Editor’s note. This article, due to the length of time it covered, will be broken down to several installments. I spent weeks researching every possible aspect of the 1931 racial and communistic battles Barberton was immersed in.
It is important for the readers to take note that the language used in this and the remaining articles is taken from long and detailed research from numerous papers across the nation, including the Barberton Herald.
I have not changed the language used by reporters, to do so would taint the story. There is absolutely no prejudice intended by using the word negro or colored. That is the historical context. In the 1930s the term black or African American did not exist. Those terms would be out of place here. I may use the term Black for my own context.
The story is raw. No attempt to cover for either side of the riots will be made. It is the story as reported from all sides.
In America it was not the best of times. For Barberton, it could be said probably the worst of times. 1931 brought a confluence of communistic propaganda, riots, and outright lies and deception on Barberton that threatened to destroy everything that made it the Magic City.
In late October 1929 the stock market failed. Like a stack of child’s building blocks, everything both financial and social came tumbling down. The Great Depression lasted in various stages until WWII, but meanwhile, in the early years, subversive groups attempted to gain strength during America’s darkest time. Barberton was one of several industrial cities in the cross hairs of the social unrest.
This story will merge three fingers of anarchy that became one stream. The first event known as the Hunger March started in several places throughout Ohio such as Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo and Cincinnati to south. Most of Barberton’s problems originated in Cleveland and Youngstown.
On May Day 1931, a communist holiday, followers of the Soviet socialist beliefs, and their fellow comrades across Ohio started their slow noisy journey towards Columbus to meet with Governor George White to hand him their demands. This march was conducted by idle jobless men, smattered with a handful of women, blacks and many young people.
After the hunger march left Cleveland, jubilant and locked arm in arm, singing songs inspired by the movement they hunkered down in Bedford during the first night, sleeping on benches and other uncomfortable hard surfaces.
The residents of Bedford added a bit of hospitality offering handouts of food and twenty-five cent meals. After the marchers left Bedford early the next day, they entered Northfield where the communists had lunch of a mulligan style stew, held a quick demonstration and headed for Akron-Falls area meeting at the High Level bridge.
Frank Miller, state secretary of Ohio Council of Unemployed, an organization started by the American Communist society oversaw the Akron segment of the march. They were prominent in much of the trouble in days to come.
Meanwhile the Youngstown battalion camped at Alliance and marched toward Massillon to meet up Akron-Cleveland group after they planned a stop in Barberton. To keep up with the Cleveland marchers the Youngstowners often caught rides in cars and trucks, hardly breaking sweat for the cause.
Barberton’s Mayor Decker gave police orders the communist marchers were not permitted to stop here when they arrived so keep them moving through town.
Andy Parks, spokesman of the Akron group vowed they would stop here because the unemployed need to hear their message. There was a two-fold reason for the group desiring to meet in Barberton, first to spread their devious Soviet inspired message and second to protest the mysterious disappearance of a colored laborer, C. Lewis Alexander who was a known locally as communist sympathizer. It was alleged by the communist group that the Barberton policemen dragged him from his shack.
Even with the warning to avoid Barberton, the Akron marchers trudged on towards Barberton singing Internationale, a Soviet work song. The first attempted meeting was a festive gathering at Sunnyside Park in the Kenmore district where the contingent took part more soap box speeches and handing out leaflets.
Back in Akron the second contingent of the hunger marchers remained behind where groups of Young Pioneers, another communist group, peddled Soviet literature and workers propaganda while little kids at Perkins School peered out the school windows.
A young, shrill voiced girl named Margie Sabol stood on a soapbox and yelled out, “The only true government is that of the Soviet Republic in Russia.”
Crudely painted banners were handed out to women and young girls.
Meanwhile as the communist were rallying in Akron, planning their move into Barberton, an alleged crime was considered for investigation by the grand jury. Summit County prosecutor Don Isham promised a thorough investigation of the afore mentioned C. Lewis Alexander 32, former resident of Alabama. The grand jury was scheduled to start the week following May 3,but more often than not, delays were soon to follow.
The Toledo group got held up in Wooster where they were running out of steam, so they hobnobbed with carnival workers who were stuck at the Wayne County Fairgrounds due to their economic condition. For many it was party time. Wooster also banned the marchers from entering the city limits.
As the Toledo group trudged on to Marion where the other marchers would eventually meet up for a large rally. When the group finally converges on Columbus, other marchers from Zanesville and other communities will meet up.
To provide the grand jury with little more than circumstantial evidence that foul play was involved was going to be difficult due to the numerous voices accusing misdeeds of the Barberton police. Two lawyers now enter the story. Alex Greenbaum, who was retained to defend the Barberton police that were accused of grabbing Alexander from his home.
On the opposing side was Mrs. Yetta Land, an attorney for International Labor Defense who was due in Akron to push for the Alexander case. But as for now Mrs. Land was in Youngstown defending fifty-five comrades for rioting in Youngstown.
The International Labor Defense was a legal defense arm of the American Communist Party of which Land, herself a devout communist, who to this day is on the honor roll of American communists. As a sidenote she ended up in Berkley in her later years living with her sister while writing memoirs of her days fighting side by side with her comrades. She died on February 1, 1986 at the age of ninety-nine.
On May 2, subpoenas to attend a deposition hearing before Judge Pratt in Barberton’s Municipal Court were handed out to any witnesses to the Alexander case. This was to be a preliminary hearing to gather information for a grand jury.
Greenbaum held a conference the previous week with police chief Fred Werntz and Captain Howard Yackee seeking out any witness on the disappearance of Alexander and have them sign a voluntary statement before Barberton City Solicitor Arthur Cassleberry. It was necessary to clear the rumors up to satisfy residents and protestors.
Greenbaum stated, “So much slander and rumors have been connected with the Alexander case that the entire Barberton police force is working under a cloud. We want this matter cleared up as much as anybody. All this loose talk must be cleared up.”
Witnesses being sought were those from the Cleveland Chapter of the Association of the Advancement of Colored People who claim Alexander was beaten on the night of Feb 2 and told to leave town between 1 and 2 a.m. He allegedly was taken from the home of a friend never seen again.
At the same time, the Akron groups were to meet at Perkins Square, the hotbed for the Akron communist movement, to plan another meeting in Barberton to protest the disappearance of Alexander, something there was no proof of yet. All the accusations from Akron did was keep the flames smoldering, and smolder they did.
For all intent and purposes the Hunger March ended in Columbus on May 10th under heavy police escort as the 150 comrades, locked arm and arm walked up to the steps of the statehouse. Two men from the Cincinnati delegation were arrested for trying to take up a collection. The marchers planned a large demonstration before handing over their demands to Governor White, demands that included old age pensions.
To dwell anymore on the hunger march will be pointless. It is another story for another day. The main part of the story needs to focus back on Barberton and Akron, for ahead of this moment will lay three more months of dark trouble for many people of this community.
On Tuesday May 12, a suit by Mrs. Hattie Simpson was filed for damages against Barberton Patrolman Henry Robertson due to the alleged arrest of C. Lois Alexander at her home at 152 National Ave. (Wooster Rd.) on Feb 4. The arrest was being investigated by the NAACP.
Attorney Elmer Lancaster who represents the NAACP and brought the suit forward for Simpson, claimed once again police barged into her house, grabbed Alexander and took him to the country near Snydertown and beat him up due to his activities with the Barberton Council of the Unemployed. Lancaster said Alexander has not been seen nor heard from since that date.
Werntz said there was no record for his arrest. Robertson, the accused patrolman lived in Snydertown.
On Tuesday May 19, another communist affiliated group stepped into the fray. George Maurer, Labor Defense League organizer from New York arrived in Akron and announced a series of mass meetings throughout the area to discuss the Alexander case. Another New York activist, Richard Moore and David Williamson of Akron were speakers at the 9 W. Bartges labor headquarters. They planned another meeting in Barberton in the near future. All this commotion spread while Isham was planning to open a grand jury on his disappearance.
The newest accusation stated Alexander, who is now mentioned as a labor leader, was taken from a National Ave home on Feb 2, and beaten. On Feb 4 he was taken away his home never to be seen again and presumed dead.
Accusations continued to be thrown at the police about the brutality and now probable murder of Alexander.
Margaret Sabol of the Unemployed Council disclosed they were planning a mass meeting in Barberton the following Wednesday. She was also sending telegrams to Mayor Decker demanding an investigation on the Alexander disappearance. Prosecutor Don Isham said he knew of the charges but was not able to ascertain what if anything could be done.
Mayor Decker said the meeting would be a reprisal by the communists of Akron because he refused the hunger marchers a permit to hold a mass meeting.
To seemingly stoke the flames before the Barberton meeting Lancaster said he came into direct evidence of a reign of terror by the Barberton police on the negro population. He went on to say he was told by others they were accosted on the streets and being chased off the streets at night plus other acts of terror.
Lancaster claimed he sent telegrams to Alexanders home in Alabama and other Ohio cities where Alexander had worked but nobody had seen him or knows of his location, leaving many to think he was dead.
On a late spring evening after a meeting at the usual labor hall on 9 W. Bartges St. the call came out to move in on Barberton even though Mayor Decker told them to stay away. He even notified the Akron police department to break up the meeting, but they refused to do anything.
The trouble started in Barberton at the Serbian Hall, 288 Wooster Rd when remarks by Miss Jennie Cooper, the district organizer for the International Labor defense, who started speaking in defense of Alexander, began accusing the police.
“They murdered him,” she declared to the witnesses. “They’re murders. The Barberton police and the mayor are murderers.”
NEXT INSTALMENT: LET THE RIOTS BEGIN