Ceremony, stone recognizes Ford City's Lower End settlers
As Steven Heffner takes a leisurely walk through the streets of the Lower End of Ford City on a humid summer afternoon, he's quick to wave and smile at folks sitting on their porches or at people driving by. He seems to know everyone. And no wonder; he's lived in this section of Ford City since he was born in 1952.
Just spend a few moments with Heffner, a third-generation Lower End resident, and it's clear he loves his community and his black heritage.
It's this love that motivated him to spearhead a fundraising campaign to purchase a memorial stone to be placed at the corners of Third Street and Third Avenue to honor the working class black families who found jobs and settled here in the early 20th century.
“They had a work ethic,” Heffner said. “They worked hard, their homes were beautiful, and they took pride in what they had.”
His memorial to this group he called the foundation of the Lower End will be unveiled at a 2 p.m. ceremony as a part of a weekend-long celebration.
“It is a way to honor the families that grew up in the Lower End of Ford City,” Heffner said.
Ford City in the early 20th century was a bustling industrial town. Pittsburgh Plate Glass reigned supreme as the largest glass plate company in the world, and blacks from the south and immigrants from Europe journeyed to the borough to find work. Bringing their families with them, they settled in the southern most part of Ford City, the Lower End.
Alice Ware, who lives on Fifth Avenue, was one of the first people to take up residence in the Lower End in the mid-1920s. Ware, 97, remembers arriving in Ford City as a 9-year-old farm girl.
“We moved from Todd County, Ky. Father was a farmer there and had some troubles,” Ware said. “He moved to Ford City to work at PPG.”
Finding a home
Securing a job at the plate glass company, Alice's father, Wiley Andrews, settled into a home in the upper end of town. But before long, the powers that be at PPG insisted that all immigrant and black employees live in company houses in the Lower End. Not a man to have people tell him what to do, Andrews moved his family to a farm outside of town. But in a few years Ware found herself in the Lower End.
“I graduated from Ford City High School in 1936,” she said. “I got married. In the 1940s, I moved into the rowhouses here.”
After her husband died and her children graduated high school, she got involved in politics and was the playground supervisor in the Lower End for 25 years.
Ware speaks of the days when blacks were not welcome in businesses in the upper end of town, but the Lower End had its own grocery store, butcher shop and bar, which was owned by a family from Poland that catered to black and immigrant customers.
Ware and Heffner remember segregation and the civil rights movement of the '60s, but according to Heffner, whites and blacks lived peacefully side by side in the Lower End.
“During the civil rights movement, we had blacks and whites in the neighborhood, but the young people did not develop malice.”
Heffner credits the lack of racial conflict to the importance of the church in the community.
“The church spoke about love and to turn the other cheek,” Heffner said. “We figured if Jesus could do it, so could we.”
Heffner reminisces about warm summer days of his youth when children poured out of their homes and headed for the playground. There was always activity on those streets. The neighborhood was vibrant and strong.
A lasting legacy
Heffner is proud of his Lower End heritage, and he doesn't want the history of this area to be forgotten. He is hoping the celebration this weekend will remind residents and their families of the working class melting pot that was the Lower End.
“We want to recognize what we have and to feel great about growing up here. It's time to say ‘thanks' to the founders of the Lower End,” he said.
Kathleen Edwards is a freelance reporter for Trib Total Media.