This week’s Walking Guide, Johnny Johnson, takes us to several of the sites important to Erie’s African American history located within the area of the West Bayfront called New Jerusalem. Mr. Johnson, a retired Erie School District teacher and coach, is one of the founding members of the Harry T. Burleigh Society.
Click on the links to find out how to get to the location in Google Maps.
A. African Americans in Erie’s New Jerusalem
Our West Bayfront’s New Jerusalem neighborhood was founded in 1827 when African American and poor white people built their homes there after an abolitionist sold them the land at a modest price. There are residents in this neighborhood whose family members have lived in the neighborhood for generations. The New Jerusalem neighborhood boundaries are the bayfront and Sixth between Cherry and Sassafras.
B. On the 400 block of West Third street you can see bricks from long ago that are still parts of the sidewalk.
C. Lawrence Family Home, 221 Front Street
Generations of the Lawrences, a prominent Erie African American family, lived here. Ada Lawrence, for whom Ada Lawrence Way was named, saved many documents and photos chronicling her family’s history. Starting in 1946, Ada Lawrence taught at the Wayne school for over thirty years. She was one of the first African American teachers hired in the 20th century by the Erie School District (Records suggest that there were African American teachers as early as the 1890s). Her father, Earl Lawrence, was a musician who played in a band, taught music, and was the first African American to play with the Erie Philharmonic. (information from Mercyhurst tour and Old Time Erie). Composer and singer Harry T. Burleigh frequented their home when Ada Lawrence was a child (Burleigh, perhaps the most famous person born in Erie, lived on the East Side. You can find more about him here: https://www.burleighsociety.com/history)
D. Lawrence Dyeing and Cleaning, 402 W 3rd Street
In 1906 Emma Gertrude Lawrence became Erie’s first African American woman to start her own business, Lawrence Dyeing and Cleaning, a business that continued for decades after her death that was run by her son. https://oldtimeerie.blogspot.com/search/label/Earl%20Lawrence
E. Pontiac Field in Bayview Park, West 2nd and Cherry Streets
The Pontiac Baseball team (1936- 1956) was a very popular African American team based in New Jerusalem that played in the tri state area. A number of the team members went on to play in the Negro National League team the Cleveland Buckeyes and when the Negro League dissolved several Buckeyes joined the Pontiacs (Journey from Jerusalem). A mural commemorating the Pontiacs will be installed in 2020.
F. Blanks family home, 537 W 3rd Street
Martial arts innovator Billy Blanks grew up in Erie. He created the Tae Bo exercise regimen, which blends boxing training and martial arts. He travels the globe teaching and inspiring people. Blanks also appeared in 20 movies. https://www.goerie.com/news/20160129/martial-artist-fitness-guru-blanks-returns-to-erie
G. West 2nd Street
Several prominent families lived on this street: the Drew family who arrived in the 1900s; Andrew Webb, Erie’s first African American police officer; Willie Grace, a renowned player for the Negro National League’s Cleveland Buckeyes.
Want to learn more?
Erie’s Blasco Library has books on the history of African Americans in Erie, including books on the overall history, The Pontiacs Baseball Team, Harry T. Burleigh and others. Johnny Johnson, who is featured in the introductory video for this walk, wrote some of those books. The Heritage Room at Blasco library also features 7 volumes of clips about Erie from African American owned newspapers in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.
Mercyhurst faculty and students created this tour of African Americans of Erie County (https://www.mercyhurst.edu/sites/default/files/uploads/brochure.pdf)
Visit www.eriesblackwallstreet.org for a list of Black owned businesses in Erie, including many in the West Bayfront.
Completed your walk? Fill out a quick form online, or call (814) 440-8861 to be entered into a weekly drawing for local gift cards!