Four Murals and a Brick Wall: African-American History on East Exchange

by Jimmy Smooth

It was a late Saturday afternoon and I was headed to meet up with my man Rich from Kicks Lounge. As I came to a stop at a red light, to my right sat one of the schools I attended as a child, Mason Elementary. I looked to my left and something inspirational caught my eyes: Four different murals of four different African-Americans.

At that moment I remembered asking myself, “Who are these people?” None of them looked like the African-American leaders we usually see, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks or the Reverend Al Sharpton (laughs). I didn’t recognize any of these faces except Dr. Ron Fowler.

Later that day, I did what anyone would do if they wanted to find out about something in this day and age: I pulled out my iPhone and began to Google murals hanging on East Exchange Street. There were a few articles and names that popped up, like Cazzell Smith and Art X Love. Both were key players in these murals. Mr. Smith is one of the gentlemen on one of the murals, and Art X Love led me to Mac Love, who is the man behind this project coming to life.

From them, I learned that the women were Ann Gates, who I have heard most refer to as Mama Gates, and Ethel Chambers.

I have always respected the work Dr. King and Rosa Parks did in the grand scheme of things. But through the little journey I have taken in the past few weeks, I learned that Akron had and has its own Black activist leaders within the community. That’s a beautiful thing.

Walk with me and maybe you will pull the same inspiration from the murals, from the artists to the faces that you see on them. Peace.

Cazzell Smith: The Foundation

I had the pleasure of being able to sit down and have a one-on-one with Cazzell Smith at Centenary United Methodist Church. I really wouldn’t call it an interview; it was more like a passionate lecture from a scholar who has lived life and had to overcome obstacles like racism and poverty to become the man he is today.

Cazzell felt he was impacted at a very young age while attending Allen Elementary School, which closed in 1967.

“My brother and I were probably two of the baddest kids in that school,” he said. “There were two teachers that took a liking to us. They would give us a quarter after school every day and say, ‘you both go down to the H&R bakery and get some donuts and bring them back at 7:30 in the morning, and we will sit down and talk.’ From that point on I wanted to be like them.”

Mr. Smith did have a few problems with the law in his youth, between disappointing his mother and having a police officer put a gun in his face when he was 11. He decided the path he was taking wasn’t a good one.

“Poverty can lead our young men into the justice system in a negative way if not corrected,” Mr. Smith says. He thinks education is “the first and most important solution to the problem” of poverty. If he hadn’t gotten an education, he says he would be “either on death row or Skid Row.”

It’s a good thing he did get an education, because by 1971 Mr. Smith had graduated from The University Of Akron and was teaching at Robinson Elementary School — a school he would later go on a quest to save. He was still working nights at Ohio Edison, the gig that got him through college. He wanted a career where he would have time for himself but still be able to provide for himself.

“The only time I could get a date was on Saturday night, and I was still a young man. I felt like so much of my life was passing me by,” Mr. Smith says.

He was offered a job at the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, but also landed a interview at Goodyear Tire & Rubber, which was the place to be at that time. Mr. Smith went to the interview and was told that they didn’t have anything there for him at the time. But the man who interviewed him told him he had something else in mind.

“It was 1971, and you know, I had the afro. I was clean-cut, but I don’t think I was clean-cut enough for them on the corporate side of things,” Mr. Smith says.

But the man interviewing him was president of the Board of Trustees for East Akron Community House. Mr. Smith chose the East Akron Community House and stayed with them for 39 years. He is still a community organizer today with the East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation, which was started in 1982.

“If you ask me what has been some of my biggest accomplishments, I would probably say when we organized a Talbot Avenue Block Club back in 1973, which at that time was known as one of the roughest parts of East Akron,” Mr. Smith says. “Usually a Block Club is a group of homeowners who come together to protect probably one of the biggest investments they have made, which is their home and property. This was a group of single mothers who just wanted to find a way to create a better environment for their children.

“Another accomplishment that has always meant a lot to me is the four-year battle I had to do with the Board of Education to keep Robinson Elementary School open,” Mr. Smith says. “In 1975, it was announced that [Akron’s Board of Education] would be closing some schools based on how old they were. But there were two schools that had been standing longer than Robinson that weren’t closing. The argument was that race played a factor in Robinson being closed. It was 85 percent Black. This would cause a burden in a major way for minority children.”

Robinson Elementary did close for one school year in 1979. But the following school year, Robinson was back in business. Mr. Smith said it was bittersweet because some of the parents that worked with him diligently to keep the school open didn’t get the chance to see the reward of their hard work. Instead, they relocated or passed on.

Mr. Smith went on to become a professor at UA where he worked from 1985 to 2001. He represented District 5 on Summit County Council from 1991 until 2011.

While teaching Social Work at UA and giving lectures on poverty in America, Mr. Smith saw a problem approaching in the community. In 1993, the Fred W. Albrecht Grocery Company, which runs Acme Fresh Markets, wanted to close their stores.

“I had a group of students that wanted to become active in the community, so I got them involved, as well as Pat Kemp from Goodyear Tire and Rubber and Joe White from the Children’s Services Board, who is now deceased,” Mr. Smith says. “We went to the Albrecht Company and explained to them if they closed their stores, it would create something that is called a ‘food desert,’ where there would be a limited supply of food in certain parts of the community.”

We have Cazzell Smith and a few others to thank for Acme still being around. While you are at it, go ahead and thank the man for what he has helped do in Middlebury. From building Middlebury Plaza, where Dave’s Supermarket is, and owning several other properties within the community, the East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation has no plans of slowing down.

I haven’t given many people the title of being a hero, but in my opinion, this is what a Black superhero looks like, not Luke Cage or Black Panther.

I asked Mr. Smith if there is anything that he would like to see change in the East Akron community today. He replied, “I would like to see the parents and grandparents in the community get more involved like they use to back in the day. It will make it easier for us to come in and do what we do.”

And, “I’d like to see the unity of Block Clubs again.”  

Ann Gates and Ethel Chambers: Sisters From Another

Mrs. Ann Lane Gates was born in the City of Brotherly Love in 1924. She met her sister from another mother in 1956, when they became neighbors. Mrs. Ethel L. Chambers was born in 1924 in Barberton.

Mama Gates, which is what most of the youth in this community called her, gave 30 years of her life to Akron Public Schools, starting out as the first Black woman to teach physical education at Central High School and ending as an administrator.

Mrs. Chambers stood 5 feet tall, but her big heart made her seem like she was 6 foot, 7 inches tall, which reminds me of my own mother. She worked with the U.S. Postal Service for 31 years. Some people may applaud that service, but let’s be real. That isn’t how Mrs. Chambers ended up alongside her neighbor on a mural on East Exchange.

Even though they did their own work, these two were a dynamic duo, like The Black Keys or Jadakiss and Styles P.

Mama Gates worked on over 60 community boards, not all at once, but during her lifetime. She attended several meetings every week. I asked her son, Larry, if his mother ever got tired. He said, “No, I didn’t see my mother slow down until she was 90, and she passed at the age of 92, so what does that tell you?”

Mrs. Chambers was responsible for putting together organizations such as the Akron Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club, the League of Women Voters, University Park Alliance, and several others, such as the Perkins Street Block Club, which she organized with Mama Gates.

Mrs. Chambers would patrol Grace Park and was instrumental in clearing the park of drug dealers and users during the crack epidemic of the late 80s and early ’90s. After her son Richard shared that information with me, he said, “that is why you see Grace Park in the mural with my mother. A lot of people in the community said that was her park.”

Let’s hit the rewind button and talk about the Wooster Avenue Riots, which lasted six days and seven nights over racial injustice — a fight that is still going on today. It was July of 1968. Troops were coming back from the Vietnam War. Protesters, tear gas, German Shepherds, a thousand National Guard troops and 350 local cops filled the streets. Mayor John Ballard was spat on by my deceased Uncle Floyd. Some white people passing by would throw bricks at the protesters. Some young Black teen boys would remove white drivers from their cars and beat or intimidate them, sometimes putting cap guns to their heads.

In the midst of this chaos, Mayor Ballard had to bring in people the protesters would listen to.

Mrs. Gates and Mrs. Chambers were called in, along with other Black activists, leaders and business owners to reason with the young, angry protesters. Mrs. Gates and Mrs. Chambers both helped bring peace to a very hostile situation in the community.

When I spoke to Mrs. Gates’s son Larry and Mrs. Chambers’s son Richard, they both said their mothers were fearless women who would open up their hearts and homes to anyone, especially a misguided child. I was told by both of their sons, as well as Akron artist Nichole Epps, who helped with completing the mural of Mrs. Gates, that to have dinner at either one of their homes was an honor. I think if we give young Black women, like Margo Sommerville or Darrita Davis, time, we will see that spirit of Mrs. Gates and Mrs. Chambers again in this community.

I asked Larry, if his mother was still alive, what would she be doing with her life? He said Mrs. Gates would probably be finding a way to stay active in the community. She never lost touch with young people. Mrs. Chambers’s son Richard gave me pretty much the same answer.

At that point, I was convinced this was a match made in heaven, if you believe there is a heaven. If you believe that, you should also believe they are still making moves together in the afterlife. If you don’t believe in the afterlife, that’s fine — just believe in this story and be inspired to do something great in this lifetime.

Dr. Ron Fowler: The Reverend

Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to sit down with Dr. Ronald J. Fowler, who is the Pastor Laurate of Arlington Church of God. But through his son Ronnie and today’s technology, we made it happen. I was so captivated by Dr. Fowler’s audio files that it felt like we were in the same room.

Dr. Fowler and his family moved to Akron when he was 11. He attended Robinson Elementary School and received his high school diploma at East High School in 1954.

In 1959, Dr. Fowler received a Bachelor of Science in Education from Kent State University, which he attended on a football scholarship. As soon as he finished college, he was drafted into the United States Army, where he served two years. He was given an honorable discharge from the military by 1961 and shortly after moved to Detroit to begin his career as a physical education teacher.

It was 1963 when Dr. Fowler adhered to a special calling on his life and moved to Anderson, IN, to attend Anderson University School of Theology. He finished the program with a Master of Divinity degree in 1966.

The Reverend would go on to further his education by pursuing doctoral studies in theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He put in 30-plus hours toward a master’s degree in education at Kent State University, as well as participating in a post-graduate seminar course in Wholeness at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich.

This is a man who is driven by his faith and constantly learning.

Jimmy Smooth: When you were told that a mural was being painted of you, what was your first reaction?

Dr. Fowler: Nobody was more surprised than I. Needless to say, it was very flattering for someone to think you would be worthy of this type of public display. I feel there are a lot of people who have done the same amount of work in this community as I, or more.

JS: Dr. Fowler, what does education mean to you and why is it so important to you?

RF: Education is the ladder to a higher level of service, and with that service comes a great responsibility. It is a ladder that we all have access to.

JS: What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome to become the man you are today?

RF: The biggest obstacle has been having confidence in my own ability to be great and excel. There is always a tendency to downplay small assignments. Small assignments are in fact the springboard to bigger and greater assignments.

JS: If you were to speak with a group of young Black men in the community, what advice would you offer them?

RF: Aim high, pay the price, stay the course and you can accomplish all that the Creator has given you the ability to do.

Mac Love: The Reason

I got a chance to link with Mac Love at Art X Love gallery and studios on King James Way. Before we sat down and had our conversation, he showed me around the large gallery that was once KeyBank. During our conversation, we touched on the reasons it is important to implement art in the community as well as involving youth and local artists to bring the murals to life.

Jimmy Smooth: I read an article online about you and it mentioned that you are the type of artist who is influenced by your geographic location. How did that come into play with the four murals you did of the Rev. Ron Fowler, Ann Gates, Cazzell Smith and Ethel Chambers?

Mac Love: That’s a great question. Anywhere that I have ever lived, I have tried to embody the community itself into my artwork. When I came to Akron, I saw the need to tell the story of the community through my work, like those things that, if you are not from Akron, you find to really be cool. Like Rita Dove, who I also think is amazing. Like the four people on those murals. I think there is so much more to Akron than people realize. There is nothing wrong with the community being associated with rubber or LeBron James, but Akron has been through several renaissances and a lot of people don’t know that. There is a lot of great history in the city of Akron.

JS: How does it feel to be behind an art project that will bring attention to African-American history in Akron?

ML: It was an incredible responsibility to make sure it came out right. Being a white guy, I see this as Black history, but I also see it as history in general. But I did get the chance to see how proud African-Americans in the community are of this work, and it was great to be a part of something that gave people some credit for the great things they have done and sometimes against incredible odds. I don’t think just African-Americans in the community can be inspired by these people’s stories. Whether you are white, Asian… you can pull something from their stories.

JS: Let’s talk about the other artists you included on the project. How did that come together?

ML: Since we were putting the murals in the Middlebury section of the city, we originally started out looking for artists in that area. We got some referrals, but then we got referrals for some good artists in different parts of the city, and just from talking and networking with people I was able to connect with Deuce Dime and Nichole Epps. We wanted artists who could work around some of the marks that were left on the murals. Some of those murals were in rough shape by the time I brought Deuce and Nichole in.

It started out with over 300 school kids working on them. A lot of the kids wrote their names on them, or “rest in peace” tags for a family member they may have lost. They were just expressing how they were feeling and we didn’t police it all, because that was the whole point: Let’s give these kids a way to express themselves in a healthy way.

JS: At the end of the day, what do you hope the community gets from the murals?

ML: I hope that they recognize that anyone has the ability to make a change within the community, and I hope when people see those murals. they feel uplifted.

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Photos by Rosalie Murphy. Video by Patrick Richards.