One summer afternoon, in must have been in 1956 or ’57, as my father was totaling up the money from the day shift waitress in the tavern he owned on Scovill Avenue, he saw my eyes grow wide at the stack of bills he was counting. Growing up, I must have seen him perform this tallying ritual many times before — the difference that time being, I was entering puberty and with a growing interest in the opposite sex, I needed to dress better … thus my growing interest in money. There was this cool pair of Stetson shoes that I wanted to be the first in my school to own. “Son,” he simply said, “those folks down in Washington print way too much of this stuff for a sucker not to have a pile of it.” That was all of the economic advice he ever gave me … and it proved to be all I ever needed.
Just as he was imparting this life lesson to me, his friend, attorney, and business associate of sorts, Charles V. “Charlie” Carr (who also was the Ward 17 city councilman at the time) was walking up to the end of the bar where we were standing, and, overhearing our conversation, took the opportunity to reinforce the message: “Listen to your father, young man, he’s telling you straight … and don’t you ever forget this: The best thing you can do for poor people is to not be one of them.” Then, as if to visually punctuate his comment, he took a large wad of cash out of his pocket and handed it to my father, saying, “From yesterday, count it.”
“No need to Charlie,” my father replied, “but what are you doing dropping off?”
Carr responded, “Lem had to take his mother to the doctor, but I had to come past here on my way down to City Hall anyway … I’ll see you at ward club meeting tonight, right?” he asked as he exited the door.
Now I can’t say for certain, but what I’d most likely had just witnessed was a payout in what insiders called the “digits” business (a euphemistic term for the illegal lottery more commonly known as the “numbers racket”). Virtually everyone in black neighborhoods “played the numbers,” and watering holes doubled as booking parlors. Operators like my father received a cut of the winnings whenever someone “hit.” And someone must have hit big, since there must have been 25 or 30 hundred dollar bills that he fanned before putting them into his safe.
* * *
At that point in his career, after serving over 10 years on Cleveland City Council, Charlie Carr was arguably the most politically powerful black man in Cleveland. He certainly was the most skillful and clever … if not always the most liked and trusted. He’d won his seat from Republican W.O. Walker, then the publisher of the Call & Post newspaper, on his third attempt by making a campaign promise to introduce legislation that would make it virtually impossible for the police to raid and arrest numbers operators. His argument was simple: If Catholic churches could host bingo games and casino nights, why then couldn’t blacks play the numbers without fear of arrest?
There’s a saying that when a smart politician sees a parade forming, he jumps in front and start leading … and that’s exactly what Charlie Carr did in 1947. The May Co. did not hire black sales clerks, but returning black soldiers were demanding change. When the picket lines formed in front of the store black folks were carrying signs that read “Don’t Shop Where You Can’t Work.” Carr was one of the organizers of the demonstration, and my mother was one of the women carrying a sign.
Additionally, my father was one of the dozen or so black men — bar owners, numbers runners, and some very tough up-and-coming professional boxers — standing silently across Euclid Avenue (a few with pistols in their pockets) observing. Some of the men brought their children along; I was four years old as I watched history unfold. The white police officers glowered at the knot of black men, and the black men glowered right back. I recall Carr crossing the street to briefly huddle with the black men, and then walking over and speaking with the police officers before going back over to talk to the demonstrators. The term “shuttle diplomacy” had yet to be invented, but Charlie Carr had already mastered it. In less than a week May Co. officials agreed to hire three black sales clerks.
The next month I was among the first group of black kids to ride on the merry-go-round at the previously segregated Euclid Beach Amusement Park, located on Lakeshore Boulevard at E.160th. In 1946 Carr had introduced an ordinance that would make it illegal for amusement park operators to discriminate, and by the summer of ’47, after some protests that turned violent, that battle was also won.
Just as Birmingham, Alabama is rightfully known as the birthplace of the black Civil Rights Movement in America, Cleveland, due in large part to Charlie Carr, can make the claim of being the birthplace of the black political rights movement in this country — the proof being the election of Carl B. Stokes as the first black mayor of a major American city in 1967.
Arnold Pinkney, who was Stokes’ campaign manger, states that the victory would not have been possible without Charlie Carr. “After we won, black politicians from all over the country came to Cleveland to learn how we’d pulled it off. We’d take them to talk to Carl, and then to talk to Charlie. They’d sit at his feet, and they’d listen, and they’d learn how to win,” said Pinkney.
Carr worked his magic by building on the tactics developed by Clevelander John O. Holly, a pioneering black organizer of the 30’s and 40’s, and mixing those with the tactics of the civil rights crusaders in the South beginning in the 50’s. He became a master builder of political machinery and learned how to leverage the strength of the small number of black elected officials by making strategic alliances with white politicians … when it suited his purpose. He understood the balance of power. Carr learned early-on that it took money to make the political machinery work, and he was shrewd enough to raise enough of it. The backbone of all political organizations is the precinct committee members — my father was proud to be one — and Carr kept a firm grip on them via money and patronage.
Carr, however, was not without his detractors. As Fred Crosby, a businessman who was a contemporary and close friend of boxing promoter Don King relates, Carr was always the smartest man in the room, and if anyone forgot that fact Carr didn’t mind reminding them. Although he only stood about 5’7” and was slight of build, he tended to dominate any gathering that he was part of.
“I got along with him fine, but not everybody did. One time Charlie was defending D.K. [Don King] and Virgil Ogletree after they got arrested for running a numbers operation,” said Crosby, “and he said in open Court that his clients were ‘just a couple of poor boys from the ghetto who were trying to better themselves in the only way they knew how, and they really are too dumb to be held accountable for their actions, your Honor.’ Both of these guys were probably millionaires by then, and they were mad as hell with Charlie for a long time, but he got them off. The thing was, if you got into a business deal with Charlie, you just might come out OK, but it was guaranteed that Charlie was going to come out OK. Whatever it took to win, he’d do it — I never recall him losing.”
However, in 1975 Carr finally did lose — to the young firebrand Lonnie Burten. Hough councilman David Collier (who was himself fighting off another firebrand in Fannie M. Lewis) recalls: “By then Charlie was 72 years old and wasn’t in the best of health, and he kind of took Burten for granted.” Additionally, while Carr was the master of finesse, Burten was riding the crest of the Black Power movement that was sweeping the nation. He was a brash, loud-talker who organized students at Cleveland State and Tri-C and then trounced Carr 2,521 votes to 1,678.
“Charlie was more than just a great role model and mentor, he was a great man,” said George Forbes. “He truly loved to help up-and-coming black politicians, as well as help the little guy. He believed in the power of the dollar, that’s why he engineered the takeover of Quincy Savings and Loan and turned it into the first black-owned bank in Cleveland … it was part of his life-long effort to make blacks more financially independent.”
Even though he was out of politics, after one of Forbes legendary displays of temper Carr called him and said, “George, quit pissing on every goddamn fireplug you come to.” Forbes says that one comment taught him how to judiciously pick his battles.
About a year after Carr was defeated his wife called Forbes and told him that Charlie was driving her crazy hanging around the house. So Forbes, as City Council president, arranged for Carr to be the first black appointed to the RTA board. “Charlie wasn’t there six months and he was running everything, the whole show,” said Forbes. “They used to get paid by the meeting, and they would meet a couple of times a month. As soon as those white guys put Charlie in charge they began holding all kinds of committee meetings … three, and sometimes four, meetings a week,” Forbes laughed.
Upon Carr’s death in 1987 Carl Stokes paid him the ultimate tribute: “Whatever the problem was, he would try to make the opposing parties see there was something in the solution that each could benefit from. That is the basic fundamental science of politics: compromise. He was the master of it, and I learned so much from him.”