge in more than 50 years.
A glance through local history books suggests that Black Stark Countians often have been overlooked for contributions that have benefited everyone. We must make it our mission to share this history. Their examples are a guide and the foundational stones on which we can improve on the present and build the future.