YOUNGSTOWN — History provides the motivation that propels a community forward, strengthening families and laying down roots that fan out through generations.
That was the message Saturday when more than 100 people gathered to celebrate the designation of St. Augustine Episcopal Church as one of the state’s historical sites.
The Ohio historical marker was unveiled in front of the Parmelee Avenue structure, the only black institution in the city recognized as a historical site.
The North Side church dates back to 1907 when Lenora Berry began having services in her home. For the first two years, the congregation was all female, with the exception of Berry’s husband, Thomas D. Berry. For the next 11 years, services were in members’ homes until a small building on Parmelee was erected in February 1918.
Vincent Ajamu Shivers spearheaded the effort to have the church recognized by the state and said he is working to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The descendents of this church go all the way back to the 1860s,” he said, explaining that members were among the first blacks to move into Youngstown.
The designation is important for the church, he said, because it might help the structure avoid “becoming a part of the wrecking ball in the city.”
Shivers, president of the P. Ross Berry-George Washington Williams Historical Society, said the project was important for him, even though St. Augustine is not his church. “This is my community,” he added.
Mayor Jay Williams was supposed to be the featured speaker but did not attend.
Sarah Brown-Clark, clerk of Youngstown Municipal Court, urged the crowd to “remember where they came from” and called the church “a piece of the old North Side.” Brown-Clark went on to say she was reminded of the days when Youngstown had a prosperous, black middle class that owned homes and kept well-maintained properties.
The black community’s rich history provides “the motivation to strengthen our children so they can move forward, not backward,” she added.
Dr. Wendy Webb, Youngstown schools superintendent, said her maternal grandmother was a cousin of Lenora Berry’s and her maternal great-great grandfather was P. Berry Ross, who was instrumental in building Youngstown.
She said he was the original Mason who built the city’s first school, library and First Presbyterian Church.
She called the Berry family “the epitome of integrity” and said young people need to know that history is what drives people.
“I’m very proud of the history here,” she said, explaining that the female leadership of Lenora Berry makes the designation all the more special.
Ella R. Robinson, who turns 90 in November, is the church’s senior warden emeritus. Her late husband, Charles, was the son of Clarence Robinson, whose grandfather was P. Ross Berry. She spoke during the ceremony and said she is one of the oldest active members of the church.
Penny Wells of Youngstown works with Shivers on the Youngstown Underground Railroad research team, and attended Saturday’s event to support him.
“I think it’s a very historical moment for the city of Youngstown,” she said, adding that the city’s history is not celebrated often enough.
St. Augustine is thought to be the only church in Mahoning County chartered by a black female. It was built by Charles Berry, son of P. Ross Berry, and was designed by the famous architectural firm of Charles F. Owsley.
The historical marker, administered by the Ohio Historical Society, was funded by the congregation. Antoinette Smith, the church’s senior warden, estimates there are currently about 35 regular members.
Member Nikki Davis said the congregation is like family. “Even though we are small, we are mighty,” she added.