A vintage postcard of Howard Street (credit: Akron Postcards)

Akron’s Very Own | Making sense of Akron’s Black history

By Ile-Ife Okantah for TDS

When I was 5 my parents decided it was time to move cities. I was born in a college town, my father being a professor at Kent State University. My parents, both from the East coast, were a new couple seeking to establish roots for their family.  For parents attempting to raise their kids to resist white supremacist ideology, Kent wasn’t the best environment. According to Kent’s 2000 census, about 86% of the city’s population was white. Though I’d eventually return for my own sojourn in academia, moving to Akron supported my growth in a way Kent never could. 

For extracurricular activities my parents found themselves making the 30-minute trek to the big little city named after the Greek word for elevation. It was important to them for us to see ourselves reflected in our peers, something that was lacking in the classroom. After experiencing the diversity of Akron, my parents relocated us to West Akron. I will forever be grateful for this decision. The history Akron has concerning abolition and the Great Migration has produced an energy that still reverberates today.

Read our list of Black-owned businesses in Akron.

I realized the depth of my gratitude for Akron when I arrived at Kent State University as a student. Half-jokingly, I often say the biggest difference between Kent and Akron is that white people in Akron are used to being around Black people. This does not mean I haven’t experienced my share of racism throughout my life, just like any other Black person in America, or that racist people don’t reside in Akron. However, it wasn’t until living in Kent that I was around people who openly admitted to having little to no interaction with people outside of the white race. How two cities not even an hour apart could have such drastically different energy began to fascinate me. 

To understand the Black history of Akron it is important to envision the communities that made up this territory before the city would become official in 1825. Once part of the Connecticut-owned territory of the Western Reserve, two groups of white settlers began to occupy the land: New Englanders with Puritan backgrounds and Scottish-Irish migrants from Middle and Southern states. These groups had polarized ideas about slavery, with the New Englanders tending to uphold humanitarian beliefs and the Scottish-Irish migrants bringing racist Southern ideology. This combination of thought is one of the key reasons Ohio, and Akron in particular, has a history of push and pull when it comes to race. The Underground Railroad had multiple sites in Ohio on the way to Canada, making Akron heavily involved in the antislavery movement. 

Sojourner Truth presented her famous speech “Ain’t I A Woman” in Akron. Frederick Douglass once spoke in Akron. Early Akron newspapers printed fugitive slave narratives. The house of abolitionist John Brown stands monumentalized. 

However, by the 1920s Akron was also home to the largest KKK chapter in America, with members of the Klan holding positions in the mayor’s office, the police department, and on the Akron Board of Education. As Toni Morrison, who grew up in Lorain, once said “Ohio is a curious juxtaposition of what was ideal in this country and what was base.” 

After the Emancipation Proclamation, the violence of Jim Crow combined with the quickly accelerating industrialization of Northern states influenced many Black Americans to flee the South. Between 1916 and 1940, millions of freed Black Americans left the rural South to start lives in the North in a movement now referred to as the Great Migration. Cities like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and of course Akron experienced an influx of Black migrants. In 1926, my own paternal grandmother was the first of her family to be born in New Jersey instead of South Carolina, where my ancestors were enslaved. The Great Migration is reflective of my own experience: a family deciding to migrate and lay roots in a city with the hope of improving the next generation. 

A study on housing done in 1939 reported that 60% of Akron’s houses at that time were built between 1914 and 1924, coinciding with the peak of the Great Migration and the major industrial growth of the rubber industry. Large houses like my childhood home—with radiators in every room, intricate designs painted on the ceiling and sturdy wooden sliding doors—were often originally boarding houses for people looking to work in the rubber factories that made the city famous. At this point, Akron was the fastest-growing city in the United States. 

Leaving the South after the Emancipation Proclamation did little to improve the quality of life of Black Americans other than adding distance between themselves and Jim Crow laws. The North was home to a different, but equally insidious, form of racism. Although technically considered free, Black Americans were still treated as less human than white citizens. Like in all other parts of the nation, Black Akronites had to fight for employment, housing, educational opportunities, government resources and equal treatment among their peers. 

For the majority of the city’s history, Black citizens were denied decent-paying employment and were forced to live in less desirable areas. For instance, in 1913, white residents of North Hill formed a committee to force Black residents to leave the neighborhood as Black migrants continued to move north. Incidents like this, as well as the dominating presence of the KKK, prove that while Akron’s history of racial equality has always been brewing below the surface, racism still prevailed. 

As I researched Akron’s Black history to make sense of my city’s unique energy, what impressed me most was the emphasis on community support. I found the bulk of my information from a 1975 dissertation written by Shirla Robinson McClain that chronicles the contributions of Black Akronites from the city’s formation until the time of publishing. While McClain admits that piecing together a comprehensive history of Black Akron was a daunting task, the 496-page dissertation is able to contextualize over two centuries of Black life. 

For me, the most powerful part of McClain’s research was reading all the names of Black citizens that belonged to social clubs, churches and other organizations that were created with the intention to elevate their race. At some points, the lists of names would take up as much as half of a page, each representing a person who believed in a better future for the next generation. 

McClain’s extensive documentation of the various Black churches that served as meeting places for political organizations or lecture halls for people like W.E.B DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey, highlights how the Black community continuously lifted each other throughout each decade. Reading about how Howard Street was once considered Akron’s Harlem or how the Akron Community Service Center (ACSC), which would eventually become the Urban League, worked endlessly to improve employment and education in the city, painted a picture of a community that honored one another even when other citizens did not. As McClain writes, “The Black history of Akron has indicated that man’s inhumanity to man had occurred in this city as it has in the deepest parts of the South. Black Akronites have suffered the theft of their labor; the confinements of discrimination; the humiliation that attends assigned subordinate status: and the frustrations resulting from confrontations with ignorance.” 

For my first grade year, I was enrolled in Stewart Elementary School, which at the time stood proud on a street named after Vernon Odom Sr., who once served as president of the ACSC. The school itself was also named after a prominent Black Akronite, Horace St. John Stewart, who was a photographer and philanthropist known for supporting the teaching of Black history. By the time I was a student, Stewart Elementary was one of the only schools in the nation that was structured around Afrocentric values. We started each day with assemblies that included West African drums, preparing us for our daily curriculum that embraced our Blackness. As principal Larry Johnson once said in an interview, “these kids need to get their rich heritage. They need to understand they didn’t start as slaves, because in school you know, the first thing you see about Black folks is them getting off the slave ships.” This keen understanding of the erasure of Black history from the mainstream was what attracted my parents to the school. Stewart Elementary was a manifestation of the generations of Black residents in Akron that understood how important education and community are for marginalized people. 

“The snowstorm” is the phrase seasoned Black students at Kent use to describe the sea of white faces that incoming Black freshmen will see during their first semester. I remember my first few walks on the esplanade that weaved its way through campus as a freshman, especially how the crowds of white students swelling out of the buildings made me homesick for the familiar faces of

home. These feelings confused me, as I have always had friends and classmates of all races, and of course, I was aware of being a racial minority in a midwestern state my whole life. But this was different. 

At Kent, I felt prickly stares, answered offensive questions, and was called my first racial slur. I was used to the diversity of my high school and middle school; Firestone and Miller South exposed me to people of all backgrounds. The diversity of West Akron and the community of Black people and white allies was something I had taken for granted. In hindsight, I realize I am from a place that directly mirrored the nation-wide struggle for racial inequality at all points in history. 

As I watch LeBron continue to pour into Akron with the I Promise School, I feel comforted knowing that other children will be able to experience the support and representation I did at a young age. Being a Black kid from Akron is something I will always be proud of.

Ile-Ife Okantah is a freelance journalist and cultural critic with a master’s degree in journalism from Kent State University whose interests lie at the intersection of Black culture and popular culture. A proud former student of Firestone High School, Ile-Ife aims to use her degree to continue to write about the Black influence in the entertainment industry. 

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