MEDINA — Frederick Douglass, escaped slave, writer and orator, was only 29 when he first came to Medina in August 1847, but he already was famous.
A New England abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, brought Douglass here. They both spoke about slavery and the abolitionist cause at the Medina County Courthouse. Douglass drew such a large crowd that he and Garrison scheduled a second appearance the next day.
“He (Douglass) was incredibly dynamic and articulate, and of course he could speak from personal knowledge that Garrison didn’t have,” said Roger Smalley, a member of the Medina Bicentennial Committee.
Smalley’s story about Douglass was part of “Black History in Medina,” a presentation by the bicentennial committee Saturday at Medina Library. About 75 attended.
The presentation was the latest in a series of events to mark Medina’s 200th birthday this year. The climax will be homecoming week, scheduled to start July 3 with Fourth of July fireworks and run through July 11.
Smalley said Saturday’s presentation was important because blacks have been a part of the Medina community from the beginning, even before a Medina town or county officially existed.
“Also, as we dove into the history, we found very little written down or photo evidence of the black community,” Smalley said. “We saw that as a hole in our history we wanted to fill.”
Smalley said Medina’s first known black resident was Augustus Philips, believed to be a descendent of King Philip, an American Indian chief. King Philip was killed in the Narragansett War, fought in 1675 and 1676 between American Indians and white colonists in New England.
King Philip remained a legend into the 1700s and 1800s. Many of Medina’s early settlers came from New England, so they would have known about King Philip.
“So when Augustus Philips moved to Medina County in 1817, he raised a lot of interest,” Smalley told the audience Saturday. “Will we ever know for sure if he was a descendent of King Philip? Of course not.”
Smalley showed a video of the late Fred Hargrove, founder of a Medina youth theater, playing Tom King, a black Medina resident in the 1800s. In the video, King, as portrayed by Hargrove, recalled the Great Fire of 1870, which nearly destroyed Medina’s Public Square. Flames were seen five miles away.
Medina didn’t have a fire department, so everyone in town fought the fire with any pails or containers they could grab. Someone raced to Seville, which owned a manually operated fire engine, for help. But King said it wasn’t water but wind, which isolated the fire to one part of the square and saved the day.
A second video showed the late John Glover playing Joe Reno, another black resident of the 1800s. Reno was a barber in the American House Hotel, which survived the Medina fire and stayed open until 1954.
Reno, as portrayed by Glover, told the story of how he was shot to death. A Medina Gazette headline at the time said, “Lawlessness in Medina: Joe Reno shot.” A Gazette editorial called Reno “a valuable and trustworthy employee.”
“Work hard,” Reno advised from the grave. “Don’t lie. And make every man your friend. It’s just the right thing to do.”
Later in the presentation, James Banks played a member of the Medina County Historical Society interviewing Lucia Medley, as portrayed by Kimberly Oliver, a black woman who lived in Medina in the early 1900s. Banks and Oliver acted out part of a real 1978 interview.
Smalley mentioned that Frederick Douglass returned to Medina in 1874. Douglass spoke about abolitionist John Brown and the Civil War at the old Phoenix Hall, an entertainment space that occupied the third floor of the current Huntington Bank building in the square.
“The crowd packed every corner,” Smalley said.
Messages may be left for Bob Sandrick at (330) 721-4060.