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--- Issued February 26, 2013

On February 17,  the Erie Times News printed the following article in its Sunday Living section in celebration of Black History Month:

Erie's People of Color Share Memories of Growing Up

By JENNIE GEISLER, Erie Times News

In celebration of Black History Month, we talked to several leaders in Erie's black community to find out what they remember about growing up during the civil rights movement. We asked them how they think Erie's black experience has fared over their lifetimes. They shared stories of hard work, inspiration and the importance of family and culture. Most of the stories bring back memories of what is often considered a "simpler time." But to hear them tell it, that couldn't be further from the truth. As opportunities for black people opened up, especially in the Northern states -- for work, education, community and worship -- these leaders described how they overcame adversity. They spoke about the rise of the black middle class, and where the next generation is headed. Walk with us in their shoes.

Mission to Excel

Neallie Leach-Ruff, 66, is coordinator of Section 8 housing for the Erie Housing Authority.

Neallie Leach-Ruff was a 7-year-old in Mississippi, the oldest of seven children, when her mother left her father and moved to Erie with her new husband.

"I, being the oldest one, had to take care of them," she said. "I raised my sisters and brothers like they were my kids."

Her father was a sharecropper who grew cotton in the 1950s, and you could find Leach-Ruff out in the fields in a money-losing enterprise.

"We were really poor," she said. "Oftentimes, after we had the crop, we didn't have enough to pay the debt for the cotton and fertilizer."

Somehow, she finished high school and attended Mississippi Valley State College, graduating in 1969.

"It was so prejudiced that I could have just stayed down there and pity-partied, but I said 'No, I'm going to college.'"

It wasn't easy.

"I paid my way through," she said. "I scrubbed floors, worked in the cafeteria, and in the summer, I'd come home and work in the garment factory."

After college, she left Mississippi and moved to Erie, where her mother had nine other children with her second husband.

She found a job as a clerk at the Erie Housing Authority, only the second African-American to work for the agency.

"It was very prejudiced," she said. "But with the Lord's help, I made it through."

Leach-Ruff is planning to retire soon, after 42 years of service to the EHA, most recently as the coordinator of the Section 8 housing and tenant selection.

"I started at the bottom and just worked my way up," she said. "The Lord gave me this ambition to excel. I never wanted to be behind."

She said she's seen inspiring changes in Erie's black community over the years, starting with her daughter, Nadine Leach, 40, who graduated from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in elementary education.

Leach now owns Handled with Care day-care center on State Street, which cares for about 100 children.

"My daughter has my past, and she's excelling," Leach-Ruff said. "She has done what I always wanted to do, which is to have my own business."

Leach-Ruff said she worked hard to put both of her children, Nadine and Matthew Leach, through private schools in Erie.

"I had to work hard to pay their tuition," Leach-Ruff said. "That's how badly I wanted them to excel."

But she said Nadine Leach's success isn't the experience of all black people in Erie.

"I talk to all the young kids, my clients. I say 'Go and get an education and get a job because you have to be an example for your children,'" Leach Ruff said. "If they don't see you doing anything, then they won't do anything."

She marvels at the changes she's seen across the country since the 1960s.

"I travel back to the South," she said. "When I was there, it was blacks here, whites there. But that has disappeared. I used to have to go in the back of the courthouse.

"Now blacks run the courthouse."


Also featured in this article were John Drew, 80, and Barbara Drew, 68, retired teachers; Bettye Walker, 68,  a community volunteer; and Cynthia Muhammad, 64,  publisher of Erie's Black Yellow Pages.