The making of the first African-American woman to lead Akron City Council is rooted in the community her father championed before her and the accomplishment of strong black women like her mother.

Early Tuesday morning, as a phone rang incessantly at her family’s funeral home in West Akron, Margo Sommerville considered the celebration that would be held in her honor that afternoon. On the wall hung a painted portrait of a proud black family from America’s early days. Across the room, beside Egyptian idols of the afterlife, sat miniature ceramic busts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama.

She thought of the celebration’s sponsor, Alpha Kappa Alpha, a national sorority of professional black women that includes her and her mother. She thought of Black History Month coming to a close and every African-American who served a once-forgotten corner of Akron where her family lives and works.

She thought of their names, many enshrined on nearby buildings and streets by her father — only the second African-American man to lead the council since Akron became a chartered city during the final months of the Civil War.

Helen Arnold came to mind, the longtime Akron School Board member whose name adorns the Akron Urban League and an elementary school in a neighborhood where every school had closed.

And Vernon Odom, who fought poverty through education and opportunity. Marian T. Hall, an advocate for the better treatment of welfare recipients in a neighborhoods overloaded with public housing. Ed Davis, Akron’s first black councilman, and Joseph D. Roulhac, who sought to correct life’s inequities as Akron’s first black judge.

She recalled each in a single breath, knowing full well that she would stand on their shoulders that afternoon when city and community leaders gathered on the campus of Akron Children’s Hospital to celebrate a fully shattered glass ceiling, cracked two years earlier by her predecessor, Marilyn Keith, the first female to lead the council in a city that has yet to elect a black or female mayor.

“It’s huge,” Sommerville said.

Born into service

Margo Sommerville, 37, grew up walking in parades with her father, always at his side and never intending to follow in his large footsteps.

As a child in their family funeral home on Diagonal Road, she remembers her father, Marco Sommerville, dutifully answering the phone when constituents called to complain to their councilman. Subtle stories of backbiting and backstabbing, whether shared or overheard, were never lost on her. It was obvious that her father never wanted a life of politics for his oldest daughter.

She learned the true meaning of public service from smaller gestures, bagging up old toys with her three siblings to be hand-delivered to the needy. “It was natural for me to gravitate towards politics and to gravitate towards helping people and to gravitate towards trying to continue to make our community better,” she said Tuesday.

Her father never asked her to run the family business or City Council, each of which she took “and didn’t even realize it,” she said.

Called to action

Marco Sommerville met Diana Wilson-Dix and married long enough to have a single daughter in 1980. They separated by Margo’s first birthday and remarried, which Margo now looks back on as the blessing that gave her two sets of caring parents.

In the summers, Wilson-Dix would take Margo with her to teach summer school in the neighborhood. She remembers how Ms. Julie’s garden provided the only fresh vegetables for generations of children around Summit Lake.

A member of the Zeta Theta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Wilson-Dix made it possible for young Margo to know professional women. “I kind of grew up being around that sorority and just being around so many women who were accomplished, whether they were teachers, doctors, lawyers, leaders in the community doing awesome things.”

She graduated in 2003 with a business degree from Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania where she decided in her sophomore year to go into the funeral business. She earned her master’s degree in public administration two years later from the University of Akron before taking her first official posts in public service as a board member for East Akron Community House and other socially minded organizations.

She began to see her childhood neighborhood in a different light — how it had been cut off from downtown by a highway, packed with poor residents and public housing, starved of new homes and healthy food. “It was a neighborhood that was crippled, paralyzed in some sense,” she said.

She then took stock of the progress her father and others have made to acknowledge and begin to reverse generations of disinvestment and public policies that turn away opportunity.

In 2014, a year after her appointment to replace her father, who moved from the council to his current post consulting the mayor, Margo joined the city in announcing a new grocery store at Summit Lake and the opening of the Reach Opportunity Center to educate and support adults and children. Today, she looks to all of the council to set the tone — and goal — for what each neighborhood can contribute to a more vibrant city.

Coming together

Last year, Margo — with friends on other side of a simmering dispute — sat quietly as the council fell apart. Members spoke out of turn and in disrespect, misunderstanding one another in discussions on race and equity.

“It makes you cringe,” she said. “The whole city is watching.”

So far, the council appears to have calmed in the two months since Keith smoothly transferred power. But conflict lingers below the surface. Work behind the scenes is preventing subtle disagreements from becoming public spectacles in meetings now aired online to the world.

Monday night was a perfect example. In an afternoon conversation about asking the state to ban military-style rifles and devices that allow them to shoot like machine guns, a councilwoman was interrupted as two members accused another of using a recent school shooting to score political points. Sommerville, quiet as usual, let the chairman run his committee.

Afterward, she went from council member to council member, discussing how to enact the will of most on the council, who supported the measure. Though the measure failed that afternoon, a series of well-oiled maneuvers unfolded that night as dozens of residents sat in council chambers and hundreds more watched online. In minutes, Sommerville gave up her seat to let another chair an ad hoc committee. The measure passed moments later without a single outburst.

Sommerville said her personal mission this year will be to advance the equitable distribution of resources and opportunity for all of Akron. To that end, she promises productive dialogue and good communication, minimizing those moments in the past when council members came uninformed or with a grudge.

“As president, one of the things I’ve wanted to change, and my colleagues understand, is that as council we create the climate for how great the city of Akron can really be. People watch City Council to say, ‘Hey, listen, do I want to open up a business there? Do I want to keep my business in Akron? Do I want to move to Akron? Do I want to send my children to Akron Public Schools?”

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.

“It was natural for me to gravitate towards politics and to gravitate towards helping people and to gravitate towards trying to continue to make our community better.”

Margo Sommerville