Jim Carney

The monument stands alone on the corner of two busy Akron thoroughfares. It recalls another busy period in the city’s history.


The Matthews Hotel Monument, which marks the former African-American business and entertainment district on North Howard Street, is nearly complete except for some electrical work for the lighting. The monument is at the northeast corner of North Howard Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.


“It was a busy place, a very busy place,” said Louise L. Jackson, 93, of Akron, who worked for more than 20 years at the hotel. She started as a maid and worked as financial secretary for the hotel when she left in the 1960s.


The hotel was torn down in 1982 as part of the demolition of many buildings along Howard Street.


“We had a real good time,” Jackson said. “I met entertainers. That’s a long time ago. I met Cab Calloway and all of those fellows.”


The design of the red brick monument was the idea of Akron artist Miller Horns, who had been promoting the idea of a monument to the black-owned business and entertainment district for 14 years.


The monument, on the spot where the hotel once stood, includes a hotel doorway as well as two plaques.


One honors George Washington Mathews, a native of Georgia who from 1925 to 1978 owned and operated the rooming house converted into a hotel, barber and beauty shop.


The other recognizes several of the famous African-American entertainers who performed at the area’s nightclubs, including the High Hat and the Green Turtle. Eventually, visitors to the monument will be able to listen to a recording by Cleveland radio and television personality Joe Mosbrook, who will discuss the neighborhood’s jazz history.


Horns said it is wonderful to see the monument nearly finished.


“It is quite more than I anticipated,” he said. “Aesthetically, it helps the area.”


Horns, 63, said he was always hopeful that the monument would be built.


“When you make a commitment to something, you sometimes feel if you haven’t followed through, you feel bad with the question, ‘I wonder what if?’?”


Work on the more than $125,000 project was either donated by a number of firms in Akron or done by firms that provided material at cost. The firms included G.W. Stephens Inc., Cavanaugh Building Corp., J.W. Didado Electric Inc., GPD Inc., Meyer Design, the Cardinal Group, Neidert Fabricating and Ameriseal & Restoration. The city and the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority also helped.


In addition, Kenmore Construction donated materials and labor, said Thomas E. Gilbert, project manager and retired construction director of AMHA.


Companies that provided materials at cost were North Hill Marble, Ohio Beauty Cut Stone, CCM Welding and Botzum Brothers Hardware, Gilbert said.


A total of $105,000 in labor was donated, Gilbert said, and the cost of material – $20,000 – was paid for through donations from the community.


Gilbert said 84 percent of the project cost was donated.


“That speaks highly of our community, which has stepped up big in this effort,” he said.


The new monument “looks great,” he said. “Everyone is tickled with it.”


The hotel, known as a “business with a soul,” was where entertainers like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and others stayed when they played at the nightclubs on the street. Because of racial prejudice, the entertainers were unable to stay at other Akron hotels, Horns said.


Alberta Banton Williams, 73, lived the first eight years of her life in the hotel. Her father ran a hat business at the rear of the barbershop and beauty salon, she said.


Along with cleaning and blocking hats, her father, Elmore Banton, who died in 1955, answered phones at the hotel and would clean up at night, she said.


George Mathews and his wife were her godparents, she said, and she was named after George’s wife, Alberta.


“The black barbershop is part of the black culture, where men would get together and talk,” said Williams, who taught school in Akron, lived in New York for four decades and now lives in Copley Township.


“I remember buses coming with orchestras and singers … It was an exciting place.”


The monument brings back memories for Deborah Williams, 62, of Akron. Her mother, Naomi Blake, was the last one to leave the beauty shop before the hotel closed, she said.


Blake worked as a hair stylist for about a half century in Akron, mostly at the hotel.


Jeffrey Bray, 67, of Akron, also has a connection to the hotel. His mother, the late Janice Bray, was responsible for booking the entertainers at the High Hat Lounge until she bought the club in 1971. It closed in the late 1970s.


His father, the late Leon Bray, was a drummer who played at the High Hat a few times.


Bray also is a drummer who sat in with musician Lou Donaldson at the age of 15 for one song and watched many jazz greats who played at the High Hat, including Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach.


Playing with Donaldson, he said, “was unbelievable, a good feeling.”


News of the monument also brought back memories for Martyn Flunoy, 59, of Akron, who has a booklet for a black rubber industry employers group called the Alpha Omego club. The booklet marked the Sepia Rubber Carnival, held on March 27, 1941.


His late mother, Blanche Flunoy, a factory worker at B.F. Goodrich, had collected the booklet.


Inside the booklet, he found an advertisement for Banton’s hat shop that included a picture of the hotel.


Flunoy, who works at Kent State University and plays drums with the Bizarros, remembers buying albums and singles at record stores on North Howard Street when he was a teenager.


“It looks great,” he said of the monument.


There’s some discrepancy as to the spelling of the hotel name over the years. While the inscription on the monument is spelled Hotel Matthews with two t’s and the owner George Mathews spelled his name with one, in his 1982 obituary, the name of the hotel was spelled Mathews.


A photograph of the hotel in the 1941 booklet owned by Flunoy also spelled the name of the hotel as Mathews.


But a 1930 photograph of the hotel on the Akron website shows the inscription on the hotel as Hotel Matthews.


In her Akron home, Louise Jackson has an entire wall of family photos. Some are some pictures from the hotel, including one showing her at a dinner at the hotel.


Jackson said Mathews treated everyone who worked at the hotel as family.


“He loved people,” she said. “He was a loved man and respected by all.”


Mathews, who died in 1982 at age 95, established a scholarship fund at the University of Akron in his name that was initially funded with a $25,000 donation.


Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at jcarney@thebeaconjournal.com.