Nice group of short profiles for Black History Month done by
Plain Dealer in 2012
The link is here
Nice group of short profiles for Black History Month done by
Nice group of short profiles for Black History Month done by
Plain Dealer in 2012
The link is here
Written by Kenneth Kusmer
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
Davis, Russell. Black Americans in Cleveland (1972).
Kusmer, Kenneth L. A Ghetto Takes Shape (1976).
Last Modified: 21 Jul 1997 01:26:36 PM
Praying Grounds: African American Faith Communities from Cleveland Memory/CSU
AFRICAN AMERICAN BASEBALL TEAMS
AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM
ALEXANDER, WILLIAM HARRY
ANTI-SLAVERY SOCIETIES, BLACK
ANTIOCH BAPTIST CHURCH
BAGBY FUGITIVE SLAVE CASE
BAILEY, REV. DR. HORACE CHARLES
BEARD, CHARLES AUGUSTINE
BELL, MYRTLE JOHNSON
BELL, NOLAN D.
BENN, REV. LUTHER
BIGHAM, STELLA GODFREY WHITE
BLACK MILITARY UNITS
BLACK TRADES COUNCIL
BLACK WOMEN’S POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE
BLUE, WELCOME T. , SR.
BODDIE RECORDING CO.
BOYD, ALBERT DUNCAN
BOYD, ELMER F.
BRASCHER, NAHUM DANIEL
BROWN, ANNA V.
BROWN, JERE A.
BROWN, LLOYD ODOM
BROWN, RUSSELL S.
BUNDY, LEROY N.
BURTEN, LONNIE L. JR
BUSINESSMEN’S INTERRACIAL COMMITTEE
CARR, CHARLES VELMON
CARTER, WILFRED CARLYLE
CHAUNCEY, HERBERT S.
CHESNUTT, CHARLES WADDELL
CLARKE, MELCHISEDECH CLARENCE
CLEMENT, KENNETH W.
CLEVELAND ANTI-SLAVERY SOCIETY
CLEVELAND ASSOCIATION OF COLORED MEN
CLEVELAND BROWNS (BASEBALL)
CLEVELAND BUSINESS LEAGUE
CLEVELAND CALL & POST
CLEVELAND COMMUNITY RELATIONS BOARD
CLEVELAND FREE SCHOOL
CLEVELAND FREEDMEN’S AID SOCIETY
CLEVELAND HOSPITAL ASSN.
CLEVELAND MEDICAL READING CLUB
CLEVELAND RED SOX
CLEVELAND TATE STARS
CLEVELAND TIGERS (BASEBALL)
CLEVELAND TRAINING SCHOOL FOR COLORED NURSES
CLIFFORD, CARRIE WILLIAMS
CLIFFORD, WILLIAM H.
COALITION OF BLACK TRADE UNIONISTS
COLE, ALLEN E.
CONNERS, WILLIAM RANDALL
COOK, THOMAS A.
CORY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
CUYAHOGA COUNTY ANTI-SLAVERY SOCIETY
CUYAHOGA COUNTY COLONIZATION SOCIETY
DAVIS, HARRY EDWARD
DAVIS, RUSSELL HOWARD
DAVIS, SYLVESTER SANFORD, JR.
DAY, WILLIAM HOWARD
DEARING, ULYSSES S.
DIXON, ARDELIA BRADLEY
DOBY, LAWRENCE “LARRY” E.
E. F. BOYD & SON FUNERAL HOME, INC.
EAST CLEVELAND THEATER
EAST END NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE
EAST MOUNT ZION BAPTIST CHURCH
EASTER, LUSCIOUS “LUKE”
ELIZA BRYANT VILLAGE
EMPIRE SAVINGS & LOAN
EUCLID BEACH PARK RIOT
FAIR HOUSING PROGRAMS
FAIRFAX, FLORENCE BUNDY
FELTON, MONROE H.
FERRELL, FREDERIC LEONARD
FIRST BANK NATIONAL ASSN.
FLEMING, LETHIA COUSINS
FLEMING, THOMAS W.
FORD, LEONARD “LENNY”
FOREST CITY HOSPITAL
FORTE, ORMOND ADOLPHUS
FOX, BEATRICE WRIGHT
FREDERICK DOUGLASS’S VISITS
FREEMAN, ERNEST (ERNIE)
FREEMAN, HARRY LAWRENCE
FUTURE OUTLOOK LEAGUE
GARVIN, CHARLES H.
GASSAWAY, HAROLD T.
GAYLE, JAMES FRANKLIN
GENTRY, MINNIE LEE WATSON
GEORGE, ZELMA WATSON
GETHSEMANE BAPTIST CHURCH
GILLESPIE, CHESTER K.
GREATER CLEVELAND ROUNDTABLE
GREEN, JOHN PATTERSON
GREEN, SAMUEL CLAYTON
HARAMBEE: SERVICES TO CHILDREN AND FAMILIES
HARGRAVE, MASON ALEXANDER
HARNEY, HARRISON HANNIBAL
HARRIET TUBMAN MUSEUM AND CULTURAL ASSN.
HEGGS, OWEN L.
HEIGHTS AREA PROJECT
HEMINGWAY, ROBERT N.
HIMES, CHESTER B.
HOLLY, JOHN OLIVER, JR.
HOLTZCLAW, ROBERT FULTON
HOLY TRINITY PARISH
HOUGH AREA DEVELOPMENT CORP.
HOUSE OF WILLS
HUGHES, (JAMES) LANGSTON
HUNTER, JANE EDNA (HARRIS)
JACKSON, PERRY B.
JELLIFFE, ROWENA WOODHAM
JELLIFFE, RUSSELL W.
JOHNSON, REV. CLARA LUCIL
KILGORE, JAMES C.
LAMBRIGHT, MIDDLETON H. JR.
LAMBRIGHT, MIDDLETON HUGHER SR.
LAWRENCE, WILHEMINA PRICE
LEACH, ROBERT BOYD
LITERARY SOCIETIES (BLACK)
LOEB, CHARLES HAROLD
LUCAS, CHARLES P. , SR.
LUDLOW COMMUNITY ASSN.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., VISITS TO CLEVELAND
MARTIN, ALEXANDER H.
MARTIN, MARY BROWN
MARY B. TALBERT HOME AND HOSPITAL
MAYORAL ADMINISTRATION OF CARL B. STOKES
MCCOY, SETH THEODORE
MCGHEE, NORMAN L. SR.
MCKINNEY, WADE HAMPTON AND RUTH BERRY
MINOR, NORMAN SELBY
MITCHELL, L. PEARL
MONTGOMERY REV. ANZO
MOORE, GEORGE ANTHONY
MORGAN, GARRETT A.
MOUNT HERMON BAPTIST CHURCH
MT. ZION CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
MYERS, GEORGE A.
NATIONAL ALLIANCE OF POSTAL AND FEDERAL EMPLOYEES
NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE
NATIONAL CONVENTION OF BLACK FREEMEN
NATIONAL EMIGRATION CONVENTION OF COLORED PEOPLE
NEARON, JOSEPH R.
NEW DAY PRESS
OLIVET INSTITUTIONAL BAPTIST CHURCH
OUR LADY OF FATIMA PARISH
OUR LADY OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT PARISH
OWEN, JAMES ALEXANDER, M.D.
PAIGE, LEROY ROBERT
PAYNE, LAWRENCE O.
PERRY, HILBERT W.
PERRY, SAMUEL V.
PHILLIPS, (BISHOP) CHARLES HENRY
PHILLIS WHEATLEY ASSOCIATION
PRICE, GRACE FINLEY
PRIDGEON, LOUISE JOHNSON
RAINEY, SHERLIE HEREFORD
REASON, PATRICK HENRY
REED, J. ELMER
REED, JACOB E.
REED, VIVIAN BROWN
ROBERT P. MADISON INTERNATIONAL
ROGERS, MARGARET MARIE HARDEN
RUFFIN, BERNIECE WORTHINGTON
SCHOOL FUND SOCIETY
SETTLE, REV. DR. GLENN THOMAS
SHAUTER DRUG CO.
SHAUTER, ROBERT HARRIS
SHILOH BAPTIST CHURCH
SLAUGHTER, HOWARD SILAS, SR.
SMITH, FRANK A.
SMITH, HARRY CLAY
SMITH, HERALD LEONYDUS
SMITH, WILLIAM T. (WEE WILLIE)
SOUTHGATE, ROBERT L.
ST. ADALBERT PARISH
ST. AGATHA PARISH
ST. AGNES PARISH
ST. ANDREW’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH
ST. CATHERINE PARISH
ST. CECILIA PARISH
ST. EDWARD PARISH
ST. HENRY PARISH
ST. JAMES AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL (AME) CHURCH
ST. JOHN COLLEGE
ST. JOHN’S AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL (AME) CHURCH
ST. PAUL AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL (AME) CHURCH
ST. PAUL AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL (AME) ZION CHURCH
ST. TIMOTHY PARISH
STANTON (DAY SESSIONS), LUCY ANN
STOKES, CARL B.
SUTLER, ELEANORE MARGUERITE YOUNG
SUTLER, MARTIN RANDOPLH DELANEY, JR., M.D.
TALL, BOOKER T.
TUBBS JONES, STEPHANIE
TURNER, RACHEL WALKER
TYLER, RALPH C.
UNITED BLACK FUND OF GREATER CLEVELAND
UNITED FREEDOM MOVEMENT (UFM)
UNIVERSAL NEGRO IMPROVEMENT ASSN. (UNIA)
URBAN LEAGUE OF GREATER CLEVELAND
WALKER, WILLIAM OTIS
WARE, WILLIAM J.
WEEDEN, JOHN T.
WHITE, CHARLES W.
WHITE, PAUL DUNBAR
WHITE, STELLA GODFREY
WHITEHEAD, REV. EATON
WHITLEY AND WHITLEY, INC.
WHITLEY, R.(ROUSARA) JOYCE
WILLIAMS, EDWARD CHRISTOPHER
WILLS, J. WALTER, SR.
WINGS OVER JORDAN CHOIR (WOJC)
WRIGHT, ALONZO G.
WRIGHT, WALTER BENJAMIN
YOUNG MEN’S SOCIETY
Cleveland Magazine article from April 1989. “
Notable Blacks of Cleveland contains approximately 2000 images of 500 individuals selected from the photographs in the Cleveland Press Collection. This collection was donated to the Cleveland State University Library when that newspaper ceased publication in 1982. The photographs in the collection generally date from the 1920’s on, with most of them from 1960 to 1982. The collection is arranged alphabetically by the last name of the individuals. Links have been provided to biographies that are available in the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
From Cleveland State University Special Collections
The link is here
From the Ohio Historical Society Journal
Lost to History
Before Carl Stokes, there was Thomas Fleming, Cleveland’s first black city councilman. But since he took office 100 years ago, Fleming, who rose to the heights of political power, has been almost erased from our public consciousness — all over $200 and a clambake.
ON HIS JUDGMENT DAY, Thomas W. Fleming greeted the courtroom with a smile.
Beside him, his wife, Lethia, held a black scarf over her face to foil the cameramen. But Fleming, wearing a three-piece suit and a big-cuffed, knee-length topcoat, flashed the same welcoming, generous grin Cleveland had known for 20 years. His soft, friendly face, round cheeks and lively brown eyes reflected the tenacious optimism that had carried him up from his barbershop to a seat on Cleveland City Council, the first ever held by a black man. His cheerfulness wasn’t just a façade or first impression, but part of his core belief that careful work, well-tended friendships and political compromise would overcome prejudice and win more prosperity and respect for his people than angry protest.
As Fleming walked up the aisle, nodding to his friends from the Central Avenue neighborhood and the reporters he knew from City Hall, would-be spectators in the hallway rushed toward the courtroom, hoping to see the trial’s end.
“Just the reporters!” barked the bailiff, blocking their way.
All that week, Clevelanders had gathered on the courthouse’s fifth floor: women in fur-collared coats, men wearing fedoras or newsboy caps, waiting in line for a seat at the trial. Most were black, and since they’d been kids, or moved to Cleveland from the South, Fleming had been their only black elected official, their neighborhood councilman, the man they’d turned to for jobs or help with a court case.
Now, they’d come to see if the prosecutor had discovered a side of Fleming they hadn’t seen, if it was true that he had taken a bribe from a disabled policeman, if he would remain in power or see his career come to an end.
Fleming walked to the defense table and sat in the chair he’d occupied all week. Three photographers, near the judge’s bench, aimed their tripod cameras at him.
The jurors entered the room and took their seats. Only two of the 12 looked at Fleming.
“Have you agreed upon a verdict?” the clerk asked.
“We have,” the foreman replied.
TODAY, 100 YEARS AFTER Thomas W. Fleming became Cleveland’s first black city councilman, he is all but erased from our history.
We take pride in Carl Stokes’ 1967 election as America’s first black big-city mayor, but not Fleming’s pioneering victory because his life story is no simple tale of racial uplift. In February 1929, his career was marred by a sudden, shocking scandal that sounded notes all too familiar to Clevelanders in 2010: money exchanged at a clambake fundraiser followed by angry accusations that his enemies and the press conspired to bring him down.
Throughout his 15 years on council, even as he became one of City Hall’s most powerful men, questions trailed Fleming about his part in the ruthless Republican political machine, his work as a lawyer defending gamblers and prostitutes, the lawless growth of vice in his ward, his alliance with a swaggering saloonkeeper who controlled a grimy underworld. Fleming’s memoir, My Rise and Persecution, was never published. He was even left out of the 1969 book Memorable Negroes in Cleveland’s Past.
But Fleming was memorable, one of Cleveland’s great characters of the 1910s and 1920s, cheerful and optimistic, clever and folksy. A shrewd ward politician, Fleming delivered more votes for Republican mayors than anyone and brought his neighborhood big gifts made of brick and concrete. After he and his wife helped Ohio’s Warren G. Harding win the presidency, Fleming audaciously asked Harding to name him to the same post his hero, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, had once held: minister to Haiti.
When Cleveland’s black population exploded in the 1910s and 1920s as neighborhoods filled with families who’d left the Jim Crow South to follow freedom’s North Star, Fleming was their lone voice at City Hall, their one-man hiring hall, the most powerful black man in the city. At a time when African-American leaders debated whether to agitate for social equality or focus on self-improvement, whether to join political machines or oppose them, Fleming, a classic politician, chose the machine. He made deals, granted favors and called them in. Until he granted one favor too many.
ON ELECTION NIGHT 1888 in small-town Meadville, Pa., 14-year-old Thomas Fleming stayed out late, leaving his mother worried at home. He stood outside the Commercial Hotel downtown, home to one of Meadville’s few telegraph offices, and listened to the returns until he heard his candidate, Benjamin Harrison, had been elected president.
From an early age, Fleming had seen black men claim a place in his hometown’s civic life. At 6, he was transferred from an all-black school to an integrated one thanks to the protests of prominent black taxpayers. When he was 11, his boss, a black bakery owner, won election to the Meadville council. “His election proved to me, even at my early age, that there was a chance for Colored men to rise in America,” he later wrote.
At 16, Fleming beat the mayor’s son, a college student, in a debate, arguing against restricting the vote to the educated. The debate wasn’t academic to him: Fleming had quit school at 12 to work as a barber to help his mother support him and his two sisters.
In 1893, Fleming rode a westbound train into Cleveland’s Union Depot, figuring he’d stay a few days then head to the world’s fair in Chicago. Instead, he never left, discovering that Cleveland was a good place for a young black tradesman to establish himself. Although the city’s few thousand black residents were often barred from industrial jobs and some restaurants and theaters, they found work as hotel employees, teachers and barbers. Fleming, already a veteran barber, started his own shop on Euclid Avenue within a year. In 1899, he moved into the barbershop in the new Chamber of Commerce building on Public Square. As Fleming trimmed and shaved powerful men in the sixth-floor Chamber Club rooms, some noticed that their barber, snipping and chatting away, possessed a political mind as sharp as his razors.
Like almost all black Americans a generation after the Civil War, Fleming supported the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, which was usually willing to hire black workers and slate black candidates for the ballot. A strain of racial progressivism had run through Cleveland politics for decades: Before the war, the Western Reserve, settled by New Englanders, had been an outpost of abolitionism. Despite the city’s small black population, its voters elected two black candidates to the state legislature in the 1890s.
Fleming met one of them in 1894 after joining a quartet that sang at rallies for the Republican mayoral candidate. One night, at an East Side meeting hall, he heard an inspiring speech by state Rep. Harry C. Smith, a hero to black Ohioans, who had just helped pass a civil rights law that banned discrimination in public places. Smith’s angry, militant editorials in his newspaper, the Gazette, denounced minstrel shows, racist laws and segregated schools.
“Smith is singular, rugged, forceful, dynamic,” another newspaperman once wrote, “full of the consuming fire that always flames hot to singe every defamer of his race and spurts unceasingly at every vestige of race discrimination.”
Impressed, Fleming became a protégé of Smith’s, stopping by his office nearly every day for political advice.
On Monday nights after work, Fleming would walk to the old City Hall on Superior Avenue, climb to the fifth floor, sit in the gallery and watch the councilmen debate. And one night around 1903, his eyes sweeping across the dozens of desks on the crowded floor, Fleming, not quite 30 years old, had a vision.
“Looking over the Council Chamber, I saw all white men occupying the seats,” Fleming wrote years later. “Every nationality was represented except one of my race group. I said to myself, there ought to be a Colored Councilman occupying one of those seats. I made up my mind that night that I would prepare myself and someday sit in one of those chairs.”
THE FLOWERS WEREN’T all for him, but they still smelled sweet. As Fleming strode into the City Council chamber on Jan. 3, 1910, applause rained down on him from the packed gallery. The mingled fragrances from bouquets blooming on each councilman’s desk filled the room and reached out to him.
He squeezed his stocky frame between the desks until he reached his chair, where his mother, sister and friends awaited. There were gifts from groups he’d co-founded: a horseshoe made of flowers from the Attucks Republican Club, a floral basket from the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. He was now Thomas W. Fleming, councilman-at-large, the town’s first black city councilman.
“It proved to me that Cleveland, Ohio, was The Garden Spot of Earth for anyone who chose to rise,” he wrote, “no matter what his nationality.”
In the seven years since he’d first envisioned this moment, Fleming had studied law at night, become a lawyer, spoken at political meetings, courted powerful friends, forged alliances and started his own newspaper. When a shrewd Republican had warned him he had no political future unless he aligned himself with Mark Hanna, Cleveland’s powerful U.S. senator and friend to presidents, Fleming promptly dumped a candidate supported by his mentor Smith and supported Hanna’s man for the post. Smith never forgave him, but as a political move, Fleming’s switch was shrewd; his standing in the Republican party rose from then on while Smith’s fell.
The council’s business was swift that night. Fleming was one of about 20 new councilmen, part of a Republican landslide that had also knocked legendary mayor Tom L. Johnson out of office. Spectators, crushed together in the balcony, looked on as Herman C. Baehr, the new mayor, mounted the podium and asked the councilmen to help build the Detroit-Superior Bridge and a new City Hall on Lakeside Avenue and annex Lakewood and East Cleveland.
After the meeting and a celebratory supper with family, Fleming headed to the Starlight Café, his friend Albert D. “Starlight” Boyd’s saloon. Tobacco smoke and 200 people filled the banquet hall. Speaker after speaker rose to applaud Fleming: the county treasurer, a deputy sheriff and, most impressive of all, Maurice Maschke, county recorder and undisputed leader of Cleveland’s triumphant Republican machine.
“The addresses of the evening were inspired by the promise of future successes,” Fleming’s newspaper, the Cleveland Journal, declared. “Mr. Fleming’s ability and integrity were highly praised.”
But Fleming’s raucous party appalled Smith. The councilman’s betrayed ex-mentor was uncompromising, exacting in his righteousness. Smith so hated segregation, he even opposed Karamu House’s race-conscious approach to theater. He found politics’ awkward alliances distasteful, refusing to support Baehr because the new mayor, as county recorder, hadn’t hired any black employees. And Smith knew too much about Fleming’s chums.
“Councilman Tom Fleming’s reception and ‘blow-out’ was continued over ‘Starlight’s’ saloon on East Fourteenth Street, after the council meeting Monday night, and was not terminated until the early morning hours,” Smith wrote in his Gazette. “O, shame! Are we degenerating? It certainly looks so.”
ALBERT D. “STARLIGHT” BOYD was a Republican ward leader, saloonkeeper, gambling-house operator and pimp. “He was the Great Mogul of organized vice,” wrote Jane Edna Hunter, a prominent black social worker, “suave, impressive, impervious to shame, and gifted with the art of leadership.”
Sometime around 1900, Maurice Maschke, an ambitious Republican operative, walked into Starlight’s Canal Road saloon. Amid the drinking and the presence of ill-reputed women with names such as Lotta the Small, Maschke saw the raw materials of power. Back then, when big-city political parties served as social clubs and mutual-aid societies, a saloon could double as a party headquarters where a smart ward leader could gather and barter a political machine’s essential fuels: money, loyalty, generosity, jobs, votes.
Starlight Boyd — it’s unclear which came first, his nickname or his star-shaped, diamond-studded watch charm — was as shrewd and calculating as Maschke. So the former hotel bookkeeper and the aspiring politician forged an alliance. Boyd became a Republican poll worker then a ward leader, a man who could get out the black vote and help tip the balance of local power.
As black migrants from the South moved into the crowded neighborhood along Central Avenue, Boyd followed them. He built the Starlight Café on East 14th Street south of downtown, complete with baths, a barber shop and a pool room. He bought apartments and houses and rented them to his allies. He sent food baskets to the needy. And his 11th Ward gave more votes to Republicans than any other part of Cleveland. When one precinct voted 245-5 for his candidate, Boyd was unsatisfied: “Tomorrow I’ll find those five votes,” he declared, “and they will learn something.”
Fleming didn’t need Boyd to succeed — not at first. In fact, his own alliances with Maschke and other white Republicans got him onto the party’s candidate list for City Council in 1907 despite Boyd’s opposition.
Two years later, running as a citywide, at-large candidate, Fleming swung into council on the Republican landslide. He swung back out in 1911 when Newton D. Baker led the Democrats to a rout, but not before his loyalty to Mayor Baehr garnered jobs for more than a dozen black workers: a park policeman, a deputy building inspector, a notice clerk, a storeroom supervisor, two janitors, several garbage collectors. Paltry spoils, but to Fleming, progress.
But after Fleming won the 11th Ward council seat in 1915, he needed Boyd. His memoir shows no qualms about befriending him, only satisfaction in a friendship and a lucrative business venture, their Starlight Realty and Investment Co. For black Clevelanders in the mid-1910s, allying with Boyd was the way to power.
Fleming and Boyd ruled the ward together. The councilman showered Central Avenue with City Hall’s blessings: a newly paved street, new streetlights, a new bathhouse. Boyd kept turning out the votes.
Naturally, Fleming and Cleveland’s Republican mayors were grateful. That’s why Starlight’s Z-Douglass Club on Central Avenue became one of the most infamous gambling clubs in the “Roarin’ Third” police district, yet attracted less than its fair share of police attention.
To Harry C. Smith, Fleming had betrayed black Clevelanders by allowing vice and immorality to flourish in the Central neighborhood. “Speakeasies, disorderly flats and a gambling den are in full operation,” Smith complained to an indifferent City Council in 1917. “The hands of the police seem tied.”
One night in 1921, the righteous Smith stopped by the Z-Douglass Club and told Boyd he might run for Fleming’s council seat.
“Why, you could not get started against Fleming,” Boyd snapped. “I dare you to be a candidate. I wish you would be one so we could defeat you worse than any candidate was ever beaten in Cleveland!”
Boyd and Fleming thought Smith wasn’t man enough to take a dare. But Smith transformed the race into a moral crusade. His angry meetings drew huge crowds as he blamed the Republicans for the Central neighborhood’s poor living conditions and moral degradation. His slogan: “Starlight and Tom must go.”
Smith and Fleming supporters rallied and argued. Smith’s election-eve torchlight parade attracted 1,500 marchers. Election Day on Central Avenue looked like a holiday, as if the whole neighborhood had taken the day off to swarm the polls. Police, stationed at every voting place, broke up several fistfights and arguments.
Fleming won, 2,830 to 2,053.
“My friends were so elated over my election that they hired a band, came to my office and compelled me to get in a parade they were forming in Central Avenue,” Fleming recalled in his memoir. “This street was crowded with people. Led by A.D. (Starlight) Boyd the procession proceeded up the Avenue, stopping at East 36th Street, where a deep hole was dug and they buried Mr. Smith in effigy.”
Soon after, Boyd fell ill with pneumonia. Exhausted by the campaign, he died a month after Election Day, at age 50.
BY 1927, FLEMING HAD achieved more than he’d even imagined as a young man. He owned a beautiful house on East 40th, one of the city’s most prominent streets. That summer, he and his wife, Lethia, sailed on a cruise ship to Europe, toured Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey in London, ate dinner atop Switzerland’s Mont Blanc, gambled in Monte Carlo, glided through the Venice canals on a gondola and saw Josephine Baker dance at the Folies Bergère and at her private club, Chez Josephine, in Paris.
At home, Fleming had become the most powerful black politician in Cleveland’s history. Maurice Maschke had become chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republicans, and reporters described Fleming as one of his key lieutenants, the “left bower” in the party boss’s euchre hand.
In return for his loyal vote on council and his constituents’ votes on Election Day, Fleming won better pay and increasingly prominent government jobs for black workers: clerks, road foremen, two prosecutors. He’d gotten City Council to ban the Ku Klux Klan from marching in the city — and the Klan had retaliated by dropping angry fliers on Cleveland’s black neighborhoods from a plane. Smith, sniping in theGazette, might not have been satisfied, but Fleming’s alliances had brought results.
“Could anyone have done more? Could I have labored any more faithful?” Fleming wrote plaintively in his memoir. “At least I was true to my trust and loyal to my race.”
In the 11th Ward, Fleming tried to keep the vice raids at bay though police launched a few while he was overseas. For eight years, Fleming had chaired the council’s police and fire committee, setting cops’ salaries and pensions, while defending gamblers, Prohibition-defying liquor dealers and prostitutes as a lawyer in police court.
No one dared call it a conflict of interest though reporters hinted as much. “It is possible,” winked the Plain Dealer’s Roelif Loveland, “that policemen, serving as witnesses in such cases, recalled that the persons against whom they were testifying were the clients of the chairman of the powerful council police and fire committee.”
Fleming saw it differently. “I was their friend,” he wrote of the cops and firemen, “and they came to me with their troubles.”
Detective Walter Oehme was one of those men, a tough, husky cop until he was injured in a fight with a speakeasy’s drug-addicted spittoon-cleaner. Unable to stand on his own or lift his arms above his shoulders, Oehme, living on a pension of $87 a month, asked Fleming to get council to pay his medical bills. Fleming’s ordinance granting Oehme $1,740 passed while he was in Europe.
When Fleming got home, Oehme approached him again. On Sept. 27, 1927, Oehme’s wife drove him to the Colored Elks’ Club on East 55th Street, where Fleming was getting ready for his clambake fundraiser, and Oehme handed the councilman a $200 check.
THE DOORBELL WOKE Tom Fleming after midnight. He was so tired, he ignored it at first, but Lethia said it might be a telegram or special delivery. So he shook off his sleep, put on his blue and red bathrobe and red leather slippers and went to the front door.
Three Plain Dealer reporters crowded in, excited. They asked if he’d quarreled with Walter Oehme after the council meeting that evening, Jan. 21, 1929.
“Why, no,” Fleming replied — their chat had gone just fine.
But the reporters told him Oehme had come to the Plain Dealer office, saying Fleming had insulted him and alleging Fleming had shaken him down for a $200 check.
“Boys, do you think for one moment I would take a check for a bribe?” Fleming laughed.
The reporters assured Fleming they were serious.
“It’s a lie!” he shouted.
“What about the check?”
Fleming later claimed he was so dumbfounded at the accusation, he didn’t recall his exchange with Oehme a year and a half earlier.
“If he thinks he got a check, let him produce it!” Fleming said.
He sat down at a hall table, grabbed a pencil and wrote a note: “I never received one cent from Walter Oehme for anything I did for him. … I felt sorry for him in his crippled condition. … I knew him when he was an able-bodied policeman and tried to help him.”
Pacing the hall carpet, his hands behind his back, Fleming described Oehme as an ungrateful man who showed up at every council meeting, who wouldn’t stop asking for more cash. “For anybody to take money from a crippled man like that would be rotten,” Fleming said. “I don’t need money that bad.”
The reporters looked down the tastefully carpeted hall, where portraits of great Republicans hung on one wall, an old photo of Fleming in a summer suit on another. In the distance they saw Fleming’s living room, with books lining the shelves, and the dining room, filled with gleaming silver and white linen. They told Fleming to look for the Plain Dealer in the morning and left.
When dawn broke, Fleming went to his porch and picked up the paper. “Crippled Policeman Says He Paid Fleming $200 After Council Action,” the headline read.
The same day, Oehme produced a cancelled check with his and Fleming’s signatures on the back. Prosecutor Ray T. Miller called Oehme to testify before a grand jury, which promptly indicted Fleming on charges of soliciting and accepting a bribe.
Fleming’s supporters rallied at meetings across the Central neighborhood, calling the indictment “rushed through” and accusing the Plain Dealer of sensationalism and “trying his case • outside the courts.” Harry C. Smith played it cool, writing that “the great mass of our good people” disapproved of the rallies and would wait to see how the case turned out.
OEHME LEANED on the prosecutor’s arm as he walked shakily to the witness stand. He testified that the $1,740 from the city hadn’t been enough to pay all his medical bills. But when he went to Fleming for more help, the councilman had responded, “Did you save any of it for me?” Oehme said he’d told Fleming he had another $354 in medical debts. “Get me some money and I’ll see what I can do,” he claimed Fleming said. So Oehme borrowed $200 from his step-grandfather, signed the check over to Fleming, and handed it to him at the Colored Elks’ Club. Oehme said no one else had been present.
Oehme’s wife backed up his story, claiming she’d heard Fleming ask for money. Two city councilmen testified Oehme had told them about the bribe a year earlier.
Fleming told a different story on the witness stand than he’d told the reporters, but he denied taking any bribe. He said Oehme had shown up at the Elks’ club and asked him to cash a check. “He thought he owed me some money for legal services and wanted me to keep $50,” Fleming testified. “I took the check, for $200, and gave him $150 in change.”
Two witnesses testified they saw Oehme hand the check to Fleming and take cash back from him. Character witnesses, including several judges, lined up to testify for Fleming.
The trial lasted three days. The jury — eight men, four women, all white — deliberated for 13 hours and delivered their verdict on a Friday morning. The foreman gave it to the clerk, who read it in a deep, booming voice: Not guilty of soliciting a bribe. Guilty of accepting one.
Fleming drummed his fingers on the table, then clenched his fist tight. He scowled. Lethia patted him soothingly on the back.
Then they stood and hurried for the elevator. As they neared the courtroom door, Fleming mumbled, “This is murder.”
FLEMING SERVED 27 months in prison. He returned to Cleveland in January 1933 and greeted visitors at his home on East 40th Street with the same old friendly smile.
“I haven’t any bitterness,” Fleming declared. “I slept every night in the penitentiary because my conscience was clear. … I say now, as I say when I was convicted, that I am innocent of what I was charged with.”
In his memoir, however, Fleming’s sense of persecution shaded into dark paranoia. He blamed the Democratic prosecutor, the Plain Dealerand the Klan for his conviction. “I figured the Ku Klux Klan had been secretly working to frame me ever since that organization scattered those thousands of cards from an airplane among the people of my District,” he wrote. In one of his many appeals, Fleming’s lawyer had claimed several jurors at his trial were Klansmen, but they’d denied it.
Cleveland had moved on. With Fleming gone, the city’s black population, which had grown from 8,400 to more than 70,000 during his years in council, had turned to new leaders. Two more black councilmen had been elected in 1928, and Fleming’s minister had replaced him on council. The press asked Fleming if he’d try to come back, but he demurred.
“If I get into politics,” he said, “I’d be afraid I’d get high again and get knocked out again.”
Two years later, Fleming won permission to practice law again and set up an office in his home. Judges, lawyers and city manager William Hopkins sent him congratulations. But two cerebral hemorrhages sent him to the hospital in 1936 and left him in a wheelchair.
Fleming outlived his rival, Harry C. Smith. He, too, was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage and died in his newspaper office in 1941. A near-hermit by then, with few friends, he left his estate to a German-American woman described as his friend, tenant and housekeeper.
When Fleming died in 1948, the police chief, countless Elks, Mashcke’s widow and all the councilman from Cleveland’s black wards came to Friendship Baptist Church for the funeral. His coffin lay on the altar, covered with flowers. Years later, his niece would insist that Fleming didn’t die of poor health, but of the heartbreak inflicted by his bribery conviction.
A self-guided tour of sites with historical significance related to the black community in Cleveland. Developed by the Plain Dealer.