In 1925, entrepreneur George Mathews saw the Howard Street District as a welcoming place for black-owned businesses. At this time in Akron’s history, racial segregation was the reality, and Mathews saw the importance of the black community having a safe place to work, live and raise families. He also saw the need for a hotel in the district where African Americans were welcomed and where the great jazz musicians of the period could stop, stay and perhaps perform locally while traveling between Chicago and New York to play shows.
The result of George Mathews’ keen vision was the Matthews Hotel. (It is unclear when or why the “t” was added to Mathews.) The hotel, located on Howard Street, opened and became the District’s central location. And late artist Miller Horns built a monument for this historic cultural hub, whose lights were recently turned on at a ceremony, nearly completing Horns’ vision. The brick structure, also expected to include the sound of a doorbell, is a reminder of a vibrant jazz age and cultural movement that emerged from Howard Street.
During its prime in the 1930s through the 1950s, the Matthews Hotel hosted such legendary musicians as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. Since they had a beautiful and welcoming place to stay, those and other performers put Akron and the Matthews Hotel on their touring schedule. They played for Akron’s African-American community in the clubs that popped up along Howard Street, including the Ritz, now the home of the Interbelt Nightclub.
George Mathews was a man with a dream, and he made history by helping to shape Akron’s black community and improve the quality of life in the Howard Street District.
In 1964, having prospered as a result of the success of his hotel, Mathews endowed a scholarship at the University of Akron. The George W. Mathews Scholarship Fund was established to provide scholarships to students based on ability, potential and need. The fund continues to award scholarships today.
Over the years, the district deteriorated and Matthews Hotel fell into disrepair. In 1982 the Matthews Hotel building was razed in the name of “Urban Renewal.”
Years went by and the Matthews Hotel and the Howard Street District’s heyday was fading into obscurity – until artist Miller Horns learned about it.
In 1995 the Cascade Locks Association approached Horns and other artists about creating works of public art along the canal. The artists were asked to use the canal, its locks and the surrounding industry as inspiration.
Horns discovered that blacks were not a part of building the canal, so he set about researching the area and discovered the rich African-American history that had once centered around the Howard Street District and its mecca, the Matthews Hotel.
From the moment of this discovery until his death in October 2012, preserving George Mathews legacy and the legacy of the Matthews Hotel for future generations would become Horns’ passion and his life’s central focus.
When Horns proposed his project to the Cascade Locks Association, they rejected it, saying the location was too far from the canal and did not reflect the intended purpose of the project.
Horns later approached then-Cascade Locks Association member Michael Owen about helping him get the project off the ground. He won Owen over, but that was just the beginning.
Over the next 15 years, Horns was relentless in his pursuit of creating a monument to the Matthews Hotel. Eventually that persistence paid off and the project began construction in 2011. The cost of materials and labor donated to the project, according to former Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth, totaled more than $200,000.
After Horns’ death in 2012, the monument was not forgotten, and on Wednesday, June 1, 2016, the City of Akron held a lighting ceremony for the Matthews Hotel Monument. It is located at the corner of North Howard Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., near where the hotel originally stood.
Members of both the Mathews and Horns families were on hand for the celebration, as was monument champion Michael Owen, who, at Horns’ request, read the speech Horns wrote for the occasion before his death. “You don’t have to be the world’s greatest basketball player to make a difference in people’s lives in Akron,” read Owen. “If you’ve figured out a way to run a business or maintain a job or successfully raise a family, you can reach back and be that role model.” Those words apply to Horns, and they could also apply to George Mathews.
Owen read Miller Horns’ words, his voice filled with with emotion at the end as he said, “I have believed in this project for so long that it has not become an important project just for the black community. This is a project for the entire community. This monument pays homage to the wonderful and talented musicians, singers and performers who visited our fair city. This monument also honors George Mathews, the businessman with a vision, and the rich cultural history of this community.
Photo Credit: Yoly Miller
“My work of art is a gift, my gift to the entire city of Akron. This structure is truly a monument to time and place. Thank you all so very much for sharing the day with me. My dream came true.”
After hearing, through Owen, the words of Miller Horns, Pastor Ronald Fowler II gave a prayer and said, “It is our prayer that all who see this monument, may they be reminded of the importance of a dream fulfilled that embraces the spirit of community and all who look upon this monument, may they be inspired to go do the same.”
The ceremony continued with a performance by the Akron Symphony Gospel Choir, speeches by Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan and the now retired former Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth, along with a trumpet performance by Jack Schantz.
Finally, the time had come to light the monument. Those in attendance counted down: five – four – three – two – one – and the Matthews Hotel Monument, Horns’ gift to us all, was lit for the public for its first time.
Though Horns died before construction was complete and the monument was celebrated on that June evening, Horns knew his dream would come true. He knew his persistence and passion had been contagious. He knew his vision had become the vision of the many folks who eventually rolled up their sleeves and worked beside him to plant the legacy of George Mathews and the Matthews Hotel firmly in the hearts and minds of future generations of Akronites.