Interview with George Forbes done in 2011 by the Benjamin Rose Foundation
Interview Date: June 2011
On a sunny late spring afternoon, in the living room of his University Circle home, George Forbes, fit and trim as he enters his ninth decade, shared his thoughts and feelings about what it was like growing up in the South before the Civil Rights Movement, and how his childhood experiences shaped his world view and political career; what working as a Cleveland teacher and postal worker taught him about politics before he was elected to Cleveland City Council in 1964; and what life has been like — busy, challenging, rewarding — since he left City Hall more than 20 years ago.
When and where were you born and where are you in the sibling line-up?
I was born April 4, 1931 in Memphis, Tennessee. My parents had nine children. The youngest child died when she was two years old and I was the next in line, so I virtually grew up as the youngest child.
What did your parents do?
My father worked for a Proctor and Gamble Company in Memphis, the Buckeye Cotton and Oil Company. They took cotton seeds and reduced them to oil, making linseed oil. On the side, he farmed. And since there were 8 of us children, we farmed, too.
We planted cotton and corn and in the fall we never went back to school when it started in September. We never went until November, when all the crops were laid by…and none of us ever failed a grade. The teachers made sure that we made up the time and the lessons that we had missed.
My mother raised eight children and worked as a domestic in the homes of wealthy Southern Whites, sometimes, too. When she’d come home, with eight kids we ate out of tin plates, but she insisted that we use the right utensils and cut our food properly and know the social graces.
You grew up — came of age — during World War II. How do you think it shaped the person you are today? Or did it?
During the war, my brother went into the service and my sisters’ husbands went into the service, but it really didn’t affect me. I was affected the same way most teens were: We knew who Hitler was and we knew he was bad and we had to win the war.
My real coming of age came from what I was seeing and experiencing in the Black community.
The darker you were, the lower on the totem pole you were, which led to inequities and disparities within the community itself, and I didn’t want to be a part of that.
When I was 13, I worked as a short-order cook at one of the hotels in Memphis. I’d go to work at two o’clock and work till 11, a full shift. And then I’d take the last streetcar home. When it stopped at the corner where the jail was, all these people with bandages on their heads and arms come out and get on the streetcar. That was what I was seeing and experiencing, too. And it was also something I didn’t want to be part of.
When you rode the bus, you never thought about the fact that you paid the same fare, but that you walked to the back for a seat. When a Black woman went to a department store, she couldn’t try on a hat, she just bought it. At restaurants there was a counter for Black people and White people. If there wasn’t a seat in the Black section, you just had to stand around and wait till one came up.
When I was in high school, I wanted to be a lawyer, and there was a case being tried of a young Black man who’d been charged with murder, and I went to the courthouse to the trial. I was the only Black there, and I sat in the section for Blacks during the trial. When I had to go to the bathroom I went into the [Black’s] bathroom and while I was standing at the urinal the sheriff came in — I knew him — and he asked me: ‘What are you doing here?’ And when I told him I’d come to hear and see the trial he told me to leave. He ran me out of the bathroom.
But what I want to make clear here is that at that time, those things weren’t considered indignities, they were considered normal, par for the course. That’s the reason the teachers at my high school, which was segregated, were always telling us: ‘When you finish school, go North.’ And that’s exactly what I did.
When did you move to Cleveland, then?
I moved here when I finished high school in 1949, but I’d come up to Cleveland to live with a brother and work the summer of 1948. I worked at a place in the Flats called Cleaners’ Hangers. They made clothes hangers and my job was to take the wire hangers off the line and put them in an oven to bake on the finish line. That was the first time I’d ever worked in a factory.
Where did you go to high school, then?
I went to Manassas High School, one of the two Black high school’s in Memphis. I didn’t know anything about mixing with White people until I went into the service. And I was never in a class with a White person until I went to Baldwin-Wallace College in 1954.
In school, what were you good at…and not so good at?
I was in a group of young Black men, called the Speaker’s and Writers’ Club. At school our teachers encouraged us to do our best. No, they demanded it. And they didn’t allow any foolishness. You buckled down and did what you were supposed to and were capable of…so that you’d be prepared for the world.
Even then, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, even though there were no Black lawyers in Memphis at that time, so I was doing a lot of writing and acting and oral presentations. I really liked things like history and English and the arts. I was OK in math, but I dodged chemistry and physics, even in college.
You went into the Marines after high school, serving during the Korean War. Where were you stationed and what did you do in the Marines?
I was in Cleveland when I was drafted into the Marines, so I had to go back to Memphis for the induction and processing. I did basic training at Paris Island, South Carolina, and that was the first time I really felt like a man. The instructors were tough — very tough. They knocked you down and they didn’t discriminate: they were equally tough on Whites and Blacks, and I’d never seen Whites get the same kind of treatment Blacks got. Now I realize that they were tough on all of us because they wanted to turn us into Marines, so in combat we’d survive.
When I left Paris Island, I went to the Third Marine Air Base in Opa Locka near Miami. I’d cooked in hotels and I went to the chaplain and told him that I knew how to cook, and he called the commander and pretty soon I was a cook. And that’s what I did the whole time I was in the Marines. Later I was transferred to Quantico [Virginia] and was there till I was discharged.
When you got out of the Marines, you went to Baldwin-Wallace on the GI Bill. Were you still planning on being a lawyer?
No. I got out of the Marines in 1953 and started there in 1954. And when I started I was thinking about being a minister. And Baldwin-Wallace was a good choice for that: It was founded by Methodists.
But my first year I had an Old Testament teacher who was a racist: there really is no other way to describe him. To me there was an inconsistency in his teaching of the Bible and his personal actions and I shied away from the ministry. And, since being a lawyer had always been in the back of my mind, that’s when I decided to become a lawyer.
There was an instructor there, Themistocles Rodis, who taught history and political science, and since I was one of the older students there — going on the GI Bill — we became more than just teacher and student, we became friends. He’s one of the people responsible for me becoming a lawyer.
When I read in the paper — maybe three years ago — that he’d died, I went to his funeral. His wife and kids remembered me.
While you were going to law school, you taught in Cleveland. What did you teach and where did you teach?
When I graduated from college in 1957, I started at Cleveland-Marshall Law School at Cleveland State. I was married and we had a child, so I needed to make a living while I was going to law school, so I got my teaching certificate in social studies and became a substitute teacher in Cleveland, but my real job security was at the post office. They arranged my schedule so that I was able to work 40 hours a week — days and weekends — and go to law school nights.
[Laughs] Don’t ask me how I did it — subbing, going to school and the full-time job at the post office. It was a juggle.
What did you learn teaching and at the post office that you took with you into the political arena?
From teaching, I realized that the system had to be more responsive to the needs of kids, and Black kids in particular, and the communities, too. The problems were starting to germinate when I was working in the system and I could see them first hand, not just because I was substitute teaching, but on a personal level, too. My oldest daughter, when she started school, went to school only half a day and she had to go to school in the basement of a church. I knew there had to be a change in the system.
From the post office, I learned about job discrimination. Educated Black men couldn’t get jobs in the corporate sector in Cleveland — at Lincoln Electric, Thompson Products, places like that — so they ended up at the post office…[S]ome of the smartest guys in Cleveland, educated at some of the best schools in the US, ended up driving trucks and sorting mail at the post office because there was no place for them — for us — in the corporate sector. I never forgot that.
You were elected to City Council in 1963. How did that come about? In other words, who were you running against, why did you run, what were you running ‘for’, and what were you running ‘against’?
You are taking me back almost 50 years. And I’m going to answer you in a roundabout way.
In Memphis, Blacks could always vote, and my parents always voted, but they voted for whom they were told to vote. Boss Crump’s machine ran Memphis. You’d see him, in his white straw hat, walking the streets.
When I was at college, I was president of the Young Dems, and I’d been politically active, for years. When I was in law school and my wife and I moved to the 27 th Ward [now part of Ward 9], I and my brother became active in the Ward Club. That was when Bill Sweeney was the councilman.
When the ward’s demographics began to change, Bill, who was White, decided not to run, so I said I’d run because it was a chance to become actively involved in the affairs of the City of Cleveland. There were seven or eight other people running, but the strongest candidate was Anna Brown, a very qualified lady who was a Republican and later, under Ralph Perk, became head of Cleveland’s Department on Aging. But she was a Republican, running in a predominantly Democratic ward. I won and went down to City Hall.
What were you running ‘for’ and ‘against’ in that first election?
I was running ‘for’ the chance to make a difference and to preserve the neighborhood, which at that time was a very middle-class neighborhood. I was young and enthusiastic and married and had a child. Their vote was my opportunity to go out and serve.
Most politicians have a mentor, someone who saw their abilities and their passion and nurtured them along. Who was your mentor?
That’s something I’m seldom asked, and there were two.
When I went into City Hall, Charlie Carr was the Majority Leader in Council and a very wise man. He came from Texas and just hated discrimination and he guided me in when to talk and when to keep my mouth closed. He was a really good strategist.
The other was James Davis, a firm Republican who came from Iowa. He was the President of the Growth Association and also managing partner at Squire, Sanders and Dempsey…For some reason we hit it off and he showed me the other side of [Republicanism]. We’d have lunch once or twice a month — me, this young, Black lawyer-politician out of the South — and he showed me that politics doesn’t create jobs, that politicians create opportunity and the atmosphere for jobs. He’d listen to me and ideas that I had and then he’d tell me — he was much older than I —what would work and what wouldn’t.
In my years in Council, I combined philosophies about economic growth with the practical political astuteness of Charlie Carr. [Sighs] Both have been gone a long time.
In 1971, you founded Cleveland’s first Black-owned law firm. What led you to do that?
Up till then, Blacks were mostly practicing out in the neighborhoods — I had an office at 123 rd and St. Clair — as one-or-two person offices. Clarence Gaines, a councilman along with me, and Clarence Rodgers, who was a federal prosecutor, and Earl Horton, another lawyer, got together one day and, because we were friends, we got to talking about starting a law firm. We decided to take the office furniture, and the staff we had, and rent offices downtown and see if we could make it work. Our first office was in the Marion Building, at 1276 W. 3 rd , right across from the Justice Center. And we did alright.
Eventually my daughter [Helen Fields] came into the firm with me and Earl, that was at least 25 years ago, and later on, so did her husband, a bond lawyer. Now we are Forbes, Fields, and Associates. I’d say that half the work we do now is bond related.
In your 20s and 30s, you were incredibly busy, and involved in a lot of things that didn’t leave you much time for socializing. So when did you meet your wife, Mary, and when did you marry?
We met when I was in college at Baldwin-Wallace. She’d finished school already and was a social worker working with children. In my last year, we married — that was 1957 — and we’ve been married for 54 years. We had three girls: two are lawyers and one is a social worker, like her mother.
Having a social worker for a wife is a tremendous advantage for a politician, in terms of knowing the social issues impacting the community. Did your wife every get interested in politics?
Not really. We kept things separate. I didn’t mix the family and politics. And that was partly due to my wife’s personality. She’s a very low-key lady.
And, when I came home from work, I left the work at the door. We never talked about politics or work-related things at home…And I think that’s part of my mental success, that I didn’t bring the frustrations of City Hall home with me, that when I came home I was husband and dad and we’d do family things, go out to eat, go to the circus.
You spent almost 30 years immersed in Cleveland politics — from the early 1960s till you lost the election for mayor in 1989— then you pretty much dropped out of election-based politics. Looking back, what are the accomplishments you are most proud of during your years on Cleveland’s City Council?
In anticipation of this interview, I asked myself, did I make a difference?
And the answer is yes, I did. And that’s the thing I think about when I tally the sheets and get all the crazy stuff —the throwing books and all — out of the way. When you boil things down to their essence, that’s it: I made a difference.
I was reading the [ Plain Dealer ] one Sunday morning and there was an article in it about the 50 most important people in the history of the City of Cleveland. And there was my name.
It wasn’t a list compiled by reporters; it was compiled by civic leaders and city historians. And I could not believe my name was there, but when I saw it, I knew I’d made a difference, that I hadn’t neglected the things that I’d set out to do: to make sure that the poor and the Black were included in the progress of the City of Cleveland.
I know I’ve done other things, but with regard to making a difference — a positive difference — I accomplished what was always the foremost thing in my mind.
You have always been a controversial figure. How do you thing that helped your career and how do you think it hurt it?
Go back to what you just asked me. Was what I did unorthodox a lot of the time? Yes. But I don’t think, over-all that I was penalized because of the controversy.
In those times it was necessary if you were going to move things off-center, if you were going to move things forward, if you were going to move [the city] in the direction we needed to go…forward, not backward into the past.
With regard to your political career, what’s the one thing you’d do differently if you could have a do-over?
[Laughs] We like to think we haven’t done anything that needs a do-over…but, I probably could have toned down the language I’ve used. It was offensive to some people. But it was offensive because I wanted to be effective.
Today, I probably wouldn’t use that kind of forceful language — as much. But I realized, from my days substitute teaching, that you can’t get through to people unless they are listening to you. You have to have their attention. And a lot of the language I used was to get peoples’ attention. But, as I look back, I probably could have done that — or most of it — another way.
In 2007, The Plain Dealer published that article saying you were one of the 50 most influential people in Cleveland’s history. Yet few people realize the huge impact you have had on Cleveland. Why do you think that is?
I think part of it is that things happened over time, the impact was cumulative, year-to-year, term-to-term, working with different mayors. And the media coverage of things changed, too. When I came to Cleveland, there were three papers in Cleveland: The Plain Dealer, The Cleveland Press and The Cleveland News. Now there is just one, and fewer people are reading it. But the main reason, I think, is that people don’t live in the past. And I don’t either. I’ve probably been to City Hall three times since I left.
You effectively “retired” from Cleveland politics after the 1989 mayoral race, which you lost to Michael White. However, I suspect that without missing a beat, you became involved in other “civic” activities. So, what have you been doing for the City of Cleveland since you left “politics?”
One of the things, obviously, is that I became involved in NAACP. And making sure that minority rights are protected has kept me busy. And when I left City Hall, I taught at Baldwin-Wallace for 10 years. That was, frankly, one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
And I’m still actively involved in putting people together to discuss the social and economic issues that are impacting the city. Last year the Speaker of the [Ohio] House asked me to arrange a meeting with Black leaders, so I helped set up a meeting with about 50 local leaders at Karamu.
[Laughs] But, you know, I just turned 80, so I’m not as active at it as I used to be.
And speaking of being 80, and all the things you are doing, where does the energy come from?
Well, one place it comes from is that I’m no longer full-time at the office. About two years ago, I went into the office one day and I told my daughter: I don’t want to do this anymore. And I really didn’t.
Since then, while I’ve been doing some advising at the office, I’ve been focusing on NAACP and community-related things. [Pointing at the nearby phone that had rung constantly during our interview] I’m busy doing things that matter, that count, that keep me going.
But the question is still, where does the energy come from?
[Laughs] Good genes! Both my parents passed away in their 80s.
But that’s just part of it. There’s attitude, too. I’ve always wanted be up and doing and going and participating in what’s going on around me. I’ve always wanted to be on the train, not watching it pass by.
You have been, and still are, in good physical shape. What did you do in the past, and what are you doing now, to stay physically, and mentally, fit?
Well, there are those good genes. But, I’ve always been a walker especially around the neighborhood and I like doing the treadmill at the health club, too — but I’ve come down with vertigo and I fell a couple of times last winter. With medication’s I’m controlling the problem, and I’ve made some adaptations in how I do things, so I’m still walking.
When we were in Florida I walked two miles every day, and not playing golf. I’d go up to the supermarket, buy the New York Times and I’d take my walking stick and walk a mile one way and then turn around and come back. I used the walking stick for balance. Now that I’m home, I’ll be starting back at the health club.
What about diet?
For me, food’s never really been an issue, but I also have a wife and three daughters who raise a ruckus if I even mention fried chicken, so, if I stay off the cookies and ice cream, I’m in good shape there.
MythBusters is all about successful aging. But everyone’s definition of what that is differs, so what’s your definition of successful aging?
I’ve never thought about aging, much less successful aging, till recently. But I’ve come to realize that it’s a process. And I’ve also realized that the “aging club” is a “club” that a lot of people don’t get to join. At 80, I’m fortunate to be a member of a very select group of people. So, to me, successful aging means that I am not just “busy,” it means I’m engaged and continuing my life’s work and that I’m accomplishing things. And one thing I’ve come to realized as I’ve thought about this is that helping others is part of the process of successful aging. That’s why, when the phone rings here, I pick it up.
Getting older is what it is and I don’t try to act 60 or 70 because I don’t view aging as a disadvantage, I view it as an advantage because of the experience it brings with it. That is an asset, another state and stage of life for me to take advantage of. Oh, I recognize that I’m not as mentally sharp or as physically robust as I once was, but I also recognize that I’m aging successfully — because I’m adaptable — and I’m making it work for me.
What do you think people who read this profile should be doing, on a daily basis, to age successfully?
Don’t resist aging. Don’t fight it, embrace where and who you are at this stage of life…and enjoy the beauty of it.