Filed Under Biography

Chester K. Gillespie

The Struggle to End "Jim Crow" in Downtown Cleveland

Chester K. Gillespie, who moved from Cincinnati to Cleveland as a young boy with his family, often said, "I do not take cases I don't believe in." Gillespie, an African American attorney who would be subjected to numerous incidents of racial discrimination over the course of his career in Cleveland, found no lack of worthy cases to pursue.

Gillespie earned his law degree from the Cleveland School of Law, now part of Cleveland State University. He started practicing law in 1920 and shortly after was appointed assistant city law director. Gillespie worked on multiple cases in regards to equality. In addition to his longstanding involvement in the Republican Party of Ohio, he was president of the Cleveland Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1936-37. During his term, Gillespie addressed numerous court cases involving racial discrimination in the Cleveland area.

Gillespie battled racism not only in the courtroom, but also in his personal life. As a civil rights attorney, he needed a stable office suite to provide a working environment. In 1937, Gillespie was subjected to a very difficult dilemma. Gillespie worked with another attorney named Clayborne George. Gillespie's law firm occupied offices in the Erie Building at East 9th Street and Prospect Avenue from 1922 to 1937. After facing racial discrimination from numerous downtown building owners when they sought new quarters in 1937, the two gentlemen, with help from the State Commerce Department, moved into a suite at 241 Euclid Avenue.

By 1940 the Telenews modified the building at 241 Euclid, originally constructed as the First National Bank, into a newsreel theater, forcing Gillespie and George to move their law firm to the Hickox Building on the northwest corner of Euclid and East 9th. Gillespie and George remained there until the impending demolition of the building for a new Bond Clothing store again uprooted them in 1945. Their next targeted office space was the Citizens Building across Euclid Avenue. Unfortunately, Gillespie would never move the firm to that location because of racial discrimination. The manager refused in fear he would lose white tenants.

Unwilling to back down, the attorneys threatened to "pitch a trailer downtown" and practice law on the sidewalk if unable to find a proper office. As Gillespie remarked, "It is unthinkable that we will be unable to find a suitable office space in Cleveland which is rated as being the first city in the United States in civil liberties." After failing to force the Citizens Building owner's hand in court, Gillespie moved his law firm into the Kresge building at East 4th and Euclid-the one building willing to add, in the words of the Call and Post, "a touch of color."

After more than a decade of repeated brushes with "Jim Crow" in downtown Cleveland, in 1950, Gillespie and George were welcomed into the Public Square Building at 33 Public Square, which was owned by Columbus real estate magnate John Galbreath. Gillespie felt victorious in finding a suitable office suite after facing many years of tribulations regarding racism and demolition. Despite the fact that the Cleveland City Council had spoken out against racial discrimination against black professionals in the late 1930s, several years after World War II securing nondiscriminatory office leases often still relied on the goodwill of national firms or outside property owners.

Gillespie's struggle mirrored other struggles between the 1940s and early 1960s. African Americans were subjected to unfair working conditions within the city of Cleveland. For instance, Cleveland bank tellers consisted primarily of whites while African Americans held "hidden jobs." blacks were also not allowed to read residential water, electric, or gas meters due to irrational racist fears. Within Cleveland, occupations for blacks were limited to behind-the-scenes jobs. Prior to the 1960s African Americans were hindered from working as clerks on the main floor of downtown department stores. As in banks, they were forced into jobs that kept them hidden away from the public eye.

With the resolution of World War II happening concurrently with Gillespie's search, it may be suggested some realized how detrimental inequality was. After the war, Americans gradually realized they had fought against inequality and oppression in Nazi Germany while discounting their own nation's issues. Persistent unfair treatment happening at home ultimately sparked a breakthrough. As in the South, in northern cities African Americans would be aided by white supporters in the fight to bring equality within the city of Cleveland.

Images

Gillespie in Courtroom, 1958 Chester Gillespie (far left), Frank Huml, Deputy Sheriff Jay White, Attorney Robert Lyons, and Defendant Kenneth Eynon. By the time of this photo, Gillespie had been practicing law and defending civil rights within Cleveland for over thirty years. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Erie Building This postcard shows the Erie Building as it appeared in 1910. Gillespie's law firm worked in this building from 1922 to 1937. It was located at East 9th Street and Prospect Avenue. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Hickox Building The Hickox Building (center) was demolished soon after World War II to make room for the Bond Clothing Store's new building. Bond's had occupied space in the Hickox Building, as had Gillespie. The attorney faced relocation in 1945 in advance of the demolition. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Citizens Building In 1945, after being forced out of the Hickox Building Gillespie and his law partner Clayborne George tried to rent a suite in the Citizens Building across the street. Unfortunately, they were turned away due to racial discrimination. The owner feared he would lose his original white tenants if he allowed Gillespie move his law firm into the suite. Gillespie and George searched for a year while filing lawsuit before finding another space. The new Bond Clothing building, shown at far right in this 1952 photo, replaced the Hickox Building. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Detail of Map, 1922 This early 1920s map shows the locations of two of the buildings where Gillespie sought an office. The Erie Building, which his firm occupied from 1922 to 1937, is located at lower right; the Hickox Building, location of the firm from 1940 to 1945, is in the upper right corner. Across Euclid Avenue is the Citizens Building, whose refusal to lease to Gillespie set off a bitter court battle in 1945 after the attorney learned he would have to vacate the Hickox Building due to its planned demolition. Source: G. M. Hopkins Plat Book of Cuyahoga County (Philadelphia: G. M. Hopkins Co., 1922).
241 Euclid Avenue The 241 Euclid office building (center) was constructed in 1910 and later remodeled under the Union Trust Co., adding four more stories by 1925. Gillespie's law firm operated at this address from 1937 to 1940, when the building was drastically altered to serve as the Telenews newsreel theater beginning in 1941. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Gillespie and Nixon, 1969 Chester Gillespie greets President Richard M. Nixon. Gillespie served three terms in the Ohio general assembly in the 1930s-40s. He later served on the Ohio Board of Education in the 1960s. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections

Location

Metadata

Rhianna Gordon, “Chester K. Gillespie,” Cleveland Historical, accessed August 8, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/675.