Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — P. Ross Berry

68-41-1 P Ross Berry sepia

P. Ross Berry, Courtesy of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society

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.

Sources:

Howard C. Aley, A Heritage to Share

All Things Youngstown

New Castle News

Mahoning Valley History

Joseph Napier, Sr, The P. Ross Berry Story (video)

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Rev. Lonnie K. A. Simon

Reverend Lonnie A. Simon

Reverend Lonnie K. A. Simon in his office. Source unknown, accessed from Delta Heritage Project at YSU Digital Archives

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.