Former Warren safety service director continues to collect oral histories of an earlier time
By Ed Runyan
Fred Harris, who became Warren’s first black safety-service director 18 years ago, has made it his mission to preserve the history of people of his generation about living in Warren in the 1950s and 1960s.
Harris, 75, and others were featured in a documentary a decade ago in which they talked about the “invisible struggles” black people faced in the city at that time, such as being expected to live in certain areas, sit in certain parts of the movie theater and avoid using certain restrooms or water fountains.
It’s a mission that continues today with an oral history project he started many years ago and hopes to house in a history room at the Community Family Outreach Complex, 2165 Highland Ave. SW.
Harris also has written some of that history himself.
Harris said the need for young black community members to learn that history hit home last summer after a shooting on a usually peaceful basketball court at the Highland Terrace apartments.
Harris said he told the young men who gathered for a neighborhood meeting that they don’t understand “our history and what our forefathers went through” in the South and in the city decades ago.
“Your grandfathers, your grandmothers, what they went through when they came here from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia to Warren, Ohio. But it’s my generation’s fault because we didn’t teach them any of our history,” he said.
“We couldn’t just walk into a movie and sit down like you can today. We had to fight to get into the position we’re in today.”
He said the history most black children get is “what we were taught in school, that we were slaves,” which prevents some children from seeing themselves as something great.
“I tell people all the time, we didn’t come here as slaves. We came here as people. We were turned into slaves when we got here.”
Harris says the story of blacks in Warren is similar to other industrial cities – blacks came North in search of jobs.
“Though he was now living in the so-called unsegregated North, the African American steelworker walked out the gates of the mill to a life far different from his white co-worker,” Harris has written.
“He went to a home in a neighborhood that had been designated by white businessmen as a ‘black neighborhood,’” Harris said, adding, “So insidious was this type of segregation that many whites were not aware of it, at least not consciously.
“When young black children stood at the counter of the local lunchrooms to order their meals instead of sitting at a booth, it went largely unnoticed, but those children knew that was the way they were expected to behave. They had been warned and taught by a generation who knew the consequences of being ‘uppity’ enough to claim the white person’s privileges.”
Harris and Mark Herron, treasurer of the 20,000-square-foot Family Outreach Complex, have tried to make something greater out of the complex to provide opportunities for education, recreation and other activities in that neighborhood.
One way they are hoping to do that is to convince Trumbull County commissioners to designate the facility as a senior center funded through the county’s senior services levy.