LIMA — Robert Nelson was born in 1841 in the slave state of Virginia and was one of the approximately 180,000 Black men who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Following the war, Nelson and his wife, Laura Elizabeth Neal, settled down, raising crops and kids.
One of those children, a daughter named Lezola, who was born Aug. 1, 1894, in Thornton, Mississippi, married William S. O’Neal. In 1931, O’Neal moved his family, which by then was comprised of two sons and a daughter, to Lima.
In a March 1999 story on the migration of blacks from the South to the industrial North during the 1930s and ‘40s, William O’Neal’s granddaughter Myrtle Ward Johnson recalled that he, “bought a few acres of land — a ‘baby farm,’ the real estate agent called it — and subsequently established himself as Lima’s first Black photographer.”
William O’Neal died in 1937; Lezola O’Neal survived him by more than 56 years — spending most of them at the family home on Hanthorn Road in Perry Township. When she died at the age of 99 in April 1994, The Lima News noted that she had been a homemaker and a member of Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church.
She had been a lot more. She also was the matriarch of an extended family that produced factory workers, businessmen, musicians and, in her granddaughter Willa Mae O’Neal, a tireless volunteer and community activist.
Lezola O’Neal was survived by 12 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and 24 great-great-grandchildren but had outlived her three children. Lee Andrew O’Neal, her second oldest son, who worked for the Nickel Plate Road, died in 1965 at the age of 49. The eldest son, Ernest O’Neal, who made a name as a tennis player in Lima as a young man and worked for Teledyne Ohio Steel as an adult, died at the age of 81 in June 1993. Her daughter Asilee Ward died in October 1981 at the age of 71.
Married to James E. Ward, Asilee Ward was the mother of six daughters and four sons. Her daughter, Willa Mae, who was born in November 1928 in Lynch, Kentucky, devoted much of her life to serving the Lima community in a variety of roles despite having epilepsy, which did not seem to slow her down much.
“Epilepsy prevented Willa Mae O’Neal from holding down a regular job, but it has not stopped her from working,” the News wrote in March 1991, noting that by that time, O’Neal had volunteered for nearly 40 years at the Cheryl Allen Southside Center of Lutheran Social Services. “Though her vocation has not paid her materially, she has gained much,” the News added.
“It’s helped me a lot,” O’Neal told the News. “Your mind is occupied when you’re doing something. If you’re feeling bad, and you’re not doing something, you’ll feel worse about it.”
Willa Mae O’Neal was always doing something. When she died at 83 in August 2012, the News wrote in her obituary that she had been a laboratory technician at St. Rita’s Medical Center and a member of Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church, where she served on the Kitchen Committee and the Minnie-Elkins McGee Johnson Circle. She also was a member of the League of Women Voters, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the board of the Community Action Commission, and the board of the Legal Aid Society.
That was just the beginning. “She was a community activist, a volunteer at the Cheryl Allen Center, had served as a Girl Scout leader and was a charter member of Helping Hands Credit Union. She was one of the founding members of Lima-Allen Council on Community Affairs, a member of Church Women United and a volunteer at the Salvation Army. In 1983, she was named woman of the year,” the News wrote.
“O’Neal, who attended Perry School and graduated from Shawnee High School, had aspired to be a nurse, but found her race was a barrier,” the News wrote in 1991.
It was then that O’Neal, who would help so many others over the years, got some help herself. “A prominent local Black doctor, Dr. Arkley Arthur Dalton, along with some of her teachers worked to gain her admission into Ohio Northern University,” the News wrote.
“They were trying to break the ice,” O’Neal told the News, “but then my nerves broke, too.”
O’Neal suffered a nervous breakdown and soon began having seizures. “I was working at the factory and studying at night. I guess it was too much on me and I broke down from it,” she told the News. O’Neal was diagnosed as epileptic and the seizures would continue throughout her life, as would her volunteer work.
“Being interested and ‘doing something’ are two things which have made her life enjoyable. In all her work, helping others is what she values the most,” the News noted in 1991.
“It’s nice to be doing something because you don’t know when somebody will be doing something for you, and what it is or when it will be,” she said. “Money and color don’t buy that.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.