National Women's History Month: Erie's Heroines
Local historian profiles six trailblazing Black women in Erie's history
In March, we slowly catapult from Black History Month into National Women's History Month. President Jimmy Carter designated March 2nd through the 8th as National Women's History Week in 1980. In 1987, Congress declared March as National Women's History Month in perpetuity. A special Presidential Proclamation is issued every year which honors the extraordinary achievements of American women. As in Black History Month, often the role of Black women's contributions at a national level catches the spotlight. But what of local Black women who through social action, health and education initiatives, political interactions, and the desire to make the city and county better for those who were considered the "least of them?"
I am highlighting six Black women through Erie's history who contributed immensely to our Black community and the Erie community at large. These names are not the totality of all Erie's African American women – there are many others. But it is always good to highlight and recognize those trailblazers who may become lost through the sands of time. From the inception of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s these women were at the forefront of instigating change.
Let us rediscover these six women as we celebrate them this National Women's History Month. They are Emma Roy, Arnola Myers, Mazie Purdue, Gertie McGee, Erma Lindsey, and Mary Jane Roy.
Emma Roy was the first Executive Secretary of the Booker T. Washington Center from 1923-1934. Emma Roy grew up in Erie, graduating from Erie High School. She pursued her studies at Margaret Morrison College (the women's college for Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh, majoring in Social Work. When she began her duties at the Booker T. Washington Center in 1923 she was 24 years old.
Emma designed programs to increase opportunities for young people so that they may recognize their worth. She believed in their right to success but also stressed that success is earned and carries responsibility. She conducted affairs at the Center in a manner commanding their respect.
The young men joined such groups as the Vagabond Club and young women and small children often put on plays like Mother Goose. To encourage physical development, Emma arranged affiliations with the YMCA and East High School so that swimming instruction could be part of the program. Women met for social times to increase their knowledge. In addition to her work at the Booker T. Washington Center, she served for several years as a social worker for the PA State Emergency Relief Board during the depression.
Miss Roy's favorite saying during her work with youth and minority citizens of Erie was, "Make the most of time. Lose no happy day. Time will never give you back the chances thrown away."
Arnola Armstrong Myers faced many obstacles in her life. She was a woman and Black. She began adulthood with limited education. She married early and soon began a family which grew to include six children. She anguished over their upbringing in an undesirable neighborhood and over their education in schools where there was discrimination. Arnola's life work was to overcome these obstacles.
She was born Arnola Valentine Armstrong on February 14, 1935, in Little Rock, Arkansas. The family then moved to Erie where she met and married H. Lincoln Myers at seventeen before she had finished high school.
But something was stirring in Nola that called her to be more than a wife and mother. She studied for her high school equivalency diploma (GED) and, at 24 years old, passed the qualifying examination. She strongly believed that a good education was a stepping stone and that a college degree was a passport to a better life. An acquaintance recognized the great potential in Nola and helped her get started at Behrend College. At twenty-nine, after the youngest of her children had started school, she began her first college course. After a year she transferred to Gannon where her interest in the workings of politics led her to earn a degree in political science.
Nola worked at St. Martin's Center as director of its Head Start Program while attending college. She graduated in 1968 and began work as a counselor at the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC). During the next two years, she advanced to the position of director of student services. She was a former director of the Booker T. Washington day care program. At the time of her death, she was employed by the Greater Erie Community Action Center (GECAC) as daycare administrator.
Nola's career accomplishments helped to improve her life, but she did not stop there. Her thrust to improve life for the Black community and women began in her neighborhood where she worked to have a brothel removed. She became a spokeswoman for parent groups who fought discrimination in the schools. She worked to get minorities involved in the Erie County broadcasting station WQLN and was the producer of the inner city panel show PACE. She became a member of the Fair Housing Committee helping to correct the boggled system of distributing public housing and helping both renters and landlords with their grievances. She joined the Erie Peace Fellowship and marched in demonstrations very early in the Vietnam War.
She belonged to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was the first Black woman in business to resume wearing her hair naturally. Arnola died in 1974 at the age of 39. On her tombstone are inscribed the words, "She gave so much and asked for so little."
Mazie Smith Purdue was the first known African-American woman elected to office in the City of Erie. She served on the Erie School Board from 1992-1995 and was vice president of the body in 1994. Purdue's impact on the lives of students, their families, and the community at large stretched far beyond her role on the board.
Mazie a Strong Vincent High School graduate helped establish local chapters of the National Council of Negro Women and Negro Business and Professional Women, as well as various after-school, summer lunch, and self-esteem programs at Shiloh Baptist Church. Purdue also helped lead Women of Color and the Erie chapter of the Pennsylvania Conference on Black Basic Education, and served as a nurse, social worker, and executive director of the Child Development Center at the Booker T. Washington Center, among other accomplishments.
Civic leader Gertie M. McGee, of Erie, died Saturday, March 13, 2010, at St. Mary's East. She was born in Cincinnati, Ohio but was raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama -- the daughter of the late J.T. and Frances Harrison. Gertie attended Tuskegee Institute and received her social services degree from Case Western Reserve. She furthered her studies at Gannon in political science and government studies. She was a paraprofessional social worker and was then a community developer for GECAC. She was then employed with the Erie School District as a parent involvement specialist until her retirement. She was a member of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception.
One of the mothers of civil rights, she was responsible for making a strong impact on Erie's civil rights movement. She was involved and dedicated to human service within the church, and political and social activities through the years. Gertie was a committeewoman for 24 years and was also a Judge of Elections. She has never been afraid to speak up in public about all social injustice despite any controversy. Gertie fought for what was right and without hesitation, and did what good she could for the senior citizens, children, women, and the African American and Hispanic population. She wrote, implemented, and supported innovative social programs for a better life in Erie.
Additionally, Gertie pioneered the fight to end poor nutrition in Erie Schools. She successfully pushed and established the "Hot Lunch" program in our elementary schools. Gertie also developed and implemented a "Meals on Wheels" lunch program to provide nutritional meals for the senior citizens in our community. Social worker, community activist involved in civic and church work, politician, wife, and mother, Gertie McGee made history in Erie. She served on many councils and committees, and also served as president of several organizations including OIC, Haldac, and Women of Color. She was director of Central City N.A.T.O. from 1968 to 1979, serving the needs of senior citizen programs and employing youth in summer programs at the center, which allowed her to enhance and encourage the lives of many young adults.
Erma Jane Allen Lindsey
Erma was born in Paulding, Mississippi, on July 11, 1925, and was a resident of Erie for 47 years. Erma was widely recognized as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement in Erie County, refusing to accept the mistreatment of African Americans and fighting for equality and justice for all.
Shortly after arriving in Erie, she organized a welfare rights organization to help welfare recipients understand their rights. She would later become involved in politics, school issues, and working with her neighbors to improve living standards. She was the co-founder of the Opportunities Industrialization Center, founder of the Holland Drug Center, formed the city's first Tenant Council for housing residents, and was a leader for neighborhood improvement.
She was active in the Erie County Democratic Party focusing on voter registration. Her tenacity in helping Erie citizens vote and make a difference in the Erie community is summed up in her words, "the power of the vote is great, by exercising this right, we, as a people, will be able to bring about necessary change." The greatest weapon in the fight for equality is the ballot box.
Mary Jane Roy
Mary Jane was born October 19, 1928, to the late Bardella Vactor Winston Williams and Willie Winston, although was raised by Bardella and Charles Williams in Washington, Pa. She graduated from Washington High School in 1945. From there, she entered Bennett College for women in Greensboro, N.C. After two years, she transferred to Penn State University, where she earned her bachelor's degree in Physical Education and Sociology in 1952.
Mary Jane was hired by Morganza Reform School after graduating from Penn State, as the youth activities coordinator. In 1953, she moved to Erie to take a job with the Urban League, as the recreational director for girls at the Booker T. Washington Center. In later years, she worked as a traveling social worker and an early childhood educator, for migrant worker families who were employed by Troyer Farms. Mary Jane then worked at Henderson Methodist Church as a preschool director, and shortly after, she and a group of parents founded the Har-Lin Community Center on Buffalo Rd. In 1970, Dr. Robert LaPenna, the Erie City School District superintendent, asked her if she would start the new Title Twenty Daycare Program for the Erie School District. Mary Jane took a leave of absence for a short period to start the program for the Erie School District. She started and stayed with the district for three years during which opened ten daycare centers. In 1973, Mary Jane returned to Har-Lin and continued to provide quality childcare and education for the children of Erie, as well as providing summer jobs for the youth in the NYC program every summer.
Additionally, Mary Jane was instrumental in establishing the two-year early childcare associates degree program offered by Villa Maria College, with the lead support of Sister Eunice and Sister Alice Schierberl. Mary Jane retired from Har-Lin in 1993. Mary Jane Roy was Affiliated with the National Black Child Development Institute, Black Administrators in Child Welfare, Order of the Eastern Stars Chapter 21, Daughter of Isis, American Business Women's Association, Penn State Alumni Association, and the Pennsylvania Child Care Association.
Johnny Johnson is a local historian, retired Erie School District teacher, co-author of A Shared Heritage, author of Erie African Americans in 1880, and president of the Burleigh Legacy Alliance.