The roots of one family from the Tyrone region run deep in the area, their name and heritage etched in the history of Black people in County Blair.
The Hewitt family has made its mark in the area since its patriarch, Coley, and his wife, Annie, moved to the area in the early 1900s from Florida, where they were tenant farmers.
Coley has held a variety of positions, including serving as Vice President of Blair County NAACP’s Tyrone Division.
“Grandfather was a pioneer” said his grandson Charles Jamison. “He was a great man, and he was a very well-known and respected man, no matter where he went.”
Yvonne Campbell, Jamison’s cousin and another of Coley and Annie’s grandchildren, has always admired her grandfather’s commitment to equality.
“He was a big believer in the NAACP and what it stood for and that if we were going to move forward as black people we needed an organization where everyone could stand together.”
Jamison and Campbell, who credit their grandparents with raising them, said they spent summers visiting the Hewitt home in Grazierville.
Jamison, who has since moved to Pittsburgh, has a peony from the Hewitts’ Grazierville home planted in his yard; it’s a poignant reminder of his family’s history, he says.
“Grandmother had a flower garden in the 1960s and 1970s – a big, huge flower garden”, Jamisson said. “People walking through Tyrone always stopped and looked at it because they had heard of it and it was a beautiful garden. There was one flower left after the house was sold, and I took it and brought it home and replanted it. It blooms every spring and it’s just beautiful so every time I leave this world my granddaughter will plant it wherever she lives. This plant, still alive today, is like a memorial I have in my front yard.
Although he lives hours away and was not born in Blair County, Jamison calls the area home.
“I was born in Chicago, but my roots are all there in Tyrone; this is where my roots are.
Coley and Annie, and three of their nine children, including Jamison’s mother, are buried in Charlottesville Cemetery in Tipton. Their last surviving child, Mozelle Hewitt Gaines, died in December in New Jersey at age 97.
According to Jamison, the Hewitts were the first black family in the Tyrone area, which took them in.
“It shows that blacks and whites were able to get along and live in peace,” Campbell said.
Campbell fondly remembers his grandfather.
“I didn’t realize how rich our history was until I sat down and put things together,” Campbell said. “Grandfather encouraged us to always try to do better and emphasized that there was no excuse for failure; he would not accept failure. My grandparents could not read or write when they arrived in Tyrone, but when their grandchildren sat down at the table in the evening to do their homework, they sat down and did theirs too. Then they got to where they could both read and write with anyone.
Campbell remembers Coley as a man of faith who had a vision for his family.
“He felt that his children could do better than what he was doing”, Campbell said. “He was a Christian; he believed in God in everyday life and he walked with the Holy Spirit, and that was the only value he taught us all.
“My grandfather meant everything to me; even though he was not my father my parents gave me to my grandparents to raise me because they felt he had the moral values that i needed to instill in me », Campbell said. “We never had a meal without having blessed the Lord. We weren’t rich, but we were rich in love. If one person had a penny, everyone had a piece.
At one time, Coley was the senior licensed and ordained deacon in Pennsylvania. He was involved with various churches, including the Church of God in Christ and the Gethsemane Mother Church of God, and organized what is now known as the annual Church Union Picnic, which led to the start of the Central Pennsylvania African American Heritage Festival.
“He must have had a profound impact on the community because white journalists were constantly covering him,” said Blair County NAACP President Andrae Holsey. “He was highly respected by the community and throughout the state and was a key player in maintaining African American history and culture across Pennsylvania.”
Campbell said his grandfather’s legacy lives on locally, as people respect Coley now as they did years ago.
“They’re still talking about him” Campbell said. “He was very, very Christian, and he believed in families and family values. In Tyrone there were not many blacks, but they respected him. He believed in the Black family and that we could do whatever we wanted as long as we stuck together.
Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.