African Americans in Cleveland from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

Written by Kenneth Kusmer

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AFRICAN AMERICANS. Cleveland’s African American community is almost as old as the city itself. GEORGE PEAKE, the first black settler, arrived in 1809 and by 1860 there were 799 blacks living in a growing community of over 43,000. As early as the 1850s, most of Cleveland’s African American population lived on the east side. But black and white families were usually interspersed; until the beginning of the 20th century, nothing resembling a black ghetto existed in the city. Throughout most of the 19th century, the social and economic status of African Americans in Cleveland was superior to that in other northern communities. By the late 1840s, the public schools were integrated and segregation in theaters, restaurants, and hotels was infrequent. Interracial violence seldom occurred. Black Clevelanders suffered less occupational discrimination than elsewhere. Although many were forced to work as unskilled laborers or domestic servants, almost one third were skilled workers, and a significant number accumulated substantial wealth. Alfred Greenbrier became widely known for raising horses and cattle, and MADISON TILLEY employed 100 men in his excavating business. JOHN BROWN, a barber, became the city’s wealthiest Negro through investment in real estate, valued at $40,000 at his death in 1869. Founded by New Englanders who favored reform, Cleveland was a center of abolitionism before the CIVIL WAR, and the city’s white leadership remained sympathetic to civil rights during the decade following the war. Black leaders were not complacent, however. Individuals such as Brown and JOHN MALVIN often assisted escaped slaves, and by the end of the Civil War a number of black Clevelanders had served in BLACK MILITARY UNITS in the Union Army. African American leaders fought for integration rather than the development of separate black institutions in the 19th century. The city’s first permanent African American newspaper, the CLEVELAND GAZETTE, did not appear until 1883. Even local black churches developed more slowly than elsewhere. ST. JOHN’S AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL (AME) CHURCH was founded in 1830, but it was not until 1864 that a second black church, MT. ZION CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, came into existence.

Between 1890-1915, the beginnings of mass migration from the South increased Cleveland’s black population substantially (seeIMMIGRATION AND MIGRATION). By World War I, about 10,000 blacks lived in the city. Most of these newcomers settled in the Central Ave. district between the CUYAHOGA RIVER and E. 40th St. At this time, the lower Central area also housed many poor immigrant Italians and Jews (see JEWS & JUDAISM). Nevertheless, the African American population became much, more concentrated. In other ways, too, conditions deteriorated for black Clevelanders. Although black students were not segregated in separate public schools or classrooms (seeCLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS), as they often were in other cities, exclusion of blacks from restaurants and theaters became commonplace, and by 1915 the city’s YOUNG WOMEN’S CHRISTIAN ASSN. (YWCA) prohibited African American membership.HOSPITALS & HEALTH PLANNING excluded black doctors and segregated black patients in separate wards. The most serious discrimination occurred in the economic arena. Between 1870-1915, Cleveland became a major manufacturing center, but few blacks were able to participate in INDUSTRY. Blacks were not hired to work in the steel mills and foundries that became the mainstay of the city’s economy. The prejudice of employers was often matched by that of trade unions (see LABOR), which usually excluded African Americans. As a result, by 1910 only about 10% of local black men worked in skilled trades, while the number of service employees doubled.

Increasing discrimination forced black Clevelanders upon their own resources. The growth of black churches was the clearest example (seeRELIGION). Three new churches were founded between 1865-90, a dozen more during the next 25 years. Baptists increased most rapidly, and by 1915 ANTIOCH BAPTIST CHURCH had emerged as the largest black church in the city. Black fraternal orders also multiplied, and in 1896 the Cleveland Home for Aged Colored People was established (see ELIZA BRYANT VILLAGE). With assistance from white philanthropists (see PHILANTHROPY), JANE EDNA HUNTER established the PHILLIS WHEATLEY ASSOCIATION, a residential, job-training, and recreation center for black girls, in 1911. Blacks gained the right to vote in Ohio in 1870, and until the 1930s they usually voted Republican. The first black Clevelander to hold political office was JOHN PATTERSON GREEN, elected justice of the peace in 1873. He served in the state legislature in the 1880s and in 1891 became the first African American in the North to be elected to the state senate. After 1900 increasing racial prejudice made it difficult for blacks to win election to the state legislature, and a new group of black politicians began to build a political base in the Central Ave. area. In 1915 THOMAS W. FLEMING became the first African American to win election toCLEVELAND CITY COUNCIL.

The period from 1915-30 was one of both adversity and progress for black Clevelanders. Industrial demands and a decline in immigration from abroad during World War I created an opportunity for black labor, and hundreds of thousands of black migrants came north after 1916. By 1930 there were 72,000, African Americans in Cleveland. The Central Ave. ghetto consolidated and expanded eastward, as whites moved to outlying sections of the city and rural areas that would later become SUBURBS. Increasing discrimination and violence against blacks kept even middle-class African Americans within the Central-Woodland area. At the same time, discrimination in public accommodations increased. Restaurants overcharged blacks or refused them service; theaters excluded blacks or segregated them in the balcony; amusement parks such as EUCLID BEACH PARK were usually for whites only. Discrimination even began to affect the public schools. The growth of the ghetto had created some segregated schools, but a new policy of allowing white students to transfer out of predominantly black schools increased segregation. In the 1920s and 1930s, school administrators often altered the curriculums of ghetto schools from liberal arts to manual training. Nevertheless, migrants continued to pour into the city in the 1920s to obtain newly available industrial jobs. Most of these jobs were in unskilled factory labor, but some blacks also moved into semi-skilled and skilled positions. The rapid growth in the city’s black population also created new opportunities in BALDWIN RESERVOIR and the professions. Most black businesses, however, remained small: food stores, restaurants, and small retail stores predominated. Two successful black-owned funeral homes opened early in the century, the HOUSE OF WILLS (1904), founded as Gee & Wills by J. WALTER WILLS, SR., and E. F. Boyd Funeral Home (1906), founded by ELMER F. BOYD and Lewis Dean. Although the employment picture for blacks had improved, serious discrimination still existed in the 1920s, especially in clerical work and the unionized skilled trades.

Black leadership underwent a fundamental shift after World War I. Prior to the war, Cleveland’s most prominent blacks had been integrationists who not only fought discrimination but also objected to blacks’ creating their own secular institutions. After the war, a new elite, led by Fleming, Hunter, and businessman HERBERT CHAUNCEY, gained ascendancy. This group did not favor agitation for civil rights; they accepted the necessity of separate black institutions and favored the development of a “group economy” based on the existence of the ghetto. By the mid-1920s, however, a younger African American group was beginning to emerge. “New Negro” leaders such as lawyer HARRY E. DAVIS and physician CHARLES GARVIN tried to transcend the factionalism that had divided black leaders in the past. They believed in race pride and racial solidarity, but not at the expense of equal rights for black Clevelanders. The postwar era also brought changes to local institutions. The influx of migrants caused problems that black, churches were only partly able to deal with. The Negro Welfare Assn., founded in 1917 as an affiliate of the National Urban League (see URBAN LEAGUE OF GREATER CLEVELAND), helped newcomers find jobs and housing. The Phillis Wheatley Assn. expanded: a fundraising drive among white philanthropists made possible the construction of its 9-story building in 1928. The Cleveland branch of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE (NAACP, est. 1912), led by “New Negroes,” expanded, with 1,600 members by 1922. The NAACP fought the rising tide of racism in the city by bringing suits against restaurants and theaters that excluded blacks, or intervening behind the scenes to get white businessmen to end discriminatory practices. The FUTURE OUTLOOK LEAGUE, founded by JOHN O. HOLLY in 1935, became the first local black organization to successfully utilize the boycott.

The Depression temporarily reversed much of this progress. Although both races were devastated by the economic collapse, African Americans suffered much higher rates of unemployment at an earlier stage; many black businesses went bankrupt. After 1933, New Deal relief programs helped reduce black unemployment substantially, but segregated public housing contributed to overcrowding, often demolishing more units than were built. Housing conditions in the Central area deteriorated during the 1930s, and African Americans continued to suffer discrimination in many public accommodations. The period from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s was one of political change for black Clevelanders. Although migration from the South slowed to a trickle during the 1930s, the black population had already increased to the point where it was able to augment its political influence. In 1927 3 blacks were elected to city council, and for the next 8 years they represented a balance of power on a council almost equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. As a result, they obtained the elections of HARRY E. DAVIS to the city’s Civil Service Commission and MARY BROWN MARTIN to the Cleveland Board of Education, the first African Americans to hold such positions. They also ended discrimination and segregation at City Hospital. At the local level in the 1930s, black Clevelanders continued to vote Republican; they did not support a Democrat for mayor until 1943. In national politics, however, New Deal relief policies convinced blacks to shift dramatically after 1932 from the Republican to the Democratic party. After World War II, Pres. Harry Truman’s strong civil-rights program solidified black support for the Democrats.

World War II was a turning point in other ways. The war revived industry and led to a new demand for black labor. This demand, and the more egalitarian labor-union practices of the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), created new job opportunities for black, Clevelanders and led to a revival of mass migration from the South. The steady flow of newcomers increased Cleveland’s black population from 85,000 in 1940 to 251,000 in 1960; by the early 1960s, blacks made up over 30% of the city’s population. One effect of this population growth was increased political representation. In 1947 Harry E. Davis was elected to the state senate, and 2 years later lawyer Jean M. Capers became the first black woman to be elected to city council. By the mid-1960s, the number of blacks serving on the council had increased to 10; in 1968 Louis Stokes was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives; and in 1977 Capers became a municipal judge for Cleveland. The postwar era was also marked by progress in civil rights. In 1945 the CLEVELAND COMMUNITY RELATIONS BOARD was established; it soon developed a national reputation for promoting improvement in race relations. The following year, the city enacted a municipal civil-rights law that revoked the license of any business convicted of discriminating against African Americans. The liberal atmosphere of the postwar period led to a gradual decline in discrimination against blacks in public accommodations during the late 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, both hospital wards and downtown hotels and restaurants served African Americans.

Despite these improvements, however, serious problems continued to plague the African American community. The most important of these was housing. As the suburbanization of the city’s white population accelerated, the black community expanded to the east and northeast of the Central-Woodland area, particularly into HOUGH and GLENVILLE. Expansion, however, did not lead to more integrated neighborhoods or provide better housing for blacks. “Blockbusting” techniques by realtors led to panic selling by whites in Hough in the 1950s; once a neighborhood became all black, landlords would subdivide structures into small apartments and raise rents exorbitantly. The result, by 1960, was a crowded ghetto of deteriorating housing stock. At the same time, segregation in public schools continued, school officials routinely assigned black children to predominantly black schools. In 1964 interracial violence broke out when blacks protested the construction of 3 new schools, as perpetuating segregation patterns. Frustration over inability to effect changes in housing and education, coupled with a rise in black unemployment that began in the late 1950s, finally ignited the HOUGH RIOTS for 4 days in 1966. Two years later, the GLENVILLE SHOOTOUT involved black nationalists and the police; more rioting followed. The resulting tension and hostility did not entirely destroy the spirit of racial toleration in Cleveland, however, as evidenced by the 1967 election of lifelong resident Carl B. Stokes as the first black mayor of a major American city (see MAYORAL ADMINISTRATION OF CARL B. STOKES). Since then, blacks have continued to be the most influential group in city council. The city again elected an African American mayor, Michael White, in 1989.

As migration from the South ended, Cleveland’s African American population stabilized in the 1970s and 1980s. Although the ghetto expanded into EAST CLEVELAND, fair housing programs and laws made it possible for middle-class blacks to have greater choice of residency. Eastern suburbs such as SHAKER HEIGHTS and CLEVELAND HEIGHTS absorbed large numbers of black residents by the 1970s, but managed to maintain integrated populations. In addition, some of the more blatant causes of the riots–such as the small number of black police officers–were partially resolved. But fundamental problems remained. Inner-city residents suffered high levels of crime, infant mortality, and teenage pregnancy in the 1970s and `80s, but the most significant obstacles for black Clevelanders remained economic in nature. The movement of black women into white-collar jobs after 1970 was more than counterbalanced by the growing unemployment or underemployment of black men, as good-paying industrial jobs declined or shifted to the suburbs. At the same time, the declining city tax base undercut funding for the public schools, making it more difficult for African American children to obtain the necessary skills demanded in the emerging post-industrial society. For many black Clevelanders in the late 20th century, economic progress had not kept pace with improvements in the political realm.

Kenneth L. Kusmer

Temple Univ.

Davis, Russell. Black Americans in Cleveland (1972).

Kusmer, Kenneth L. A Ghetto Takes Shape (1976).

Last Modified: 21 Jul 1997 01:26:36 PM


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