Sharing black history
Marsha Smiley has turned her love of history into a permanent collection for the people of Fort Wayne.
The Marsha Smiley African-American Collection is part of the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy website, a tribute to the contributions of the black community of northeast Indiana.
“I have loved history since I was a child,” Smiley said.
Describing herself as a child of the 1960s and ’70s, Smiley said she witnessed the unfolding of the civil rights movement and the doors that opened to black men and women. The online collection captures moments and the people who lived them along the way.
The collection began, she said, when her uncle gave her five boxes of funeral programs that his mother had saved throughout her life. The memorial programs chronicled the lives of the famous and not-so-famous among the black community in this region.
While serving on the board of directors of the African-African American Historical Society with Curt Witcher, manager for the Genealogy Center, Smiley began a conversation about what to do with these snippets of history.
“It started small as most good things do,” said Witcher, recalling the collection of memorial programs. “We wondered how we could share the information they contained.”
Witcher and Smiley decided that scanning the programs and saving them in digitized form would be best. That way the information would be available to people beyond the local area, and Smiley could retain the original copies. The collection was created in 2011.
From the memorial programs, Smiley began to add newspaper and magazine stories about local members of the black community, their fraternal organizations and their projects and programs.
A section called “Crossing Opportunity’s Threshold” pays tribute to the community’s “trailblazers and pioneers,” Smiley explained. Individuals profiled are listed alphabetically, with a brief description of their accomplishments.
“There is Mr. Ridley who was the first black firefighter in Fort Wayne, along with other black firsts who did significant work in the community,” Smiley said.
Stories range from pioneers like Jesse Williams and his sons who operated the first black-owned barbershop in Fort Wayne, to more well-known people like Charles B. Redd, civil rights leader and community activist, and Dr. Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools.
Smiley pointed to the story of Edna Roland Williams, who was the first black employee of the Allen County Welfare Department. Williams’ father worked his way from a janitor at Bass Foundry in Fort Wayne to a foreman, learning how to read and write from his children as they progressed through school in the early part of the 20th century.
Williams graduated from high school in 1925 and earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Teachers Normal School, now Indiana State University. Because of segregation in the schools, Williams could not find a teaching job locally. However, she went to work for the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center’s “Girl Reserve Program” helping young black women find employment. Later, she was hired by the Allen County Welfare Department as a case worker handling “colored cases.”
Among those included in the Crossing Opportunity’s Threshold stories is the Cannady family who were among the earliest settlers of Allen County, arriving in the 1820s as youths and settling here permanently in the 1840s. Henry and his wife, Caroline, lived at the corner of Hanna and Lewis streets and were among the founding members of Turner Chapel, one of the early black churches.
The collection also includes information about fraternal organizations and other groups such as the Zonta Club of Fort Wayne.
Smiley noted the “Publications” section of the website includes stories of life experiences from early black settlers in northeast Indiana to a speech given by her grandfather Scott V. Mitchell about national politics in the United States from the 1920s to the 1950s.
“There is also a story by Dr. Ruth Simmons, the first African-American president of an Ivy League college, Brown (in Rhode Island). She wrote a famous essay on ‘civility’ after being asked constantly on campus, ‘How can you be president?’” Smiley said.
“For you see, she was from a very humble background with parents who had been sharecroppers.”
The collection includes materials from the Spirit Flight youth workshops program that Smiley founded in 1999. The program weaves highlights of black history with character-building, an effort dear to Smiley and her husband, Ephraim, who have created a number of programs in the community to encourage and empower youth.
Smiley, who has worked at the Fort Wayne Boys & Girls Club since 2002, said the entire collection is a work in progress. “This is mainly about preserving our stories,” Smiley said. “Black people have excelled in every human endeavor. It’s important to save our family stories for future generations.”
She encourages those who have written materials and memorial programs from funerals to contact the Allen County Public Library about scanning them to add to the collection. Residents can find the collection at www.genealogycenter.info/search_marshasmiley.php.
“Please be assured that the ACPL staff does not keep any of your material. It is copied for preservation purposes and then returned to its owner,” she said.
Donors also receive a DVD of the materials they have donated. Smiley added that if a person is not comfortable taking materials to the library, she will accept scanned copies at email@example.com.
Witcher said the library is committed to adding to and improving the collection and making the website easier to navigate.
“We’re honored to be a part of this project,” he said. “We want to show the importance of the African-American contributions to this area.”