African Americans in Cleveland

This tour offers a sampling of stories that collectively tell a broader story about African American life in Cleveland in the twentieth century. Following the Great Migration in the 1910s and 1920s, Cleveland's black population soared. Hardening racism, bolstered by discriminatory practices by landlords, real estate brokers, and banks, largely confined African Americans to the Cedar-Central neighborhood on Cleveland's near east side. In a short time Cedar-Central found itself compared to Harlem and Chicago's South Side, in no small way due to its jazz and blues clubs.

As Cedar-Central became more crowded, city leaders seized upon slum clearance and public housing as solutions in the 1930s. World War II launched the Second Great Migration, in which waves of southern blacks and Appalachian whites flocked to take up industrial work. Although black residence spread over a considerably larger swath of the east side, discrimination ensured that the spread was fairly minimal and that recognized boundaries were observed.

When much of the near east side was slated for urban renewal in the 1950s, wholesale demolition forced tens of thousands of African Americans to seek homes elsewhere. Many flooded into the Hough and Glenville neighborhoods to the north and east. As overcrowding replicated problems seen earlier in Cedar-Central, these outer neighborhoods struggled to remain vital. Some neighborhoods sought alternatives to redevelopment by pursuing conservation of homes or even adopting new names.

Until the mid-1950s African Americans seldom managed to obtain homes outside the city limits--or west of the Cuyahoga River that divides Cleveland into eastern and western halves. Glenville, Wade Park, and Mt. Pleasant offered the best available housing in these years. The first suburban breakthrough occurred in the late 1950s in Ludlow on the edge of tony Shaker Heights. Through concerted action, Ludlow became a national model for orderly integration. Unfortunately, elsewhere racial change continued induce panic, a problem greatly compounded by "blockbusters" who sowed seeds of fear of declining property values. White flight convulsed East Cleveland in the 1960s. Even though Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights citizens managed to use a variety of creative measures to integrate peacefully, even they were not immune to occasional ugly incidents.

Despite efforts in the 1960s-70s to extend fair housing opportunities so that no community would either bear the brunt of rapid turnover or remain exclusionary, until recent years a bow shape on Cleveland's racial map reflected how concentrated its black population remained. An experiment with busing from the late 1970s to mid-1990s attempted to achieve integrated schools to overcome the legacy of segregation by custom and discriminatory housing policy. Applicable only to the deeply divided city itself, busing accelerated white flight on the city's west side and allowed many suburbs to serve as white havens.

Cleveland’s Phillis Wheatley Association is known for providing a plethora of social services throughout Cleveland. When Jane Edna Hunter opened the Phillis Wheatley in 1911, it was known as a “home for working girls” regardless of their race or nationality. The seed for a home for young African…
View Story | Show on Map

Opened in 1907 as a five-story, 250-room residential hotel known as the Majestic Apartments, the Majestic Hotel emerged after the Great Migration as Cleveland's primary African American hotel, a role it played until integration eased the need for hotels catering primarily to a black clientele. From…
View Story | Show on Map

The Outhwaite Homes Estates, along with the Cedar Apartments and Lakeview Terrace, were the first three public housing projects to be completed in Cleveland. The three projects were also among the first in the nation to receive approval and funding from the federal government's newly created…
View Story | Show on Map

In 1904, J. Walter Wills received an offer he couldn't refuse. William Gee, a newly minted mortician, sought a partner. After paying Gee $250, Gee & Wills Funeral Home was in business. It was the genesis of what would become one of Cleveland's illustrious and long-standing African American enterprises.
View Story | Show on Map

In its heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the corner of Woodland and East 55th was, in the words of bluesman George Hendricks, "like another city—it was like New York." Before Leo's Casino had its storied run as a Motown stronghold on Euclid Avenue, Gleason's Musical Bar…
View Story | Show on Map

From 1949 to 1959, the Chatterbox Musical Bar and Grill, located at 5123 Woodland Avenue, was a place to be and be seen. Owned by John (Chin) Ballard, the colorful spot featured soft lighting, swank decorations, and a glowing atmosphere. Ballard and his assistant, famed Cleveland Browns star player…
View Story | Show on Map

On July 5, 1966, Mayor Ralph S. Locher unveiled an eight-point peace program meant to alleviate racial tensions in Cleveland. Prepared by Locher’s administration, businessmen, politicians, community activists, and religious leaders, the pact forged a symbolic peace between the city government and…
View Story | Show on Map

For a generation in the 1940s-60s, Pla-Mor Roller Rink provided a much-needed recreational venue for all ages on the eastern end of the Cedar-Central (Fairfax) neighborhood and for a time was the only Black-owned skating rink in Cleveland. More than a place to skate, it also attracted top-billed…
View Story | Show on Map

"Antioch Church In Area Where Evictions Ordered: The Federal Court last Tuesday issued orders for the nearly 300 families living in the area bounded by E. 22nd St., Central and Cedar Ave. and E. 30th, to move by the 15th of October. While the judge said when to move, he didn't say where.…
View Story | Show on Map

Fairfax neighborhood's namesake, Florence Bundy Fairfax, was a decorated civil servant with a remarkable story. Born in Cleveland on Christmas Eve in 1907, Florence Bundy spent her teenage years living on the Kenyon V. Painter estate in Cleveland Heights, where her parents worked as house…
View Story | Show on Map

At a 1947 testimonial dinner at the Phillis Wheatley Association to honor African American businessman Willie Pierson, John O. Holly, the president of Cleveland’s Future Outlook League, said, “If we had a few more Willie Piersons, this community would be almost self-sustaining.” Indeed, by investing in a number of businesses in the 1930s and ’40s with an eye toward creating opportunities in the…
View Story | Show on Map

On the morning of April 6, 1970, 350 to 400 whites, mostly students, gathered outside of Collinwood High School and began throwing rocks at the school, breaking 56 windows. Teachers told the 200 black students who attended school that day to go to the third-floor cafeteria for their protection. At…
View Story | Show on Map

Carl B. Stokes is widely known as the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city. Yet, Stokes, elected to office in 1967, was neither the first black mayor in Ohio nor even in the Cleveland area. Nearly four decades earlier, a small community now inside the Cleveland city limits elected a…
View Story | Show on Map

Robert P. Madison was a young and eager man who returned from the Second World War in 1946 looking forward to a new beginning. Passionate about architecture since childhood, Madison knocked on the door of the Western Reserve University's School of Architecture that July. He was promptly denied…
View Story | Show on Map

Shiny windows, clean floors and new furniture. All are part of a new office and a new opportunity. This is what African American entrepreneur Isaac Haggins imagined for his realty business. Haggins, whose new office in Cleveland Heights in 1968 became the first black-owned realty office in any…
View Story | Show on Map

In the summer of 1981, the choirs of St. John's and St. James A.M.E. churches, two historic African American congregations on Cleveland's east side, joined together in the octagonal sanctuary at the inaugural service of Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church. Named after the African Methodist…
View Story | Show on Map

The integration of Cleveland suburbs was a long and controversial process. However, with the influence of the Cuyahoga Plan, many African American families were welcomed into predominantly white neighborhoods. In Bay Village, a black family was contacted before their move by residents of the…
View Story | Show on Map

A 1976 landmark federal court ruling challenged Cleveland to take long-overdue action to desegregate its public school system. Although slowed by litigation and disputes, the school district implemented crosstown busing to try to offset longstanding residential segregation patterns rooted in discriminatory real estate and lending practices. Compared to some other cities such as Boston,…
View Story | Show on Map