As I look over the posts in this series, one of the things I’ve realized is that it is a pretty White account of working class Youngstown. The truth is, that is where I grew up. The West Side was among the least integrated parts of the city. As I’ve worked on these posts, one thing I’ve become aware of is how much Blacks contributed to the working class history of Youngstown. In the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North, Youngstown was one of the destinations, particularly in the war years of the 1940’s as they filled jobs in the steel industry.
The purpose of these posts has not been to argue about things like politics, race, unions, sports, or religion, but to explore something of Youngstown’s distinctive history through the lens (in many cases) of my own early years in the city. My own thought is that to remember who we were helps us understand better who we are and what we bring as we move into the future.
One of the figures I remember who played a significant role in the Black community in Youngstown during the years I was growing up was the Reverend Lonnie K. A. Simon. Rev. Simon was born in East Mulga, Alabama March 23, 1925. His family moved to southwest Pennsylvania where his father worked in the coal mines. His father also pastored a church. In 1946, after serving in the Navy during the war, he moved to Youngstown to work at U. S. Steel while working his way through Youngstown College, majoring in Philosophy and Religion. It was during this time, in 1951 that he heard a call to the ministry. He began working for the Post Office (where federal laws better protected minorities) in 1955. In 1954, he accepted a call to Elizabeth Baptist Church in Youngstown., where he served for five years followed by two year at a church in Canton before returning, in 1962 to accept a call to New Bethel Baptist Church, where he served until retirement in 1995. He resigned from his position with the Post Office in 1965 to devote his full time to the ministry of this growing church. The church moved into larger facilities on Hillman, purchasing their building from Highway Tabernacle which eventually re-located to Austintown.
It was during this time that the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr rose to prominence. Reverend Simon marched as one of the chant leaders in the March on Montgomery with Dr. King in 1965. In 1968, rioting occurred in Youngstown after the assassination of Dr. King. The causes of the riots have long been disputed (something we won’t do here) but Reverend Simon was firmly committed to Dr. King’s principles of peaceful advocacy and helped restore peace in the community while advocating for civil rights. He paid heavily for his advocacy, facing personal threats, and in October 1972, in typical Youngstown fashion, had a car bomb explode in front of his home.
In an interview for Youngstown State University’s Oral History Program, conducted by Michael Beverly, Reverend Simon described his “conversion” to advocacy work:
A lot of us pastors went to Montgomery and we participated in the Montgomery March. But it wasn’t until 1967 when I went to Chicago and was given a grant by the Ford Foundation to attend the Urban Training Center; we had to deal with urban problems and social problems in depth. This is what I have come to call a new conversion experience, where I felt that my role as a pastor was not just behind the pulpit, it wasn’t all preaching. Prior to that time the traditional pastor was always taught to tell your people to be patient, and wait on the Lord and pray, and things would turn out all right. But I discovered while I was going through urban training that unless you got up off your knees and started doing something, challenging the institution nothing would happen.
He served on the Youngstown Board of Education from 1972 to 1975 and attended my Chaney High School commencement. He was appointed to the Governor’s Commission on Socially Disadvantaged Black Males of Ohio, and received the National Leadership Award in Denver in 1991. He served in a number of church leadership roles and made several mission trips to Africa, including one to the All-Africa Council of Churches where he met Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
He retired from the pastorate in 1995, becoming Pastor Emeritus. His son, Kenneth, continues to lead the church. His office in the church has been preserved as a memorial and an archive, and the church hosts an annual dinner that honors and raises funds to continue to extend its legacy.
Reverend Lonnie K. A. Simon was both a spiritual and a community leader who gave crucial leadership in Youngstown at a racially volatile period of our history. Like many in Youngstown, his father worked in coal mines and he worked in steel mills before his call to ministry. The character of his leadership is evident in the enduring presence of the church he pastored and a son who is carrying on that work. He pursued peace, but not at the expense of justice nor without personal risk. He is among the many through Youngstown’s history whose presence and leadership made a difference.