Digging Akron’s Past
words and photographs by Charlotte Gintert
For example, when it comes to Akron’s famous Rubber Age most of us know the names Seiberling, Goodrich and Firestone. We can even point to where they lived and how they lived. But, what about the working class African American couple, George C. and Willie Mae Prather?
This is where archaeology comes in. It fills in the gaps where history fails us.
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During the early years of the 20th century, there was a mass exodus of African Americans from the southern states. They were fleeing Jim Crow laws, violence and racial persecution. This is now known as the Great Migration. Akron was a destination for black families fleeing the South because of the plethora of jobs available in the rubber factories. George and Willie Mae were a part of that population.
We have the dates they were born, when they were married and when they died. George passed away in 1975 and Willie Mae followed in 1983. We know that George worked for Goodyear and at one point Willie Mae worked as a maid. Beyond that, however, we know next to nothing about their lives.
As part of Summit Metro Parks’ ongoing project to restore the Valley View golf course property, archaeologists surveyed the site in 2017 to locate and document sites of former structures. The survey focused on an area that had once been a housing development for low-income families. The neighborhood sat off Cuyahoga Street on a rural road called Honeywell Drive.
Back then, a lot was $10 down and $10 per month. Buyers were on their own when it came to actually building the houses. The area wasn’t within city limits, so there were no utilities and the residents had to handle their own street maintenance.
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None of the houses are still standing, and records about the development are scarce. According to the accounts of residents, we know that this was an integrated neighborhood, even though it was built about 30 years before the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The survey was able to locate a few foundations, including evidence of the house that belonged to the Prathers. The location of the house had been identified through interviews with residents and tax records.
Metro Parks’ Cultural Resource Specialists saw the Prather site as a chance to research and interpret the lives of an oft-overlooked population of Akron. So Linda Whitman, Summit Metro Parks Cultural Resource Specialist and visiting research scholar at the Department of Anthropology of The University of Akron, held her Archaeology Field School at the Prather House site this July. Her students teamed up with Whitman’s colleagues, Dr. Megan Schaeffer and Peg Bobel, and Metro Parks Citizen Scientist volunteers to excavate a larger area of the site and definitively locate the house foundation.
I joined that team as the Field Manager and photographer. We spent three weeks excavating the project area. The students learned that archaeology is not just for studying ancient cultures, but can provide valuable information about the more recent past. It also gave them an opportunity to work with a local organization and connect with the community.
The excavation uncovered several artifacts dating from the time the Prathers lived there. We have one of their silver-plated spoons, a furniture spring, multiple pink dishes, a few toy fragments, and a vacuum tube from their radio. We are currently in the artifact analysis phase of the research, and through it, we are learning more and more about the lives of George and Willie Mae.
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This project will provide much-needed insights into the Great Migration generation in Akron. As far as the research team knows, no such archaeological project has been conducted on the Great Migration in Northeast Ohio.
Further excavation may be done at the site next year. Restoration work will take several years. But thanks to this archaeological project, the story of George and Willie Mae’s life on Honeywell Drive will be available to visitors when the park opens to the public.
We are still looking for anyone that may have known the Prathers or their family, so if these names sound familiar to you, please email me at email@example.com.
Charlotte is an archaeologist by day and a photographer by sunrise and sunset. You see more of her work at www.capturedglimpses.com