In Early 1900s, Ohio Was State of Hope and Opportunity for Many Black Families

Morrell Fonfield, left, holds a photo of their grandmother Florence Allen, while her sister, Ruby Hill, holds a photo of their father, Wilson Allen, in Mrs. Hill’s Toledo home. THE BLADE/LORI KING
Morrell Fonfield, left, holds a photo of their grandmother Florence Allen, while her sister, Ruby Hill, holds a photo of their father, Wilson Allen, in Mrs. Hill’s Toledo home.
THE BLADE/LORI KING

Ruby Hill and Morrell Fonfield were very young and still new to Toledo when their father, Wilson Allen, took them and their brothers to visit the old Toledo Trust bank where he worked as a janitor.

It was an experience the family might never have known had they remained sharecroppers in Oxford, Miss.

Their mother, Ematha (Grussie) Ramey Allen, dressed up her children for the trip where they saw the bank vault, saw how money was handled, and where they were introduced to the guards, tellers, and the president. As if it was only recently, Mrs. Hill recalls what the vice president, whom she recalls was Roy Kraft, said to her father that turned out to be prophetic.

“[He] said, ‘Wilson, I saw you had your children. I tell you Wilson, tell your children to get an education because the day’s coming when there will be a black president and black tellers,’ ” Mrs. Hill said, adding that was difficult to grasp in an era when black Americans had limited access to opportunities. “Can you imagine seeing something like that back in that day?”

After the bank visit, the Allen children had an experience that black and white Toledo children of all ages once shared.

“Then [our father] would take us to Tiedtke’s and we’d get malts or hamburgers,” said Mrs. Hill, 83, who lives with her sister, Mrs. Fonfield, 84. “And yes, I remember the cheese; cheese and hard rolls were the first thing you saw.”

The early 20th century racial environment for black families wasn’t completely welcoming north of the Mason-Dixon line, but it was better than life in the South, which was why the Allens and thousands of other African-Americans made the trek North.

Earlene Gilbert did not come to Ohio during the Great Migration, and has only lived in Toledo for a few years. However, she remembers the impact the migration had on her Montezuma, Ga., school, where her eighth grade class started with 40 youngsters.

“Four years later we had 11 seniors. When the boys got big enough, they would migrate,” said Mrs. Gilbert, who graduated from what was then Tuskegee Institute and went into the Air Force as a second lieutenant. “When we got to graduation, there were four boys and seven girls left in the class.”

Mrs. Gilbert, 79, described the migration as a system in which some who had already migrated North would take others back with them after visiting the South.

“They would come back and show off their new cars and new shoes and stimulate some more to go back,” said Mrs. Gilbert, who has lived all over the country because her late husband, Charles W. Gilbert, traveled for his job as an assistant regional commissioner for the Internal Revenue Service. He never migrated North.

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SOURCE: Toledo Blade
Rose Russell