Oral history project seeks to gather rubber workers’ stories

by Lauren Dangel

One of my earliest and fondest memories is taking regular walks around Firestone Park with my dad, himself a proud descendant of a rubber worker. Our destination would always be the statue of Harvey Firestone. “We’re going to see Harvey,” he’d tell me at the beginning of each journey. 

Akronites see what remains of the Rubber City’s past in the names of our neighborhoods, in the sky over our sporting events and in the stories of our loved ones. 

I was fortunate to talk to some local leaders who work to ensure this legacy will remain visible for future generations of Akronites.  

A group of local artists and leaders have dedicated themselves to the Rubber Worker Stories & Statue Project. By September 2020, Akronites will see a 15-foot bronze statue of a rubber worker in the middle of the roundabout at Mill and Main Streets and a display of bricks that will honor workers and families by name. The effort will also include an interactive kiosk where passersby can listen to oral histories. 

Project leaders have interviewed former rubber workers and their families to gather perspectives on Akron’s time at the top of industry. As the vision draws closer to reality, I wanted to know more about the motivation behind the effort. What exactly about the rubber industry in Akron is this project working to honor?      

The Rubber Worker Stories & Statue Project is the brainchild of Miriam Ray, who has worked to gain community support and was responsible for bringing Zanesville sculptor Alan Cottrill on board. Mac Love has led much of the effort’s digital marketing and its oral history component. Josy Jones has been responsible for conducting interviews with former rubber workers and their families. 

I asked each of them to describe or define the culture and identity of the city. What was it about this city’s legacy that made the tire industry worthy of such a commemoration? According to Josy, it’s all about Akronites’ model work ethic: “It lives on the backs of hard work of individuals [and] small groups of people.” She calls Akron “a working person’s city,” and says “it still has that energy” today. 

To Mac, the culture and identity of Akron is “a combination of incredible triumph and success, and then also… the evaporation of a kind of industry.”  

The statue will be the most visible element of the project, but there would be no statue without the stories. 

Josy highlighted the integral roles of women in Akron’s rubber industry and other fields, including a woman living in Akron today who had a firsthand role in building planes for war. Another woman Josy interviewed told her that both her parents had jobs in Akron’s rubber industry, but committed themselves to taking active roles in their children’s lives. To achieve this, one parent worked the day shift and the other worked the night shift.

Miriam told me the story of her friend’s grandfather, a Firestone worker and dedicated advocate for union causes. His family once found a bomb outside the family home because of his ties to these causes. Fortunately, rain had defused the bomb and the family was safe.  

Mac explained how economic hardship united Akronites across demographics and described his interview with the grandson of Otis Spurling, Firestone’s first African-American tire builder. Love said the interviewee learned from family and experience that, “Back at that time there was no black, there was no white, there was just poor.” He also highlighted strides Akron rubber companies made in hiring people with disabilities. For example, area companies were some of the first to hire deaf people and those of short stature. However, Mac acknowledged the industry’s use of overseas slave labor and history of workplace deaths, and explained this project offers a chance to be honest about some of this dark past. 

All in all, Mac says, the project is an effort to put “the focus on the people and not the companies… The human stories often get neglected.”  

Maybe this project could be the foundation for today’s tiniest Akronites’ earliest memories, and a catalyst for recognition of responsibility to carry on a legacy of dedication, one that will be there throughout their lives and through any adversity. 

Akronites will be able to see the statue at the new roundabout at Main and Mill streets upon completion of the Main Street Corridor Project. To purchase a commemorative brick, visit www.akronstories.com or call (330) 238-8588. If you would like to share your story or that of a family member, attend an interview recording session to celebrate your place in the Rubber City’s history: 

Goodyear Branch Library: Monday, March 9 from 6:30-7 pm 

Northwest Akron Branch Library: Wednesday, March 11 from 12:30-1:30 pm

North Hill Branch Library: Saturday, March 14 at from 2-4 pm 

Nordonia Hills Branch Library: March 18 from 1-2:30 pm 

Richfield Branch Library: Tuesday, March 24 from 1-2:30 pm 

Green Branch Library: Saturday, March 28 from 1-3 pm

Ellet Branch Library: Tuesday, March 31 from 1-2:30 pm 

Kenmore Branch Library: Saturday, April 4 from 1-2 pm 

Tallmadge Branch Library: Thursday, April 16 from 2-3 pm
Mogadore Branch Library: Wednesday, April 22 from 1-3 pm

Main Library: Wednesday, May 6 from 6:30-8 pm 

Springfield-Lakemore Branch Library: Thursday, May 7 from 6-7 pm

Portage Lakes Branch Library: Tuesday, May 12 from 1-3 pm 

Norton Branch Library: Monday, May 18 from 6-7:30 pm 

Fairlawn-Bath Branch Library: Thursday, May 21 from 6:30-7:45 pm 

Lauren Dangel is a digital content writer and proud Kent State University graduate. She is also a football and hockey contributor for SB Nation’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish blog, One Foot Down.  

Photo used with permission by Miriam Ray.