It’s not widely known that the Akron Council of Negro Women has provided more than $82,000 in scholarship money to University of Akron students since 1982.
The organization has been around since the 1930s with one main goal: to help young people.
The founder of the group, Mary Eagle, felt the need to start an organization to help improve teacher-student relationships involving black students.
Eagle was walking near Akron’s Bryan Elementary School — a former building on Glenwood Avenue — and noticed a teacher hugging each child as she called out a name. But when she called a black girl, the teacher extended her hand and gave the student a handshake rather than a hug.
“The incident disturbed Mrs. Eagle, so she went home and made phone calls to her friends to discuss it,” said Maxine Blake, the current president of the council. “The women decided to form a neighborhood club to work with the schools to establish better relations between white teachers and black students. They adopted the theme, ‘Lifting as we climb.’ Today we would interpret that to mean, ‘Know thyself, learn more and climb higher.’ ”
That was in 1932.
Blake said the concept grew and 20 neighborhood clubs were started in areas where there were large concentrations of black children. There were neighborhood clubs in Akron, Barberton and Twinsburg.
A parent group was formed to bring about cohesiveness in carrying out the program under one umbrella. It was named the Council of Negro Women.
The organization also addressed housing for young women attending college or working in Akron. In 1941, the council purchased a house at 369 Wooster Ave. for young women to live.
“This facility was to be a home away from home for black women who were working or going to school in Akron,” Blake said. “They had curfews and house mothers — just like a dormitory.”
The women weren’t allowed to stay in hotels or school campuses because of segregation. The only black-owned hotel, Matthews Hotel, was for out-of-town stays, and not affordable for long-term accommodations.
Mary Streeter lived in the house for three or four years. She moved north, leaving the cotton fields of Alabama to work in a rubber factory. It was during World War II. She was in her 20s.
“It was a big rooming house with all the beds on the second floor, two beds to a room. We paid $3 a week,” said Streeter, who is now 90 years old. “Only unmarried women were allowed to live there, no men, no boyfriends, nothing like that. We had a midnight curfew. If you weren’t in your rooms by that time, you were reported to the members of council and they could kick you out. We had house mothers there just like a dorm house.”
She said the housing was a blessing.
“It was a good idea. We didn’t have any family in Akron and didn’t have any hotels to go to, so we wouldn’t have had a place to stay,” Streeter said. “We enjoyed it. They made a home for us. We all stayed there until the war was over. I moved out when I got married.”
In the early 1970s when the city’s urban renewal project wiped out much of Wooster Avenue, the city purchased the Wooster Avenue home for $17,648. The council used the money to set up an educational endowment at the University of Akron.
The success of the program brought attention from others, including educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeon Bethune (best known for starting a school for African-American students in Daytona Beach, Fla., that eventually became Bethune-Cookman University, and for being an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt).
Bethune came to Akron to learn more about the group and was so impressed she came a second time and then patterned a national group after the Council of Negro Women. Bethune then founded the National Council of Negro Women in New York City in 1935, bringing together 28 different organizations to form a council. Its plan was to improve the quality of life for women and their communities
Akron never joined the national group.
“We did not want to lose our identity at the time, and we still don’t want to lose our identity, because the organization meant so much for the women here locally,” Blake said. “The national group had a different focus. We wanted to address more youth-oriented programs.”
Today, the Akron Council of Negro Women is one group with more than 30 members.
Blake, who has been president of the organization for the past 10 years, said the council still focuses on education as the key to success and a better life.
The organization also donates time as tutors for students through the group’s grandparenting program and distributes school supplies such as bookbags, calculators, pens, pencils, notebooks and dictionaries to students attending Perkins Middle School, Crouse Elementary and Second Baptist Church.
The Council of Negro Women members are strong supporters of Buchtel’s GRAD program and are life members of the NAACP and NAACP Youth Project.
“We work for the young people because we want to see them be better educated than we were,” Blake said. “Current statistics indicate our children ages zero to 25 have become the most endangered species on the planet. As an organization, we had to ask ourselves: What is it that we are going to do to save a generation, to pass on a rich heritage and reach into the future?”
A website for the Akron Council of Negro Women is under construction. Students interested in applying for the scholarships can call 330-864-8359. The deadline for applications is April 30.
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or firstname.lastname@example.org.