A Beacon for Two Decades: Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the African American Legacy Project & Museum of Northwest Ohio

Robert Smith

By Asia Nail
The Truth Reporter

In the historic Dorr Street Corridor, where the echoes of history whisper through time, the African American Legacy Project (AALP) & Museum stand as a testament to the enduring legacy of the African diaspora, weaving together the resilience, triumphs and untold stories that have helped shape northwest Ohio.

As we embrace a future where equality reigns supreme, our Black community stands on the threshold of a transformative era—one marked by the triumphant unfolding of narratives, written and told by those who have lived them.

Guided by the dedicated leadership of Executive Director Robert Smith and a devoted seven-member governing body, the African American Legacy Project (AALP) has been a transformative force since its establishment in 2004. Going beyond the traditional role of history preservation, this 501(c)3 organization sparks a vibrant flame, fostering intellectual, socioeconomic, and participatory growth within countless black communities.

Tracing the roots: Celebrating 20 Years of Impact

LaRouth Perry, PhD

In the sacred corridors of the African American Legacy Project & Museum located at 1326 Collingwood Blvd, the resonance of history is not confined to the past; it is the marrow that feeds the bones of our future.

As we celebrate the AALP’s 20th anniversary, we are not merely witnesses but active participants in a living legacy. “I remember a time when our grandparents and great-grandparents would sit us around the dinner table weaving tales of the past,” recalls  Smith.

“It felt like a cherished secret shared with family. Many agree that is how it feels here when you visit the AALP museum.”

That’s the sentiment that washes over you as you step into the museum’s embrace— a longing for the tangible warmth of Grandpa’s tales, or a yearning for the depth of connection that you only feel when Mom smiles reminiscing about her wedding day. Those stories have a magic to them, connecting us to our roots in ways that make history come alive.

Dr. LaRouth Perry had a pivotal role in shaping the AALP,” explains Executive Director Smith.

LaRouth Perry, warmly known as “Dr. P” here in Toledo, embodies a legacy of compassion and academic excellence. Holding a Ph.D. in American Culture, she has dedicated her life to education, touching thousands of students through programs like Upward Bound and Toledo Excel.

John Scott

“Dr. LaRouth Perry authored the mission, statement for the AALP which will always serve as our guiding principles,” he adds.

“I am forever grateful for her vision. She saw the future need for this organization within our community and her words breathed life and direction into it.”

As Smith tells me the story of how it all began, I smile, envisioning the sound of her voice affectionately calling us ‘Turkeys,’ a name she reserves for the many she loves.

Now retired and living in Florida, Dr. P not only shaped young minds in urban high schools but she also contributed her wisdom to the Africana Studies Department at the University of Toledo.

Beyond her professional pursuits, many of us simply know Dr. P as Bayé, Kai, and Ravi’s loving mom. Dr. P’s ability to infuse joy into every narrative during her teaching career was contagious and uplifting. Fortunately her nurturing spirit will forever remain a timeless presence within the heart of the African American Legacy Project as a cherished space where everyone feels seen, valued, and, most importantly, loved.

“Dr. Helen Cooks [founder and former director of the Utoledo Excel program] and Dr. LaRouth Perry are easily considered the founding maternal framers of the African American Legacy Project and Toledo native Dr. John Scott, a prolific playwright, poet and director in his own right, must be considered the continuing Cultural Emissary for the Legacy Project,” says Smith. ”As Dr. Scott helped to frame and develop BGSU’s Ethnic Studies Department, his artistic, creative, and cultural sensibilities serve as his legacy to The AALP and the community.”


Wayman Palmer

Empowering Through Education: A Commitment to Knowledge

The dedication to documenting and preserving the narratives of northwest Ohio’s African American community is not a mere exercise in nostalgia; it is an unwavering commitment, defying systemic erasure while ensuring the ancestral voices of our past resound in our present.

“We create publications for kids in third grade and above and distribute educational pamphlets throughout the Toledo public school system, to the local charter schools, churches and educational organizations,” says Smith.

The pamphlets include information about national Black figures in all disciplines. The AALP then includes a local component by telling stories of notables like Wayman D. Palmer, who left an indelible mark on the community. If you’re of a certain age, you famously remember Palmer’s One-in-a-Million ice cream stand at Division and John R Streets. Palmer and his father, Cecil H. Palmer, epitomized early entrepreneurship, with ventures like Jerry’s Carryout on Nebraska Ave, named after Palmer’s star-athlete brother, Jerry.

“The kids here in Toledo are always surprised to learn that the first Black female pharmacist was from our Glass City,” Smith notes.

Stewart’s Pharmacy, an enduring cornerstone established in 1922, bore witness to the visionary leadership of Ella P. Stewart, the first licensed African American female pharmacist in the nation, and her husband, William W. Stewart.

Beyond its role as a healthcare haven, their pharmacy doubled as a sanctuary for Black travelers rejected by local hotels, with the couple offering refuge in their home situated above the pharmacy. Far beyond the confines of pharmaceuticals, Ella and William emerged as community leaders, actively engaging in both local and national human rights organizations. Ella P. Stewart’s remarkable impact extended to international realms as she assumed a position on the executive board of UNESCO in 1963.

Ella P. Stewart

The AALP also collaborates with the Toledo Lucas County Public Library to include a suggested children’s book that’s related to the subject matter in their educational pamphlets. “We want caregivers to have the opportunity to continue the conversation at home with family,” Smith explains.

Dorr Street Live!: Resurrecting the Cultural Heartbeat of Toledo

In homage to the vibrant cultural exchange that once thrived on Dorr Street during the 1950s and 1960s, the African American Legacy Project initiated the Dorr Street Live! event nine years ago. This cherished initiative seeks to revive the spirit of those golden years when Dorr Street stood as Toledo’s ‘Black downtown’, pulsating with creativity, commerce, and community connections.

“Dorr Street was once a bustling hub with hundreds of businesses ranging from independent mom-and-pop stores to family-owned enterprises,” explains Executive Director Smith.

It served as a lively gathering place for families and friends. From shopping to movies, bowling to church, Dorr Street was a mosaic of diverse activities that reflected the confluence of cultures in the area.

The importance of Black businesses transcends commerce; They are a pivotal force in reshaping the narrative of economic empowerment, ownership, and the legacy passed down through generations.

Moreover, Black-owned businesses serve as pillars of community empowerment. They are not just enterprises; they are anchors that foster a sense of pride and solidarity. When communities invest in their own, they create a cycle of reciprocity, where economic gains reverberate locally, strengthening the social fabric and fostering a collective sense of progress.

The AALP’s Dorr Street History Committee, led by luminaries like Lenard Bey, Pete Culp, and Debra Hogan, has been an instrumental force. Their collective endeavor aims to educate future generations about the profound impact of African American businesses on Dorr Street, an impact that reverberates through the ages.

Today, the City’s vision for future redevelopment aims to breathe new life into Dorr Street, aspiring to create a vibrant space where Black-owned enterprises, harmoniously coexisting with businesses of all cultures, can thrive once more.

Bill Harris

Legends: Honoring Notable Community and Sports Icons

The African American Legacy Project’s signature event is their “Legends celebration.

“It’s an exceptionally significant occasion for us, as we honor our esteemed legends by presenting them with a custom hand-woven kente sash made in Ghana in addition to a night filled with delicious food, music and festivities,” shares Smith.

It’s a coveted honor to be recognized in the presence of your colleagues and family for your contribution to African American history and culture, symbolized by the prestigious Legends celebration.

Inductees like Bill Harris broke media barriers as the first African American television news reporter in Toledo, Ohio, leaving an indelible mark during his two-decade tenure at Channel 13. Evolving from news reporting, he seamlessly assumed public affairs duties and ascended to the role of assistant news director.

His extensive coverage of financial matters and the economy not only earned him numerous accolades, including two Emmy Awards and seven Crystal Awards but also cultivated a vast network of contacts among business and political leaders, locally and nationally. Beyond the confines of newsrooms, today you can find Rev. Harris hosting In the Word w/Bill Harris at Rapture Ministries.

Art Tatum

From the unparalleled mastery of jazz pianist Art Tatum to the distinguished brilliance of musicians like Cliff Murphy, Toledo proudly claims its place as the nurturing ground for extraordinary musical talent.

Clifford T. Murphy, was an acclaimed bassist born in 1932, whose remarkable journey was shaped by both service and passion. After joining the Army at 17 and earning two Purple Hearts and three Bronze stars for his bravery in the Korean War, Clifford delved into his love for music.

“He founded the jazz group “The Murphys” and collaborated with maestros like Johnny O’Neal and Larry Fuller. They coined Cliff as “the Gentle Giant,” adds Executive Director Smith. “It was a sight to see his big hands gently glide across that bass.”

Alongside his partner Joan Russell, Clifford established the iconic Toledo jazz hub, Murphy’s Place, which became a focal point for music enthusiasts nationwide. Clifford’s enduring spirit and positive attitude left an indelible mark, making him a notable legend in Toledo’s cultural landscape.

The AALP’s African American Sports Legends Hall of Fame also stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit, skill, and resilience of extraordinary black athletes who have left their profound mark on the world of sports.

Beginning in 2023, Sports Hall of Fame Inductees are given custom blazers, not just as garments, but as vibrant symbols of their lasting contributions to sports history.

“Canton has its iconic “Gold Jacket,” the Masters boasts its revered “Green,” and now, The African American Sports Legends proudly introduces its own symbol of honor, the ‘Hall of Fame Red!’,” adds Smith.

The AALP’s illustrious Hall of Fame serves as a living chronicle, narrating the tales of those who shattered barriers, defied odds, and became trailblazers in their respective sport. Each inductee symbolizes not only sporting excellence but also a legacy of inspiration and empowerment for generations to come.

Clifford Murphy

Having the opportunity to visit the museum was truly awe-inspiring. Stepping inside, the first thing that caught my eye was the pristine collection of sports paraphernalia, each item holding a piece of history. From vintage jerseys to iconic equipment, the museum encapsulates a journey through time.

Exploring the museum, I was captivated by images of legendary athletes, discovering proud Ohioans who had left an indelible mark in the world of sports. However, nothing prepared me for the awe-inspiring moment when I encountered the exhibit featuring my grandfather’s best friend, Mr. Emerson Cole.

The late Emerson Cole (and his son Charlie Cole) was an exceptional running back for The University of Toledo. Mr. Emerson was the first African American drafted by the Cleveland Browns and later went on to play with the Chicago Bears.

The connection felt personal and profound. I could still smell Mr. Cole’s cigar as I recalled him and my grandfather laughing over cognac. To my surprise, Smith, also shared fond memories of my grandfather, Garner Lee Nail, a distinguished graduate of Jesup W. Scott High School and an honorably discharged U.S. Navy veteran of WW II.

Emerson Cole

My grandfather went on to earn a Master Pipefitter Degree from Hampton University in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and contributed significantly as a Mechanical Superintendent for the State of Ohio until his retirement. Notably, he held the distinction of being among the first African Americans admitted to the Local Pipefitters Union in Toledo.

As Smith extended an invitation for my family to contribute items from our family’s legacy to the museum’s archives; the honor felt both humbling and deeply meaningful.

Honoring History: An Important Archive

The African American Legacy Project is a covenant with the future. It is a promise to safeguard the stories that empower future generations yet to come. For it is through the lens of history that we can cultivate a society that embraces its diversity, celebrates its shared legacy, and moves forward as one.

I encourage those reading to collectively contribute to our shared history by adding to the African American Legacy Project of NW Ohio’s archive. This endeavor transcends individual stories; it’s a celebration of the collective journey we’ve undertaken as a community.

It’s not about me or you, but about the strength we find in our unity, the wisdom embedded in our shared experiences, and the enduring legacy we create together. Each artifact, photograph, or memory holds a piece of our shared narrative, reflecting the diversity, resilience, and accomplishments of all who have contributed.

As we celebrate the AALP’s 20th anniversary this Black History Month, we reflect on two decades of unwavering commitment to preserving, honoring, and illuminating the invaluable contributions of the African American community, and we eagerly anticipate the continued growth of this legacy for the posterity of tomorrow.

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to Robert Smith and the dedicated board members –  Norman A. Bell, City of Toledo (ret); Helen Cooks, PhD, University of Toledo (ret); Bernadette Graham, psychologist, private practice; Larome Myrick, director Juvenile Facility, Rhode Island; Joshua Peterson, Esq — Carpenter Lipps & Leland LLP; Rashieda Timpson, nurse practitioner; Willie Ward, principal, MLK Boys Academy – for their visionary leadership, tireless efforts and profound dedication to the African American Legacy Project.

Their commitment to fostering inclusivity, education, and community growth has created a beacon guiding us through the Black history of NW Ohio. Thank you for shaping a future where the voices of the past resonate, and where the legacy of the African American community stands as a source of inspiration for all.