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…
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In the early 20th century, many African Americans sought refuge in northern cities from the tyranny and violence of the Jim Crow South. For those participating in this Great Migration, a city such as Cleveland seemed a logical choice, with the promise of economic and social benefits, not least a…
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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…
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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…
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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.
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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…
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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…
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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…
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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…
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"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.…
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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…
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The Jewish Community Federation collaborated with the Cleveland Board of Education to organize the Glenville Summer Tutoring Program in the summer of 1970. This program was designed to assist Glenville High School students, as the Call and Post describes, to "bone up on needed courses for the…
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From about 1915 to 1935, Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood became a major area of settlement for second-generation Jewish immigrants. By 1936, more than 70 percent of the total neighborhood population was Jewish. New immigrants and relocated residents from the Woodland Avenue area created a…
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"Urban renewal is black removal." So said 24th Ward Councilman Leo Jackson, a fiery African American politician who advocated for the advancement of his ward. This short but poignant quote summarized his feelings about urban renewal projects in Cleveland, which Jackson believed…
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On August 4, 1946, almost one year after the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan and the end of World War ll, a picket line appeared in front of Cleveland's Euclid Beach amusement park for the first time in its history. Protesting the park's long-standing policy of excluding African…
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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…
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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…
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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…
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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…
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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…
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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…
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