In recognition of Black History Month, it is only appropriate that we tell the stories of some of the most prominent black men and women who dwelled in the Mahoning Valley.
On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, during our Civil War, signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in confederate states, and somewhat altering the nature of this great war. The war itself lasted two more agonizing years until 1865 when it finally came to an end.
African Americans were very important contributors to all of the progress, growth and development of Youngs-town, Warren and the whole of the Mahoning Valley. Melinda Knight's family first settled in this area in 1831. (Some accounts give the date as 1840.) It is also assumed that John White was the first black man to live in Mahoning County. By 1850, there were 90 African Americans living in Mahoning County. Early black families included George and Martha Robinson, the P. Ross Berrys, the William Fitzhughs, Andy Russels, Mrs. A. Vance and the Rolla B. Johnsons. Between 1860 and 1870, the Stewart brothers, Lemuel, Samuel and Charles, settled in this area from New Castle, Pa. They were followed by Oscar and Richard Bogess, William Nelson, Richard Nixon and Frank Lucus.
It seems that almost all of these early settlers were free born, as Youngstown was not a stop on the Underground Railroad. Many families had lived in the northern cities before coming here. By 1910, the census shows an African American population of 2,000. In 1918, there was a great migration from the south as people came for employment in the steel mills. They were promised better jobs, wages and living conditions. Most of these promises were not fulfilled, and some simply returned to the south. The crash of 1929 had a cruel effect on African American workers, as they were the last hired and the first fired. Discrimination was widespread throughout plants, including other ethnic groups as well.
It must be remembered that in spite of all this, many left an impressive mark on the community. Some of the major buildings in downtown Youngstown still stand as a result of black tradesmen. The great brick masons P. Ross Berry and Lemuel Stewart built the Dollar Savings and Trust Company building at the corner of Wick and Commerce. Berry also completed the original Rayen School on Wick Avenue and the First Presbyterian Church at Wick and Wood streets. As far as hotels, the Tod house was the largest and finest around; it was built in Central Square by Berry.
A bio of Berry reads as follows: Plympton Ross Berry was born in 1835 a free black man in Lawrence County, Pa. By the age of 16, he was a master brick and stone mason. In 1851, he was hired to do the brick work on the Lawrence County Court House. In March of 1858, he married Mary Long. In 1861, he traveled with his wife and four children from New Castle to Youngstown by canal boat after been awarded the brick work contract for the original Rayen School. He stood 6 and a half feet tall and was well known far and wide for his skill and honesty. He was held in such high regard that he had white men working under him. He was a leader among the growing community of African Americans who moved to Youngstown after the Civil War. Newly arrived residents were employed by Berry and Lemuel Stewart. He went on to other major building projects, including the Homer Hamilton and Company, the parish of St. Columbia Church, Youngstown City Jail, the William Hitchcock mansion, Gov. David Tod's mansion, the Baptist Temple, and Youngstown's Grand Opera House.
In 1865, he returned to New Castle to build the Disciple Church. The Berry and Stewart families were great friends and also became connected by marriage, setting up a great dynasty of doctors, dentists, attorneys musicians and leaders. P. Ross Berry laid brick until he was 82. He died in 1917, and his sons continued the family business.
Lavina Simpson Webster, pianist and vocalist, came to Youngstown with her parents in 1870. She graduated from Rayen in 1875, a first for the black community. The first black barbers were Samuel Stewart and S. Page. Mr. William Fitzhugh was the first local black mail carrier. William R. Stewart, a lawyer, was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1888. He initiated legislation for the construction of the Market Street Bridge. Stewart's wife, Consuela, was Youngstown's first black female physician. This is just a small part of local black history.