Evelyn Poole Stewart McNeil, 1918-1992

Evelyn Poole Stewart McNeil, a professional photographer, captured the history of the African-American community of Akron on film.

She was born Evelyn Poole in Memphis, Tenn., in 1918. She moved to Akron with her family, which included a brother George and two sisters Clara and Wilma. Little is known about her early education. For a time she worked for the Cleveland Call and Post, the African-American weekly newspaper, as a reporter and photographer covering Akron.

Sometime during the 1940s, she met Horace Stewart, an immigrant from British Guyana. Stewart was a photographer who ran a studio on North Howard Street. Poole and Stewart married in 1950 and together ran the Stewart Photographic Studio. The Stewarts specialized in photographing the African-American community. The two photographed the African-American leaders in the city, the special events and everyday life in the community. After her husband died in 1968, Stewart continued to run the studio, finally retiring in 1978.

Evelyn Stewart remarried Dr. Noah McNeil. Evelyn Poole Stewart McNeil died in Akron on Jan.7, 1992. She was a member of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.Her collection of photographs which documented the Akron’s African-American community was donated to The University of Akron. Evelyn Poole Stewart McNeil is buried in Northlawn Cemetery.

Photo courtesy of the Beacon Journal. Card courtesy of The University of Akron Archives.

–Kathleen L. Endres

Jean Hixson, 1922-1984

Akron school teacher Jean Hixson could have been America’s first person in space if NASA had just listened to reason. Instead, fellow Ohioan John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962.

Hixson — or some other woman of the so-called “Mercury 13″ — should have gotten the nod. Common sense dictated the choice of a woman instead of a man. Studies showed that women could handle heat better, could better stand the mental and physical strain, were less prone to heart attacks — and were less expensive to send into space (they weighed less, and required less oxygen and food). Instead, NASA bowed to popular sentiment and banished Hixson and the 12 other women from the space program.

Hixson saw that as enormous waste. In 1973, she told an Akron Beacon Journal reporter, “I think they (NASA) should send up the person who can bring back the best and most information. It’s a great waste of our country’s mentality the way women are weighted away from this area because of what people think.”

Hixson never really fit into what people thought women should be doing in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s or 1960s.

Born in Hoopeston, Ill., Hixson always wanted to fly. She started flight lessons when she was 16 and earned her pilot’s license when she was 18. During World War II, Hixson trained with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in Sweetwater, Texas, and flew the B-25 twin-engine bomber as an engineering air force pilot. She also ferried planes between manufacturers and Air Force bases.

After the war — and the WASP was disbanded, Hixson was offered a chance to join the Air Force Reserves as a non-flying second lieutenant assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton; but Hixson continued to fly. In 1957, she became the second woman to break the sound barrier — over Lake Erie.

Even as she continued as an officer in the Air Force Reserve, Hixson started another career. She returned to school, The University of Akron, to get her teaching degree. She specialized in mathematics and science and learned a second language — Russian. Hixson became a third grade teacher in Akron’s public schools, teaching at Crouse, Seiberling and Erie Island elementaries. She also gave astronomy lessons at Firestone High School. Hixson’s name was always associated with aviation. Although she was teaching in Akron’s public schools, Hixson was also participating in transcontinental races and piloting helicopters, hot-air balloons and even the Goodyear blimp. It was little wonder that Hixson became known as the “supersonic schoolmarm.”

It was also little wonder that she would be invited to be a part of an experiment. In 1960, she was invited to participate in a battery of tests to assess women’s fitness as potential astronauts. In summer 1961, Hixson went to Albuquerque, N.M., for a series of astronaut tests, the same tests that John Glenn and the male astronauts had endured.

From all accounts, Hixson passed all the tests and, indeed, was judged by her peers as the “best of the crew.” Had she been allowed to continue, no doubt she would have received enormous publicity from the Beacon Journal‘s aviation expert, nationally known writer Helen Waterhouse. But even Waterhouse could not save the appointment when NASA denied all plans to send women into space, a stance supported by astronaut-in-training John Glenn. “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized….It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order,” Glenn told a congressional hearing.

Hixson was out. She returned to Akron where she returned to her work as a school teacher, flight instructor and Air Force Reserves officer.

Jean Hixson died in Akron in 1984, shortly after the first woman, Sally Ride, went up into space.


–Kathleen L. Endres

Harriet Beckwith Wilson Ayers, 1890-1978

Harriet Wilson Ayers was known for her work in both the business and social/civic worlds of Akron, Ohio.

Harriet Beckwith was born in Akron in 1890 and attended Henry School. After graduating from Central High School, she spent two years at the Akron Normal School. She then taught kindergarten for a year at Fraunfelter School. In 1911, she married Ralph Wilson, who was the president of the Wilson Lumber Company, which later became the Portage Lumber Company.

They had one daughter, Nancy, and two sons, Ralph and Robert. They were members of the First Baptist Church.

Upon her husband’s death in 1932, she assumed the responsibility of running the lumber company. She continued to do so until 1954. That year, she turned the company over to her son so she could start a new career as an insurance underwriter. She also remarried, to Allan F. Ayers, who had one son, Allan Jr.

Not only was Wilson running the lumber company, but she also spent some time working for the Charles Slusser Insurance Company and the Eagle Printing Company. In 1956, she was named Woman of Achievement, an award given to a business or professional woman who is outstanding in both the community and in public service fields.

According to the Beacon Journal, “despite the 15 years she has spent in business, doing a job that would require the best efforts of a man, Harriet is just as fond as feminine activities as she ever was.” This included maintaining ties to the many organizations she helped to found.

She was a charter member of the Women’s City Club, the Akron Art Institute and the Manuscript Club. She was the founder of the Zonta International Women’s Service Group, the Inter-Club Council of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs and the Business Woman’s Current Events Club. Wilson also adopted leadership roles in many of those organizations. She was the first chairman, sponsor, organizer and honorary president of the City Club’s Little Theater Section, a president and member of the board of directors of the City Club, honorary and three-year president of the Business Women’s Current Events Club, secretary and organizer of the Akron Symphony Orchestra and first secretary of the Women’s Section of the National Aeronautics Association. She was a secretary of the Volunteer Committee for the Preservation of Stan Hywet, a vice president of the Home and School League, a member of the board of the Children’s Concert Society, and a member of the board of directors of the International Center. She was also involved in the Men’s City Club, through her business relations, and a member of the Women’s Committee of the Greater Akron Music Association.

As a member of the First Baptist Church, she was president of the Young Ladies Circle. She later changed churches and became an active member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

The Beacon Journal article concluded, “Mrs. Harriet Beckwith Wilson offers further proof – not that any is needed – that a woman can successfully take a man’s place in the business world.” She was a “gracious woman,” with an “infectious laugh…who hates snobbery and has none of it in her makeup.”

She continued her involvement in Akron organizations up until her July 4, 1978 death.

Photo courtesy of the Beacon Journal.

–Stephanie Devers

Helen Stocking Waterhouse, 1892-1965

Helen Stocking Waterhouse was the “most controversial newspaperwoman in Akron history,” Beacon JournalManaging Editor Murray Powers wrote. Waterhouse could be abrasive and inaccurate but she also had great sources, enormous energy and enthusiasm and an eye for a story, he observed. Over her almost 40 years with the Beacon Journal, she wrote many front page stories.

She was born Helen Stocking on May 31, 1892 in Watertown, Mass. She was educated in the Watertown schools and then went on to Boston Normal School and Fenway School of Illustration. She started her newspaper career in Massachusetts for the Springfield Union.

She moved to Akron with her husband, Ralph, and two children in the mid 1920s. Ralph Waterhouse would go on to be superintendent of Akron schools from 1934 to 1942. He would also divorce his journalist wife in 1940 on the grounds of neglect.

In Akron, Waterhouse started her journalism career as a freelance writer for the Beacon Journal in the mid 1920s. Freelance writers are paid by the story. By 1928, Waterhouse was selling so many stories to the Beacon,she was making more than many staff reporters. John S. Knight, publisher of the newspaper, hired Waterhouse full-time as a way to save money.

It turned out to be great timing because Waterhouse was going to cover some of the most important stories of the 1930s. An aviation enthusiast (Waterhouse was the first woman aviation writer in the nation), she was friends with most of the early pilots in the nation – Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post and Col. Charles Lindbergh. It was her connection with Lindbergh that probably explained why the Beacon sent Waterhouse to cover the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, accused of kidnapping and killing the aviator’s son. In 1935, she was competing with the likes of reporting legends Walter Winchell, Lowell Thomas and Dorothy Kilgallen. But she scooped them all when she got the only interview with the accused kidnapper. Winchell didn’t care for Waterhouse, dismissing her as the “Akron disaster.” Waterhouse also covered the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, N.Y., in 1937.

But her stories in those early days didn’t just involve aviation. She interviewed some of the most important personalities of the day, including first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. During World War II, she was best known for her profiles of the Akron boys killed in action.

After the war, she concentrated on international reporting from France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia. It was her time in Yugoslavia that won her two invited audiences with Pope Pius XII at the Vatican. She also covered stories in Israel, Korea, Japan and Russia. She covered the Indo-China war in 1954 and went to Castro’s Cuba in 1960.

But it was the stories that she wrote about Akron and its residents that made her a favorite with Beacon readers. She was the “queen bee” of the Soap Box Derby. She wrote stories about tragedies and human triumphs.

Waterhouse was a member of the National Aviation Writers Association and the Overseas Press Club. She founded the Ohio Press Women’s Association.

She won many awards during her long career. In 1940, 1941 and 1943, she won TWA’s award for best newspaper work in aviation. She won 15 awards from the National Press Women’s organization. That group named her Press Woman of Achievement in 1957 and 1958 and Woman of the Year in 1963.

In 1965, Waterhouse herself became front page news. On her way to a story, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while driving on West Exchange Street in Akron. Her car slammed into a light pole and Waterhouse died.

Her funeral was packed with readers, editors, reporters and sources (including Dr. Sam Sheppard, who had been convicted of killing his wife in Bay Village). The Beacon‘s publisher, editor, managing editor, copy editor, editorial page editor and sports editor served as pall bearers.

Waterhouse is buried in Watertown, Mass.

Photo courtesy of the Beacon Journal.

–Kathleen L. Endres

Bertha V. Moore, 1896-1980

Bertha V. Moore started the Tea Time Study Club to increase the political leverage of African Americans in the city. She named the club after the Boston Tea Party because, she emphasized, “we were revolutionaries” – revolutionaries who knew how to work the system.

Tea Time members were busiest during the political campaigns. They tried to get local candidates to support the group’s aims – improved accommodations and job opportunities for African Americans. The club sponsored forums, inviting candidates to appear and learn about the community’s concerns. It also supervised the city’s Emancipation Day Program, which celebrated President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves.

Moore came up from the South in 1922. She went to school in segregated Alabama and received her teaching degree from the historically Black Selma University, Selma, Ala. Prior to moving to Akron, Moore taught in the segregated schools of the Alabama.

In 1922, the Akron Public Schools had no African-American teachers. Years would pass before any were hired. Moore began teaching adults how to read and write through the adult literacy program of the Works Projects Administration in the early 1930s.

Photo courtesy of the Women’s History Project of the Akron Area.

–Kathleen L. Endres

 

Ruth McKenney, 1911-1972

Ruth McKenney, one-time Akron Beacon Journal reporter, is best known for her best-selling book, My Sister Eileen. Old-time Akronites, however, remember her for herIndustrial Valley, a book that described the struggle between industrialists and workers in Akron during the 1930s.

Born in Michawaka, Ind., McKenney grew up in East Cleveland, graduating from Shaw High School. At age 14, while working as a printer’s devil, she got her first union card as a member of the International Typographical Union. From there, she was off to Ohio State University. She majored in Journalism and worked part time for theColumbus Citizen and International News Service but she never graduated from college. Instead, she lined up a job with the Beacon Journal. Actually, it was OSU classmate Earl Wilson who suggested the plan.

McKenney was a popular writer at the Beacon Journal. She and Akron just meshed. There was something about the city and its residents she understood. A Beacon Journalreporter called it a “deep sympathy for those she considered downtrodden.”

The readers loved her and her stories – and honors followed. In both 1933 and 1934, the Ohio Newspaper Women’s Association (ONWA) called her the best in the state. As one colleague recalled, “Ruth, whose stories have brought wayward and wandering husbands back to their wives, saved poor children’s dogs from death in the dog pound, and caused food and dollars to find their way into charity baskets…” was a fine writer.

In 1934, however, she walked away from the Beacon to join the staff of the Newark Ledger in New Jersey. But that didn’t last long. McKenney was about to move to New York City and start a new phase of her career.

In New York City, McKenney worked on her book on the union strife in Akron and sold humorous sketches about the adventures of her sister Eileen to the New Yorkermagazine. In 1938, those stories were woven into the tremendously popular book, My Sister Eileen. Subsequently, the book was turned into a Broadway play.

In 1939 Industrial Valley came out to an outcry from Akron community leaders. Akron evangelist Bill Denton urged the Chamber of Commerce to file suit in the federal court, saying the book was full of “profanity, slander and communistic tendencies.” That same year, the book won an honorable mention in the non-fiction category at the American Writer’s Congress.

McKenney’s other books came in quick succession: The McKenney’s Carry On (1940); Jake Home (1943); The Loud Red Patrick (1947); Love Story (1950); Here’s England; a Highly Informal Guide (with husband Richard Branstein) (1951); All About Eileen (1952); Far, Far From Home (1954) and Mirage (1956).

While achieving tremendous professional success, McKenney experienced a personal life of tragedy. She married Richard Bransten, who wrote under the pen name Bruce Minton, in 1938. Both became Communists. They were ousted from the Communist Party in 1946. The Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker, accused the couple of “conducting a factional struggle against the line of the party and its national leadership.” Just before “My Sister Eileen” opened on Broadway, Ruth’s sister was killed in an automobile accident. Bransten committed suicide in London in 1965.

McKenney moved back to New York City after that. She died there on July 27, 1972. She left a son and daughter and a body of literature and journalism behind.

 

Photo courtesy of the Beacon Journal.

–Kathleen L. Endres

Mabel Cramer Kruse, 1887-1973

Mabel Cramer Kruse made history in Akron in 1939 when she became the city’s first policewoman under Civil Service. She remained on the force until 1952.

Mabel Cramer was born in New Lyme, Ohio. At first, she thought she wanted to be a nurse and worked at Cleveland’s Lakeside Hospital. In 1908, she married Arthur D. Kruse, a violin teacher, and she temporarily “retired” from working outside the home. However, her husband’s health failed and she needed to look for outside employment.

Her first job was as a relief matron at the city workhouse. Nonetheless, she continued her volunteer work. She served as president of the Henry School PTA; in 1935, she was elected president of Ohio Women’s Republican Club.

It was that later office that positioned her for a spot on the police department. In 1936 the Akron Republican Executive Committee asked her if she would like to be a policewoman. She said yes and served for two years as a police officer. Then the Civil Service system came in. In 1939, she was officially appointed a policewoman under Police Chief Frank Boss.

Over her 16 years on the force, Kruse was assigned to the vice unit and did general police work. At the time of her retirement, she was a detective. Under her vice assignment, she patrolled night spots in search of wayward youth. She attributed juvenile delinquency to “laxity” in the home. As she told the Beacon Journal, “Most of the children I find in these places are here for the same reason. They’re seeking diversion from constant unhappiness at home.”

By 1941, she was given the responsibility of investigations concerning women and girls. That was no easy task. More than once she had to dodge swings as she accompanied women prisoners to court. Nonetheless, Kruse seldom carried a gun.

Kruse was only 51 when she turned in her badge. She reported that 16 years on the force was enough.

Kruse died in 1973. Her obituary reported that she had been a member of the First Methodist Church, Fraternal Order of Police, the Republican Club and an honorary member of the Community Welfare Association. She had four sons.

–Kathleen L. Endres

Salaria Kea O’Reilly, 1917-1990

Salaria Kea O’Reilly fought many battles in her life. Growing up in Akron in the 1920s, she faced racial discrimination. In the 1930s and 1940s, as a nurse, she fought the powers of Fascism.

Salaria Kea came to Akron with her mother and two brothers when she was just six months old. Her father was dead.

If the Keas thought that Akron would be an ideal living environment, they were soon proved wrong. Salaria Kea faced discrimination every day. When she wanted to learn to swim, she had to go to Lorain to learn; African Americans were not allowed to swim in Akron pools. Kea wasn’t allowed to play basketball at the high school she attended, Central, so she transferred to West where African Americans could participate in athletics.

While still at West, she worked in the office of Dr. Bedford Riddle, a successful African-American physician in the city. It was there she committed to a career in medicine.

Kea went to the Harlem Hospital Training School in New York City to become a nurse. While there, she came into contact with a politically active African-American community. In 1935 when Fascist Italy invaded Ethopia, these leaders organized a United Aid for Ethopia Committee to send much needed food and medical supplies to that country. Kea, a nurse at Harlem Hospital, initiated a fund-raising drive that sent a 75-bed hospital to Ethopia.

In 1936 when General Francisco Franco, supported by the Nazis in Germany, moved to overthrow the Spanish Republic, some Americans protested. A few politically concerned doctors in New York City organized the American Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy to raise funds to send medical supplies and personnel to Spain. The fundraising was easy. It was far more difficult to recruit the medical personnel to go to Spain.

At about this time, Kea offered her services to the Red Cross to help flood victims in Ohio, but the Red Cross declined the offer. Kea remembered, “the color of my skin could make more trouble than I’d be worth for them” (Peter Carroll, Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, p. 69). When a friend heard that story, she suggested that Kea go to Spain instead; Kea followed that suggestion. She was the only African-American woman to join Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group of young American volunteers who went to Spain to work for the Republic.

While in Spain, she met American poet Langston Hughes who described her as a “slender chocolate-colored girl,” who worked as a nurse in the American Hospital under very primitive conditions. The plumbing often did not work in the hospital and she and the other nurses had to use non-conventional methods to provide the medical care the patients needed. Hughes reported that a physican ordered that a wounded soldier be warmed by using hot-water bags. But there was no hot water to be had and the diluted kerosene would not light. Kea went to the kitchen and filled the water bags with hot soup and kept the wounded soldier alive (Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey, pp. 380-382).

While in Spain, Kea was captured by Franco’s forces. In a 1979 interview with the Beacon Journal, Kea remembered, “Every morning at 4 a.m., the Germans with swastikas would come down and get me” and bring her above ground so she could witness the massacre of civilians. Seven weeks later, Kea escaped, returning to the American Medical Unit. She had to return to the United States, however, when she was wounded while working in a field hospital.

During World War II, Kea volunteered to work as a nurse with the U.S. Army in Europe. After the war, she and her Irish husband John P. O’Reilly lived in New York before returning to Akron in the mid-1970s. Salaria Kea O’Reilly died in May 1990.

Photo courtesy of Women’s History Project of the Akron Area.

–Kathleen L. Endres

Sophia Harter, 1887 – 1954

Sophia Harter, progressive thinker and liberal, worked diligently to serve the underprivileged and handicapped in Summit County and Ohio.

Harter, who was born in Wadsworth, Ohio, received her early schooling in Akron and later attended business college there. Her husband George Harter had been mayor of Akron from 1942-1943 and later served in the Ohio Legislature. Because of this, Harter developed an interest in politics and would accompany her blind husband, acting as his guide. As a result, she became as well known as he was and it was no surprise that she announced her intent to run for state legislature.

During her one term in office (1948-1949), Harter used her knowledge of Ohio tax structures to propose a revision in Ohio’s state laws. She also favored a uniform real estate tax and called for the redistricting of Ohio’s congressional districts. Her other interests included low-income public housing, city development and better unemployment compensation.

Harter was a member of the Democratic Women’s Federation, the Women of the Moose and the Eagles Auxiliary. She participated in Catholic Daughters and was a member of the Altar Society of St. Vincent Church in Akron. Because she lost a son in World War II, she was also a WWII Gold Star Mother.

Photo courtesy of the Beacon Journal.

–Penny Fox

Marion Voris, 1892-1973

Marion Voris came from a family whose name was often associated with the history of Akron. Marion Voris carried on many of the family traditions. She attended Buchtel College (now The University of Akron), just like her mother, Elizabeth Voris. She was a member of the Pan Hellenic Association, like her mother. She became a teacher, like her mother.

Marion Voris was born in Akron in 1893. When Voris graduated from Buchtel College in 1914, she sought employment. The following year, she became a teacher at Central High School and taught there for the next 40 years, retiring in 1955.

She also got involved in the College Club of Akron, an organization of college-educated women in the city. In 1919, she served on the organization’s membership committee. Besides being a place where college-educated women could get together and socialize, the College Club also brought well-known speakers such as poet Alfred Noyes and novelist Baroness Von Suttner to Akron. In addition, Voris served as a charter member of Akron’s Women’s City Club.

Voris was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church. She died in 1974 at the age of 81.

Photo courtesy of the Beacon Journal.

–Jennifer Petric