I was in a conversation this week with someone who asked me why we should honor people in the Youngstown area who have done great things. It is a good question. Part of my response was to say that “For me, it is about more than honoring them or their memory. It is about the values they stood for that you hope to perpetuate.” That answer is part of why I write so much about Youngstown people, cultural institutions, businesses, and events that have shaped Youngstown.
We’re not a bunch of people who happened to land in a particular place that is just like other places in the U.S. Youngstown is a storied place and those who call it home are part of a 225 year old story. I happen to think part of how we make sense of our lives, what matters in them, what values shape them, is to understand the story of which we are a part and within which we live.
Yet one of the most common responses I receive to many of the articles I’ve posted in this series is, “why have I never heard about this before. I never knew that!” The reason, of course is that, with few exceptions, most of us were not taught our local history in school. I happen to think that is a great lack.
Sadly, the only local history many of us know about Youngstown are the stories of the mob, bombings, the closing of the mills, and political corruption. I would be a liar if I were to say that these aren’t part of the Youngstown story. But they are only a part. I haven’t focused much on these things because so much has been written. It also happens that in the plot of the Youngstown story, such things are only a small part of our rich story.
Yet so much that we continue to treasure in Youngstown we owe to people who put their time, skill, energy, and money into our community life. We owe our schools to people like Judge Rayen and N. H. Chaney and Paul C. Bunn. and Howard Jones. The efforts of Reuben McMillan contributed to the excellent library system of today. We have one of the most amazing museums of American art that we can visit for free because of the vision and bequest of Joseph G. Butler. Mill Creek could have become another industrial zone were it not for the vision and labors of Volney Rogers and the park leadership from then until now that stewarded this singularly beautiful place. Leaders like Charles P. Henderson showed that politics needn’t be corrupt. The Warners built an amazing theatre that the Powers family and later, the DeBartolo and York families preserved as a wonderful space for the performing arts. The Covelli Centre recognizes the efforts and investment of a contemporary restaurant entrepreneur. I could go on and on.
Local history helps us know how our city developed in the shape it did. It answers questions like “How did Brier Hill get its name and why is it so important?” What connection did the famous educator William Holmes McGuffey have with the east side of Youngstown? How did East Youngstown become Campbell? How did Salt Springs Road get its name? Why is the Wick family so important to our history? What importance did the Gibson, Zedaker, Foster, and Brownlee families have in the development of the South Side?
Local history matters because it is a story we get to help write. Among those I listed above are people from the early beginnings of Youngstown, a number from a century ago, and some who are our contemporaries. How do we write that story? The people in that history did it through hard work, integrity of character, a willingness to go out on limbs and take risks, and a stick-to-itivness. Many of them persisted twenty, thirty, forty, or even fifty years in pursuing the common good of the city. I suspect that if anything is done that lasts another one hundred years or more, it will be because of people who embrace those same values and pursue a similar course.
And this is why our local history matters. First it made us, and then we get to make it.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!