Written by Felicia G. Jones Ross
Plain Dealer article from December 31, 1995
BLACK HERITAGE BEGAN IN 1809
Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, December 31, 1995
Author: SHARON BROUSSARD PLAIN DEALER REPORTER
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.
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.”
From the Ohio Historical Society
Praying Grounds: African American Faith Communities A Documentary and Oral History
From CSU Special Collections
The African-American Experience in Cleveland
The Cleveland Restoration Society’s 40th Anniversary Legacy Project was a survey of resources significant to Cleveland’s African–American history and culture followed by an educational component called “Know Our Heritage.” The survey was completed by Alexa McDonough, an Ohio History Service Corps, Ohio Historic Preservation Corps Surveyor stationed at CRS. The project was guided by a task force of community leaders: Natoya Walker–Minor and Bracy Lewis, co–chairs; Bishara Addison; Christopher Busta–Peck; Jennifer Coleman; Carla Dunton; Susan Hall; Shelley Stokes–Hammond; Cleveland City Councilman Jeff Johnson; Reverend Charles Lucas; Reverend Tony Minor; Carolyn Smith; Dr. Stephanie Ryberg Webster; Dr. Regennia Williams; and Jessica Wobig.
A series of articles from The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY –
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
A self-guided tour of sites with historical significance related to the black community in Cleveland. Developed by the Plain Dealer.
Bertha Josephine Blue
By Debbi Snook
On a spring day in the early 1900s, a confident-looking woman ushers a group of schoolchildren along the hilly sidewalk in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. She wears a crisp, blue dress and the scent of lavender soap.
The children, many of them sons and daughters of Sicilian immigrants, are walking to First Communion practice at Holy Rosary Church. The woman, their first-grade teacher, is African-American.
This snapshot in the rich and remarkable life of Bertha Josephine Blue, a member of Cleveland’s early black middle class, also reaches across many generations of race relations in Cleveland.
By today’s perceptions, Blue had quite the nerve. From 1903 to 1947 – a total of 44 years – this granddaughter of a slave taught at Murray Hill Elementary School.
Yes, in Little Italy, the tightly knit East Side Italian neighborhood of checkered tablecloth restaurants – and a checkered history dealing with outsiders.
But Blue used her determination, talent and heart to pierce this insulated community in such a way that it flooded her with love. It wasn’t a strategy, but a calling.
You won’t find Blue in most of Cleveland’s history books, but more than a half- century after her retirement and death, the mention of her name still brought tender, childlike responses from older residents of Little Italy. Some of them, plus a new group of admirers, are dusting off the memory of this respectful interracial relationship and passing it to future generations. Maybe, just maybe, they hope, it will help erase a multitude of old wounds.
Blue’s photograph graced the wall of the one-room Little Italy Historical Museum, the neighborhood’s former showcase. The same shrine housed a hand-cranked pasta machine from the old country and samples of lace tatted by many ancestors. An ornately painted donkey cart from Italy rolled out the door for many annual Feast of the Assumption parades.
Also on the walls were images of people from Campobasso and Abruzzi in the central part of Italy, and Sicily in the south – people who escaped the economic limitations of their homeland. Many worked as stonemasons in a quarry nearby, or as gifted carvers for the ornate Lake View Cemetery bordering the neighborhood.
Blue taught their children. Then she stayed after school to teach English to their parents. In turn, they taught her Italian.
Jane Darr, Blue’s daughter, said in a 2001 interview that her mother could relate to the immigrants as outsiders.
“She’d say, ‘Janie, they’re so young and so far from home. I have to do this.’ ”
“She was beautiful. We all loved her,” recalled Eva Maesta, a volunteer at the former museum and one of Blue’s former students. “Every birthday, she got a little cupcake for you with a candle in it. And this is when you couldn’t afford a cupcake.”
“She believed everybody should get a passing grade,” added Lauretta Nardolillo, another volunteer. “If you were a slow learner, she’d help you more. She never scolded you for getting things wrong.”
“When my mother baked bread, she’d give her a loaf of it,” remembered Frances LaRiche. Blue was allowed to park for free in the LaRiche family garage on Random Road. It was no small donation. The LaRiches couldn’t afford a car of their own.
On the cold, sunny afternoon of her interview, Darr circled the old school by foot and recalled the annual inspection tour she and her mom did each year. Most summers, the neighborhood kids would break classroom windows. Darr and Blue would drive around the building before school started to see which windows got hit.
“Never hers,” Darr said proudly.
Given the area’s racially tense past, people might expect the opposite. Darr said the late Carl Stokes, Cleveland’s first black mayor and the first black mayor of a major U.S. city, was astonished to hear about Blue for the first time at a Western Reserve Historical Society event in the early 1990s.
“He asked me if we tried to find out who ‘sent her up the hill’ and why – that it might not have been a joyful thing.”
But it was.
Kenneth L. Kusmer’s 1978 book, “A Ghetto Takes Shape, Black Cleveland, 1870- 1930” shows there were four black Cleveland teachers in 1908 – a healthy representation compared to other cities of the time. By 1915, there were 30.
Cleveland had been part of the Western Reserve, claimed by Connecticut and settled by New Englanders. Many of them were evangelic and reform-minded Christians who made most of what is now Northeast Ohio a center of the abolitionist or anti- slavery movement.
Remarkably, their 18th-century traditions of equality, Kusmer wrote, “remained intact to a remarkable degree” through the turn of the 20th century. Some of Cleveland’s first blacks found a more level playing field here than in many other cities.
The Great Migration changed things. The massive movement of Southern blacks heading north, escaping crop failures and old racism, magnified racial tension up north. Many were rural and uneducated, or seen as competition for jobs.
By the time Blue came of age, that tradition of equality did not include all professions. Because of her color, she probably would have been turned away from a medical school. But she was welcomed at a teacher’s college. With a teaching certificate in hand, the city school system would be open to her, including schools in white neighborhoods.
All she had to do was get that certificate. Those who knew her never doubted she would.
Blue lived for many years in the Central neighborhood, one of several sections of the city where blacks settled. During World War I, as southern blacks moved in by the tens of thousands, it became Cleveland’s version of New York’s Harlem. Blacks went there because other areas, especially growing suburbs, were closed to them.
When Darr visited the old homestead on E. 90th Street, the sweet memories flowed. There were the blue hydrangeas that her grandmother, Cornelia Cunningham Blue, planted in the yard. There were neighbors who showed up just to see Blue’s Asian décor, or her wall-sized bookcase.
It was a household of achievement.
“I grew up in a home where people always had a pencil and a legal pad,” said Darr. “They wanted to open doors that had never been opened. They would say, ‘This is the problem. How are we going to convince the community of such and such?’
“We were never allowed to use the terms ‘white people’ and ‘colored people.’ Grandma said it reinforced the battle. And you didn’t sit around the table at night and talk about the race problem. Dinner was a time to be happy and relaxed. If you wanted to do something, you went out and joined an organization that worked toward a goal.”
Darr recalled her mother and grandmother as serene personalities, and credits some of their talent for diplomacy from Quaker influence. She said Blue’s grandparents traveled the Underground Railroad to a Quaker settlement of ex-slaves near Cadiz, three hours south of Cleveland near the Ohio River.
Darr remembered using the words “thee” and “thou” at home, another possible Quaker connection.
Blue was born in Cleveland into a supportive atmosphere. Her cousin, Welcome T. Blue, was one of the city’s top black real estate salesmen with a big house one block away on E. 89th St. Welcome taught Blue to drive – when other male cousins wouldn’t, Darr said – and may have been a financial help.
As a young woman, Blue couldn’t afford four years of college in a row. She did one year at Hiram College, 1899-1900, and took other classes at Miami University in Oxford. It was not until 1932 that she received a bachelor’s degree from Western Reserve University. Darr said the graduation procession in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art was joyful.
“It was important to other people, too,” she said, “this one brown face walking around the lagoon.”
Blue’s life was full. There were high teas every afternoon at home, football games at Central High (starring her famous place-kicking brother, Joe Blue), the Minerva Book Club, classes in calligraphy and folk-dancing.
Blue once took her daughter to a party where bandleader Noble Sissle (best man at Joe Blue’s wedding) and pianist Eubie Blake played. There were annual trips to Oberlin to celebrate the end of slavery, and summer vacations at a tony black resort in Idlewild, Mich.
It was no spinster life. Blue once went to a show by fan dancer Sally Rand, “just to see how she got away with it.” And although Blue was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, she brewed up ginger beer that her relatives called potent.
The frivolity did not obscure the humble bones of her life. In addition to teaching, she organized a Sunday school at St. John AME Church on E. 40th Street. Churches were essential to black lives, with one historian calling them “the only institutions the negro could call his own.”
Blue also helped her friend, activist Jane Edna Hunter, manage the Phillis Wheatley Association, a groundbreaking community house for black women. It’s possible that Blue joined Hunter in battling the raging controversy surrounding the formation of the house.
Some upper class blacks felt integration was achievable if they worked hard and worked smart within the white community. On the other side, Hunter, a trained nurse, and others, couldn’t just watch as young black women were turned away from the whites-only YWCA. They knew help had to come from somewhere, even if it meant in a segregated institution. The settlement house emerged to change minds and lives.
Blue helped deliver babies in her family, and many friends and relatives came by the house just to unburden their hearts.
But Blue’s mother did not think her daughter’s life was full in all ways. Two romances ended when one man died of pneumonia, another from tuberculosis. Cornelia felt Blue needed a child, and set out to find her one.
She did with Jane Lee Darr, a 2-year-old with pecan skin and blue eyes. Darr’s mother, a friend of a friend, had just gotten divorced. She had no money and no future, and she looked white, which she was, mostly. She knew Blue could give the child a better life.
When the adoption was finalized, the parental rights went to Blue’s mother. Then, when she died, the rights went to Blue, a rarity for a single working parent at the time.
Darr remembers feeling immediately comfortable with Blue, how Blue touched her small head to calm her, how the house felt immediately like a home. When Darr’s birth mother came back to take her to Cumberland, Md., to see her dying birth grandmother, Blue gave the girl a small, blue bowl to take with her. “She said, ‘You can rub it and you won’t be far away from us.’ “
Blue was never angry or out of control with her daughter.
“I was mischievous,” said Darr. “I had to leave the table a couple times because you don’t say ‘ain’t’ or ‘honeychile.’ And I loved [saying] that.
“But my worst punishment was to go to my room and not eat family dinner. So then it would get late and maybe I’d get some soup and we’d have a talk. Nobody ever went to bed [hurt or angry].”
Hints of Blue’s tenderness and her understanding of young people can be found among the items in her manuscript file at the Western Reserve Historical Society. There are references to her favorite books on teaching, which stress the individualism of children. And there are dozens of thank-you notes from former students, filling the file with greeting cards of violets and lilies of the valley.
Schools were changing when Blue retired in 1947. At that time, Kusmer noted in his book, “A Ghetto Takes Shape,” there was a trend toward segregating black teachers with black students.
The Civil Rights movement confronted that issue and many others in the 1960s. Blacks not only had the vote, they used it to right longstanding wrongs. In 1963, the year Blue died, city schools were overcrowded. Black students were sent to Murray Hill, but kept in classrooms apart from white Little Italy students.
A sidewalk protest against the in-school segregation was readied one day in 1964, but never launched. Still, a white mob of 1,500 gathered and, according to news accounts, attacked photographers and black citizens who happened to be driving through the neighborhood.
Tension lingered for decades. Blacks complained of discrimination and other mistreatment in restaurants and on the street. Neighborhood residents chafed at visitors or student residents who were too loud, disrespectful or parked in the wrong places.
In the 1990s, officials of Case Western Reserve University and Little Italy started meeting to deal with the problems. Reported racial incidents became scarce.
While some blacks were still not comfortable in the neighborhood, many more began using it.
Then the Little Italy Historical Museum published a history book. It was dedicated to three people: two of the neighborhood’s founding fathers and Bertha Josephine Blue.
“She was the first one we thought of,” said museum volunteer Nardolillo. “She was one of us. Everybody liked her so much and she was such a lovely, dedicated teacher, we felt she should get some recognition.”
Nardolillo said she also hoped it served as a gesture of reconciliation.
Sandra Malek Vodanoff, a historical society volunteer and Lake View Cemetery docent, got a plaque installed at Blue’s gravesite there, telling how much she was loved by the Italian-American community. Teachers of English as a second language helped in the effort.
Thelma Pierce, who processed Blue’s file at the historical society, and whose father- in-law, David H., was the first white president of the Cleveland NAACP, said Blue was an exception in Little Italy, but exceptions can light the way to better times.
“It’s good if people can say, ‘I love Bertha Blue. That must mean there are other African-Americans I can love, too,’ ” said Pierce.
And when that feeling is returned by blacks, Darr said, her family had a name ready for it: “The Feast of Forgiveness.”
Article from The Ohio Historical Society