Leroy Cowans Interview, 25 March 2013

Leroy Cowans moved from Columbus to Cleveland as a young child in the late 1930s, living first in the Central area and then in Glenville. During World War II, he lived in a foster home while his mother worked long hours in a factory. He discusses life on Cleveland’s east side in the 1940s-60s as well as the Glenville uprising of 1968.

Participants: Cowans, Leroy (interviewee) / Downer, Nick (interviewer)
Collection: Cedar Central
Institutional Repository: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Interview Transcript

Nick Downer [00:00:35] Ah, there we go. Ah, we got it. Sorry about that. All right, so for the record.

Leroy Cowans [00:00:41] My name is Leroy Cowans.

Nick Downer [00:00:43] That's perfect. And where were you born?

Leroy Cowans [00:00:45] Columbus, Ohio.

Nick Downer [00:00:47] And what year was that?

Leroy Cowans [00:00:49] 1936. September...

Nick Downer [00:00:54] Perfect. And where in Columbus were you, Barney?

Leroy Cowans [00:00:59] Mercy Hospital.

Nick Downer [00:01:00] Which hospital?

Leroy Cowans [00:01:01] Mercy Hospital. So Ohio State campus.

Nick Downer [00:01:05] Oh, Nice. And when did you move up to Cleveland?

Leroy Cowans [00:01:07] I was around three or four years old when my mother got married.

Nick Downer [00:01:12] And where'd you move from there?

Leroy Cowans [00:01:15] Well, from we lived on Cedar Avenue, about 71st. And then we moved to Glenville. And then that was it. Last place I lived was in Glenville.

Nick Downer [00:01:29] Okay. And then now you're at the Skyline Towers, which is in Central. And when did you move to here?

Leroy Cowans [00:01:36] Oh, when I was in- When I was homeless, I had disabled homeless on 17th, and Payne. And then my social worker wanted to get me housing. Then she got my housing here. Lapeka. That's what it was called then. But I didn't have any furniture. But then I found they had an apartment that had the original furniture in it. There's a couch, a chair, everything. So I moved in.

Nick Downer [00:02:01] Okay, and what memories do you- Do you have any memories of Central when you were growing up? Did you ever come down here?

Leroy Cowans [00:02:09] Well, just my territory. I mean, we lived on Cedar Avenue and 73rd, and I was in Giddings Elementary School. It was okay. Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:02:21] What do you remember about it?

Leroy Cowans [00:02:24] It was integrated only by stores. The store owners were white and the patrons were black. Was it.

Nick Downer [00:02:34] No white people lived in the neighborhood?

Leroy Cowans [00:02:36] No. But you- 71st cuts clean cloth going off into St. Clair. Now, you get to Chester, then you got Europeans, you got the Polish, Czechs, like that. And then on this side was the doggone, the black people.

Nick Downer [00:03:00] And that stayed true the whole time you were here?

Leroy Cowans [00:03:03] Well, during the time I was in high school, yes. Right. Cause when I graduated from high school, those last of the white kids, they did not integrate the Glenville there.

Nick Downer [00:03:17] So you lived on 71st?

Leroy Cowans [00:03:20] 70? No, I lived on 70- Well, during World War two, my mother's husband went to the service. And she was permitted to work long hours in the factory. So she needed somebody to take care of me during those times. So I lived in a semi-foster home. Now the minister and his wife on 71st and Carnegie, being patriotic, said we would take the kids in. Look after your kids for 24/7, which they did. My mother lived on 73rd and Cedar, and I lived on 71st and Carnegie.

Nick Downer [00:03:51] So what kind of stores were there around there then?

Leroy Cowans [00:03:55] Plenty of stores. Well, it was a neighborhood. Yeah. You had every doggone thing in the neighborhood. You had grocery stores, you had hardware stores, you had drug stores. And downtown Cleveland was the big hub. You were downtown Cleveland. That was it. The market was downtown Cleveland. Everything was downtown Cleveland. The biggest mall was downtown Cleveland. All the major stores, all the major shopping centers, everything, downtown Cleveland.

Nick Downer [00:04:22] So, what did, like, when you were in high school, what did you guys do for fun? Where'd you go?

Leroy Cowans [00:04:27] High school? Well, I wasn't very extroverted. I didn't socialize too much. Okay? And never did too much. Other kids did. They did their thing. I played football with my teammates for three years. Well, never invited to any parties like that because I was introverted, you know? Didn't mess around.

Nick Downer [00:04:51] So where did the other kids go? Do you remember where they would talk about going?

Leroy Cowans [00:04:54] No. I never asked them?

Nick Downer [00:04:55] No?

Leroy Cowans [00:04:56] No.

Nick Downer [00:04:58] What was the- What was the foster home like?

Leroy Cowans [00:05:01] Minister and his wife? Beautiful. Now that was- This is personal between you and me. My parents did nothing but fight each other for 23 years. My mother got pregnant two times by him, and she aborted both kids. I am an illegitimate born child. My parents are dark skinned and I'm light skinned. That's it.

Nick Downer [00:05:31] That's fine. I mean, but there were other kids in the foster home?

Leroy Cowans [00:05:36] No. Oh, yes. There was two girls and another boy.

Nick Downer [00:05:38] What were they like?

Leroy Cowans [00:05:40] Oh, yeah, it was nice.

Nick Downer [00:05:41] Yeah, it was nice.

Leroy Cowans [00:05:42] Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:05:44] That'S cool. And so then you said your mother's husband went to the service during World War two?

Leroy Cowans [00:05:50] World War Two, yes.

Nick Downer [00:05:51] And did your mom have a job?

Leroy Cowans [00:05:53] Yes, it was. They gave a chance of the women of color to work in the factories then. 10 hours a day.

Nick Downer [00:05:59] Do you remember where she worked?

Leroy Cowans [00:06:01] No. Cause I lived on 71st and Carnegie, and she lived on 73rd and Cedar.

Nick Downer [00:06:07] Right. And then, so what happened after you graduated high school? Where'd you go from there?

Leroy Cowans [00:06:14] Oh, well, I went to Ohio State.

Nick Downer [00:06:17] Okay. And what'd you do then?

Leroy Cowans [00:06:21] Well, I wanted to be a teacher like elementary school teacher kept me going to the street named Mrs. Murphy. She was elementary school teacher and she was- She liked kids. That's what I wanted to be, a teacher. And Mrs. Murphy, she was really nice, so I wanted to be a teacher like she was.

Nick Downer [00:06:41] Great. Did that end up happening? Did you get-

Leroy Cowans [00:06:43] No, I didn't make it. I just stayed there two years. Freshman and sophomore year.

Nick Downer [00:06:48] Did you have a good time there? Did you like it?

Leroy Cowans [00:06:50] My social life was zero, zero, zero. Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:06:54] What about the school? Did you like the school?

Leroy Cowasn [00:06:55] I liked the school.

Nick Downer [00:06:56] Yeah?

Leroy Cowans [00:06:57] Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:06:58] Makes sense. So what was- What did the neighborhood look like when you were growing up here in Central? I mean, you know, like big buildings, because now, I mean, you know, it's mostly the project. It's changed a lot.

Leroy Cowans [00:07:12] Well, a long time ago in my [inaudible], we had street lights. Got the light from the doggone streets. Not from these doggone light posts. That's a long time ago. Then they changed over to light posts. Okay?

Nick Downer [00:07:28] So do you remember, you know, on each of those main streets, it was just stores on each side all the way?

Leroy Cowans [00:07:34] Oh, yes. Well, it was a good- [inaudible] community. We had drug stores. We had grocery stores. We had pharmacies and hardwares.

Nick Downer [00:07:41] Did you feel like everybody knew each other?

Leroy Cowans [00:07:43] Oh, yeah. Well, you did. That's right.

Nick Downer [00:07:45] So, you know, you would go, you would walk down your street and you'd know everybody, or what? right?

Leroy Cowans [00:07:49] Right. Just about. Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:07:51] That's pretty cool. What do you think about how the neighborhood has changed?

Leroy Cowans [00:07:56] Well, you have to admit, some people coming in the neighborhood want to be riffraff. When I moved into Glenville, it was a nice neighborhood. You can leave your bike up underneath the house and nobody would steal it. But the riffraff started moving in, you could not lay a bike up against the house, and they would steal it.

Nick Downer [00:08:18] Yeah. Do you remember before the housing projects were put up there?

Leroy Cowans [00:08:23] Well, I was here when housing projects put on 55th and Central.

Nick Downer [00:08:27] Yeah?

Leroy Cowans [00:08:27] Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:08:29] Do you remember that changing the community a lot?

Leroy Cowans [00:08:31] Well, the people didn't have that much money, and they get, the city gave them housing, you know, cheaper rent. Why not? It was nice.

Nick Downer [00:08:41] That's nice. Would you say it's gone downhill over time, though?

Leroy Cowans [00:08:45] No, it goes down. It's the people that move in. Right. That's all.

Nick Downer [00:08:51] That makes sense. What about the college? Do you remember before the college was down there?

Leroy Cowans [00:08:56] Well, in my day, it was no such thing as Community College and Cleveland State.

Nick Downer [00:09:01] Right.

Leroy Cowans [00:09:02] All right? There's only Akron, Columbus. Thank you. But then they changed it over. Only thing I don't like about charter schools, the board of education did a bad job doing the job by keeping the doggone public schools open. You understand? When I was a grown man and had kids, I lived on 117th and Wade Park. They were going to close the elementary school, 115th Street. So I moved there to 124th and St. Clair, and my kids were going to elementary school there, and they were going to close that school. They want to make magnet schools. I said what? Elementary school, junior high school and high school. Didn't make sense.

Nick Downer [00:09:51] What was that neighborhood like, 117th and Wade Park?

Leroy Cowans [00:09:54] It was nice neighborhood, before Western Reserve wanted part of it.

Nick Downer [00:10:01] Do you remember how that all changed, too, that whole University Circle area, 'cause thats-?

Leroy Cowans [00:10:05] Well, politics is bad. Y'all gonna say they came on, the councilman came on the thing that they're gonna improve the doggone neighborhood by basketball courts and softball diamonds. And we voted for and made that change. Then when they did make that change, found out there was no doggone basketball courts and no doggone baseball diamonds. They cordoned it off. It's Western Reserve soccer field. That's what it turned into. Now, you go up on Wade Park, they knocked out all of 118th Street, half, all of 117th Street, half of 115th Street. Made it Western Reserve.

Nick Downer [00:10:47] But they told- They told you guys living in the community that it was going to be basketball courts and softball?

Leroy Cowans [00:10:51] Yes, they did. Just like the Ohio Lottery supposed to be for education. Only one third of that money is going for education. Okay?

Nick Downer [00:11:04] Was there- So you said there was stuff all up and down. There was- I've been hearing there's like, there was a Schwinn bicycle shop. Do you remember that at all?

Leroy Cowans [00:11:13] No, not in this neighborhood.

Nick Downer [00:11:14] No?

Leroy Cowans [00:11:15] I've been out on bicycles in a long time.

Nick Downer [00:11:19] Not even when you were growing up? No?

Leroy Cowans [00:11:20] I had one bicycle, yes.

Nick Downer [00:11:24] That's a good way to get around.

Leroy Cowans [00:11:26] That was the best way to get around. I went all over the city with that bicycle.

Nick Downer [00:11:33] What about public transportation, the buses and stuff?

Leroy Cowans [00:11:36] Now you're getting down to it. You know, when they had the loop bus in here, [it] serviced Community College, the elementary school on 30th Street, and Cleveland State. All the students would get on a loop bus and go up there. But they cut out the loop bus. Them buses, 14, 15, are crowded like sardines in a can. During the school year. After the summer vacation, all that stuff, then it thins out. But, ooh, it's bad.

Nick Downer [00:12:06] When was that when this loop bus was here?

Leroy Cowans [00:12:09] Loop bus? Yeah, loop bus was here.

Nick Downer [00:12:11] When? What years?

Leroy Cowans [00:12:12] Ooh, first three years that I came here, from 19- 2000 to 2003. All of a sudden, they cut it out. We had a bus that went from Quincy all the way to the west side, 35. Then they cut that out. They cut out to 20B and only 20A, 51. Downtown square.

Nick Downer [00:12:40] Do you remember what were- There were streetcars back in when you were growing up.

Leroy Cowans [00:12:45] Yeah, yeah.

Nick Downer [00:12:46] What do you remember about those?

Leroy Cowans [00:12:48] They're pretty good, but the community was taken care of. You had buses, crosstown buses going then on Superior, St. Clair, Euclid. Yeah, it was nice.

Nick Downer [00:13:01] You said the community was taken care of. You feel like it's not being taken care of as much anymore?

Leroy Cowans [00:13:05] No. Well, young man, downtown Cleveland is taken care of, but not the communities. That's why you here. Central program community, they're not taking care of it, see? But it means away from downtown Cleveland - you got a trolley down there, you don't even have to pay money to get on that doggone trolley, right? I said, but then if you want to go downtown Cleveland and go the other side of downtown, you gotta go all the way downtown, transfer another bus and go down where you wanna go.

Nick Downer [00:13:38] So what would you like to see then happening in Central, you know?

Leroy Cowans [00:13:43] Well, Central bus was cut out. People on Central Avenue had to either go to Cedar Avenue or Quincy. Yeah. All you had to do, the girls, young men, young kids, get out of the doggone elementary school, get on the doggone loop bus, either go to doggone Quincy or Community College and get on that bus, or go on the doggone Central bus or Cedar bus and go that way. It's the same thing on the west side. You used to have community buses on the west side but they cut them out too. They cut down on, what, costs?

Nick Downer [00:14:19] So, like right now, you were talking about you wanted to take the loop bus. You make it out to the convenience store. Where's the closest place-

Leroy Cowans [00:14:27] Off of 28th and Cedar. I can take the doggone loop bus that goes down to doggone 30th Street, make a lefthand turn all the way down going towards Euclid Avenue. I get off on Cedar Avenue, go straight to the doggone store. I do not have to pay anybody to go to the store for me, I said, but then, right where it is now, a young lady just today went to the store for me. And if she don't get a ride, she has to walk through them projects, and walking through them projects is not too cool in the summertime.

Nick Downer [00:15:02] Do you remember anything about- Were you ever a church man? You go to church?

Leroy Cowans [00:15:08] No, [inaudible] on me on that. Religion. The biggest scandal in the United States is the Catholic Church. I'm not against the Catholic Church, but against Catholic priests having sex with boys. Biggest scandal in the United States. [inaudible]

Nick Downer [00:15:40] Did you say that the foster home you lived with, they were- Did you say they were a minister? Is that true?

Leroy Cowans [00:15:44] Yes. They raised two kids. The reason why we got in there, because they had raised a daughter and son. They moved out and then help during World War Two. Then all the black women had jobs to work eight or 10 hours or more. Then they took us in. It was two girls and two boys. That was the best house I lived in. Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:16:03] Where did they go to church?

Leroy Cowans [00:16:07] St. Timothy Baptist Church on 71st and Carnegie. It was a historical doggone church, parish house right next door. I never entered that church nor ever into that house.

Nick Downer [00:16:20] When you were growing up, was there a lot of people who did go to church all the time?

Leroy Cowans [00:16:25] You know what's strange is the people that lived in the neighborhood did not go to that church. The people who were members of the doggone church lived in Glenville. Surprisingly, they did.

Nick Downer [00:16:36] Is that because the people in Glenville had more money and it was like a nicer church, or what was- Why was that?

Leroy Cowans [00:16:41] I don't know, but the only reason the doggone people came to the church were during holidays like Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving. That's when they came to church.

Nick Downer [00:16:54] What kind of restaurants do you remember from around here?

Leroy Cowans [00:16:57] Oh, good God, yes. Well, a long time ago, you had a lot of restaurants on 55th from Woodland all the way down to Cedar. And there was nice places that you go to for restaurants. Downtown Cleveland, the Forum. That was the best restaurant down there for everybody. No matter who you are, Black and White, that was the best restaurant. It was better than McDonald's, better than Wendy's. He had home-cooked meals cooked by Black chefs as well as Whites. But they changed that into insurance company, Blue Shield, Blue Cross.

Nick Downer [00:17:33] Where was that at?

Leroy Cowans [00:17:36] 9th Street.

Nick Downer [00:17:39] What about the restaurants around here? What kind of food were they served?

Leroy Cowans [00:17:42] Restaurants around here? Most of them were on 55th Street or downtown. But on campus we can call and they will deliver food right here. Pizzas and anything you want.

Nick Downer [00:17:54] Yeah, what kind of food? Pizzas? What other stuff?

Leroy Cowans [00:17:58] Well, you got, on Carnegie you got Wendy's, McDonald's, everything right there. Carnegie, 30th Street. Now, one of them you call up there and you get delivered, they will bring the doggone food to you. Chinese restaurants will bring the food to you. Okay.

Nick Downer [00:18:27] Most of those are gone now?

Leroy Cowans [00:18:28] Hmm?

Nick Downer [00:18:28] Most of those stores are gone? Restaurants?

Leroy Cowans [00:18:32] Well, in this neighborhood, yes. You gotta go downtown now. They're getting the restaurants downtown. Man, they're building up Fourth Street. They're building up Prospect. But in my day, you can go downtown to a supermarket. You don't have a supermarket. Now Dave's located on 40 Street. That's a good supermarket. But the store on 28th Street, they don't have any vegetables or stuff like that.

Nick Downer [00:18:57] Would you like, I mean, you probably- You would like it if you get vegetables and stuff like that.

Leroy Cowans [00:19:01] No, I'm not a cooking man. I eat out of a can.

Nick Downer [00:19:03] Yeah. That's cool. What about, you know, when you were living with the minister in the foster home, what kind of stuff did you do? I mean, did they just take care of you? Did they make you do things? You know, did they make you go to church?

Leroy Cowans [00:19:19] They were very good people. Reverend Lyons and his wife are very good people. They treat us like family. We was one of the Lyons kids. See, corporal punishment when we stepped out of line. But we were supposed to live up to the minister and his wife's standards of living. She was a nice woman, and they did pretty good. When the minister died, going to a convention in the South, that was a sad day for me because I had to go back to my mother. The girls had to go back to their mothers.

Nick Downer [00:19:51] When did the minister die?

Leroy Cowans [00:19:52] He went down to the southern [inaudible] conference in the heat down there and he died.

Nick Downer [00:19:57] In what year?

Leroy Cowans [00:19:58] Ooh, way back in the forties.

Nick Downer [00:20:00] Okay. And then what kind of job- What kind of jobs have you held in your life?

Leroy Cowans [00:20:06] Post office. And. Yeah, I'm a postal clerk since high school up until I left there, and when my divorce happened, and I got one spot labor, and then I got another trade, punch press setup man, operator.

Nick Downer [00:20:24] Where was that?

Leroy Cowans [00:20:25] Oh, Lakeland Temporary Service.

Nick Downer [00:20:28] Okay, that's cool. And then where was the post office?

Leroy Cowans [00:20:31] Post office. Old post office on West Third. And then they changed to one up on Rockwell. I was in post office eight years.

Nick Downer [00:20:41] How'd you like that?

Leroy Cowans [00:20:42] Good. Oh, yeah. You're making $15 an hour, big man. [inaudible]

Nick Downer [00:20:52] It's true. Were you ever into music? Were you a music guy?

Leroy Cowans [00:20:55] Oh, I'm all rhythm and blues, some country, some rock, jazz. I like it all.

Nick Downer [00:21:03] You ever get to see anybody while you were living down here?

Leroy Cowans [00:21:08] No. I'm not a socializer like that. They had a jazz room down on Central. Jazz Room. All the old dudes played down there. Both White and Black went down there.

Nick Downer [00:21:20] What was it called?

Leroy Cowans [00:21:21] Jazz Room.

Nick Downer [00:21:22] Just the Jazz Room?

Leroy Cowans [00:21:23] Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:21:24] You remember when it closed?

Leroy Cowans [00:21:30] Well, attitudes changed down there, and they moved up on Euclid Avenue, but it still was the Jazz Room.

Nick Downer [00:21:41] You remember Leo's Casino? I was talking to-

Leroy Cowans [00:21:43] There you go!

Nick Downer [00:21:44] That was it?

Leroy Cowans [00:21:45] Yeah. Okay. All right. You got it. It was the place, right? Leo's Casino right up on it.

Nick Downer [00:21:52] Seemed like a cool place. I wish I could have seen it.

Leroy Cowans [00:21:54] It was nice. We had one place in Glenville called where the jazz artists would come and sing. What the devil would be called that? But it was a good doggone- It was a restaurant and bar. It was a really good- Massie Avenue and 105th Street. That's when Glenville was a really good neighborhood.

Nick Downer [00:22:20] What was 105th Street like?

Leroy Cowans [00:22:22] 105th Street? Real good. 105th Street all the way from Euclid all way back to St. Clair. You had all the theaters on 105th Street, played the same movies they played downtown. We had five theaters on 105th and 107. And you didn't have to go downtown to see a movie because it's right there in your neighborhood. Then you had the clothing stores. You had the doggone drug stores and everything else. Clothing stores.

Nick Downer [00:22:50] Was it like higher class, or was this for everybody?

Leroy Cowans [00:22:54] Everybody! Just like downtown Cleveland. In my day, downtown Cleveland, every major store was downtown Cleveland. Every doggone- Everything was in downtown Cleveland. May Company, Higbee's, Halle Brothers. Every doggone thing was downtown Cleveland, like they trying to make it now.

Nick Downer [00:23:07] Would you be excited to see it come back if they pull it off?

Leroy Cowans [00:23:13] Well, other than gambling, yes.

Nick Downer [00:23:18] What was 105th Street like racially? Was it both White and Black?

Leroy Cowans [00:23:22] Yeah. In Glenville? Yes. But you had the Glenville riots, you know. Yeah. The revolutionary dudes want to run the white man out, and they did it the wrong run, but they run the white man out. Then they couldn't run out the crime, you couldn't run out the prostitution, you couldn't have run out the doggone [inaudible]. The [inaudible] was backwards.

Nick Downer [00:23:42] Where were you for the riots?

Leroy Cowans [00:23:44] I was right there. Right there in Glenville. They didn't come down into my neighborhood. All the riot was done on 105th Street. But we told them, we had two grocery stores down in my neighborhood. You're not coming down in thhe neighborhood mess with you. You did not.

Nick Downer [00:24:00] Was your neighborhood mostly Black at the time?

Leroy Cowans [00:24:02] It was mixed. It was mixed, black and white. That's when I went to school. Parker Elementary School was mixed. Junior high school was mixed as Patrick Henry. And Glenville was mixed when I went to Glenville.

Nick Downer [00:24:17] So tell me the whole story of the riots from your perspective.

Leroy Cowans [00:24:20] Well, you had people, revolutionary dudes, they wanted to change this, change that, but they didn't know why. It was wrong. Destruction of local neighborhood and rioting, you do it, in my opinion, the white man don't hire you in the store, don't do any business with them, but don't run them out of the neighborhood. See what I mean?

Nick Downer [00:24:43] Yeah. So how'd you hear about it?

Leroy Cowans [00:24:45] On the street, as a kid- The kids on the street knew the riots going on, but the older people in the neighborhood, like the ministers and the councilmen didn't even know because they were not inclusive about the neighborhood.

Nick Downer [00:24:59] What do you mean by that, not inclusive?

Leroy Cowans [00:25:01] Well, you got a church- You had three churches on 105th Street. The minister didn't know the riots was coming, but we knew it. The kids on the street knew it was coming.

Nick Downer [00:25:09] How'd you know?

Leroy Cowans [00:25:11] Word went around.

Nick Downer [00:25:12] What, you just heard that it was happening in other places, and you thought it was going to come up the-

Leroy Cowans [00:25:16] Well, no, we just heard from the kids on the street. Okay? I didn't mess around with the dudes. I mean, Black Panthers was Black Panthers, but I didn't mess around with 'em.

Nick Downer [00:25:27] And then do you remember there was another thing, too, like, after the riots, there was the Glenville Shootout, right? There was, like, one guy who shot a couple cops. Do you remember that?

Leroy Cowans [00:25:37] No. It was racial doggone situation. In fact, [inaudible] the doggone brothers would try to hit on the white girls, especially Italians. They didn't like that. The Italians and the Blacks did not all get along.

Nick Downer [00:25:53] So, do you remember there, was it- Was there any, like, sudden change after the riots? Did it get. You know, because I've heard that a lot of the whites left. Is that true? Is that how you saw it?

Leroy Cowans [00:26:03] Just like they deserted doggone Cleveland. Like, I ain't kidding. But it was not just because of the riots. The Jacobs brothers came in and made the malls. Jacobs brothers. They made malls, okay? They made- Everybody's moving to the suburbs, right? They made malls out there. They could get off their jobs here in Cleveland, get on buses, go out to the malls and shop to around, what, what, 10:00 in the evening? But they shut downtown Cleveland. Downtown Cleveland was shut down about 6:00. The only people that came downtown Cleveland then were Black, to go to the stores, you had three theaters. You had the Embassy, the Hippodrome and Standard. That's the only people that came downtown Cleveland.

Nick Downer [00:26:47] What were those three places? Were they music?

Leroy Cowans [00:26:50] No, they were theaters. The Embassy, the Hippodrome, and Carter. Okay. Carter was on Prospect. Hippodrome was on Euclid. Embassy was on Euclid.

Nick Downer [00:27:01] So you must have seen Glenville change pretty significantly from mixed to mostly Black, right? In the time you lived there.

Leroy Cowans [00:27:09] The last white kid that I seen was when I graduated. When we graduated, they graduated with us, but no white kids moved- They moved out of the neighborhood, see? Okay, but I don't know about now. They got a brand new [inaudible] on St. Clair. I don't know if that's as large as St. Clair, but I don't know if there's any whites moved in, going to school there.

Nick Downer [00:27:33] Wait, you were saying that there are whites now moving back in?

Leroy Cowans [00:27:35] No, I don't think so.

Nick Downer [00:27:37] Okay, that makes sense. Yeah. And that must have been pretty crazy in your lifetime. See all the, you know, see all the whites moving out. How did you feel about that? Did you have a feeling about that?

Leroy Cowans [00:27:50] The persons you'd see are Blacks. When I moved on 117th Street and the man next door to me came from West Virginia. He didn't like any boy of color. And Alice is his daughter. But my friend, he liked white girls. And he thought she was beautiful, but she thought it was insult. So she went back and told her father. Then he raised hell with my mother about it. And I asked my mother, what did you tell him? She said, Leroy wouldn't do anything like that. That made me mad. He had no right to come over my mother's porch raising hell about a friend of mine likes white girls. So I told him, don't you do that again. Then I told him when I told her about his daughter. Right. Now picture?

Nick Downer [00:28:32] What did he say?

Leroy Cowans [00:28:33] I didn't give a doggone if she ran down the street butt-naked and got run over by 18-wheeler. I didn't really mean that, but I was expressing my opinion what I thought about his daughter. I checked her out. I was just sitting on the porch, and I said good morning to her when she was going to the store. She wouldn't speak. So I knew she was prejudiced.

Nick Downer [00:28:50] So what did the father say when you told him that?

Leroy Cowans [00:28:54] Well, when I confronted him, his wife and daughter came over there and apologized to my mother. But he did not apologize to my mother. And I wouldn't have accepted the apology from the mother and daughter, but I accepted an apology from him.

Nick Downer [00:29:14] So did you have other incidents like that when you were growing up?

Leroy Cowans [00:29:19] Ohio State. I was surprised by all the prejudice against interracial dating down Ohio State. Because my roommate had a white girlfriend. He got her pregnant. He went to Woody and asked for help. And Woody would not help him.

Nick Downer [00:29:32] Who?

Leroy Cowans [00:29:34] Woody would not help him.

Nick Downer [00:29:35] Okay.

Leroy Cowans [00:29:36] And they were Columbus kids. She lived off campus. He lived on campus. But I couldn't understand. He did not get her pregnant in high school. Why did he want to come all the way to college and an opportunity to go to the NFL? But he did. But he went to Woody and asked for help. But Woody tried to help me. See? Cause when I went down Ohio State, I didn't have to pay a penny down there. He had changed the whole doggone rules and regulations in the Big Ten. The room and board and everything was paid for because my family was low income, see? But they didn't like interracial dating. Only one couple on the campus who didn't mind who saw them walk together arm in arm. But they didn't like interracial dating.

Nick Downer [00:30:21] So you got a scholarship to college?

Leroy Cowans [00:30:23] No, I got grant-in-aid. I could qualify. I got a better than C+, 2.5, but lower-income families, especially in Afro Americans, good athletes, they were able to go to Ohio State [inaudible] in the Big Ten.

Nick Downer [00:30:44] Do you- Which parts of Cleveland did you not go because, you know, you were Black and they were racist neighborhoods?

Leroy Cowans [00:30:51] Oh, man, I went to every doggone neighborhood. I mean, me and my bicycle went everywhere. I ain't kidding. I mean, shoot, I'm just riding through the neighborhood. I'm not prejudiced, you know, shoot. I don't mess around. I'm just riding down the street. And that's part of the city, not their neighborhood.

Nick Downer [00:31:06] Did anybody ever bother you?

Leroy Cowans [00:31:09] Only the man next door on 117th Street.

Nick Downer [00:31:14] Yeah. I've heard stories about Little Italy being rough.

Leroy Cowans [00:31:16] Oh, yeah. That's another reason I removed from 117th Street. When they were going to close the doggone school on 115, it was, you know, mostly Black kids. We had to go to the doggone elementary school in Little Italy, and I didn't want to go up there. I said, you mess with my kids, that's war. Fact, not fiction. So I moved from 117th Street, 124th–St. Clair.

Nick Downer [00:31:43] Because they were not happy with Black kids going to school there in Little Italy, were they?

Leroy Cowans [00:31:47] No, no, no.

Nick Downer [00:31:48] There was a big deal about that.

Leroy Cowans [00:31:49] Well, then. I don't know about now.

Nick Downer [00:31:51] Yeah.

Leroy Cowans [00:31:53] But you had, the mafia was in connection up there then, see, so you had to go up there and talk to the mafia to talk to the priest, but you mess with my kids and it's war.

Nick Downer [00:32:04] How many kids do you have?

Leroy Cowans [00:32:05] Two. Daughter and son.

Nick Downer [00:32:07] Where are they now?

Leroy Cowans [00:32:08] They're married and had kids of their own, doing quite well. My daughter volunteered for the air force. My son is a computer analyst, doing okay.

Nick Downer [00:32:17] Where are they?

Leroy Cowans [00:32:18] My son lives in Euclid, Ohio. My daughter lives on the east coast. I think she used to work for [inaudible] service in Pentagon. That's why I worried about when they had that terrorist strike in Washington. Pentagon got struck.

Nick Downer [00:32:34] Was she working there at the time?

Leroy Cowans [00:32:36] I think she was.

Nick Downer [00:32:44] So I'm really interested about 105th. Was there lots of big buildings? They tore them all down, right? Most of them.

Leroy Cowans [00:32:52] Well, because of the riots, you go down Glenville, after the first two riots, it looked like Berlin. Bombed out. I ain't kidding. They just tore up the neighborhood. They didn't make any sense when they were rioting and tearing up the stores. Cause when you had the first riot, you couldn't go to the grocery stores because they were closed. So we had to go outside the neighborhood to buy groceries. Didn't make any sense. If the doggone places was not hiring you, did not respect you as a doggone fellow American, you don't do business with them. Cause you in business to do business, you know? I said. But then the second Glenville riot, the man that gave me a job when I was in junior high school, and just for TV, electronic, he's Black. They tore his store up 'cause he had a Motorola franchise, and they tore it up. But he didn't move. He bricked it all in and then he got a security guard to protect him. When I went and saw him, he had a mean look on his face. He didn't trust no Black person walking through that door, back in that picture.

Nick Downer [00:33:57] Did that destroy the community, you think?

Leroy Cowans [00:34:00] All these riots destroyed the neighborhood.

Nick Downer [00:34:05] And even in the Black community, there must have been different points of view on this, right?

Leroy Cowans [00:34:10] Well, yes. You got revolutionary dudes, wannabe revolutionary dudes. There's like, hypothetically, in your race, it's upper class, middle class, poor, right? Same way in the Black race, upper class, middle class, poor. If Black people got education, got money, they don't give a doggone about Black people that are poor. Same thing with Whites. Got the picture?

Nick Downer [00:34:44] And this 105th didn't get rebuilt after the riots, right?

Leroy Cowans [00:34:47] Well, I hadn't been over there in a number of years. I don't know. It could be. I don't know. I don't know. Just like you had a community, just like the fraternity I was part of with Howard State was Alpha Phi Alpha, and it was a good fraternity. They moved into the neighborhood, and they were trying to do something for the neighborhood, and they were pretty good men. Okay? But you got to have more than ministers preaching on Sunday. They got to get in the streets. The only people I knew that got in the streets, passing out religion, was Seventh Day Adventists. But a lot of ministers didn't know anything was going on in the neighborhood because they never included the neighborhood.

Nick Downer [00:35:31] Did they live in the neighborhood?

Leroy Cowans [00:35:32] No, they didn't. They lived in Glenville, okay? Just like with St. Timothy Baptist Church. Most of the members lived in Glenville. They didn't live in Cedar Avenue.

Nick Downer [00:35:42] So they didn't see it coming.

Leroy Cowans [00:35:43] No.

Nick Downer [00:35:47] Could you, before the riots, could you feel, like the tension rising in the community? You know, people were getting more and more fed up, or was it just something that you heard about that happened?

Leroy Cowans [00:35:56] Yeah. Well, you're a kid, you always. Kids get. You go. They go to high school, junior high school, and they gossip and they talk what's going down. We knew things was going down before it went down, just like I told you. We told the doggone grocery store people in our neighborhood. We had two grocery stores in my neighborhood. We told them, they're not gonna come down the neighborhood and mess you up. You know, I was adamant about that. I said, nobody's not gonna mess you up. They could mess up 105th, but not our neighborhood.

Nick Downer [00:36:26] So what would you have done if they'd come up there?

Leroy Cowans [00:36:28] Turn them right in. Right. [inaudible] But they didn't believe it. They were afraid, so they moved.

Nick Downer [00:36:38] Were they white?

Leroy Cowans [00:36:39] Yeah. Jewish. Yeah. It's still right.

Nick Downer [00:36:51] Yeah, I mean you can still see the, you know, that's still got an impact on how everybody looks at the east side today.

Leroy Cowans [00:36:59] Well, yes. Well, when you got Black-on-Black crimes, it doesn't make sense. And Black on- Crimes don't make any difference. The reason why Black-on-Black crime, they know they go downtown Cleveland where White dudes, they get wiped out. That's a fact. They tried to create a doggone trouble down on the square, they told them, you can't come downtown Cleveland unless you are accompanied by an adult. That's fact, not fiction. They right on you. You got security down there bumping into each other.

Nick Downer [00:37:32] How do you feel about that?

Leroy Cowans [00:37:33] That what it should be. You gotta protect your interests. Cause there's a lot of money being invested in downtown Cleveland.

Nick Downer [00:37:40] Would you like it to be that way everywhere?

Leroy Cowans [00:37:42] It used to be that way a long time ago, 'cause the biggest mall was downtown Cleveland. People living in suburbs had to come downtown Cleveland for their stores, restaurants, everything.

Nick Downer [00:37:53] But what about over here in Central? It was never like that, was it?

Leroy Cowans [00:37:56] Well, yes, we had stores and stuff like that.

Nick Downer [00:38:00] With lots of security? Cops?

Leroy Cowans [00:38:02] No, no protection. You know, you got some lousy- You got some lousy people in the world. Easy targets to hit. That's all. That's in your race as well as mine. Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:38:18] What about the west side? Do you get over the west side?

Leroy Cowans [00:38:21] Well, it's getting bad over there. A girl was killed because she had a ring on and she was in a laundromat. Okay?

Nick Downer [00:38:39] Did you go to the movies when you were-

Leroy Cowans [00:38:41] Oh yeah. I liked movies. Like I said, I don't go to movies since they brought in DVDs and movies, and then the Blockbuster. I said, that's my movie house.

Nick Downer [00:38:52] Do you go to see movies in theaters?

Leroy Cowans [00:38:53] No, 'cause I can get it on DVD.

Nick Downer [00:39:01] When did you get your first TV?

Leroy Cowans [00:39:03] Oh, when I got married.

Nick Downer [00:39:05] Yeah? I didn't get a TV till I was 12.

Leroy Cowans [00:39:12] You're kidding.

Nick Downer [00:39:14] No.

Leroy Cowans [00:39:15] Well, my father was a weird dude. He bought a big TV for him to look at. He looked at the TV during the week. Nobody could look at anything else. But when I bought a TV, the whole family could look at it. That's why I bought one.

Nick Downer [00:39:33] Did you- You said you got married and then divorced?

Leroy Cowans [00:39:35] Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:39:36] What years was that? When did you get divorced?

Leroy Cowans [00:39:38] I got divorced in 1959.

Nick Downer [00:39:40] Okay.

Leroy Cowans [00:39:40] At least my wife got a divorce. I didn't. When I found out she didn't love me or the kids, and I divorced her, stopped thinking about it. She paid a lawyer so much money to get a divorce. You know, I already divorced her.

Nick Downer [00:39:56] And then did you stay in the same place?

Leroy Cowans [00:39:58] Yeah, I moved.

Nick Downer [00:40:02] Is that when you went up to Wade Park and then-

Leroy Cowans [00:40:05] No, that's when I hit the streets then. I just moved out. Lived in my car, went to spot labor.

Nick Downer [00:40:14] You went to what?

Leroy Cowans [00:40:15] Spot labor. Temporary service. Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:40:23] Did you feel like it was easier to get work?

Leroy Cowans [00:40:26] Then it was. If you didn't want a job in Cleveland, you didn't want to work. That's when- You talking you had- You had Republic Steel, you had American Steel and Wire. You had manufacturing doggone jobs. And you- Spot labor. Now if you didn't want a job, you didn't want to work. I ain't kidding. But then outsourcing jobs. The steel mill was told, one of them, to clean up the smokestacks and put a water treatment plant not to mess up Cuyahoga River because they were dumping their waste into Cuyahoga River. That's why Cuyahoga River's half waste and half [inaudible]. If you take a plane ride over, it's half blue and half waste. And that's because of the steel mills.

Nick Downer [00:41:08] So did most of the people you knew, they worked in the factories?

Leroy Cowans [00:41:12] Yes. Well, that's- My mother got a job in the factories during the war.

Nick Downer [00:41:19] Steel mills, mostly?

Leroy Cowans [00:41:21] No, the clothing factory. She was a good seamstress and make dresses and all that stuff. Uniforms and stuff like that.

Nick Downer [00:41:27] Do you remember where that was at?

Leroy Cowans [00:41:28] No. Cause see I lived in 71st and Carnegie and she lived 73rd and Cedar.

Nick Downer [00:41:36] How often did you get to see her?

Leroy Cowans [00:41:39] Well, that's the first time in her life. Then I was eight years old and she was 24. She was on her own, so she had a good time. Her husband was in service. Somebody would take care of her kid. She had a good time. Went out party, had a good time. What else?

Nick Downer [00:41:57] So, you know, do you see her like once a month every so often?

Leroy Cowans [00:42:00] No, I just asked the lady of the house, Mrs. Lance, could I go see my mother and I'd go over her house and knock on the door. Because she lived with my stepfather's aunt. And sometimes she wasn't home. And I can understand that.

Nick Downer [00:42:19] You say you did shot put, right? Shot put?

Leroy Cowans [00:42:22] Oh, yeah. That's what. I was shot put, and I could run track. A hundred yard dash. 440 relay. Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:42:29] You did that at school? There were programs?

Leroy Cowans [00:42:31] High school, yes. Glenville. We eent to state meet once.

Nick Downer [00:42:37] Was Glenville pretty good while you're there? They're pretty good now, right?

Leroy Cowans [00:42:40] They started recruiting players as far as football and basketball is concerned after me. And Glenville's got a good, good doggone football team and basketball team. I don't know what the kids are eatin' now, but boy, they're gettin' big just like, up there, you know? I ain't kidding. They getting big. Because I was about five foot nine and weighed 190 pounds, playing tackle, all I'm saying. But I was a weightlifter.

Nick Downer [00:43:09] You were a weightlifter, too?

Leroy Cowans [00:43:11] Yeah. [inaudible] power.

Nick Downer [00:43:17] What was Glenville High School like?

Leroy Cowans [00:43:19] Glenville was nice. Especially we had a doggone graduate from Western Reserve named [inaudible]. Now, he played for [inaudible] football. He was very good Air Force Reserve man. When he came on the doggone coaching staff, he knew exactly what it took to be a doggone good lineman. And they went off his knife. Now he paid money out of his own pocket. He wanted me to go to Indiana, you know, because I had enough knowledge to go to business school. But they didn't take me because when I walk in the office, I'm five foot nine, not six foot five. And then that's why when we play Indiana, when I was out in all-state, we beat 'em to death.

Nick Downer [00:44:07] So what was- Do you have any stories about growing up in high school? Anything? Any interesting stories?

Leroy Cowans [00:44:14] No, just that. Well, being born, like I'm born, you know the teachers that give a hoot about you and the teachers that don't. I had an art teacher, thought I was a pretty good at art. He wanted to send me to Cooper's art school, and I wasn't into that, but he was a nice teacher. And then there was [inaudible]. He was a math teacher, and I took all- I went all the way up to calculus because I couldn't take calculus because only two kids enrolled in it. But after I left Glenville, you didn't have to take any of the math if you didn't want to. They changed it all around. It was not required, like in the suburban schools.

Nick Downer [00:44:56] What do you think- Do you think the kids today are getting the same quality of education you got?

Leroy Cowans [00:45:01] No. You- That's the other thing I don't like: the bureaucracy in Washington, DC. They're really not thinking about the kids. Campaign trail, they talk about the kids, but they're not really thinking about them. Of course if they wouldn't outsource those jobs outside the United States, our unemployment wouldn't be as high as it is. But they do, to make a profit. I ain't kidding. Like Cleveland had a good industrial, I mean, manufacturing, making clothes, outsourced the jobs, cheaper labor. That's why you got Kmart, Walmart. You go in there. Hey, made in China, Japan, Thailand. Right.

Nick Downer [00:45:45] Where did your kids go to school after you moved from 117?

Leroy Cowans [00:45:49] Oh. I don't know. Like I said, 1960s. I don't know. I tried to make contact with 'em when my kid was in elementary school, but my wife stopped me on that one because we were divorced. When I was on the alcoholic program out at the workhouse, they told me I couldn't go by the house to see the kids, but I went by the school. First day I went by the school, my kids welcomed me all with open arms, but they told their mother that I had seen them. So my wife told them that I'd do physical harm to her. That was the end of that. You don't believe that, do you? But she did. My wife was a B. You know what I mean?

Nick Downer [00:46:49] So you said you remembered when they put the projects up, right?

Leroy Cowans [00:46:59] Oh, on 55th and Central, yes.

Nick Downer [00:47:01] What about these projects here?

Leroy Cowans [00:47:03] Oh, much later on. Yeah, yeah, much later on. My uncle used to have a church on Woodland, and they bought his church to make projects down there. It wasn't projects, but [inaudible] apartment buildings. Then he got a church on Eddy Road, which was better than the church he had on Woodland.

Nick Downer [00:47:23] And you said the projects were nice when they built them?

Leroy Cowans [00:47:26] Well, the apartments they built on Woodland, yes, it was really nice. It was three or four stories high.

Nick Downer [00:47:36] Do you- Do you feel like the people who were living in the projects, they had community, too? They all knew each other?

Leroy Cowans [00:47:43] The knockout of the Gang of 30 that was dealing with drugs, robbing people. There was a gang up there, and they finally got rid of 'em. There were four men and about 14 boys. Knocked them right out. Projects turned better, but you still got, you know, you got some people- You got some rotten apples. That's why I don't like that young lady going through the projects, especially when it's getting summertime. Somebody, you know, might mess with her.

Nick Downer [00:48:10] Everybody hanging out.

Leroy Cowans [00:48:11] Well, they don't have any jobs or anything, they think they have a right to rob you. First time I got my check cashed at a grocery store, two dudes robbed the old lady and her escort, took her money.

Nick Downer [00:48:24] You saw that?

Leroy Cowans [00:48:24] Oh yeah. And it's ridiculous. In, what, another 30 days you get another check. Now, just like now, my Social Security check. I had to have a bank account to get my electronically Social Security check. I said, now, to me, that don't make sense. Since 1964. I mean, since I was 64, I got my check at the bank and I never lost my check, but I know there was thieves in the post office when I was there. An electronical transfer can be wiped out even before you know it. Due to hacking into a doggone computer, man. But that's what they're doin'.

Nick Downer [00:49:07] So can you tell me a story about how when that lady got robbed?

Leroy Cowans [00:49:13] They knew. They had the doggone kids looking at her. First of the month, everybody knew the first of the month. And what kind of escort she had, you're just walking, and they just knocked the escort down, knocked her down and took her money. Okay?

Nick Downer [00:49:26] Which store was this?

Leroy Cowans [00:49:28] Right on 28th and Cedar.

Nick Downer [00:49:29] Same one?

Leroy Cowans [00:49:31] Yeah. First time I check cashed here, when I go over there, I put my money in the pocket and then put my knife in right behind it. You heard me?

Nick Downer [00:49:39] Yes.

Leroy Cowans [00:49:40] Okay.

Nick Downer [00:49:46] So people who live around here, that's the only place to get food? The store on 28th?

Leroy Cowans [00:49:52] Yes, but they have money to go over there and get the store. But most of them go to Dave's up at 40th Street. They don't go to 28th Street. But they had cut out the doggone food bank and we don't, we used to get groceries, vegetables and fruits on a Friday. No more. They said there's not enough food to go around.

Nick Downer [00:50:14] When did that change?

Leroy Cowans [00:50:16] Last Friday.

Nick Downer [00:50:18] Last Friday?

Leroy Cowans [00:50:18] Last Friday. That was the last day. It won't be anymore.

Nick Downer [00:50:23] It's tough.

Leroy Cowans [00:50:24] It is tough. In a country like this? Yes.

Nick Downer [00:50:30] So I think we've been talking for 50 minutes.

Leroy Cowans [00:50:34] That's okay. Seriously, I got all day.

Nick Downer [00:50:38] Yeah, I think I'm pretty much- I got done with the questions that I had for you. I think we went through where you lived, what kind of work you and your family did, you know. Is there anything else you feel like if we're doing a project, anything you'd like to- Any memories you'd have that you'd like to keep on record so people can hear about them in the future?

Leroy Cowans [00:51:00] Well, I have my scrapbook. I gave that to my son. If he kept it. I don't think he did. Cause of his mother. His father did something, you know, in his life, you know, graduated, my diploma. I mean, from high school. In fact, I went to Ohio State for two years. But I don't know if he kept that, [inaudible] his son.

Nick Downer [00:51:26] Do you have any photos?

Leroy Cowans [00:51:28] No. My kids? No. No.

Nick Downer [00:51:34] Of the neighborhood?

Leroy Cowans [00:51:35] My wife made it that way that I'm the black sheep of the doggone marriage. You understand me? The word goes around from her. My wife lives in Willoughby Hills, man. See? $15,000. Yes. When she got a divorce from me, I went back from post office doggone wages to $1.25 an hour, and she wanted $30 a month. Okay? And she was making $15 an hour. You know what's the first thing she bought? A brand-new Malibu, Chevy. I told you it's weird out there.

Nick Downer [00:52:12] It's rough. All right, so. And we're also doing- We're doing a play, too, you know, about Central. And we got a guy from the neighborhood who's gonna be-

Leroy Cowans [00:52:22] I'm not too good at that.

Nick Downer [00:52:24] No but do you have any stories, you know, that might be, you know, might be interesting to tell? I mean, I know we just talked about a lot, so.

Leroy Cowans [00:52:39] No, I don't.

Nick Downer [00:52:46] It's no big deal. Anything else you want to add before we finish?

Leroy Cowans [00:52:50] No, just about handled everything.

Nick Downer [00:52:54] All right, sounds good. Yeah, I think we got everything. I think. I guess, for the record, you know, this is Leroy Cowans.

Leroy Cowans [00:53:01] Cowans. Yeah.

Nick Downer [00:53:02] Cowans. And I am Nick Downer. It is 1:35 on the 25th of March, and we're gonna end the tape.

Leroy Cowans [00:53:10] Okay.

Cedar Central

The interviews in this series resulted from an initiative spearheaded by Campus District Inc. to document stories in conjunction with the planned closure of the high-rise building in the Cedar Estates housing project. Jane Addams High School students learned oral history techniques alongside CSU interviewers.