Illustrations by Imani Lateef
We celebrate Toledo’s Black history by taking a look back at some of the many influencial Toledoans who fought for civil rights through the eyes of contemporary influencers. We asked impactful locals to tell us about the historical figures who inspired them most. Along with photos courtesy of the Local History and Genealogy Department/Toledo Lucas County Public Library, here are some stories of Toledo’s Black history.
One of my favorite people and a hero of my youth was Ernie “EJ” Ernest Charles Jones Sr. He was an artist, a scholar, a mentor, and one of the best role models for generations of students at Scott High School and the City of Toledo as a whole. He was a father and husband who made people aspire to the kind of family he cultivated… and he always made us students feel like family. He’d play old Motown songs in his classroom between lessons about primary colors and nuanced hues; he’d paint and sculpt our imaginations to dream bigger…to be respectable young men and women…. to be more than the world would ever expect of us. His imprint on the arts community of Toledo and abroad has been chronicled in museums and private collections, locally and nationally. He was the loudest person in the stands cheering on his beloved Scott Bulldogs…. and on a personal note… I was always so proud to know him. He rests in heaven and his legacy lives in the very soul of the Toledo arts scene and in every Scott High School Bulldog who ever knew him.
Singer and co-host of the Full Circle podcast
Ernie Jones was not only an Artist but an educator and mentor. If you ask anyone who went to Scott High School in the 90s, they will tell you that he coined the phrase and embodied the phrase, ‘Once a bulldog, Always a bulldog.’ He injected soul into a community. I never went to Scott but was fortunate to know him and experience his art. His masterpiece was a painting of a woman on her knees scrubbing a tub. The paint was thick and undeniable. Every decision was decisive and inspired me profoundly to make marks and tell my own story through art.
Visual artist and community activist
Benjamin Durant Jr.
The one person who has inspired me the most in my life is my father, Benjamin Durant Jr. He has demonstrated great leadership to me and my siblings by becoming a significant ‘change agent’ in his life and in ours. He defied the odds and beat his own personal challenges to become a true positive role model and leader to my family. His unrelenting perseverance and commitment to self-sacrifice were the key ingredients to him making the difference that paved the way for me and my family to become who we are today.
–Dr. Romules Durant
Superintendent, Toledo Public Schools
Bishop Robert Culp
Whenever my children ask me about how my career took off, I tell them about my hard work, education, tenacity, and then I add the real story about Bishop Robert Culp, a self-described community activist, and the pastoral leader of First Church of God since the early 1960s.
In the late 1980s, while taking graduate coursework in international journalism at the City University of London, England via Michigan State University’s Overseas Study Program, a professor took an interest in my work and encouraged me to speak to the leadership of a local newspaper publication, where my professor also contributed articles.
What I didn’t know until later, was that back in America, Bishop Culp was leading other Toledo area ministers and community leaders, such as his brother Pete Culp, to pressure media outlets to hire capable African American journalists, so that their staffs would reflect diverse and inclusive practices, and employ staffing that matched Toledo’s black population percentages.
While still in England, I was hired and ended up writing for that local publication for 18 years. I credit Bishop Culp for opening my career’s door. I hope he is proud of me today, as I am now a part of the administrative team of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, where I work as the system’s first Manager of External and Governmental Affairs. I deeply believe that it was my obligation to walk through the door of opportunity that Bishop Culp had opened and laid a firm foundation.
Even during my infancy and toddler years, my parents, then college-age students, still share stories of how a young NAACP Toledo Branch president and religious leader would assist in matters of civil rights and injustice.
That person was Bishop Culp, who was then in his mid-20s. Whenever I run into the tall, angular Bishop Culp, who is always dapper in his Sunday best attire, I am filled with reflection and insight, because my heart and spirit know that he is truly a living legend. A man who has carried the torch for civil rights and navigated the often rocky terrain of injustice and inequality.
I will forever be indebted to Bishop Culp, a man who has dedicated his entire life to activism and justice in this community, and is a living testament of abiding advocacy for African Americans.
I wish you peace like a river Bishop Culp, and thank you so very much!”
–Rhonda B. Sewell
Manager, External and Governmental Affairs at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library
Jack Ford had an immeasurable impact on my life. As a middle school student I will never forget the day my mother introduced me to Rep. Ford at the Reynolds Corner Library. He looked through my eyes and into my soul and said, “if you ever need anything, call me”. After a brief conversation, he offered to take me to the State House in Columbus where I could observe the Ohio State Legislature in action. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t call him more. That is a day I often reflect back on because it changed the way I looked at myself.
From childhood I was always interested in current events, civil rights, and local history. I had seen Mr. Ford in the newspapers and on TV. I was genuinely humbled that I mattered enough as a 13 year old boy for this important man to give me his phone number. Being an awkward 13 year old, I was much more quiet and soft-spoken than I am today, I remember thinking to myself “Wow this is someone like me!”At that age I never saw myself as the loud boisterous type I had learned about through the civil rights movement, nor did I have the charisma of Bill Clinton, whom I had seen speak in downtown Toledo a year prior. In the fall of 2001 I was a junior at Rogers High School taking American Government and African American Studies. I was ecstatic to hear of the possibility of Jack Ford’s becoming the next mayor of Toledo. With great pride in realizing the historical significance of that mayoral election, I knocked on doors and passed out literature in the cold rain. I remember wearing an “Elect Jack Ford for Mayor” shirt and being told to stay away from the gymnasium to avoid breaking any election laws because I was too close to the polling place. I thought to myself “this is so cool”. That is when I first realized I had caught the political fever.
In college I went on to get involved in Student Government, become President of the University of Toledo College Democrats and I joined Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. the first black fraternity founded on a historically black college campus. All to do my best to follow in the footsteps of Jack Ford. Today I try to keep Jack Ford’s Legacy alive by advocating for substance abuse rehabilitation for those suffering from the disease of addiction as opposed to mass incarceration and promoting healthcare for all especially the most vulnerable in our community.
In 2016 I formed LEAD (Leadership Education & Ambition Development) Toledo. The objective of the LEAD Toledo program is to engage and equip young people with the tools and the connections to be the next generation of leaders. One aspect of the LEAD Toledo program is to give students the opportunity to meet and engage with local leaders, just as I did with Jack Ford, with the hope to inspire them to influence their community for the better. I am grateful and humbled to have had Jack Ford, one of the most influential Black men in the history of Toledo, personally influence my life. I hope to recreate that same experience for the next generation of leaders.
Political activist and community organizer
Much of Toledo’s Black history has been made known through the Toledo Public Library’s Edrene Cole Collection, an oral history of Lucas County African American history that documents residents born and raised before 1960. The information was first collected in the late Edrene’s 1972 University of Toledo master’s thesis, “Blacks in Toledo,” and was carried on by Lillian Ashcraft-Eason, director of Africana Studies at Bowling Green State University, as well as other historians.
In 1982, Elizabeth “Liz” Pearson established the all-volunteer program, the Toledo Neighborhood Block Watch. A partnership between citizens, city services, community organizations, and the Toledo Police Department. During the foundation, Pearson’s vision was to create a union between the police department and the people that they serve. As of 2018, the Toledo Block Watch has improved the lives of locals for 36 years and manages with hundreds of participants under almost 80 leaders managing eight sectors of Toledo.
Ella P. Stewart
In 1922, one of America’s first Black female pharmacists, Ella Nora Phillips Stewart, moved to Toledo with her husband, William Wyatt Stewart, another young Black pharmacist, to open their own pharmacy, the Ella P. and William Stewart Pharmacy. Located in the Pinewood district— where two thirds of Toledo’s Black population lived by the end of the 1920s— the young couple owned and occupied the building and hosted prominent figures from out of town, including W.E.B. Du Bois.
The first Black woman to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy in 1916, Ella P. Stewart was the first Black woman to be a pharmacist in the state of Pennsylvania and owned and operated a few businesses before moving to Toledo. Once settled, the Stewarts became major figures in the city and spoke out against segregation, discrimination, and racist stereotypes as a member of community groups, including the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Enterprise Charity Club, a social-service organization run by African-American women.