The Frith Family of Wesleyville

from the book Greetings from Wesleyville by Debbi Lyon

The Frith family moved to Erie from Georgia, living on East 26th and Brooklyn, and then on East 17th near Franklin Avenue. “We lived where A. O. Smith is now, upstairs in the offices. It was not in use as a factory. My father was the caretaker, and Mr. Ammerman let our family stay there,” said Sarah Pitts Wright.

Sarah went to Burton Elementary School on Buffalo Road in Erie up to the sixth grade. “I loved Ancient History, because we read the Bible in class. We prayed in school in those days and we said the Pledge of Allegiance,” said Sarah Wright.
“We came from Georgia to here. Everyone was getting away from sharecropping. When we went to settle up, he didn’t get anything, and they said he owed money. My dad could figure; he knew he was being cheated. We left at night, left the livestock and everything else. My people got the money together to send for us.

I was almost eight years old, but I was small for my age. I passed as a five year old until we got to Cincinnati, then the conductor got wise. A group of white people surrounded us. I didn’t know what was happening. My dad was a Mason, and he knew the Mason signs. He told them what happened. A group of white people passed the hat around and collected money for my fare from Cincinnati to Erie.

“My grandmother came first to take care of my uncle’s little girl. Then came my grandfather, Uncle Henry, and my uncle and aunt. Aunt Ella stayed behind. She wouldn’t leave.”

Sarah’s uncle, Will Jones, lived in a small cottage on Fourth Avenue near Buffalo Road in Erie. An explosion rocked the house on December 26, 1927, taking the life of Will and his three small children, Florence, Margaret and Lawrence. His wife, Sallie Jones, was seriously burned but she did survive. Will Jones was Julia Frith’s brother. Julia’s sister Lula Edwards lived with the family on Otto Street in 1926. [Three of her brothers, George, Henry and Lawrence Jones, lived in Erie.]

“My father was born five years after Freedom was declared. He was born in Tennessee and brought up with the McCoy boys,” said Sarah.[[#_edn1|[i]]]

“He had a fifth-grade education. In those days, blacks couldn’t go to school. When the McCoy’s did their homework at night, they taught him. My mother used to pick cotton in the fields. I only had one picture of my real father. My step-father is the only father that I ever knew. My mama wasn’t married when I was born.

“I was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1914. I always went by the name Sarah Pitts, not Frith. There were eight of us children, and my step-father raised me as his daughter,” said Sarah.

Sarah had several step-brothers and sisters. “William Frith was the oldest boy. He was born in 1921 in Georgia. Johnny was born in the second house from the corner [on Otto Street]. He wasn’t born in the hospital. My grandmother delivered my sister and Johnny. Then there was David, Raymond, who had Dr. Switzer, and Franklin. Ella was born in 1924, and then Shirley.”

Times were tough, even after the move to Wesleyville. “I remember Mr. Kelley, from the Kelley Grocery Store. When you would get food and there would just be a little spot or something, he couldn’t sell it, so he would give it to us. One time, he got a bunch of pineapple in that was like that. He said, ‘Ask your mother if you want some pineapple.’ I came home and I asked Mama, ‘Mr. Kelley wants to know if you want pineapple.’ She said yes. They had brought my brother a little wagon. His nickname was Jab. They said, ‘Jab, go up there and get the pineapple.’ It was a whole crate. He brought it home and one of the neighbors saw the pineapple and reported it to the Poor Board that we had bought a crate of pineapple,” said Sarah.

“Do you know that they came out and wanted to know where did we get money to buy pineapple?”

Sarah might have been a thousand miles from home, but she never thought about leaving Wesleyville. “I went back to a reunion in Columbus, Georgia and found out that I had three half-sisters. But I don’t know them. My family is here.”
Sarah’s husband Central Wright died on April 29, 1962 at the age of 53 suffering a heart attack while fishing at the Peninsula with his friend and neighbor Tony Ardillo. Central was born in Humboldt, Tennessee, and had moved to Erie County around 1922. After his mother died, Central lived in a shack near the roundhouse in Lawrence Park with his father and brothers. He worked at GE for many years. Central and Sarah were the parents of Jacquelyn, Valerie and Sandra Wright. Central was buried at Lakeside Cemetery.

“I worked hard in my day,” said Sarah. “I never applied for any type of public assistance. I hated the word. I plucked turkeys for seven long years. I stayed at Zuck’s Turkey Farm and worked. They were good people to work for. If it hadn’t been for Oleta and Clark, I don’t know what I would have done when my husband died. I scrubbed floors. I scrubbed many floors.” Sarah also cleaned shacks on the old Chambers’ property before it was converted to a trailer park. “I’ve done many things,” she said.
“Both of my parents knew the value of education,” said Sarah. “My grandmother knew the value of money, and education didn’t matter to her. Out of eight of us, only Johnny did not graduate from high school. He joined the Army at 16, and came home when he was 18. He went back to school, but it didn’t last. A teacher said something to him, and Johnny floored him. He had learned too much in the Army. He floored me one time too, but I told him I fell because I was wearing high heels.”
Sarah’s grandmother, Sallie Jones, was born about 1871. She died at Hamot Hospital on December 15, 1932. Sallie was sick for two months before she died. She was buried at Lakeside Cemetery.

Raymond Frith, Sarah’s brother, was a baritone singer of national renown. After graduating from Wesleyville High School in 1949, he moved to New York to study music. Raymond was awarded the Harry T. Burleigh scholarship in 1953. In August of 1955 he won the National Negro Award for musicians at a contest held in Chicago. He was a guest singer on NBC Radio during National Negro History Week in February of 1956.[[#_edn2|[ii]]]

[[#_ednref1|[i]]] Interview with Sarah Pitts Wright, 3-4 September 2001.
[[#_ednref2|[ii]]] Erie Dispatch, 5 June 1956.