Not long ago, I met Mary Bowman of Massillon. Back in the middle of the 1800s, she and her sister, Rachel, the granddaughters of slaves, were the first two blacks to graduate from Washington High School.
Recently, I also was introduced to John Hall, a Black philanthropist and abolitionist from the Kendal section of Massillon, who in 1904 founded the Hall School for vocational learning, offering classes in manual trades, as well as such traditional subjects as English and mathematics.
And, I got reacquainted with Robert Pinn, who in the Civil War was decorated for his valor. “He was one of only four African-American Ohioans to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor,” according to information supplied by the Massillon Museum.
Indeed it was at the Massillon Museum that my life crossed paths with these historical figures—not in the physical brick-and-mortar building, but rather electronically through one of the museum’s online offerings.
During this month of February—Black History Month—it seemed appropriate to visit Massillon Museum’s website, focusing on a page that traces the history of African-Americans in the Stark County area.
Brief biographies profile influential Black residents from long ago.
Betsey Mix Cowles is first on the list. Based on the celebration of the month and judging from the museum’s words, she seems the proper person to “greet” us for our visit.
“She was noted for working for education reform, abolitionist causes, women’s rights and emancipation,” the museum tells us. “Cowles promoted the concept of equality between men, women and African Americans.”
Others on the list of historical personalities include Wright Walker, who was “born into slavery about 1845,” says the museum, but he “became a freedman” following his participation in the Union army’s march to Atlanta in the Civil War.
These profiles also include more contemporary individuals: political and civic leader Essie Wooten, one of the founders of the Massillon Urban League, and civil rights advocate Homer Floyd, the executive director of both the Kansas Commission on Civil Rights and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
Athletes won the last two spots on Massillon Museum’s list. Bill Willis and Marion Motley both earned reputations for excellence in sports, while breaking barriers for Blacks, when they competed on playing fields in Stark County and on teams playing for the Cleveland Browns. Motley was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968, and Willis followed in 1977.
Our visit is enhanced by voices from the past. Oral histories also are offered at the website.
We can listen to the words of Miles Hay, who speaks of the African-American experience in Massillon during World War I, as well as the recollections of Freddie Bray, who in an interview speaks of, among other things, participating in early Black businesses, working in steel mills, delving into Black politics and experiencing a life serving in the Army.
Other recorded interviews pass on the recollections of Ralph Ware, Francis Grant, Edna Grant and Ined Bredley.
Documents viewable at the web page detail other areas of Black history in Massillon, including transcripts of the memories of former slaves William Fleming Robinson and Gilbert A. Porter and a recollection of the 1967 race riots by Evan Heck.
A section of the page titled “Underground Railroad: Local Impact” allows visitors such as ourselves to “read about the people and places that served the Massillon and Kendal, Ohio, stops along the Underground Railroad.”
This is a digital visit with people, in places and at times which had an impact on Black history of both the county and country. Still, it seems as “real” a visit as one during which we would sit and speak with those profiled. The words and images are powerful, serving to bring both the individuals and the eras in which they lived to life for us.
For more information, visit MassillonMuseum.org/175.