It’s 1970 and an 8-year-old Russel Neal sits at his family’s custard stand in Akron. The walls at Eskimo Joe’s are painted red and white. It’s July and he can feel the summer breeze wafting through the windows. As Russ eats his favorite ice cream, chocolate-vanilla swirl, he overhears conversations surrounding civil rights. It’s seven years after the March on Washington and two years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, one of the events that sparked Akron’s Wooster Avenue riots.
Today, the smell of ice cream sundaes and Coney dogs still brings a bittersweet sense of nostalgia for Russ, who is now 58 years old. He remembers his time at Eskimo Joe’s, and the conversations engulfing much of his childhood, as the foundation of his interests in civil rights and community advocacy.
“I don’t have to read a history book. I lived it,” Russ says. “I saw it in my grandfather’s eyes. My great-grandmother, when she passed away, she was 109. Almost 110. My grandmother, when she passed away a few years ago, was 102. I didn’t have to read a history book. All I had to do was sit down and talk to my family.”
As the representative for Ward 4 on Akron City Council, many know Russ as dynamic and forceful, often being one of the first people to call out injustices. In our first interview, he was quick to tell me, “I’m the only Black man on council. We have issues with Black men in our city.” This style of delivering information isn’t unlike Russ, who is quick to get to the heart of the matter without coddling audiences.
On council, his style can sometimes be seen as controversial or divisive, but community members in Ward 4 love his honesty. In interviews, he’s quick to differentiate between politics and the political process, and even quicker at distancing himself from the word “politician.”
“That’s a dirty word,” he says. “The political process is beautiful. It’s how we bring all of our issues to the table and how we come to a solution. But when you bring politics into it, politics deals with ego, self-interest, and that’s what corrupts it.”
Russ graduated from Buchtel High School, then attended Ohio University and graduated with degrees in business management and marketing. He returned to Akron in 1987. When he came back, he bought a four-unit apartment on Edgewood Avenue to supplement his income while he jumped into community advocacy work, working with the Akron African Festival and Parade.
Something that brought Russ back to Akron was his community of friends from Buchtel High School, who he says shaped a lot of his character. He remembers being part of National Honor Society and learning how to raise money as a teenager while fundraising for a senior trip to Europe.
“When I came back, I came with the intention of being engaged and involved, but it was on the grassroots level,” Russ says.
Russ decided to run for council in 2007, then again in 2009 after losing the first time. At the time, he was frustrated with the city’s allocation of money for Buchtel High School, Firestone High School and East High School. He argues it was unfair that the city cut $15 million in funding for Buchtel, then allocated $89 million for Firestone.
When the City of Akron asked for community input, Russ felt that giving input was futile because “decisions were made before they even came to the community.” Russ felt frustrated and hopeful that if he ran and won, he would be able to bring his community’s voice to the table.
Today, Russ feels more realistic about his ambitions.
“Now that I’m on council, I realize there’s a table even before council,” he says. “Decisions are made before they even come to us. But that’s what made me run for council. I wanted my community to have true representation.”
Though Russ is optimistic about the changes he’s been able to implement, like bringing summer concerts by the Northeast Ohio Jazz Orchestra to Ward 3, as well as helping bring about the wellness circle concept Project Ujima, which was implemented to help battle infant mortality rates in the Black community.
As a councilman, truth and transparency are some of the most important qualities a leader can have, though Russ admits that his drive for transparency can sometimes get him in trouble.
“One person told me one of the concerns that my colleagues have with me is that I tell the truth. That I’m too transparent,” Russ says.
Right now, he says much of his frustration around Akron is the inequities Black residents face, and the United States’ failure to address its original sin: Racism.
“I would dishonor my elders and my ancestors if I tiptoe around that issue,” he says. “One of the challenges I find is we have people shaping policy and they’re totally ignorant of the history behind it.”
Russ has been on council for 10 years, and one of the things he consistently works on is establishing a better sense of community in Ward 4. When he was growing up, he remembers a time when a “sense of love permeated throughout the community,” where anyone could discipline your children and where he had a large extended family of relatives who weren’t blood.
He remembers one of his neighbors, Mr. Kerns, teaching Russ and his brother how to fish.
“Mr. Kerns had four children of his own and he was white… He would take us fishing in the morning. We knew when Mr. Kerns got home. Sometimes we’d even be sitting on the curb waiting. And it wasn’t until I got older that I realized the sacrifice that he did because Mr. Kerns worked third shift. So, when he got home, that was his time to decompress before he went back to work, but he would take us fishing with him.”
It’s this kind of love and belonging Russ misses and tries to create in Ward 4 through events like the community concerts and neighborhood movie nights. But accessing this type of community can be challenging, especially considering how value systems have changed, as people no longer attend the same church, go to the same schools, or believe in the same things.
When I ask him what drives him to continue leading and serving the community, he takes me back to the 1960s. His father was an activist and working with the Zulu Motorcycle Club. It was founded in 1969 and it’s one of the first Black one percenter motorcycle clubs in the Midwest, which is a motorcycle subculture that celebrates nonconformity.
He also remembers the civil rights movement at the time, specifically the large Life Magazine covers featuring Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
“I think it’s because of the period that I was born,” Russ says. “When I was born, I was young enough to be able to comprehend what was happening in the city and this nation. I was born in ‘62. I remember the discussions about the civil rights movement. I remember the discussions within my home, within my church, within the community. So those things resonated with me and helped shape the calling that’s my life.”
Though Russ says he hasn’t been able to accomplish everything he’s wanted on council, he’s excited about the future.
There’s a time when you cannot shirk the responsibility,” Russ says. “We all have the liberties and the freedoms we have now because people paid the price. And I sincerely believe I owe it to all those who came before me, before us, to give us this opportunity to run my leg of the race.”