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Celebrating black history in Erie

Photo By: oldtimerie.blogspot.com


Courtney Heinnickel, Staff Writer

Black History month is this month, giving everyone a chance to reflect on the history of the country and how one race changed the way of life for many. But it also allows us to reflect on the history of our city.

While many people throughout history have impacted the area, the Lawrence legacy has become very well-known throughout Erie’s history. Emma Gertrude Lawrence became the first African American female business owner in Erie when she opened Lawrence Dyeing & Cleaning business in the late 1880s. Her son, Earl E. Lawrence was one of her four children who also became well known in Erie for his accomplishments. He grew up studying music and became a very accomplished arranger and many of his arrangements were accepted commercially. He operated his own private music studio located on 11th and State Streets from 1916 to 1936. Their family legacy continues with his daughter Ada Lawrence who became the first African American teacher in Erie. She was born in 1920 and began teaching in 1946 where she worked as a teacher for 36 years at McKinley Elementary School at a salary of $1,600 per year. Ada passed away on March 14, 2014, and was buried at the Erie Cemetery.

Aside from the Lawrence Legacy, we can also look back on Leroy and Beatrice Smith. They were one of the only two African American families living in the Edinboro area during the Civil Rights movement. They are best known for having fostered 75 children during their time in Erie. Leroy also became the first African American to work in the VA Medical Center.

As far as historical buildings go, one of the most well-known buildings in Erie history became known as the Pope Hotel. The hotel was located on 1318 French Street and was one of the most important structures in Erie’s cultural history. For over 60 years, Hotel Pope was a hot spot for local African American musical culture and was owned by William and Jessie Pope. The hotel opened in 1928. Live musicians included Jackie Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Louie Jordan, and Pearle Bailey, amont others. Pope’s son, Ernie Wright, Sr., took over management responsibilities in 1933 and became the owner in 1942 after his mother’s death. Unfortunately, The Pope was bought by a local business in 1978 and was demolished.

There’s also the matter of sports history in Erie. The Pontiacs became a well-known baseball team here in Erie. The Pontiacs, first known as the St. James A.M.E. Sunday School team early in the 1930s, was a local, black baseball team who received sponsorship from Longnecker Pontiac. They later became part of the Glenwood League in Erie. One league, the Cleveland Buckeyes, had strong ties to Erie. The owner of the team was actually Ernie Wright Sr. who also owned the Pope Hotel. The Buckeyes were a powerful team and in 1945, they beat Pittsburgh’s Homestead Grays to win the Negro League World Series. Later on, baseball player Samuel Jethroe settled in Erie after his days as a professional player were over and opened Jethroe’s Steak House, located on East 18th Street. He and a number of other former Buckeye players joined the Pontiacs and created a powerhouse team.

Over the years, Erie has had a number of interesting history in many aspects of sports, people, and architecture. There are still many more interesting facts that are being discovered as well. If you are interested in more information on the different facts on Black History month, the City of Erie’s Facebook page is posting one fact each day of this month.