Gladys Herron: Toledo’s 20th Century Harriet Tubman

Gladys Herron

By Dawn Scotland
The Truth Reporter

“[Gladys Herron] was a woman that I would put and value as a Harriet Tubman,” reflected Theresa M. Gabriel.

Gabriel, longtime politician and activist, now in her eighties, first met Herron when she was eight years old at Phillips Temple Church through community leader J. Frank Troy. Herron was the owner and operator of the first black school of cosmetology in Toledo: Herron’s School of Beauty, on Collingwood Ave, which she founded.

“She was an all-around woman, she was a very astute politician…” said Gabriel.

Herron was actively engaged in dozens of social and political organizations including becoming the president of the Ohio Association of Beauticians in 1955. Gabriel, now a lifelong Republican, reflected on her presence “She was very active in the Democratic Party…I doubt if there is any position that anybody could call out that she wasn’t involved in.”

Herron was married to Robert D. Herron, the second Black firefighter to be a captain in Toledo’s Fire Department and resided on Stickney Ave. Ms. Herron was described as straightforward, stern and motherly.

While Herron had no biological children, her work fostered a community.

“Out of Mrs. Herron’s school 20 independent salons came from that. That were birthed from her school,” sidd Brenda L. Kynard-Holsey, DPC, CNHP, current president of Ohio Association of Beauticians, Inc. “Women went out to start their own businesses, [after] graduating from her beauty school.”

“She was a trailblazer,” said Edwin “Sky” Mabrey, owner of Genesis Hair Salon and longtime community activist. Mabrey came to know Herron while he was a young, up and coming beautician in the 1970s. “She was very motherly: she was hard to you when she had to be hard on you and try to guide you in the right direction.” He reflected on Herron’s impact to the succeeding generation of beauticians: “she just wanted to see us advance… socially as well as politically.”

A wife, mentor, businesswoman, politician, activist and servant leader – Herron’s strongest legacy was leading by example. Her impact stretched across gender and political affiliation inspiring generations under her.

“Just the fact that she went out on the limb to start a beauty school…[and what it] takes to become a chartered school (as far as licensing, setting up curriculum…) it was a process she had to learn and she went into because nobody was really teaching her so she had to feel her way through the whole process” said Mabrey.

“Phez (Cletis Townsley), myself, and Bill Moore… we actually purchased a school down on Madison Ave. and we named it after Gladys Herron. So she had a great impact on us. And we did that out of honoring her for what she had gone through. She was like our Harriet Tubman in the beauty trade business.” Black men continued Herron’s School of Beauty for decades after it had closed.

Gabriel reflected on Herron’s influence on her own life as a public servant. “The strong black women in the 60s [including Herron]… They were my seniors and my mentors, and see, I learned from all of them. And I mentored and taught [future generations].”

She mentored women across party lines. “People worked across party lines… it was a commitment to lifting each other up.”

Later, when Troy had passed, Gabriel and Herron, along with others, founded the J. Frank Troy Center for seniors in his honor. Gladys Herron was the first director. Even in retirement Herron continued to serve. She was a lifelong member of Third Baptist Church serving in various roles and committees and left scholarships to the church through her estate. The J. Frank Troy senior center first started in Third Baptist’s basement.

Herron’s School of Beauty was located on Collingwood Ave and the businesses that lined the black neighborhood including the old Grenadier, the Collingwood Hotel and the service stations are all gone.

“Back then all of the minorities they worked with each other and helped each other… it isn’t like it is today. Party lines didn’t make a difference if it was for the betterment and the improvement of our fellow brother or sister,” said Gabriel. She mentioned that Troy was a Republican and Herron a Democrat.

Mabrey, who has been the owner of Genesis Hair Salon on Hoag St. for the past 26 years shared his sentiments regarding the now condition of the community from what used to be “Toledo’s Black Wall Street” as he called it. He provided his answer:

“The key to all of that is Unity…we have to create an environment that is conducive to unity. We have to stop that cycle of the crab in the barrel syndrome,” stated Mabrey. “We as a people have to learn how to work together and do what’s best for the benefit of the community as a whole.”

Gladys Herron was born in 1924 in Jackson, Fl. She relocated to Toledo where she graduated from Libbey High School and attended the University of Toledo. She also took classes at Fisk University and the University of Nashville.

Herron died in 2001.

Part of her congressional record [written by Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur] reads:

“Continuing in community activism, Mrs. Herron was involved in more than a dozen organizations including 1970s-era social programs CETA, SASI, EOPA and PIC, Toledo Affirmative Action, the Urban League, NAACP, the Head Start Policy Council, the Cordelia Martin Health Center Board, the Lucas County Welfare Advisory Board (which she chaired for fifteen years), the Concerned Women for Better Government (of which she was a charter member), the Perry Burroughs Democratic Club and the Lucas County Democratic Party. A religious woman, Mrs. Herron also served her church, Third Baptist Church, singing in the Sanctuary Choir and serving as a member of the Board of Trustees, the Advisory Council, and the 20th Century Literary Club.

“Not content to rest on the laurels of her earlier years or settle down into retirement, Gladys in her later years was a founding leader in the senior citizen movement, involved in both the AARP and the Area Office on Aging of Northwest Ohio. It was Mrs. Herron’s tireless effort and expert leadership which led to the establishment of the J. Frank Troy Senior Center. She was the center’s first director, and together with two other Toledo women who established centers in other parts of the city, made up the core of senior rights in our region. I appointed her as our district’s delegate to the decennial White House Conference on Aging held in 1995, where she represented her fellow seniors most ably and admirably.”

And like Harriet Tubman, Herron’s life work of unity, leadership and activism can serve to guide our community into a new exodus.