Work on the Erie Black history project began in 2012.
A driving/walking tour examining 29 significant historical sites and more than 200 years of African-American heritage in Erie County is set to debut Monday.
Officials involved with the community history project will outline details of the countywide tour and launching of an accompanying website at a 10 a.m. news conference at Erie Cemetery.
“African Americans in Erie County: A Trail of Shared Heritage” chronicles key people, places and events and how they contributed to the region’s economic, political and cultural history.
“My personal view is that we have made one small step for Erie and hopefully a giant step for Erie citizens by exposing them to information that they have never heard of or may not know anything about,” said Erie historian Johnny Johnson, a retired Erie School District teacher, who has done extensive research on the contributions of African Americans to Erie history.
“Hopefully, it will encourage social interaction and social communication where we will get to know each other better,” Johnson said. “This place called America doesn’t belong to one particular group, it belongs to all of us. If we can get people to understand that everybody made a contribution to what we live in and what we are today, I think the United States would be a better place.”
The project, which began in 2012, was organized and led by Johnson, Mercyhurst University history professor Chris Magoc and Preservation Erie Chair Melinda Meyer.
Community partners include Mercyhurst University’s Thomas B. Hagen Department of History and Public History Program, Erie Arts & Culture, Erie-Yesterday, WQLN and the Hagen History Center.
“I want to see it be a force for good, for changing this region for the better,” Magoc said.
Fifteen thousand brochures detailing maps and information on each of the tour’s 29 African-American historical sites will be distributed to Erie-area churches, schools, businesses and visitor bureaus.
“We’ve lost a lot of physical evidence of these sites over the last 100 years,” Meyer said. “When people take this tour, they’re going to find that, in some cases, we’re directing them to locations where there is an amazing story, but the physical remnants have been destroyed or are long gone.”
Founded in 2007, Preservation Erie’s mission is to promote, preserve and enhance the distinctive character of greater Erie through community-based planning, design and historic preservation.
The driving/walking tour represents more than 200 years of history and addresses African-American heritage relating to business, social elements, sports, the civil rights movement, the Underground Railroad and other topics.
“We tried to cover as much history as possible in these 29 sites,” Meyer said.
A historical marker behind the Erie Maritime Museum near where the U.S. Brig Niagara is docked commemorates African-American sailors who fought with Oliver Hazard Perry in the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie near Put-in-Bay, Ohio.
At the Pennsylvania Soldiers’ & Sailors Home, 560 E. Third St. in Erie, 19 of the more than 1,300 veterans buried at the home’s four-acre Veterans Memorial Cemetery are veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops, a division of the Union Army in the Civil War.
Another tour site – Lawrence Cleaning and Dyeing, 402 W. Third St., in Erie – honors Emma Lawrence, the first Black woman to own a business in Erie. She opened her business in 1906.
Beginning in 1928, African-American musical culture flourished for 50 years at the Hotel Pope, 1318 French St., in Erie.
A band, chorus line, and a live master of ceremonies were regular entertainment features. Nationally celebrated performers who visited the hotel included Lionel Hampton, Louie Jordan, Jackie Wilson, Lena Horne and Dina Washington. The building was demolished in 1978.
“We had to consider sites that we had a historical record for,” Johnson said. “It was all about primary sources.”
A highlight of the county tour is a visit to the Smith Family Farm, 3050 Rice Road in Edinboro. The site commemorates an 1860s farmhouse that was home for LeRoy and Beatrice Smith, who moved to Erie from New Orleans in 1948, according to tour information.
LeRoy Smith was among the first African Americans employed by the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Erie. Beatrice Smith led the first celebrations of Black History Week at Edinboro University.
The Erie County heritage tour includes Gospel Hill Cemetery, 4056 Station Road, in Harborcreek Township.
An historical marker there interprets and tells the story of numerous African Americans who lived in northwestern Pennsylvania and are buried there.
The marker explains how Thomas Rees, a land surveyor, brought two enslaved children to northwestern Pennsylvania in the 1790s. Robert McConnell and James Titus were freed under state law at age 28.
Each man received 50 acres of land. McConnell eventually owned 242 acres. He and his descendants are buried there near Rees.
There are 183 unmarked graves believed to be those of children, freed persons and slaves, according to tour information.
Other African-American tour sites include the Harry T. Burleigh Homestead, 137 E. Third St., Erie (historical marker at East Sixth and French streets); Bayview Park, 500 West Second St., Erie; the Rev. Ernest Franklin Smith’s Good Samaritan AME Zion Church and Negro Welfare Mission, 1113-1115 Walnut St.,; Erie Cemetery, 2116 Chestnut St.; the Oren Reed Homestead, Reed’s Corners near South Hill and Oliver roads, McKean; McKean “Crossroads” Community Church, 11160 Oliver Road, McKean; Wesleyville Methodist Episcopal Church, 3306 Buffalo Road, Wesleyville; and the Old Stone House, 3506 East Lake Road, Lawrence Park Township.
“I hope one of our learned experiences with this tour is that we need to re-think what we value and re-think what we choose is disposable,” Meyer said. “So many of these sites are definitely worth saving. There are stories and history there.”
The project’s website, www.sharedheritage.org, features a pdf of the tour, a summary narrative and timeline of Erie County African-American history, profiles of about 60 significant individuals, and oral history interviews with prominent Erie-area African-Americans.
Interviews were conducted at WQLN in summer 2019 and summer 2018, Magoc said.
“We’d like to see more oral histories done,” Magoc said. “The website itself will be edited, changed and added to. Hopefully, this project will help stir, cultivate and create interest in historical preservation.”
The project’s genesis began in 2012 with a joint venture among the Edinboro Area Historical Society, Mercyhurst University’s Public History program, and community historians.
A 2012 Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission grant to the Edinboro Area Historical Society was earmarked for an exhibit on the lives and civil rights legacy of LeRoy and Beatrice Smith, Magoc said.
“A second piece of the grant was to sketch out a countywide driving/walking tour of African-American history sites,” Magoc said.
In 2012, then-Mercyhurst University student Adriana Houseman researched and put together a draft of an Erie County African-American history tour as her senior project.
“She did a really nice job,” Magoc said. “She put together what was supposed to be a draft of the tour, and the Edinboro Area Historical Society would take what remained of their grant and get it edited, published and printed. They spent all of the grant on a lovely exhibit, but there were no funds to do anything with the tour.”
Plans to keep the tour moving forward stalled.
“It sat there,” Magoc said. “The trail project basically languished for about five years. Three years ago, we talked to Johnny Johnson and that led to kind of a little generation of momentum among Johnny, (historian and author) Sara Thompson, Melinda and I to put together a grant mostly for printing of the brochure and the production of the website. It has taken us almost three years to get here. We’re all basically volunteers on this.”
Johnson said he sees the unveiling of the county history tour as “not the culmination of the project, but the beginning.”
“Hopefully, we’ll have people who will have an interest in taking this project further and learning more,” Johnson said. “It’s not an ending of a project, but the beginning of another project. There are more stages to follow.”
Contact Ron Leonardi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ETNleonardi.
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