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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

History makes you strong: The story of one painting and a Black family’s legacy in Springfield, Ohio

“The Gammon House” by Lelia Byron.
Lelia Byron
“The Gammon House” by Lelia Byron.

Artist Lelia Byron makes public murals and installations nationally and around the world. Before she begins each project, she interviews people in the community. Byron talked to people in Springfield, Ohio about the many meanings of home. Culture Couch producer David Seitz tells us the story of one painting and one family’s history in Black Springfield.

To the Stone family, Black history is home. They invited Lelia Byron to the Gammon House in Springfield. In the 1850’s, the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad, hosted by George and Sarah Gammon, free Black citizens.

This is not the Stone family home, but this is where they wanted to be painted, Lelia Byron said.

“When you think about home, most people are not actually going to respond thinking in terms of an object or like a house. They’re going to respond in terms of this idea of feeling safe or feeling loved.”

Byron’s painting captures the warmth of the family in the Gammon House. She painted the wooden floors deep orange. The walls are vibrant yellow and pink. The Stone brothers and sisters gather around a bright blue table of photographs, books, and family papers. Byron says the table is the family archive.

“When you know your history, you know where you came from."

Gail Stone Grant, one of the Stone siblings, agreed. “I’m thinking, man, that is so cool,” Stone Grant exclaimed, "The history of our family on the table. I see my grandfather’s house. I see my grandmother’s house. I see the house that I grew up in on Euclid Avenue here in Springfield. I was actually born in that house.”

“Our great, great, great grandfather bought his kids out of slavery,” Stone Grant said. “So the price was anywhere between fifty dollars for the girls and a hundred dollars for the boys.”

When Gail was a child, the Springfield schools didn’t teach that local Black history.

She said, “It would have really been exciting to know when I was in elementary school that Route 68 was part of the underground railroad, but the only thing we learned I can remember, you know, is that black folk picked cotton.”

The Stone family learned their history at family reunions, starting in 1938 and still going today. One family story has been passed down the generations. Gail’s grandmother was a teacher in Richmond Kentucky, but she also needed to take in laundry to help the family on their farm. She was bringing a woman’s laundry back into town in her buggy when her horse was spooked by a train whistle.

Byron’s painting, “Timeline” also recalls the history of Black Springfield neighborhoods. Photo credit, Lelia Byron.
Lelia Byron
Byron’s painting, “Timeline” also recalls the history of Black Springfield neighborhoods. Photo credit, Lelia Byron.

Stone Grant told the story: “And he ran so fast, the buggy became unhitched from the rein that she was holding, and she flipped out of the buggy, and she flipped on her feet, and pulled the horse to a stop, hooked him back up, got back in the buggy, and went on home, and fixed lunch for her kids and her husband.”

“History makes you strong,” Stone Grant reflected. “When you know your history, you know where you came from. And you see all the pain and suffering or joy and happiness that your family has gone through in the past, then you know it’s for you too. That’s the legacy, I think, you know, I would like to leave for my grandkids, just to always persevere, and hang in there, regardless.”

That perseverance paid off for Gail and her family. As teenagers, the Stone siblings worked for their father’s employers, cleaning houses, helping at parties, and babysitting. These wealthy white families respected Gail’s work.

“I mentioned that I did want to go to school,” recalls Stone Grant, “and I wanted to go to Central State, so they just asked me, “Okay, that’s fine, you know, we’re going to set up a foundation down at Central State for you to go.”

Gail Stone Grant between her sister Dorothy and brother Kenneth.
Gail Stone Grant
Gail Stone Grant between her sister Dorothy and brother Kenneth.

This scholarship opened the door at Central State University for many Stone family members— 26 of them graduated from Central State. For Gail, it led to a long career as an art teacher in the Springfield schools.

“You know art is forever,” Stone Grant said. “And art is just another way to preserve history, and that’s how we know about all the history in the past from all the artwork that was left behind.

Each painting in the exhibit, ”No Such Thing as Strangers,” tells a Springfield story. The show runs at the Springfield Art Museum until January. For Culture Couch, this is David Seitz.

Byron’s show, “No Such Thing as Strangers” runs till January 2024.
Byron’s show, “No Such Thing as Strangers” runs till January 2024.

To see an exhibition catalog of all the paintings and to read each of the Springfield participants’ stories, go to https://www.leliabyron.com/exhibition-books.

David Seitz learned his audio writing skills in the third Community Voices class. Since then he has produced many stories on music, theater, dance, and visual art for Cultural Couch. Some of these stories have won awards from the Public Media Journalists Association and the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors. He is deeply grateful that most of his stories address social justice issues in a variety of art forms, whether it be trans gender singing, the musical story of activist Bayard Rustin, or men performing Hamilton in prison.