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Woman’s education in Williamsport set her on path of chronicling Black history

Ruth Perry Hodge has many accomplishments to her credit, and she views her experiences in Williamsport and at Lycoming College — including a private meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he visited the college — as pivotal to her development into the woman she would become. She remembers fondly that the town also introduced her to the hoagie sandwich.

Ruth was born in 1937, the daughter of Rev. Houston Perry and Ruth Van Buren Morgan Perry. While she was growing up, her father was a country preacher in segregated Virginia. To earn additional money to support his family, he worked as a farmer and a carpenter; his work as a carpenter later developed into an interest in designing churches. Her mother was a strong woman who possessed excellent sewing skills, creating and executing her own patterns. She later became the first African American seamstress at the Genetti Hotel, making bedspreads and curtains for the guest rooms. Ruth’s mother was also known for her southern-style cuisine. While living in Virginia, she cooked for the Charles Pillsbury family at Cismont Manor near Charlottesville.

Move to Williamsport

Houston Perry believed strongly in education and the right to vote. From colleagues he learned of a position in Williamsport as pastor to Shiloh Baptist Church. Moving to Williamsport would allow Ruth to live at home and attend Lycoming College. So in the summer of 1953, the family moved from rural Virginia to what Ruth viewed at the time as the “big city.” The church parsonage was at the corner of Edwin and Walnut streets. The sounds of automobile traffic at night, trains on the nearby tracks, and the glare of bright lights kept her awake. But she also remembers the beautiful church, a loving congregation, and the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of people from various backgrounds.

Ruth considered Williamsport and Lycoming College “a little United Nations,” with people of Polish, Jewish, Greek and Italian backgrounds.

Soon after arriving in the city, Ruth had a date with a boy from her church. As they headed to the movie theater, he informed her that in Williamsport, the girl payed her own way. She responded that she was a Southern girl, and in the South, the boy paid, and she started to turn around to go home. Her date paid.

Ruth was saddened not to graduate with her 32 Virginia high school classmates. When she enrolled in Williamsport High School, with more than 400 seniors, she found that the principal would not accept her report card, saying that black schools in the south were not up to the same standards and he would place her in the junior class instead. After a few weeks, he called her into his office and told her that she was now a member of the 1954 senior class and would graduate on time after all. Ruth was a bit overwhelmed by this huge high school where almost all of the students and faculty were white. She did not join clubs and still regrets not singing in the choir. At the end of the school year, she was one of 12 African American students to graduate and one of only two girls.

Life around Shiloh Baptist Church

The Perry family’s neighborhood was predominately African American, a close-knit community that looked out for its young people. On Friday nights there was a social at the Bethune-Douglass Community Center, and on Saturday nights families took turns entertaining the kids in their homes. When it came to Ruth’s turn, she explained that she lived in the church parsonage and she would need to ask her father whether dancing to records would be appropriate. After consideration, he said yes, but made an announcement the next day in church. He acknowledged that everyone probably knew there was dancing in the parsonage the night before, and if anyone had problems with his helping to keep young people off the streets, they could talk to him after church. No one did.

Lycoming College, Class of 1958

Even though Ruth was the only African American woman at Lycoming College when she began her freshman year, she thrived. She liked all of her professors and found them caring and supportive. One instructor nicknamed her “Rebel” because of her Southern accent. She loved music and sang and played the piano, teaching herself how to play the organ at Shiloh Church. However, her father did not want her to major in music because music directors at black churches could not make enough money to earn a living. She became a business major and was the only woman in her accounting class.

It was with the Lycoming College Choir, conducted by Walter McIver, that Ruth really found a home. The students sang at local churches and toured on weekends and during winter break. In Ruth’s junior year, after considerable fund raising, the choir traveled to England on the college’s first overseas tour, which included a week of sight-seeing in London.

Another key event in her education was the visit to campus by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958, when her choir sang in Clarke Chapel. She was thrilled to see King after his inspiring speech when he asked to meet privately with Floyd Todd and Ruth Perry, the only two African American students in the choir. The title of King’s speech at Lycoming was “It’s a Good Time to be Alive,” and Ruth wanted to do everything she could to make that true for African Americans.

Life was not without prejudice. One time the choir sang at the State Capitol in Harrisburg. When some of the girls in the choir went to eat lunch at the railway and bus station, the waitress begrudgingly gave a menu to Ruth; but when the food arrived, her order was not included. The girls decided that if Ruth didn’t eat, no one would eat, and they got up and left the restaurant.

Another time, Ruth and her best friend, Marianna Ciraulo, wanted to have matching suits for a choir tour. Ruth’s mother went to L.L. Stearns to purchase fabric. The clerk was very critical when she learned that a white girl and a black girl were to be dressed alike. So that was the end of the sales transaction, and her mother acquired the fabric elsewhere.

A Career in Library Science

Ruth met her husband, Marcus Lee Hodge, a student at Williamsport Technical Institute, at church. After their marriage, the couple moved to his hometown of Carlisle. Ruth was employed at the U.S. Army War College and observed white women being promoted with less education and experience than she had. A director of the War College library observed Ruth’s talents and encouraged her to study library science as a means of career mobility. Ruth enrolled in an undergraduate library science program at Shippensburg University. While her supportive husband helped with their two children, Ruth made excellent grades and continued on to earn a master’s degree.

Ruth’s professional career began at the U.S. Army War College. After receiving several promotions there, she joined the staff at the U.S. Army Military History Institute, where she organized several conferences on African Americans serving in World War II. After retirement, Ruth accepted a position with the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg as the African American specialist. In addition to raising awareness of the need to research Black history within the U.S. Army, she organized conferences, gave presentations nationwide, and conducted research for authors and for community celebrations highlighting black history. In 2000, after six years of extensive research, Ruth published a Guide to African American Resources at the Pennsylvania State Archives.

One career goal that eluded Ruth was opening a bookstore specializing in African American history. However, she still shares her home with over 4,000 books that she acquired on the subject over the years.

Throughout her life, Ruth has sought opportunities to do good and has pursued close life-long relationships. With her belief that the passion and commitment of one person can help change the world, she has been an inspiration to others. Her character and achievements were recognized by Lycoming College when Ruth Perry Hodge received the Angela R. Kyle Outstanding Alumnus Award in 2007. And when Ruth returns to her beloved city of Williamsport, she still orders a hoagie — and also drives by Shiloh Baptist Church.

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