Black Heritage Began in 1809: Cleveland Plain Dealer

Plain Dealer article from December 31, 1995


Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, December 31, 1995



If ever there was a golden age for the black community in Cleveland, it was in the 1850s. It was then that a tiny group of blacks, numbering 224 out of a population of about 17,000, lived fully integrated lives. 


They worked alongside white tradesmen, dined in restaurants, and mingled at lectures and musical recitals. They lived in neighborhoods among whites and sent their children to integrated schools. And at religious services – the most segregated hour of the week today – blacks worshiped with whites. 


“At that point, Cleveland was a frontier town, a small city which was rapidly growing,” said Kenneth Kusmer, a noted historian on blacks in Cleveland and a Temple University professor. 


“Cleveland was founded mostly by people from New England who were reformers. It was an anti-slavery center. As a result, blacks were considerably more accepted than in other cities.” 


But that acceptance was fleeting. By the turn of the century, segregation and discrimination was prevalent. Any semblance of equality began a long, slow fade. 


“There was a change in the national attitude toward black Americans,” Kusmer said. “The Civil War disappeared. The South became powerful again. The North took on a similar racial attitude of the South but not as intense. The discrimination was never legal, but always informal.” 


Throughout the century, blacks struggled to regain their hold on Cleveland jobs, neighborhoods, and politics. 


“As a historian, I see this [inequality] as a cumulative problem of the past. It has come back to haunt us.” Kusmer said. 


Early settlers 


The first black settler in Cleveland was George Peake, who arrived in 1809 with his wife and his two adult sons. At that time, the hamlet’s swampy surroundings were notable for mosquitos and malaria. If that wasn’t enough, Lorenzo Carter , Cleveland’s first permanent white settler kept a stranglehold on the Indian trade and employed “itinerant vagabonds,” who were menacing to prospective settlers. 


The Peake family was well off and bought 103 acres of land west of the early settlment, in an areas that is today Lakewood. Peake then created a hand-mill for grinding grain that was popular among the settlers. 


Other black families followed, many becoming as successful as their white counterparts. 


“The people who migrated early were able to start businesses and develop trades and have more economic opportunity. The blacks who came were able to succeed, not absolutely on the basis of equality, but they were able to succeed,” said Kusmer. 


While it is difficult to quantify the success the black pioneers enjoyed because of a lack of documents, historians cite John Brown and others. Brown was a barber who bought land that he later sold for $35,000, a sizeable sum in those days. John Malvin was an abolitionist and successful canal boat captain. 


Others note Alfred Greenbriar, who owned a stable, and Madison Tilley, an excavating contractor who employed up to 100 men. 


By 1850, a significant number of blacks had purchased property. 


“I was surprised at the ability of blacks to move into skilled work,” said Kusmer, who studied 19th-century census records. The records indicated equal opportunity employment “relatively speaking on par with Irish immigrants, not the native-born whites,” Kusmer said. 


Yet racism did exist. The Black Laws, a series of statewide codes in effect from 1804 to 1887, made Ohio, in general, less attractive to black settlement. According to the laws, a black who wanted to live in the state had to post a $500 bond as assurance against his becoming a pauper or a criminal and show a certificate of freedom. Blacks could not testify against whites, vote or run for office. 


Blacks could not marry whites and, according to the Black Laws, their children couldn’t go to public schools or enter any of “the institutions of this state, viz: a lunatic asylum, deaf and dumb asylum, not even the poor house,” wrote John Malvin in his autobiography, “North Into Freedom.” 


Despite these laws, white Clevelanders, who had become active in abolishing slavery, generally ignored the laws. But in southern Ohio, which was settled by white southerners, the Black Laws were strictly enforced. 


“It was much more ambiguous and complex in the Northern states,” Kusmer said. “You might have segregation without the laws or have discriminatory laws but not have them obeyed.” 


The very fact that these laws exsisted concerned Cleveland-area blacks. They agitated for the repeal of the Black Laws and abolitionist John Malvin organized a school in 1831 for black children who couldn’t attend public schools. He also waged a one-man battle against segregated pews in predominately white First Baptist Church. 


“To that I objected,” he wrote. “Stating that if I had to be colonized, I preferred to be colonized at Liberia, rather than the House of God.” He was so successful that until the turn of the century, blacks attended integrated churches. 


Other blacks became well known on the abolitionist lecture circuit. In fact, when Lucy Bagby, a fugitive slave, was ordered returned to her master in Virginia in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, security was tightened because black Clevelanders threatened to carry her off to safety. 


William Howard Day, an Oberlin College graduate who moved to Cleveland in the 1840s, was a printer and traveling anti-slavery lecturer. He secretly wrote the constitution for John Brown’s doomed republic of freed slaves. 


William Wells Brown, an ex-slave who escaped through the Underground Railroad and settled in Cleveland during the 1830s, was a historian, writer, and abolitionist lecturer, best known for writing “Clotel, or The President’s Daughter,” a novel about the alleged slave offspring of President Thomas Jefferson. 


Slowly, black Clevelanders won many of their important battles. The Black Laws stayed on the books until 1887, but Cuyahoga County abandoned a registry recording the $500 bonds and certificates of freedom in 1851. 


By the late 1840s, black children were allowed to attend white public schools and churches were so integrated that all-black churches grew very slowly, surviving on membership drawn from black Southern migrants who wanted down-home religion. 


Racism had not completely fled from northeast Ohio, however. In 1859, The Plain Dealer, which supported the Democrats then considered to be the party of the South, would declare: “This is a government of white men. Let them establish a government of colored men.” 


Still, those words were largely ignored. The Western Reserve was infected with abolitionist fever and Cleveland was one of the major stops on the Underground Railroad. 


When the Civil War began, blacks who were forbidden to join the white troops in Ohio went to Massachusetts to join the all-black 54th and 55th regiments. In 1863, Ohio accepted black recruits for the war. 


Blacks in Ohio gained the vote in 1870, and John Patterson Green was the first black elected justice of the peace three years later. 


But, in less than four decades, race relations in Cleveland would take a turn for the worse. 


Color line emerges 


In 1880, there were only 2,000 blacks living in Cleveland out of a population of 160,000. Four years later, Ohio passed a Civil Rights Law forbidding discrimination in public places and amended it 10 years later. 


The first black elected to City Council, Thomas Fleming, took office in 1909. 


Other black councilmen followed including three in 1929, who engineered plans to stop a segregated hospital. 


“In the 1920s, they flexed their political muscle,” said Kusmer. “When the city tried to institute a separate hospital, for example, it was defeated. They had political power in the City Council. …” 


By 1920, the number of black residents would boom to 72,000. While there were no “white only” or “colored” signs posted in Cleveland, and police didn’t arrest blacks for sitting at lunch counters, the barriers to full integration, as opaque as they appeared, were rock hard. 


Gradually, most blacks were barred from restaurants, segregated in theaters, and forced to live in the Central neighborhood of Cleveland, an area bounded by Euclid Ave. to the north, the railroad tracks to the south, east to E. 55 St., and west by Public Square. They were chased out of parks in white neighborhoods and not allowed in the YMCA or YWCA. Even more critically, blacks were hired for only the most menial jobs and kept out of apprenticeship programs and unions. Those who had the time and the money to sue did, but getting justice was too often like hitting the lottery – only the most naive would count on redress for every wrong. 


The climate in Cleveland for blacks changed because of a combination of factors including a growing disregard for the plight of the blacks, Supreme Court decisions that supported segregation, the rise of white supremacy in the South and the influence of racist theories promoted by scientists. These theories claimed blacks were inferior because of smaller brain size or childlike characteristics. 


“Cleveland had lost its earlier aura of equality in racial matters,” an attitude that was reflected throughout the nation, Kusmer said. 


“You had some white liberals like the Jelliffes [who founded Karamu] but for the most part, Cleveland slipped into the pattern of other northern cities.” 


The emerging color line was a blow to the black middle class. George A. Myers, a barber who was the black liaison for Marcus A. Hanna, a Republican boss, was told when he retired from his barbering franchise in 1930 that the hotel would replace the black barbers with white ones. 


“It broke his heart and he died soon after,” said Kusmer. “Blacks who thought they would be accepted, who played by the rules, who were middle class and conservative in politics, found out they weren’t accepted by many people.” 


Ironically, the public schools remained integrated for children and teachers, even assigning black teachers like Bertha Blue, who taught Italian immigrant children for more than 30 years in Little Italy. 


Between 1920 and 1940, the number of blacks in Cleveland had almost tripled from 34,451 to 84,504. Only the Great Depression acted as a brake to white flight to the suburbs, said Adrienne Lash Jones, history professor at Oberlin College and an expert on black history in Cleveland during the 20th century. Even today older blacks who grew up in the 1930s can recall playing street games and jumping rope with white friends in Central. 


But as soon as the Great Depression lifted, the ghettoization of Central continued. “What was happening was that they did live in close proximity. They did get along,” she observes. 


“But as soon as the whites could get out of there, they did.” 


Despite the discrimination in Cleveland, Southern blacks were lured here by a feeling that life would be better up North. Blacks doubled their numbers between 1930 and 1950 to 147,847 from 71,899. 


Their arrival spurred a bigger business community. The Central area became home to black-owned stores, gas stations, restaurants, doctors’ and lawyer’s offices, and funeral homes, which supported a growing black middle class. By the 1950s, there were black-owned savings and loans and insurance companies. 


There were some success stories too. Track star Jesse Owens started winning races at East Technical High School in 1933. He set world records in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. The great American writer Langston Hughes who would be a major part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, wrote poetry as a student at Central High School. 


Yet there were few exceptional students. From the turn of the century, black Clevelanders struggled for better schools, housing and job opportunities. 


In the 1940s, a group of blacks took the city to court for its refusal to hire more than a token number of blacks in the booming wartime industries. Blacks weren’t hired in the plants until near the end of the war. 


The prosperity from World War II would change the look of the ghetto and the outlook of its residents. Veterans returning from a war where they had been asked to die for their country did not easily accept the second-class citizenship foisted upon them. 


“They were disappointed, frustrated and angry,” historian Jones said. That frustration would eventually lead to the election of the city’s first black mayor in 1967. 


Meanwhile, rising income would allow the black middle class, many anxious to rear their children in stable, safe neighborhoods, to leave the older, more deteriorated housing stock in the Central area. When they could, they pushed east beyond E. 55th St. and north beyond Euclid Ave. 


Unscrupulous real estate agents capitalized on whites’ fears of blacks and urged many whites to sell their homes so they could sell them at higher prices to black buyers. The neighborhoods of Glenville, Hough and Mount Pleasant saw a sharp increase of black residents. 


Whites, in turn, moved into eastern or western suburbs where home prices and mortgage loan practices kept blacks out. 


By the 1940s, the black business community had relocated from Central Ave. to Cedar Ave. near E. 105th St. 


“There were grocery stores. Art’s Seafood restaurant was on Cedar for many, many years,” Jones said. “There were good restaurants and white people would come to the “black and tan” clubs to listen to music. But blacks couldn’t go to the all-white clubs.” 


No matter how nice certain sections were, the stagnation and poverty of the ghetto never seemed to be far behind. Ironically, urban renewal in the older sections of Central pushed poor blacks into Hough and Glenville. 


Landlords profited by turning single-family homes into two-family homes and later into overcrowded shacks. City inspectors didn’t monitor the housing stock. Redlining by banks and insurance companies increased the blight, even in middle-class black havens like Glenville and Mount Pleasant. 


“As neighborhoods became predominately black, you see a decline in the ability to borrow money for home improvements. You could get money for a car or a refrigerator, but you couldn’t get a home improvement loan,” Jones said. 


Indeed, the Federal Housing Administration underwriting manual from the 1930s warned agents to be wary of writing mortgage or home improvement loans in areas where “inharmonious” racial groups existed because they might lower property values. Loans should ideally be given in communities with zoning regulations and restrictive covenants, according to the FHA rules. It was a standard that Central, Hough, Glenville and other areas could not meet. 


By the 1960s, black neighborhoods were bursting at the seams – about 251,000 blacks lived in Cleveland – most in deteriorating Central and nearby neighborhoods. Battles were not far behind. The first were waged against school segregation and the quality of education. 


The NAACP had complained about the quality of education for black children since the 1920s. Over time it worsened. Youngsters had to attend overcrowded schools in shifts. Central High School offered vocational classes and the children of southern migrants had to attend remedial schools. 


One demonstration against the building of schools designed to prevent integration led to the death of protester Bruce Klunder, a white minister, in 1964. 


Two years later, the Hough riots would break out, reportedly sparked by a white bartender accused of refusing to give a black man a drink. Four people were killed, 30 people injured. But the fuse was set long before, said Jones. 


“There were overcrowded conditions and lots of frustration,” she said. `We were in a downturn economically. People were having a hard time. Cleveland was very racist. People found all kinds of obstacles in employment. People came here to live better and they weren’t living better.’ 


The riot was also a sign of the times, she said. “It wasn’t just the blacks. There was a student rebellion and the women’s movement. It was a societal rebellion and disruption. If you see it in isolation, you miss the whole context.” Against this backdrop, Carl B. Stokes would be elected mayor in 1967, after losing in 1965. His brother, Louis Stokes was elected to Congress in 1968. Carl Stokes appealed to black voters and worked hard at getting the votes of whites, knowing they were wary of putting a black man in the mayor’s seat. 


“He was very charismatic, like a black John Kennedy,” Jones said. “He was a good person and he had the right beginnings. He was right up from the bootstraps. A street boy who made good.” 


In 1968, Glenville exploded in a shootout led by nationalist Fred “Ahmed” Evans. The exchange of gunfire left seven people dead, 15 wounded and led to looting and arson. Stokes’ reputation was tarnished among some voters when it was discovered that public money had gone to Evans’ nationalist group. 


He declined to run in 1971, but Stokes had entered the top ranks of city government and paved the way for other black powerbrokers. George Forbes became president of City Council in the 1973, and Mayor Michael R. White, the second black mayor, was elected in 1989. 


Back in neighborhoods like Glenville, Hough and Mount Pleasant, the ’70s and ’80s would be marked by an escalating flight to the suburbs by the black middle class. With housing discrimination outlawed, middle-class blacks headed to Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights and other eastern suburbs. By the 1980s, one-fourth of all Cuyahoga blacks lived in the suburbs. The city’s default in the ’70s, visible deterioration and a controversial school desegregation plan spurred them on as it did other racial groups. 


“Anyone who could get out of Cleveland, both blacks and whites, did because of the schools. … The flight is related to the deterioration of the school system,” said Jones. She moved from Glenville to Shaker Heights in the 1960s because of the poor quality of schools. 


In some ways, the racist legacy of the beginning of the 20th century is a template for black and white Cleveland today. Most of the whites in Cleveland still live on the West Side and in the western suburbs. Most of the blacks live on the East Side and in the eastern suburbs, some of which have a higher percentage of black residents than does Cleveland. 


Roughly half of Cleveland’s 492,000 population is black and a great deal of it is poor, according to the Census Bureau. About 42 percent of Clevelanders live below the poverty line, that number soars to half of the black population and 56 percent of Cleveland’s adult black males do not have a job, according to the U.S. Census. 


Urban poverty researchers Claudia J. Coulton and Julian Chow note that poor people in Cleveland have become more concentrated in certain neighborhoods, and these high-poverty neighborhoods are spreading to the edges of the city. “If this trend were to continue,” the researchers write, “nearly three-quarters of the city of Cleveland [census] tracts would reach high-poverty status before the year 2000.” 


In addition, Cleveland is one of 10 American cities where the poor and the affluent are to a great degree spatially isolated from everyone else, Coulton and her colleagues found. “Cleveland and nine other cities have this most extreme pattern of the poor being concentrated in the central cities in particular neighborhoods and the affluent being concentrated at the outskirts,” said Coulton, co-director of the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. 


The result of this extreme isolation is that the poor and unemployed have little contact with the middle and upper classes, whose values are predominant in society. Likewise, the affluent have little contact with the poor, so they have no firsthand knowledge of the hardship facing them and thus, would be less inclined to help them, researchers say. 


Still, life in Hough, Glenville and Central is not all bleak. Redevelopment has brought new, and in some cases upscale, homes and shops in the area during the last five years. Lured by generous tax benefits, some of the middle class have moved back. 


“The development of political leadership is a bright spot,” said Jones. “The opportunities are available if you are determined. Of course, you have to become well-trained in schools and that’s a problem. Yet, there are blacks in positions they didn’t hold in the 1960s. And with the development of the communty college, there are a significant number of black people who are able to take advantage of higher education opportunity. The White administration has changed the way the city looks.” 


But she still worries about the future of blacks in Cleveland. “The question of race is still important,” she said. “We can look at the progress, but we should not delude ourselves that the underlying issues of poverty – the lack of bank loans, the high rates of unemployment for black youths – are solved.”


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