On Howard Street, in downtown Akron, Black life and culture flourished
By Yanick Rice Lamb
Mrs. Naomi Blake styled my mother’s French Roll just the way she liked it, with a Marcel wave sweeping the left side of her face and accenting the slanted eyebrows she penciled in every morning. My sister Michelle and I loved to take the pins out of Mommy’s hair so we could comb and brush it, and we loved to watch Mrs. Blake put it back up into those French rolls. When we got our hair done for special occasions, my sister and I would climb onto the studded red vinyl booster seat that Mrs. Blake placed over the arms of her salon chair. Our legs dangled as she snatched a hot steel comb in and out of an electric heater and ran it through our hair to straighten it, emitting the sound and smell of sizzling “grease”—typically from a yellow-labeled jar of Dixie Peach Pomade or a red, green and silver tin of Royal Crown Hair Dressing. Then she deftly spun around a clacking Marcel curling iron to style our bangs and create elongated spirals, then known as Shirley Temple curls, after the white child superstar of the times.
Hair has history. These coils of memory bond children to the adults in their lives in places they call home, including hair salons and barber shops. So many of us remember sitting at our mother’s knee as she parted our hair, gently scratching and stimulating the skin with a comb before massaging oil into our scalps and then plaiting our hair into braids. Today, I call it plaitin’ and chattin’, whether I’m with a favorite stylist or, better yet, a close friend who twists or braids my hair over glasses of wine.
As children, we didn’t associate hair with history. We just enjoyed ear-hustling grown-folks’ conversation in the beauty shop or barber shop when we cut through the opening on the long wall that separated them. We could feel, without anyone telling us, that these shops were special places of respite and community. We knew that Howard Street was our street. It was downtown, a block east of Akron’s Main Street. But it was Howard Street and Wooster Avenue, down the road from our home on Edgewood Avenue, where the people who ran Black businesses and other establishments remembered our names and faces.
While we waited for our mother, or our turn in the chair for a press and curl, we’d wander over to the barber shop, where we could drop coins into vending machines for glass bottles of Coca-Cola and “skins”—bags of crispy, light pork rinds with a small package of hot sauce. We didn’t learn until we were grown that these shops stood on historic, hallowed ground, anchoring the Matthews Hotel, one of the main businesses on Howard Street and the first Black-owned hotel in Akron.
The hotel was named for George Washington Mathews, who in 1919 took a train from Montgomery, Alabama, to Toledo, Ohio to see heavyweight champion Jess Willard defend his title against Jack Dempsey in a Fourth of July fight. After watching Dempsey pummel Willard in three rounds, Mathews made side trips to Cleveland and Akron, which was undergoing a growth spurt. Captivated by the Rubber Capital of the World, home to all of the major tire companies, Mathews took his savings from his porter job at the Exchange Hotel in Montgomery and returned to Akron in 1920 to start his own business.
Five years later, he converted a rooming house on Howard Street into the Hotel Matthews, dubbed “a business with a soul.” Over time, he added the beauty salon, a barber shop, a record store and a photo studio to the hotel, which he also grew to fifty-five rooms. (The extra ‘T’ on the hotel marquee was an engraving error—while Mathews signed his World War I draft card with one T, his father is listed in the 1900 and 1910 census as Frank Matthews, with two.)
The hotel provided a home away from home for Black travelers and entertainers who couldn’t stay in the whites-only Portage or Mayflower hotels. It was listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, a traveling bible that told African Americans where in segregated America they safely could rest their heads, grab a bite, worship and listen to music. This was invaluable information during the Jim Crow era, particularly in “sundown towns,” where it was especially unsafe for Black people after sunset. The Akron section in the 1940 edition of the Green Book, which was distributed from 1936 to 1966, included the Matthews Hotel, the Green Turtle Hotel and Cafe, the Garden City Hotel, and the Upperman Hotel along with F. Murphy’s and C. McQueen “tourist homes.”
The Akron Negro Directory listed a number of doctors, dentists, lawyers, cleaners, tailors, photographers, restaurants and insurance companies on Howard Street. “The number and types of black businesses had increased by the 1940s,” the late historian Shirla Robinson McClain wrote in The Contributions of Blacks in Akron: 1825 to 1975. Howard Street businesses included grocery and clothing stores, a bowling alley, the Ritz Theatre, pawn shops and entertainment venues like the Cosmopolitan, 41 Club, Tropicana and High Hat. “It was nice; it brought income into the Black community,” said my Aunt Mary Cox, who grew up in the era. “You could find everything on Howard Street.”
Aunt Mary recalled seeing entertainers Dinah Washington, Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan who performed on or near Howard Street. During a tour stop, she said, Count Basie tried to recruit my uncle, bassist Earl Thomas, after hearing him play on Howard Street. While Uncle Earl, who later performed around the Akron area with the King Solomon Trio, was excited, his father balked since he was just a teenager at the time. These entertainers, along with Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Red Foxx, were among those who stayed at the Matthews Hotel. “Segregated environments served to develop black cohesion, black consciousness and black culture,” McClain said.
Mathews, whom I faintly remember seeing in the barber shop, was a key figure in developing this racial cohesion. Born in 1887 on a cotton farm in Thomaston, Georgia, Mathews went from scrounging for food in garbage cans when he left home for Alabama to becoming the richest Black man in Akron. (“Early in his business ventures, his request for a loan was denied by a bank in which he later owned stock,” McClain wrote.) In 1964, Mathews and his wife, Alberta, set up a $25,000 scholarship endowment—equal to about $220,500 in today’s dollars—in his name at the University of Akron.
Mrs. Blake loved working at the Matthews Hotel Beauty Shop and loved working on Howard Street, where her brother, William Walter Blake, Jr., also ran the Ekalb Club (Blake spelled backward). “She never missed a day,” said her niece Francine Blake, who assisted by sweeping up hair, running errands, modeling hair shows, and occasionally shampooing customers as she got older. “It seemed to me that she was there from sunrise to sunset.”
Mrs. Blake, who was active at Second Baptist Church and in the Order of the Eastern Star, was a giving person who would cut her prices, share food, dispense advice and take in boarders. Mrs. Blake didn’t want to gouge her regulars, especially older women, clients who traveled more than twenty miles for their hair appointments, and those who were short on cash. “She would say, ‘You can pay me when you come back next time,’” recalled Francine, who named her daughter Naomi after her favorite aunt. “If people didn’t have enough, she just took what they had.”
No one went hungry in Mrs. Blake’s presence, said her daughter Deborah Williams, who would go to the beauty shop with Mrs. Blake on Saturdays. Williams would ask her mother why she’d make so many sandwiches before heading to the shop, using tuna, chicken, turkey, or whatever lunch meat they’d have in the refrigerator. “I’m just going to give them to different people,” she’d say. This would include people in the shop or men down on their luck along Howard Street. In addition to helping one woman who had never been employed, she coached her for a job interview.
The Howard Street District, parts of Wooster Avenue, and entire neighborhoods, including our previous home on Grant Street, were demolished during phases of urban renewal to make room for State Route 59 and other projects. S.R. 59, known as the Innerbelt, was intended to connect with other expressways to make it easier for suburbanites to reach downtown. A City of Akron report said the project “clears substandard areas” and “does not split a sound neighborhood.”
The Matthews Hotel closed in 1978 and was demolished in 1982; by that time, the Ritz was the only business left on the section of Howard Street known as Akron’s Harlem. Mathews lived for ninety-five years and died the same year they tore down his hotel.
The history of Howard Street reminds me of 125th Street in New York, where I lived for thirteen years, or U Street, a.k.a Black Broadway, in Washington, D.C., which is around the corner from Howard University, where I teach journalism. While both of these streets have lost parts of themselves to gentrification, some landmarks, and therefore their essence, remain. Not so on Howard Street; the only remnant of Akron’s Harlem is a monument in the form of a doorway, designed by artist Miller Horns in honor of Mathews and his hotel.
Wooster Avenue suffered greatly, too, but fared better than Howard Street. Now called Vernon Odom Boulevard, it still has some landmarks, and the Akron Community Service Center and Urban League relocated there in 2007. Mr. Odom ran the Urban League for nearly three decades at the now-demolished community center on East Market Street, during the time that my sister and I participated in its day camp, swimming lessons and other programs. Many landmarks of our lives are gone—homes, schools, the community center, and other institutions. “It seems like they’re trying to wipe out Black people’s history,” my sister, Michelle Rice Trotter, said.
Despite the volume of Ohio history that we were taught in school, we never learned about Howard Street, or other monumental moments in Black history, like when Sojourner Truth spoke at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention near the original Akron Art Museum where we took classes on Saturdays. Our parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles did share lots of history with us during our childhood, including the story of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture from our mother. (Our family was one of two Haitian households in Akron—the other being my godparents, Melcourt and Marie Antoinette Poux. Their five children, my sister, and I did most of the integrating at St. Vincent’s Elementary School.)
We didn’t realize then that we walked among many historymakers of our own—including Vernon Odom, one of the first African Americans we saw leading an organization when we hung out at the community center; Evelyn and Horace Stewart, who owned a photo studio on Howard Street and attended St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church with our maternal grandmother, Thercia Laforest; George Washington Mathews, who was an unassuming presence at the barber shop; and Naomi Blake, who helped countless people and later opened her own beauty salon, Glamour Chateau, across from her home in West Akron.
Deborah Williams said her mother was sad when the hotel closed for good in 1978, and that she was the last to leave the Matthews Beauty Salon. But that didn’t stop Mrs. Blake from being Mrs. Blake. “She was always looking out for someone,” Williams said of her mother, who died in 2001 at the age of seventy-five. “I think that’s why God blessed her so.”
Howard Street’s landmarks might be gone, but its history—our history—lives on in memories and embodied practices, like sitting around plaitin’ and chattin’. These moments take me back to our home on Edgewood Avenue across from the Akron Zoo, and to the Matthews Hotel Beauty Shop on Howard Street, where Mrs. Blake held court. ■
Yanick Rice Lamb, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, is co-founder of FierceforBlackWomen.com and a professor of journalism at Howard University. She has been writing about Akron’s rubber industry for Belt Magazine and the Center for Public Integrity.
Cover image: A monument to the Hotel Matthews. Photo by Mark Turnauckus (creative commons).
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