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Research Guide: African American Experience

Many African American men and women recount their experiences and accomplishments in the Cleveland area through interviews included in the Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. African Americans in Cleveland experienced discrimination, integration, and the consequences of white flight. African Americans achieved varied accomplishments through their work as educators, activists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and artists.

African Americans faced discrimination in Cleveland during the twentieth century, which unfortunately still continues in many ways today. John A. Lunkins remembers being unable to play in little league because of racial segregation. African American police officers, such as Fred Johnson, faced discrimination which prompted the organization of the Black Shield Officer's Association and National Black Police Association. Leroy Brown experienced discrimination at restaurants, bars, stores, and in obtaining housing. Born on a cotton farm in Mississippi, Ora Sims experienced discrimination shopping in downtown Cleveland.

African Americans struggled against an exclusionary housing market as they attempted to move into the suburbs. E. Christine Morris’s family was the first black family to move onto their street in Cleveland Heights, and Morris feared for her family after another African American family’s home was bombed. After experiencing discrimination from real estate agents, Kenneth H. Cooley purchased his home from a sheriff’s sale and had bricks thrown through his windows.  Doris Allen also faced discrimination from real estate agents who inflated the prices of homes in Cleveland Heights and, after moving into the neighborhood, her children were frequently stopped and questioned by the police. The Allens organized the Committee to Improve Community Relations (CICR) to combat discrimination and promote integration.

Beginning in the mid 1950s, Cleveland neighborhoods, churches, schools, and summer camps began the process of racial integration. In two separate interviews, Dargan Burns discusses being one of the first African Americans to join the Church of the Covenant in 1954 to promote integration. Marian Garth-Saffold moved to Moreland because the favorable school system in Shaker Heights accepted African American students in the 1960s. As a child, Dyeatra Williams attended summer camp at both Camp Muller, which was predominantly African American, and Camp Hiram House, which was 60 percent white. Williams felt she was treated the same at both camps.

Unfortunately, integration was accompanied by white flight. Dianne McIntyre was part of the first black family on her block and recalls how the neighborhood was transformed by white flight, which changed the demography of John Adams High School. Emily Peck discusses how immigrant communities resented African Americans who moved into their neighborhoods. In the mid 1960s, Donna McIntyre Whyte remembers how John F. Kennedy High School was built to redraw school district boundaries to segregate African American students to JFK and keep the college prep school John Adams High School a majority white. Russell J. Toppin Sr. recalls that black owned grocery stores, like the one owned by his father and grandfather, could not organize the financial resources to compete with white-owned chain grocery stores. Hopeful for the future, Virgil E. Brown Sr. acknowledges the devastation of the declining economy due to white flight and the riots of the 1960s.

African Americans accomplished various achievements despite enduring discrimination. Dorothy Layne McIntyre was the first African American woman to receive a pilot’s license in the United States. Norma Nelson was the first African American girl scout to represent state of North Carolina at the International Girl Scout Camp before attending Camp Mueller in Cleveland. A fellow camper, Bernice Thompson Lavendar was one of the first African Americans to work at the Woolworth's in Down Town Cleveland.

African American educators and students were involved in organizations for the benefit of African Americans. Margaret Peacock’s interview details her involvement in an African American organization at Wittenberg University before moving to teach in the Cleveland School District. A former Financial Aid Director at Cleveland State University, William R. Bennett, worked with the Black Faculty and Staff Organization (BFSO). Renee Harrison taught in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district and was a founding member of the Heights Alliance of Black School Educators. As the head librarian of Glenville high school, Grace Lee Mims emphasizes the importance of black history. Minerva Primes was an African American teacher with white colleagues and describes the interaction between white and black students. After graduating from Princeton University, Cleveland Judge Alan Dean Buchanan worked full time for the Black Economic Union.

The Civil Rights movement impacted African Americans in Cleveland. Dargan Burns describes the activist pastors from the Church of the Covenant during the Civil Rights movement. A lifelong resident of Glenville, Larry Rivers discusses how African Americans shifted away from methods used during the Civil Rights movement after the Hough and details working with the Black Panther Party and Black Nationalism.

African American owned and run businesses strengthened their communities. Hickory Smokehouse was the first restaurant owned and operated in Cleveland by an African American and George Dixon III continued that tradition under the restaurant’s new name, Lancer Steakhouse. Lucille Jackson and her husband were part owners of Marc’s grocery stores for fifteen years. In two separate interviews, Robert Madison recounts being the first African American in Ohio to become a registered architect and to found an architectural firm. Following his real estate pioneer grandfather, Isaac Haggins Sr. was the first black real estate broker to open an office in Cleveland Heights.

African Americans participated in local and federal politics. The Stokes: Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future collection of interviews highlights many of these individuals. George Forbes was not only a city councilman from 1963 to 1989, but also served as the first black council president for eighteen years. Marcia L. Fudge was the mayor of Warrensville Heights, was elected a Congresswoman, and chaired the Congressional Black Caucus. Before returning to Cleveland, Robert O'Neal worked on the campaign of Maynard Jackson, who became the first black mayor of Atlanta. Virgil E. Brown Sr. served on the Cleveland council in the late 1960s, ran the Board of Elections in 1972, and was the Director of the Ohio Lottery under George Voinovich. Frank G. Jackson served on City Council for 15 years before being elected Mayor of Cleveland in 2005. Louis Stokes was the first African American to be elected into Congress from Ohio and is the brother of Carl Stokes, who was the first African American to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city.

The Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection has eighteen interviews in the collection titled Each in Their Own Voice: African American Artists in Cleveland, 1970-2005. Cleveland artist Michaelangelo Lovelace discusses how his paintings and murals explore themes of poverty and race. Cushmere Bell and David Buttram became artists by drawing comics and cartoons and transitioned into becoming painters. Lawrence Baker’s early education lacked art programs, but he was inspired by his brother to paint and draw. Miller Horns, Virgie Patton-Ezelle, and Mark Howard were encouraged to study art and did so at the Cleveland Institute of Art. CIA graduate Anna Arnold was commissioned to paint portraits of the Peter B. Lewis family and friends, and worked with local elementary students on the Globe at the Cleveland Public Library. Artists that became art teachers include Robert C. Banks, Jr., Al Bright, Johnny Coleman, and Malcolm Brown.