ASHTABULA — The year was 1949 and World War II post-war prosperity started to get underway with companies now able to supply cars, televisions and other goods to the American people. A new house cost $7,450, a gallon of gas cost 17 cents, and the average worker took home $2,950 a year.
That same year, Leonard Miller, now 90, moved to Ashtabula from Louisville, Mississippi. He was 19 at the time.
“I was looking for work; I saw an advertisement and thought I’d be better off here,” he said. “When I came here I could count the number of Black families in Ashtabula on one hand.”
Miller’s parents owned a farm and grew corn, cotton, soybeans and vegetables. They had no farm machinery, only Miller, his siblings and a couple of mules to do the work.
“I did my share of work, eight hours a day,” he said. “Whenever I could, I’d go hunting for squirrels, rabbits and birds. I love the outdoors, always have.”
Upon arrival in Ashtabula, Miller found plenty of stores, a train station and a grand hotel downtown.
“There was plenty of work,” he said. “I had no problem getting a job.”
After working construction and a stint on the railroad, Miller took a job at Raser Tanning Company, 757 Prospect Road, where they made leather products. He worked there for nearly 30 years, becoming the company’s first African-American foreman.
During those working years, Miller married his wife, Joy, who died eight months ago. In their 67-year marriage, the couple had eight children, 10 grandchildren, 8 great grandchildren and 3 great-great-grandchildren.
His son, Ted Miller, 67, described his father as an honest, hard-working man who cares deeply for his family.
“There were eight of us, including a set of twins,” Ted Miller said. “My father was a strict disciplinarian. He doesn’t look like it, but looks can be deceiving.”`
Joy Miller was a homemaker, who found life full and satisfying because of her love for her family, her husband said.
The Millers lived on Anne Avenue for many years before moving to West 50th Street, where he still resides. The couple loved to sit on the front porch together and wave at passersby.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the past 70 years in Ashtabula — the neighborhoods, the rise and decline of factory work,” Leonard Miller said.
He witnessed the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s, including when the U.S. Supreme Court made segregation illegal in public schools in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Freedom Riders — seven Black and six white activists who embarked on a bus tour of the South to protest segregated bus terminals — and Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream Speech,” in Washington, D.C.
During the 1950s and 60s, the Ashtabula area experienced growth with an expanding chemical industry and increasing harbor activity, making Ashtabula one of the most important port cities on the Great Lakes.
Because of the industry, Miller saw extensive environmental contamination. The Ashtabula River and harbor were designated as a Superfund Site by the Environmental Protection Agency in the late 20th Century. Several years of environmental cleanup of toxic wastes and soils, as well as river dredging in 2012-2014 rejuvenated the Ashtabula Harbor.
Today, he can no longer count on one hand, or even two, the number of African-American families in Ashtabula. According to the U.S. Census, there were about 97,000 people living in Ashtabula County in July 2019. Of that number, nearly 4 percent were African-American.
Many African-Americans are thriving and taking leadership roles in the community, including teachers, coaches, members of the school board and business people.
A year ago, Miller witnessed a milestone, when the first female African-American city council person took office. Octavia Harris, 33, was chosen by the Republican Precinct Committee on Dec. 21, 2019 to fill the Ward 4 seat vacated by Michael Speelman, who was elected vice president of council.
Harris was sworn in by retired Clerk of Council, LaVette Hennigan, also an African-American.
More recently, Miller saw his friend, Laydean Young, a local business woman, sworn into office to represent Ward 3 in Ashtabula.
“I’ve known her since she was a little girl,” he said.
Young thinks a lot of Miller, too.
“He’s a very knowledgeable man; very humble,” she said. “He’s lived in Ashtabula more than 60 years and he has an amazing story to tell.”