It seems fitting during Black History month to talk about one of the most distinguished Black residents of Youngstown, Plympton Ross Berry (usually know as P. Ross Berry, having dropped his full first name for the initial). It has been said that at one time, he was involved in building most of the buildings in downtown Youngstown. Berry was born in June 1834 (some accounts list 1835) as a free person of color in Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania. His family moved to New Castle where he was trained as a bricklayer, becoming a master bricklayer and stonemason by age 16.
One of the first projects on which he worked, in 1851, was the Lawrence County (PA) courthouse, which is still standing. A letter to the New Castle News documents his role in contributing to the architectural design of the Greek Revival facade. He married in 1858 and he, his wife, and four children came by canal boat to Youngstown in 1861.
The project that brought him to Youngstown was a contract for the brick work at the Rayen School. In short succession he received contracts for work on the second St. Columba’s Church, the Homer Hamilton foundry and machine shop on South Phelps, the new jail on Hazel Street, the First Presyterian Church, the William Hitchcock and Governor Tod homes, the first Tod House on Central Square, the Grand Opera House in what was known as the “Diamond Block,” where the Huntington Bank is now located, and the 1876 Mahoning County Courthouse at Wick and Wood. According to the research of Joseph Napier, Sr., Berry built 65 structures in the area, as well as the brickwork on many Youngstown streets.
His stature in the community was such that a number of white bricklayers worked under his direction, something very uncommon in the day. As black soldiers migrated to the Mahoning Valley after the Civil War, he also trained many of them to work as bricklayers and was responsible for founding the Brick Masons Union, Local 8. Berry own his own brick foundry and made a reddish-orange colored brick, and example of which you can see in the Rayen Building. Because of his success and prominence, he was involved in a number of philanthropic causes and helped with the founding of the St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church.
Berry is described by Howard C. Aley as a handsome man, six foot six inches in height. His wife, Mary Long, eventually bore him eight children, four boys and four girls. Several sons worked in the business and his offspring were successful doctors, attorneys, musicians, and leaders in the community.
Berry worked until age 82 and died on May 12, 1917. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. The P. Ross Berry Middle School was completed in 2006, named in his honor. The school was closed as a middle school in 2012 and now serves as the site of the Mahoning County High School.
P. Ross Berry’s story was one I had not heard until recently and is one that deserves to be much more widely known. He is one of the outstanding citizens, builders, architects, and philanthropists Youngstown has produced.
Howard C. Aley, A Heritage to Share
Joseph Napier, Sr, The P. Ross Berry Story (video)
15 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — P. Ross Berry”
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My 4x removed uncle Lemuel Augustus Stewart migrated from New Castle with Mr. Berry and assisted in the construction of many of the structures mentioned in the article. His son m, my 3x removed uncle W R Stewart was the first black man in this area to be elected to the House of Rep. @ 1890 and was instrumental in getting the Market St bridge constructed and getting police and firemens pensions in this area.
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Thank you for adding to this story! I did learn of Lemuel Stewart and the close ties between the two families. Sounds like I need to look into W.R. Stewart-his story sounds just as interesting! Thank you!
Thank you for this wonderful post. I would love to see more articles about black history in Youngstown. Not only is it a fascinating history, but the contributions to Youngstown by people of color is not known widely and rarely discussed outside of the black community. Sharing stories like this also has the much needed benefit to society of helping to break down racial barriers that still plague Ytown.
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Nick, thanks! If you have any suggestions of people, I’d love to look into their stories. It’s interesting that if you are a person of color, you already know these stories. I do hope this contributes to greater understanding as we celebrate people from all parts of Youngstown who contributed to the city.
Wonderful story! I look forward to learning more about black contributions to our area.
Thanks, Bob for this post which talks about a great man not only to this community but many, doing the research on the short film I produced was a labor of love of which I’m sure you can identify with.
I first saw a news piece on his life story many years ago at the time I thought the story did not go deep enough so I made it my cause to go deeper to walk where he walked and to stand where he stood and in doing so I managed to bring his image to life in some way.
I will never forget P.Ross Berry and the many contributions he made to our community much like what I and you are doing by documenting history.
Joseph Napier Sr.
Thank you Joseph. I would also be grateful for suggestions of others like him about whom I might write. I so appreciate your videos including the one on Berry!
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