Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Charting local legacy of blacks is man's goal


Robert Smith of Toledo, founder of the African American Legacy Project, sees a need for a historical record.

Luke Wark / The Blade
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African-American history has always been at the forefront of Robert Smith's mind.

A communication specialist who has worked in local radio, television, and nonprofits for the better part of 30 years, Mr. Smith said two years ago he had decided to dedicate the rest of his life to that mission.

Mr. Smith, 56, is the founder of the African American Legacy Project, an effort to research and document African-American history and life in Toledo and northwest Ohio. The project received a small but enthusiastic welcome last week when Mr. Smith and other members introduced it during a program at the Owens-Illinois Inc. auditorium.

"There's so much we don't know about ourselves," Mr. Smith said. "Nothing was being done to record our history locally. We've had African-Americans here do and accomplish some great things. What we want to create is a repository where people can find that information."

Mr. Smith's vision of what he wanted to do was actually formed while working with high school students in the Toledo Public Schools in the 1980s. He said he was helping students with a video production project when they interviewed the late pharmacist and community leader Ella P. Stewart.

"It was the Student Television Network, and we got to do one of the last interviews with Ella P. Stewart," Mr. Smith said. "There were a lot of things we didn't get a chance to ask her, and I said I thought about doing another interview, but we never got around to it. I thought about that a long time and wish we could have gotten her life story on video."

Mr. Smith said the idea of not only capturing the oral and written history of noted local African-Americans but making that information readily available slowly started to evolve. He has spent his own money developing the idea and winning over others to support the idea.

Longtime Toledo Public Schools educator LaRouth Perry is among those to have come on board.

Ms. Perry said the idea of creating an African-American history repository is not new, but said Mr. Smith's longtime dedication to the subject was real enough to make her take notice.

"He's very passionate about it, and he's been working at this for so long," Ms. Perry said. "He really is a visionary. I had almost given up on something like this happening in Toledo."

Mayor Jack Ford said the same thing about Mr. Smith last week during the introduction of the project and offered general assistance for the project's efforts, including helping to identify a home for the repository.

Mr. Smith said, though, he's more concerned about gathering historical information. He noted that the recent deaths this year of Lucas County Commissioner William T. "Bill" Copeland and former Blade associate editor William Brower were missed chances to glean unique views of African-American life here.

"We can't let people like that pass away and not talk to them about their lives and memories here," Mr. Smith said. "So I guess there is a sense of urgency in what we're doing. Just off the top of my head, I can think of people like [retired Lucas County Common Pleas Judge] Robert Franklin and [retired Toledo Public Schools Superintendent] Crystal Ellis who would have a lot to share. We've lost too much history already."

Mr. Smith said he has been pleased with the response he has received since the project has been introduced. He said, though, his group is just scratching the surface of what has to be done.

Ms. Perry said the project, which has been operating on a shoestring budget of small donations and personal out-of-pocket money, will need to start grant-writing to accomplish bigger projects.

Mr. Smith said he hopes his roots in Toledo will help. He's a 1965 Libbey High School graduate and communications graduate of the University of Toledo. He also attended St. Thomas Aquinas College.

He has worked for the American Red Cross as well as Welch Communications and Urban Radio Broadcasting and WTVG-TV.

Mr. Smith said he hopes that experience will help the African American Legacy Project become a focal point of local black history.

Contact Clyde Hughes at: or 419-724-6095.

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