The African American Cultural Garden was dedicated in 1977 following years of effort by local community leaders such as Booker T. Tall. For many years the African American Cultural Garden's construction lay mostly dormant as the delegation developed plans and raised money for the garden along Martin Luther King Jr Drive.
Cleveland has a long history of African American settlement but mass migration from the South increased Cleveland's African American population considerably between 1890 and 1920. In 1900, about 6,000 African Americans lived in the city. By 1920, the number had grown to almost 35,000. Most of the African Americans who arrived in Cleveland came from the South; especially from Georgia and Alabama. Upon reaching Cleveland, many settled in the area along Central Ave. between the Cuyahoga River and E. 40th St. This was also the home to many Italian and Jewish residents at the time.
African Americans kept arriving in Cleveland even after the first great migration and World War I. Coupled with natural growth, the number of African Americans living in the city more than doubled between 1920 and 1930 to reach a total of 72,000. During the second great migration from the South, Cleveland's African American population grew from 85,000 in 1940 to 251,000 in 1960. By the early 1960s they made up over 30% of the city's population; a vast increase from the 1.6% of 1900.
As the suburbanization of the rest of the city's population accelerated, the African American community expanded to the east and northeast of the Central-Woodland area, particularly into Hough and Glenville. Cleveland's African American population stabilized in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 70s, fair housing programs and laws made it possible for middle-class African Americans to move to the suburbs.
When the African American Cultural Garden was dedicated in 1977 there were plans to honor six prominent African Americans: Richard Allen, founder and first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Garrett Morgan Sr., inventor (of the safety helmet, gas mask, and a traffic light with a caution signal) and founder of the Cleveland Call & Post newspaper; Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1976; John P. Green, an elected official in Ohio who introduced the bill in 1890 that made Labor Day a holiday in Ohio; Jane Edna Hunter, who established the Phillis Wheatley Association to assist unmarried African American women and girls who had newly migrated to the North; and Langston Hughes, a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance who spent part of his youth in Cleveland. His poetry and prose offered evocative portrayals of African American life in America.
In his poem "Dreams," Langston Hughes writes:
Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die,
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly,
Hold fast to dreams,
For when dreams go,
Life is a barren field,
Frozen with snow.
In 2003, the late Cordell Edge, a longtime Glenville resident, was appointed to engage a committee to develop the African American Cultural Garden. Mrs. Edge began a journey to cultivate and renew interest in the Garden and hired a landscape architect to develop a design within the specifications of the Cleveland Cultural Garden Federation. Later, Mayor Frank Jackson organized a task force to develop and implement a plan for the garden. In 2016 the first major element of the plan was dedicated. This element, called the Past Pavilion, depicts corridors within slave castles along the western coast of Africa. Present and Future Pavilions are planned to complete the garden as funds are raised.