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Toledoan battled discrimination with grace, poise

Pharmacist left her mark across world

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Ella P. Stewart, in a 1983 photo, worked quietly to end inequality and discrimination wherever she found it.

The Blade
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Nearly 25 years after her death, Toledo's Ella P. Stewart still makes an impressive mark on the communities in which she lived.

Known for her pioneering work in pharmacy and her efforts to ensure racial and women's equality, the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh school of pharmacy and the first such woman to be licensed as a pharmacist in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania graces the cover of the university's 2010 edition of Blue Gold & Black released last year.

Anyone who remembers Mrs. Stewart will fondly recall her as unwavering and possessed of grace and aplomb. The image in sepia tones of her in an evening gown on the cover of the 128-page biennial publication dedicated to University of Pittsburgh African-Americans captures a poised but no-nonsense Ella P. Stewart. That sentiment is exactly how Ann Bowers, archivist for the Center for Archival Collections at Bowling Green State University, describes Mrs. Stewart.

"She was quite one of those special people that I was fortunate enough to get to know. She fought her whole life against discrimination of any kind, and she did it in a way that was reflective of who she was," Ms. Bowers said.

"She was not one to go out and march, but she would work quietly behind the scenes contacting people who could make the changes. She kept persevering to end discrimination wherever she fought."

Mrs. Stewart used that soft but compelling manner in Toledo agencies and organizations, Ms. Bowers said.

"She was a woman who lived her life as she wanted, and if something got put in her way of either her race or sex, she figured out how to deal with it," Ms. Bowers said.

Her perseverance wouldn't let her abandon an issue.

"She would figure out how to get an obstacle out of her way to do the things she thought were important for her, her community, race, and as a female," Ms. Bowers continued. "In a very dignified and gracious way, she did more to fight discrimination in Toledo and in the nation and also in the world. She worked with the United Nations and traveled to underdeveloped nations and worked with women and children. She saw everybody she met as her family."

In 1922, Mrs. Stewart and her husband, William Wyatt "Doc" Stewart, opened Stewarts' Pharmacy. The couple lived for a while above the pharmacy, where black Toledoans assembled to obtain updates on and to debate the events of their era. The pharmacy was at 566 Indiana Ave., near City Park Avenue, on the same side of the street where All Saints Episcopal Church stands across from the new Warren A.M.E. Senior Services Center.

Together the Stewarts attended the 1961 dedication of Ella P. Stewart School, now the Ella P. Stewart Academy for Girls. Mr. Stewart, also a Pitt graduate, died in 1976.

Mrs. Stewart left an impressive stamp on women's and other civic organizations, locally, in Pennsylvania, and more widely.

Evelyn Rising, president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, said she did not know Mrs. Stewart but certainly knew about her.

"I am aware of her distinguished career, which was tumultuous because of segregation and racism. She accomplished a great deal during her administration as president from 1948 to 1952," said Ms. Rising, associate dean of student services at the University of the Southwest in Hobbs, N.M.

The dean pointed out that Mrs. Stewart's accomplishments did not let her escape discrimination.

"She found that after getting her education that she had to do more," Ms. Rising said. "She positioned herself with different organizations, but not only as a member but as a follower. She learned the ropes and made contacts and was not afraid to go to Capitol Hill and make demands. It took a bold woman at that time and I really admire her."

She positively affected young girls whom she loved, Ms. Rising said. Stewart Academy for Girls is a testament to that.

Ms. Rising was a teenager when she learned about Mrs. Stewart from a woman in another organization who had obtained some of Mrs. Stewart's writings.

"The lady drummed into our heads that once you reach up you have to reach out," said Ms. Rising, mimicking a theme that penetrated the pharmacist's character. "I remember those papers from Ella P. Stewart when I was a teen. I had something to hold on to. She made me want to be more of a part of the national association."

Ella P. Stewart's story is told in a six-page spread in the 2010 Blue Gold & Black, which has other fascinating stories that would interest those who are not Pitt alumni.

Robert Hill, vice chancellor for public affairs at Pitt, said the pharmacist fit the criteria to be on the cover. Mr. Hill said the Stewarts' story would be perfect for an HBO or Oprah movie.

In a section labeled "Black Like Me?" is an essay about the sexual exploitation of slaves. Another relates the Pitt library system director's role in starting a black fraternity at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.

Another twist is the story about a white Pitt associate professor in the school of dental medicine who has uncovered his African-American ancestry. In many circles, he would be considered black.

Contact Rose Russell at: rrussell@theblade.com or 419-724-6178.

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