Making a difference
When young people “adjust” their age on false documents, they almost always try to make people believe that they are older than they are – maybe so they can drive a car, get married, join the military, or buy booze. Not Toby Jackson, of Farrell. When he was 19, his family helped him adjust his age to 16 – for a very good reason.
Born in 1919, Toby grew up on his grandfather’s 500-acre farm near Eufaula, Alabama.
“Over 200 acres were fenced in,” Toby said. “There were a lot of animals. I had the time of my life chasing cattle around. There wasn’t any work you can do on a farm that I didn’t end up having to do.”
As a result, Toby fell way behind in school. But the family came up with a solution. His aunt was the county supervisor of education for African-American children in Alabama. In 1938, when he was 19, she made him a transcript that showed his age as 16 so he could move to Farrell and get into school. He had to struggle, but he made it all the way through high school.
During his last year in high school, he met Dorothy Johnson, who had also moved to Pennsylvania from the South.
Dorothy was born in Lexington, Virginia, into a family who placed great value on education.
“My grandmother must have read a lot,” Dorothy said. “She named my father Ulysses Othello Johnson. She was a stickler for education. Her husband died early, and she worked taking care of people’s homes and children so she could send her eight kids to school.
Dorothy’s father graduated from Hampton Institute (later University) with a degree in engineering, but because he was black, there were no engineering jobs open to him. The two major employers in Lexington were Virginia Military Institute, and Washington and Lee University.
“The schools hired black people to cook and serve,” she said. “There were fraternity houses all over Lexington. My father was a waiter. He took the examination for postal service. They told him he had the highest score they had there in a long time, but they said they couldn’t hire him because it just wasn’t done.”
Dorothy’s mother opened a grocery store in a small addition to their house. It was the only black-owned grocery in Lexington. She became known all around the town for her ingenuity and hard work, and she had great plans to expand. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 43.
Because of the lack of good jobs for African-Americans, the black population in Lexington would fluctuate drastically.
“That would leave the school system short of students,” Dorothy said, “so my dad had to pay for me to go to boarding school in Henderson, North Carolina. They told us later the state should have paid for it, but they didn’t. My father had to struggle.”
Dorothy went to boarding school anyway.
“There were only two ways you could go,” she said. “You could study academics to be a teacher, or to study business courses. But there were no businesses that would hire us, so I took the academic courses.”
When Dorothy talks of those days, there isn’t a trace of bitterness or resentment in her voice.
“We understood,” she said. “But my kids always said to me, how did you put up with that? I said because if we hadn’t, then you wouldn’t be here to make a difference. You’re here to make a difference. We could have rebelled and gotten hurt or killed or put in jail or something, but we had the hopes that our next generation would change things. And they did.”
After Dorothy graduated from high school in 1943, at the age of 17, she moved to Wampum, PA, hoping to find a job in the mills around Rochester and Beaver Falls.
“My father had remarried,” she said, “and his second wife’s half-sister lived in Wampum.”
The mills wouldn’t hire anyone under 18, so Dorothy stayed with a family and did domestic work for them. She enjoyed going to high school football and basketball games. That’s how she met Toby.
“After the football games there was always a dance at Cascade Park for the students,” she said. “I came up from Wampum for a game, and he came down from Farrell. That was in 1943. We dated until he went into the service, and kept in touch while he was overseas.”
Toby graduated from high school in 1943 and went into the Navy. He trained at Great Lakes Naval Station, then was assigned to Pearl Harbor. He wasn’t willing to waste time doing useless jobs.
“He took tests for all kinds of stuff,” Dorothy said, “but there was no place for a black person to move up in those years.”
“I pushed it to the limit,” Toby said. “They finally started recognizing me when it got to the time I could stay or leave, but I chose to come back home because I wanted to go to college. I wanted an engineering degree.”
Toby arrived back late in 1945, and married Dorothy the following May. He started working in the steel mills, first at Malleable, and then at Sharon Steel. While working there part-time, he studied engineering at Youngstown College.
“We lived on Lee Avenue, and he would walk across the bridge and catch the bus on Irvine Avenue to Youngstown College,” Dorothy said. “It was really rough.”
Toby continued that for two years. Dorothy gave birth to their first son, Greg, in 1947. Then she contracted tuberculosis, and Toby had to quit Youngstown College.
Dorothy spent a full year in Washington, DC.
“I went to Friedman Hospital, which is associated with Howard University,” she said. “The doctors were very good. While I was there several miracle drugs came, and I was able to get one of them. Since I was there, I had the rest of my children. I have four living children, but would have had seven. Six of them were born after I had TB.”
Their second son Michael was born in 1953, third son Toby in 1957, and daughter Andrea in 1960.
Toby continued to work at Sharon Steel. As was his nature, he was never content with just doing a job. Starting as third helper in the melting operation, he worked his way up to first helper, then to the management position of melter.
“Whenever there was an opening for melter,” Toby said, “I went in and applied for it. I went in two or three times. One time one of the melters was sick and the other one was on vacation or something, so they told me to come on a different turn and go melting. That suited me fine. The regular melters would be in training for two or three months, but I didn’t get a day.”
Eventually he was full time melter, but life still wasn’t easy.
“Anybody who’s working in steel knows that every so many years there’s going to be a strike, and you have to prepare for it,” Dorothy said. “If you’re buying a house, you pay more than the minimum payment so you’re ahead with it. I remember times when Toby would have to leave the area to find work. One time he worked in construction at Reston, Virginia. He would just come home on the weekends.”
Dorothy worked at Jimmie’s Department Store and Murphy’s on Idaho Street. She worked at Sharon Regional as a ward secretary for a while in the 1960s, but quit because she felt she needed to be a full-time mother. From 1978 to 1990, she again worked at the hospital, this time as a technician in the cardiac unit.
The Jacksons built a small addition onto their house as a drapery shop for Dorothy.
Both she and Toby were active in the community. They were faithful members of the Greater Morris Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Farrell.
“We were both in the PTA,” Dorothy said, “and Toby was elected to the Farrell School Board for about nine years. He was active in the Jaycees.
They were also instrumental in getting the YMCA into the area.
“Toby was a charter member of the Wiseman organization that fostered YMCAs all over the country,” Dorothy said, “and I was a Wisemanette. We used to raise money by collecting canceled postage stamps from companies such as the gas company and the water company. We went to Toronto, Wisconsin, and a lot of other places for conferences and conventions. That’s how we got this Y here.”
Through it all, they never lost sight of their dream, to foster a generation that could make a difference. Here’s how well they succeeded:
Their oldest son Greg is a vice president of Mellon Corporation in Pittsburgh. Second son Michael is CEO of the Florida Pharmaceutical Association. Third son Toby has been a vice president at Macy’s, the Gap, and Old Navy, and is now VP of Men’s Express in Columbus Ohio. Daughter Andrea was an athlete who excelled in basketball and volleyball. She was on the United States national volleyball team – unfortunately, in 1980, the year the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics. She was assistant volleyball coach at Youngstown State for 13 years, and is now an assistant teacher working with special needs students at Sharon High School.
“We’ve had a rich, full life,” Dorothy said.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009