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Black History: Massillon, Ohio

Massillon has a rich history of diversity. Below are just some of the people and just some of the stories of those fighting for equality in Massillon. Other resources include oral history interviews and documents.


ORAL HISTORIES:

Listen to African Americans who lived here in Massillon.


DOCUMENTS:

View documents related to black history in Massillon.

For additional documents, read Thomas and Charity Rotch's letters about fugitive slaves and the Underground Railroad at the Massillon Public Library's MassillonMemory.org


UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: LOCAL IMPACT

Click here to read the overview of the local impact of the Underground Railroad, read about the people and places that served the Massillon and Kendal, Ohio stops along the Underground Railroad.


BIOGRAPHIES:

Betsey Mix Cowles

(b.1810- d.1876)

One of the original female graduates of Oberlin College Institute she moved to Massillon in 1847 to take a job at the Union School.  She was noted for working for education reform, abolitionist causes, women’s rights and emancipation. Cowles promoted the concept of equality between men, women and African Americans.  She encouraged her lone African American student to continue attending despite public objection. They eventually lost that battle.  Cowles spent her life in education and working toward equal rights for all.


Robert Pinn

(b. 1843-d. 1911)

In September of 1863, Robert Pinn was one of eighteen men to join the 5th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, the first Black unit in Ohio.  Following the death of the unit’s leader, Pinn led the troops into battle despite suffering three bullet wounds.  He was one of only four African American Ohioans to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.  After the war, Pinn attended Oberlin College and returned to Massillon to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1879.  He continued his service as a U.S. Pension agent and in 1973, the National Guard Armory in Stow, Ohio was named in his honor, the first to be named for an African American.


Mary Bowman

(b. 1858-d. 1940)

Mary Bowman was the granddaughter of slaves whose father owned a smokehouse in Massillon.  She and her sister Rachel were the first two African American students to graduate from Washington High School.  Education would become the primary contribution Bowman would make to society.  She attended college and spent much of her life attempting to establish additional African American colleges before returning to Massillon in 1913.  Much of her property was destroyed in the Great Flood and she returned to the south to continue her quest to establish churches and schools for the African American community. Miss Bowman’s legacy is the steps she made to improve the lives of women and members of the African American community.


John Hall

(d. 1854)

John Hall was an abolitionist from Kendal, Ohio who wished to assist African American children.  His will created a fund in 1854. The proceeds from the sale of his estate were to be used to educate African American children. Though the terms of the will were vague, Administrator for the Estate, Arvine C. Wales, carried out his wishes. Many prominent Massillonians contributed to the fund through the decades that followed.

The Hall School was finally founded using that fund in Massillon in 1904.  This was a vocational school to teach African American children manual labor.  The school offered classes in millinery, dressmaking, English, and mathematics to young women. Students from Stark County were not charged tuition, and boarders paid $35 per year. Unfortunately, the school suffered a fire, believed to be arson, before the end of the first year. After the school closed, the funds were used to give scholarships for African American college students, until 1953, when the last $5,000 were used to establish a scholarship at Washington High School.


Wright Walker

(born c. 1845-d.1921)

Wright Walker was born into slavery about 1845 in Georgia.  During the Civil War, Walker joined Union General Sherman as he marched through the South, and Walker became a freedman. After moving to New York for a short time, Walker relocated to Massillon with the local Jarvis family. The Jarvis’ were renowned for their military service to the United States.  Walker was always generous in his contributions to local churches and charities. He was well-known about town for his large top hat, which he even wore while mowing the grass. Upon his death, he left a few bequests to local churches and made a $30,000 to the Tuskegee Institute, a college for African American students founded by Booker T. Washington.

To read about Wright Walker in March 1931 The Tuskeegean Vol. 2 Number 1, click here.

 


Essie Wooten

(b. 1936-d. 2010)

Wooten was an inspirational woman born into poverty. Wooten was forced to drop out of high school to take on a $4.00 per week job. Fortunately, at age 24, she returned to school, receiving her diploma from Washington High School. After World War II, Wooten began to build clients as a seamstress, building a very successful business. She created drapes for The Massillon Club, Massillon YMCA and YWCA, as well as prominent private establishments.

Essie Wooten entered the political arena in Massillon in 1961 in an effort to prevent the Route 21 replacement project.  The planned route would cause the displacement of a number of poor families, many of them minorities.  She ran for city council in an effort to prevent the displacement.  Before the turn of the twentieth century, Massillon women led the statewide effort to gain women the right to run for municipal office; however, it was 1958 before a Massillon woman was elected to city council.  As the first woman elected, Essie Wooten focused her campaign on housing for minority groups in Ward 4. 

Wooten was also one of the founders of the Massillon Urban League and served as a board member and several terms as league president. She was listed in the 1961 Who’s Who in America.

 


Homer Floyd

b. 1936

Born in Wetumpka, Alabama, in 1936, Homer Floyd came to Massillon, Ohio, with his Mother during his elementary school years. Floyd’s football interest began in 1952 while in High School. During his Senior Football Season in 1954, Floyd was named an All-Ohio running back, one of his many football accomplishments. Floyd’s natural ability toward football provided him with a Scholarship to Kansas University, where he graduated with a B.A. of Science. From here, Floyd turned his interests toward the Civil Rights Movement. From 1966-1970 Homer Floyd worked as the Executive Director of Kansas Commission on Civil Rights. Floyd was honored by a placement in The Canton Negro Old-timers Hall of Fame in 1992. Following this he was recognized in 2009 by Pittsburgh’s “Talk” Magazine as Person of the Year. In 1970, Floyd took the position as Executive Director of Pennsylvania Humans Relation Commission, where he stayed for 41 years until his retirement in 2011.

Bill Willis

(1921-2007)

Bill Willis was a defensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns. Not only was he a legend in the game of Football, he broke barriers along with his teammate, Marion Motley, and his head coach, Paul Brown. These three incredible men diminished the racial barriers that stood in the way of African-Americans playing football for many years.

William Karnet Willis was born October 5, 1921. His family lived in Columbus, Ohio and football became a part of his life. He played defensive for Columbus East High School and continued on in college at Ohio State University. When he graduated college, he thought playing football professionally was an impossible dream. But Paul Brown, head coach for the newly formed Cleveland Browns, encouraged him to try out for the new team.

Professional Football history was made when the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) officially signed Willis and his teammate Marion Motley to the Cleveland Browns in August of 1946. Willis played eight seasons with Cleveland, helping the team to the championships in 1950. Bill Willis retired in 1953. His legacy however will live on, his seasons with the Browns’ helped break racial boundaries. In his later career, Bill worked with the youth of Ohio. In 1977 Willis was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Willis died on November 27, 2007 at the age of 86.

Marion Motley

(1920-1999)

Marion Motley was born on June 5, 1920 and raised in Canton, Ohio. Like many influential African-Americans, Motley did not let racism stand in his way of achieving his dreams. He is credited with helping to break the racial boundaries within the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) and the National Football League (NFL).

Throughout his life football was his passion. He played in high school for Canton McKinley High School, a rival team of the Massillon Tigers, coached by the legendary Paul Brown. Motley enlisted in the Navy in 1944, and played football for the Great Lakes Blue Jackets, a military football team, coached by Paul Brown.

After World War II, Motley returned to Canton to work, where he later wrote Paul Brown, then the Head Coach for the new team in the AAFC, the Cleveland Browns, for a chance to try out. At first Brown declined but later accepted. Motley and teammate Bill Willis were both signed with the Cleveland Browns in August of 1946.

During his professional football career, Motley proved time and time again how important the game was to him. He was later traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955.  Marion Motley retired from football in 1955. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968. His dedication and determination to play the game helped him become one of the first African-Americans to play football in the AAFC and the NFL. Marion Motley died on June 27, 1999 from prostate cancer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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