Arturo Alfonso Schomburg | Afro-Puerto Rican Bibliophile and Activist Scholar of Black History and Culture

“The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future.”

–Arturo Schomburg, 1925

 

“An analysis of Schomburg’s life should not establish his as the exclusive Afro-Latinx experience to the exclusion of other lived experiences, particularly when considering those of women who shared his racial and ethnic heritage.  Such an examination, however, is useful in attempting to understand the complexities of populations of African descent who arrive in the United States speaking the Spanish language, taking into consideration the specificities of historical context.”

— Dr. Vanessa K. Valdés, 2017

 

As the observance of National Hispanic Heritage Month continues, and we prepare for the upcoming celebration of Cleveland Book Week (September 29 – October 4), this is the perfect season for readers to peruse works by and about Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938).  

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Schomburg migrated to New York in 1891 and went on to become one of the most celebrated American bibliophiles and thought leaders of his day, continually championing the cause of Puerto Rican and Cuban independence from Spain –through the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the scholarly study of Black people throughout the global community. His pioneering work as a book collector, archivist, and curator in the first half of the twentieth century helped lay the foundation for today’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York’s Harlem community.  

One of Schomburg’s most famous essays, “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” appeared in a special 1925 issue of Survey Graphic Magazine, “Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro,” and a subsequent book on the same subject.  Dr. Alain Locke served as editor for both publications, which showcased works by the emerging and established artists and scholars associated with the Harlem Renaissance or the “New Negro Movement, “ including former Clevelander and Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner Langston Hughes. 

 

In Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (State University of New York Press,2017), Dr. Vanessa K. Valdés includes the following statements about Schomburg’s work and worldview:

 

Throughout his life, in all of the circles in which he traveled, Schomburg remained Afro-Latino; that is, he actively thought of himself as such, as a black man born in Puerto Rico.  He actively laid claim to the richness of the histories and cultures of the Spanish-speaking world.  We see this in the books he collected, the articles he wrote, and the translations he provided from Spanish to English and vice versa.

 

For all of the aforementioned reasons and so many more, Dr. Valdés’s scholarly study offers readers an insightful overview of a well-lived and carefully documented life.

 

Frida Kahlo and Elizabeth Catlett | At Home with the Art and Politics of Mexico and Black America

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), two women who won worldwide acclaim for their art, created evocative works that reflected their personal struggles and triumphs as well as those of farmers and other workers in Mexico and the United States of America. For anyone who will take the time to look, learn, and teach, their works have much to offer in the way of arts and humanities education.  Thought provoking lessons on Kahlo and Catlett are as close as the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) and the Cleveland Public Library (CPL), where reference and/or circulating collections and programming activities reflect their contributions to world history and culture.  

 

Kahlo, a native of Mexico and an alumna of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, was a master of the self-portrait.  Her willingness to visibly embrace Mexican culture—as reflected in her frequent choices to wear indigenous jewelry and clothing styles from different parts of the country, her radical politics and ongoing challenges to the systemic oppression of poor people, and her refusal to accept restrictive gender roles for women helped to make her a celebrated activist-artist in her own right and a creative comrade to her equally famous, controversial, and artistically-gifted husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

 

(Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1932. Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress.)

In Frida Kahlo at Home (2016), one of the many book-length studies of the artist’s life and work, author Suzanne Barbezat states that, despite their sometimes stormy relationship, Kahlo and Rivera “were each other’s best supporter and most ardent fan.  They shared political convictions, and perhaps most importantly, were both fiercely proud of being Mexican.” Although she endured major health challenges in both her childhood and adult years, Kahlo’s career also included teaching, international travel, and exhibitions in Mexico and other countries.

 

During the observance of CMA’s centenary, the museum offered guests the opportunity to view one of Kahlo’s signature works, “Fulang-Chang and I,” a loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  This painting was also the subject of an online July/August 2016 Cleveland Art Magazine article. In addition to the books and other reference materials that are available in CMA’s Ingalls library, a special exhibition, A Graphic Revolution: Prints and Drawings in Latin America, which includes works by Rivera and others, will be on view through November 2020.

 

Like Kahlo and Rivera, Elizabeth Catlett also strove to create socially relevant art. An African American native of Washington, DC, she completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Howard University and the University of Iowa, respectively.  After teaching for several years at the secondary and post-secondary levels, she traveled to Mexico on a Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship in 1946.  She studied and created works of art with members of the Taller de Gráfica Popular, married Mexican artist and colleague Francisco Mora, became a Mexican citizen, and served as a Professor of Sculpture at the National School of Fine Arts, the National Autonomous University of Mexico.  In addition to their artistic work, Catlett and Mora raised three sons.

 

Catlett focused primarily on prints and sculptures, winning many commissions and awards and exhibiting widely.  In Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico (2000), Melanie Anne Herzog quotes Catlett’s 1983 self-description of her life and work:

 

I am black, a woman, a sculptor, and a printmaker.  I am also married, the mother of three sons, and the grandmother of five little girls [now seven girls and one boy] . . . . [I] was born in the United States and have lived in Mexico since 1946.  I believe that all of these states of being have influenced my work and made it what you see today.

 

Indeed, the influences of the aforementioned “states” were evident  works that were included in CMA’s fall 2002 exhibition, “Elizabeth Catlett: Prints and Sculptures.” Images of Catlett works that reflect these themes are available on the CMA website.

Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals: The Genuine Meets the Artistic in Black Sacred Music

 

(L: Zora Neale Hurston c. 1938. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection. R: A. Grace Lee Mims c. 1950. WRHS Collection.)

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and A. Grace Lee Mims (1930-2019), two Alabama natives with ties to Cleveland, Ohio;  agreed that spirituals were an integral part of the history of Black sacred music.  They said as much in their written descriptions of these songs that date to the Antebellum Era, when enslaved people of African descent created the authentic spirituals.  Both women also encouraged students of American culture to experience live performances of the music in the sanctuaries of churches, on college and university campuses, and in concert halls and other venues. It is also interesting, however, to consider their thoughts on what Hurston referred to as “neo-spirituals” and what if anything was gained or lost when one removed the performance of Black sacred music from its original cultural context.

In 1934, when Hurston’s “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals” appeared in Nancy Cunard’s Negro anthology, she was already recognized as one of the leading contributors to the Black arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, an award-winning essayist and playwright, and a Barnard College-trained anthropologist.  Her collaborations and disagreements with former Clevelander Langston Hughes and her correspondence with Cleveland’s Rowena Jelliffe regarding the Hurston-Hughes co-authored play “Mule Bone” were also well known to her fans and foes alike.  Hurston would go on to receive Cleveland’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road in 1943.  Today, her novels have earned a respected place in the American literary canon.

Never one to shy away from controversy, Hurston dismissed as “ridiculous” historian W.E.B. Du Bois’s “idea that the whole body of spirituals are sorrow songs,” as he had described them in his now classic 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. Hurston’s 1934 essay suggests, “[The spirituals] cover a wide range of subjects from a peeve at gossipers to Death and Judgment.” She then went on to say:

 

The nearest thing to a description one can reach is they are Negro religious songs, sung by a group, and a group bent on the expression of feelings and not sound effects.  

There never has been a presentation of genuine Negro spirituals to any audience anywhere.  What is being sung by the concert artists and glee clubs are the works of Negro composers or adaptors based on the spirituals.  Under this head come the works of Harry T. Burleigh, Rosamond Johnson, Lawrence Brown, Nathaniel Dett, Hall Johnson, and [John Wesley] Work.  All good work and beautiful but not the spirituals.

The neo-spirituals are the outgrowth of the glee clubs. Fisk University boasts perhaps the oldest and certainly the most famous of these.  They have spread their interpretation over America and Europe.  Hampton and Tuskegee have not been unheard.  But with all the glee clubs and soloists, there has not been one genuine spiritual presented.

 

In Hurston’s opinion, those artists who “put on their tuxedos and bowed prettily to the audience” could never capture the true beauty and improvisational nature of the genuine Negro spiritual in performance.  Cleveland-based soprano A. Grace Lee Mims, however, saw things somewhat differently.

Mims, a native of Snow Hill, Alabama, was a graduate of Hampton, one of the historically Black institutions that Hurston credited with the growing popularity of the “neo-spirituals” on college campuses.  A trained vocalist-educator, popular recitalist, founding members of the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society, and long-time faculty member at the Cleveland Music School Settlement (CMSS), Mims was an expert on Black arts in general and the spiritual in particular.   

For more than 40 years, she also served as the host of “The Black Arts” on Cleveland’s WCLV Radio. In 1981, Mims released Spirituals, an album featuring songs arranged for soprano soloist, with piano accompaniment provided by William Appling.  Voice students in Mims’ CMSS studio could expect to be introduced to The Spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh, a popular collection of art songs arranged for solo voice and piano accompaniment–and these same voice students were expected to perform Burleigh’s works in recital and concert settings.

A philanthropist who gave generously of her time, talent, and treasure, she also established the A. Grace Lee Mims Vocal Scholarship at the Cleveland Foundation.  As the description for this scholarship suggests,  “The primary purpose of this award is to perpetuate the singing of the Negro spiritual through performance and/or teaching, so that this art form, created by African-American slaves in the Diaspora, will remain alive.”

Both Hurston and Mims championed the documentation and study of the place of the spiritual in the cultural history of the African Diaspora.  Mims, who was a preschooler at the time of the 1934 publication of “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals,” never appeared to doubt the genuineness of the sacred songs that were part of her early school, church, and family life in Snow Hill, Alabama—nor the arranged spirituals that she selected in later years for live performances and recording sessions in urban Cleveland / “Alabama North.” It is possible, therefore, that Dr. A. Grace Lee Mims would have agreed with part of Hurston’s description of the solo and glee club arrangements of concert spirituals as “all good work and beautiful,” even if they were not the same as the genuine spirituals of 19th– and early 20th-century Black folk. 

 

Learn more about the African American Archives HERE.

 

 

Then & Now | Black Philanthropy Month, Part 3

“Give, and it will be given to you.” 

Luke 6:38 (NIV), The Bible

During Black Philanthropy Month and throughout the year, religious institutions are, among other things, both the recipients of charitable contributions and the distributors of charity.  In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois described the work of one Black church in the following manner:

 

Various organizations meet here, –the church proper, the Sunday-school, two or three insurance societies, women’s societies, secret societies, and mass meetings of various kinds. Entertainments, suppers, and lectures are held beside the five or six regular weekly religious services. Considerable sums of money are collected and expended here, employment is found for the idle, strangers are introduced, news is disseminated and charity distributed. At the same time this social, intellectual and economic centre is a religious centre of great power. (Chapter 10, “Of the Faith of Our Fathers”)

 

Both Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were early 20th-century philanthropist-educators with first-hand knowledge of the significant role that Black churches played in community life.  More recently, Valaida Fullwood’s Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists (2011) and Robert P. Madison’s Designing Victory, A Memoir (2019) have provided more examples of church support for Black families, Black communities, and Black businesses. 

As we approach the end of Black Philanthropy Month (August) 2020, interested readers are invited to take a look at the Fullwood book, which inspired “The Soul of Philanthropy, Cleveland,” and the Madison book, which tells the life story of one of the honorees featured in this 2019 Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) exhibition.  Both titles can be purchased online via the WRHS website at https://www.wrhs.org/s/merchandise/wrhs-store/.

For more information on Black Philanthropy Month, please CLICK HERE.  For more information related to “The Soul of Philanthropy, Cleveland.” please CLICK HERE.

Then & Now | Black Philanthropy Month, Part 1

(Booker T. Washington. Library of Congress Photograph)

 

August is Black Philanthropy Month, and the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) is using social media posts and other online information to call attention to the rich history of Black philanthropic giving in Cleveland and around the world.  This initiative comes on the heels of the successful fall 2019 WRHS run of “Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy, Reframed and Exhibited.”  Created by Valaida Fullwood and photographer Charles W. Thomas, the “Giving Back” traveling exhibition also inspired the semi-permanent “The Soul of Philanthropy, Cleveland” exhibition that remained on view at the Cleveland History Center through the first quarter of 2020 and is scheduled to travel to other local venues in the near future.

Today, we salute Booker T. Washington (1856-1915).  Born in slavery in the state of Virginia, Washington went on to become one of the most celebrated champions of self-help, industrial, agricultural, and normal school education; and individual and corporate philanthropy that benefitted members of the Black community.  

In his autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901), Washington described his journey from the plantation world to that of the academy, where he served as the long-time principal of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and became one of the most powerful and influential leaders of his day.  Up from Slavery offers many examples of Black philanthropy, including those described in the passage below, in which Washington attempts to capture the beauty of Southern Black vernacular speech and the generosity of Tuskegee’s Black donors:

 

It was often pathetic to note the gifts of the older coloured people, most of whom had spent their best days in slavery. Sometimes they would give five cents, sometimes twenty-five cents. Sometimes the contribution was a quilt, or a quantity of sugarcane. I recall one old coloured woman who was about seventy years of age, who came to see me when we were raising money to pay for the farm. She hobbled into the room where I was, leaning on a cane. She was clad in rags; but they were clean. She said: “Mr. Washin’ton, God knows I spent de bes’ days of my life in slavery. God knows I’s ignorant an’ poor; but,” she added, “I knows what you an’ Miss Davidson [a teacher and Washington’s future wife] is tryin’ to do. I knows you is tryin’ to make better men an’ better women for de coloured race. I ain’t got no money, but I wants you to take dese six eggs, what I’s been savin’ up, an’ I wants you to put dese six eggs into de eddication of dese boys an’ gals.”

Since the work at Tuskegee started, it has been my privilege to receive many gifts for the benefit of the institution, but never any, I think, that touched me so deeply as this one.

 

As much as he appreciated the contributions from the Black community, he also welcomed philanthropic support from wealthy White industrial capitalists.  Historian Louis Harlan referred to Washington as “The Wizard of Tuskegee” and devoted an entire chapter of a 1983 book by this title to a discussion of “Other People’s Money.” According to Harlan, Washington, “found his chief partners in philanthropy [including John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie] in New York, and he directed their interest not only to Tuskegee but to other black schools, including the colleges and the public schools.”

In 1900, Washington established the National Negro Business League to improve economic conditions in the Black community and to support the owners of small businesses and farms. By 1908, Clevelanders, inspired by the NNBL and its affiliates, had established the National Association of Colored Men. Washington also had many devoted followers among club women in Cleveland.  An article in a special January 1905 Women’s issue of The Cleveland Journal, for example, reported that two literary societies, the Minerva Reading Club and the Friday Study Club, hosted a banquet in Washington’s honor, and “more than 200 of the most prominent colored people in northern Ohio” attended the event. Booker T. Washington and the members of the aforementioned organizations are among the millions of 20th-century American citizens who chose to “give Black.” 

For more information on Black Philanthropy Month, please CLICK HERE.  For more information related to “The Soul of Philanthropy, Cleveland.” please CLICK HERE.

 

“We Are Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired”: The Politics of Black Voter Disenfranchisement According to Fannie Lou Hamer

(Fannie Lou Hamer. Library of Congress Photograph)

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), a native of Mississippi, gained a national following and the admiration of people around the world for her efforts to enhance Black political and economic empowerment during the Modern Civil Rights Movement. In 1964, she summed up the feelings of thousands of disenfranchised Blacks: “We are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

As a leader in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in the 1960s, she worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other groups to organize Freedom Summer, a 1964 voter registration initiative that recruited hundreds of volunteers–mostly White, middle-class college students, to help register Black voters in rural Mississippi.  Miami University in Oxford, Ohio hosted the volunteer training sessions.  Despite the fact that their efforts were often met with intimidation, violence, and even the deaths of some of the volunteers, Hamer and her colleagues succeeded in registering thousands of Black voters and challenging the all-White Democratic Party leadership in her home state.

For more information on Fannie Lou Hamer and her work with SNCC before, during, and after Freedom Summer, see Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (2010).  For information on the history of the Suffrage Movement in America, please watch Failure is Impossible, a new film that accompanies the WRHS Women and Politics exhibit.

Then & Now | Joseph Black Joe Hodge

The Western Reserve is considered that portion of land in northeast Ohio extending from the Pennsylvania border in the east 120 miles westward and 80 miles southward. Its northern border is Lake Erie and the southern border is the parallel of the 41st degree North Latitude. The Western Reserve comprises 12 counties (Ashtabula, Lake, Medina, Geauga, Trumbull, Lorain, Erie, Huron, Portage, parts of Summit, and Mahoning) including Cuyahoga County and the city of Cleveland. The state of Connecticut obtained the Western Reserve of the Northwest Territory and sold it to a group of investors called the Connecticut Land Company in 1795. In 1796, The Connecticut Land Company sent a survey expedition to the Reserve, headed by Moses Cleaveland, an American Revolutionary War veteran.

African American history in the Western Reserve can be documented as early as 1796. Joseph Black Joe Hodge, a freeman of color, trapper by trade, was hired by the Connecticut Western Reserve Surveying Party in 1796 to act as a guide and Native American language interpreter. Hodge lead the party from his home in Buffalo Creek in Western New York state to the Conneaut Creek area of the Reserve, just east of modern day Cleveland. From that time on, a small trickle of people of African decent moved through or settled in the area. The first permanent African descendant settlers were George Peake and his family who migrated from Pennsylvania, to the western shores of the Cuyahoga River, in 1809. Peake purchased 101 acres of land in Rockport in 1811 and settled with his family, into a life of farming. George Peake was a veteran of the French and Indian War of 1759, serving under General James Wolfe in the Battle of Abraham Plains at Quebec. Following Peake, the African American population was a slow growth in Cleveland. African Americans came to the Western Reserve as free men and women, newly emancipated or as runaways and fugitives from bondage.

The Future Outlook League

As civil unrest continues to spread across our country, and worldwide, we can take this time to look back at Cleveland’s history when black activism affected change through peaceful protests and boycotts. 

The Future Outlook League was founded in Cleveland, Ohio in 1935 by John Holly. He established the Future Outlook League as an organization that would demand better economic treatment for African Americans. Holly was inspired by a trip to Chicago’s World fair in 1933 where he saw black people with jobs in managerial positions that had been won through boycotts against white owned stores. Upon returning to Cleveland he held a meeting at his home and began forming the Future Outlook League (FOL) and served as its first president

The FOL used economic boycotts and picketing to get African Americans hired at places they shopped and conducted business at; but were unable to get employment at because of their race. Attempting to fight racial discrimination in employment, the organization’s  slogan was “Don’t buy where you can’t work.” Through protesting and boycotting by not spending money at places that did not hire blacks, in Cleveland the FOL helped to integrate staffing of the Cleveland Transit System, Ohio Bell, and May Company.

During its peak, the FOL had more than 27,000 members, attracting both skilled and unskilled workers. The organization was mainly supported by weekly fees paid by those who secured employment through the efforts of the organization. . They also helped to organize working-class black people through labor unions, and began to challenge discriminatory practices through the court system.

If you wish to learn more about the Future Outlook League and Cleveland’s social justice history our archive collection consists of records pertaining to the establishment of the FOL and its activities in promoting employment and civil rights on behalf of Cleveland’s black community.

From Juneteenth to “13th” Black Lives, Black Freedom, WRHS Collections, and AAAA Programs

By: Regennia N. Williams, PhD Historian and Member of the African American Archives Auxiliary (AAAA) of The Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS)

In keeping with traditions that are more than 150 years old, communities across the country will host Juneteenth celebrations beginning on June 19, 2020.  As they commemorate the end of slavery in America, people will participate in parades and festivals, listen to readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, perform the Black National Anthem (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”), and fly the Juneteenth flag.  With the death of George Floyd and ongoing protests against police brutality, however, many Americans are still wondering when Black citizens will gain true freedom in this country.  

In this article, we invite you to join us in considering the continuing struggle to secure and protect Black freedom and Black lives in America by focusing on part of the work of Frederick Douglass, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Angela Davis, and Ava DuVernay. This reflection on ideas that are documented in collections that are housed at the Western Reserve Historical Society or are the subjects of programs that have been announced by the Society’s African American Archives Auxiliary, students, teachers, and others can gain new insights about Black agency and activism—even as they relate to holiday celebrations.

 

The roots of contemporary Juneteenth celebrations of Black freedom can be traced to an event that took place on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas.  On that day, Union Major General Gordon Granger read the following text from General Order Number 3 to those assembled before him: 

 

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

 

Two months after the end of the Civil War, more than two years after the effective date of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and nearly 246 years after the beginning of African servitude in British North America, the era of slavery in the history of the United States of America had, supposedly, come to an end, and Blacks were being promised freedom, equality, and paid employment. 

After four long, bloody years of Civil War and approximately 1 million casualties among the dead, dying, and wounded, making good on the nation’s promise of freedom would prove difficult, at best, for African American people.  Nevertheless, the celebrations of Juneteenth or Emancipation Day began in Texas in 1866, and have now gained at least some form of official recognition in 47 states and the District of Columbia.  

In the season of Juneteenth 2020, however, many people–including those in the Black Lives Matter Movement, argue that the dream of true freedom for African Americans has been elusive.  This, they suggest, is due in no small measure to the language of another key document in the history of American slavery and freedom, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  Ratified in December 1865, it states:

 

Section 1

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

 

Section 2

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

 

As it turns out, the concerns of the Black Lives Matter activists are not new.  In fact, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the renowned 19th-century African American abolitionist, orator, and statesman, understood all too well the shortcomings early efforts to improve the quality of life among freed Blacks of his day. 

Born in a community of enslaved African Americans, Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838, and, while still a fugitive, joined the community of militant, non-violent, radical abolitionists that included William Lloyd Garrison. After the January 1, 1863 effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass served as a recruiter for the Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry, and two of his sons volunteered to fight with that Union Regiment. Douglass was clear from the outset; Black men were not fighting for the preservation of the old slaveholding Union.  They were fighting for a Union in which Blacks would be free and politically enfranchised.  Douglass also became an outspoken suffragist, and his female allies in that struggle included Ida B. Wells-Barnett.  

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

The WRHS Research Library collections include published volumes of Douglass’s papers and his autobiographical works: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), My Bondage, My Freedom (1855); and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).  In January 1867, the fourth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, The Atlantic published Douglass’s “Appeal for Impartial Suffrage,” in which he concluded:

 

“The South does not now ask for slavery. It only asks for a large degraded caste, which shall have no political rights. This ends the case. Statesmen, beware what you do. The destiny of unborn and unnumbered generations is in your hands. Will you repeat the mistake of your fathers, who sinned ignorantly? or will you profit by the blood-bought wisdom all round you, and forever expel every vestige of the old abomination from our national borders? As you members of the Thirty-ninth Congress decide, will the country be peaceful, united, and happy, or troubled, divided, and miserable.”

 

Like Douglass, Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932), was  concerned about the racial divide in Post-Civil War America.  Chesnutt was a native Clevelander and his manuscript collection and published works by and about him are housed in the WRHS Research Library.  An award-winning writer, his publications include an 1899 biography of Frederick Douglass, and he, too, was affiliated with what many of his contemporaries considered to be radical causes. Through his work with the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was established in 1909, he supported both the Anti-Lynching Movement and civil and voting rights for African Americans. 

Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932)

The Cleveland Branch of the NAACP  was organized in 1912.  Even before their charter was issued, race leaders like Chesnutt were becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in race relations in America.  In addition to serving on the General Committee of the national organization, in January 1912, Chesnutt became a Cleveland member of the Advisory Committee.  Dr. Charles F. Thwing, president of Western Reserve University, and Harry C. Smith, editor of the Cleveland [African American] Gazette, served with him. 

More than 100 years since the founding of the NAACP, the radicalism that characterized the activities of its early years lives on in the work of the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, who “served as president of the North Carolina NAACP, the largest state conference in the South, from 2006 – 2017 and currently sits on the National NAACP Board of Directors.”  Dr. Barber is also the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which will lead The Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington: A Digital Justice Gathering.  This event is being described as “the largest online gathering of poor and dispossessed people, and people of conscience, in this nation’s history.”  The gathering will take place on June 20, 2020, the Saturday of Juneteenth Weekend.  While the campaign has a long list of demands, there is one that is directly related to the denial of the very freedoms that the Juneteenth holiday was designed to celebrate and the top priority for the Black Lives Matter Movement:  “We demand an end to mass incarceration and the continuing inequalities for black, brown and poor white people within the criminal justice system.”  According to information from the Poor People’s Campaign:

 

“The truth is that poor communities, especially poor communities of color, are being locked up, sent away and killed by law enforcement. Equal protection under the law is non-negotiable and we have the right to move freely without the fear of intimidation, detention, deportation or death by public institutions charged with our safety.”

 

It is on this point that both Dr. Angela Davis (b. 1944) and filmmaker Ava DuVernay (b. 1972) agree.

Dr. Angela Davis (b. 1944)

Dr. Davis endured her own ordeals with the criminal justice system in the 1970s.  The role of the Presbyterian Church in supporting her defense fund during her highly publicized arrest, detention, and trial is documented in the Karl F. Bruch, Jr. Papers in the WRHS Research Library.  Following her acquittal, Davis became an academician and author, whose activism continues

unabated.  In recent decades, she has written and lectured extensively about the need to dismantle the prison industrial complex in the United States of America. In “Globalism and the Prison Industrial Complex: An Interview with Angela Davis” published in the 1998-1999 issue of the journal Race & Class, sociologist Avery Gordon discussed the fundamental problems with the system as Davis saw them.  For Davis, 

 

“Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the social problems that burden people ensconced in poverty. These problems are often veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the category ’crime’ and by the automatic attribution of behaviour to people of colour, especially Black and Latino/a men and women. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.”

 

Ava DuVernay makes a similar point in “13th,” her 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary. Since George Floyd’s death, the demand for this Netflix film has soared.  Information in The Center for Concern’s film discussion guide suggests, 

 

“Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary 13th introduces the words of the thirteenth amendment of the United States Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 13th argues that although slavery was ostensibly abolished in 1865, this clause of the thirteenth amendment legally embedded and allowed a pernicious form of enslavement into American institutions. This loophole has since been wielded as a devastating political tool in the form of mass incarceration and criminalization.”

Ava DuVernay (b. 1972)

In a 2017 interview, DuVernay, who supports the Black Lives Matters Movement, contrasted the current political climate during the administration of President Donald Trump with that of the 1960s Civil Rights Era and described the political nature of art:

 

‘A lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same. But when you have a divisive figure like Donald Trump instigating violence and prejudice against people at his own rallies as he pursues the presidency, then he takes power as President and continues to perpetuate misogynistic, homophobic, racist points of view, I feel that I have to, as an artist, tell that story as vigorously and passionately as I can. It was very apparent to me, as I was watching, that he was asking his supporters to be aggressive with and violent with people who were expressing dissent. I saw the alignment of what he was asking for and what had happened in the past, and I wanted to make that point in the montage that we crafted in 13th.’

I feel like all art is political. As artists, we’re sharing our point of view, asserting our identity through our work, whether you’re making a romantic comedy or you’re making a documentary about prison. For artists who are seeing the work as art and not as work for hire, it’s saying something about how they feel. All of the work that I’ve done in film and television, even the commercial work, the images that I try to craft are saying something about me. That won’t change. 

 

  In February 2020, the African American Archives Auxiliary (AAAA) of the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) announced plans for a two-part educational screening and discussion of  DuVernay’s “13th” that would begin on the Saturday of Juneteenth Weekend.  When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closing of the Cleveland History Center and the rescheduling and reformatting of programs, AAAA’s Executive Committee reaffirmed its commitment to facilitating a community discussion of the topics for its proposed program series.  Black Lives Matters: The Coronavirus Edition, the theme for which is the brainchild of AAAA Trustee Stephanie Barron, will be the centerpiece for the new series and the first major program initiative for the Auxiliary’s 50th anniversary in FY 2021.

For more information on AAAA and WRHS collections that focus on Black lives and black freedom before and beyond Juneteenth, please CLICK HERE.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 48, Part II.

African American Music Appreciation Month | Thomas Boddie

Thomas Boddie and his wife Louise were the first African Americans to own a recording studio and record label in Cleveland, Ohio. During the 1950’s Thomas Boddie built his first studio in the basement of his home, eventually moving The Boddie Recording Company to 12202 Union Avenue. They remained in business from 1958 to 1993, longer than any other studio, pressing plant, or label group in the city of Cleveland

The studio was a mix of Thomas Boddie’s industriousness and his limited means of finance. Educated in the fields of sound and electrical engineering, to keep expenses down he would design and make all of his own recording equipment, and press his own vinyl records. This allowed him to keep cost low, which attracted a wide range of artist to cut demos, release limited runs of 45 rpm’s, and makes records for national and local distribution.

The studio earned the nickname “Little Nashville” because it attracted both black and white musicians who played various styles of music like country, gospel, rock, bluegrass, rhythm and blues and soul. The Boddie’s also had in-house record labels: Soul Kitchen, Luau, Bounty, Plaid and LaRicky which released eccentric soul, funk, doo-wop, and haunting spiritual recordings.

Due to the Cleveland race riots in the 1960’s Boddie lost many of their white customers who were reluctant to go back into black neighborhoods, and he later became more involved in cassette duplication and video recording gospel music and religious services.

After his many years and contributions to Cleveland’s music scene, Thomas Boddie died in 2006 and the Boddie Recording Studio closed after his death.

The Agora | African-American Music Appreciation Month

The Agora played a central role in the reshaping of Rock and Roll in the years after 1960.   It began in 1967 as a small members-only dance club for students in a building (now Isabellas) at Cornell and Random Road just off the Case Western Reserve University campus.  Founder Henry J. “Hank” LoConti had worked in the jukebox industry and he had an “ear” for the trends reshaping the industry.   The gig on Cornell lasted only a year when the Agora moved to East 24th Street near the Cleveland State University campus.   No longer members only, it booked bands, both local and national, that were moving beyond what “Rock” had been in the formative 1950s and early 1960s.   By the late 1970s the Agora and local FM radio station WMMS had formed a new market.  Groups and singers including Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Kiss, and the local Michael Stanley Band played at the Agora long before they hit big time and become legendary.   The new genres on stage at the Agora, including punk, and heavy metal, may have offended Rock traditionalists, but they were music to the ears of new generations of young people.

The Agora was also a showcase for Black musicians and a wide variety of musical genres that were not easily classified under the Rock banner. Blues artists Taj Mahal and Freddie King played the Agora as did such R&B stars as Teddy Prendergast, Chaka Khan and the OJays. Musical legends Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff performed and introduced Cleveland to Reggae. Local favorite John Bassett brought his folk/blues style to the stage. George Benson, the creator of unique driven jazz sound mellowed out the usually rocking auditorium.  For many of the Agora fans, who, for most performances, were predominantly white, this was their first live exposure to a great many artists who were long established in the African American community.

As the Agora’s reputation grew, so did the business.   Hank LoConti opened over a dozen branches in Ohio and around the nation.   When Hank died in 2014, he was honored by the industry both for his innovation and for giving breaks to musicians who “made it”, in part, because he sensed the changing tastes of the time.

Today the Agora rocks on in the old Metropolitan Theater on Euclid near E. 55th where it had moved in 1987 and the programs on stage continue to reflect change and innovation.  And the Agora’s legacy lives on in a massive archive of recordings, documents and photographs at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

Making Music And Making History | A Salute To Cleveland’s Own During African-American Music Appreciation Month

By Regennia N. Williams

June is African-American Music Appreciation Month, and the local and national activities are already underway.  In addition to their usual excellent web-based offerings, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are among the institutions creating and sharing insightful online information related to this celebration.  Established in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter and acknowledged annually in a presidential proclamation, the celebration took on its current name in 2009.  The 2020 proclamation states, in part:

This month, we express our appreciation for the countless contributions of African-American singers, songwriters, and musicians, whose remarkable talents continue to inspire the soul of our Nation.  With classic guitar riffs, memorable hymns, and uplifting beats, the works of African-American artists undeniably represent true musical excellence.

This post calls attention to two dynamic duos in the history of African-American music in Cleveland and invites readers to find out more about their work by examining archival collections at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

As the founders, owners, and operators of the Boddie Recording and Manufacturing Company, Thomas and Louise Boddie share the honor of having established the first African American-owned recording company in Cleveland –and one of the first in the nation to both record and manufacture their own records.  Thomas  Boddie, an alumnus of the East Technical High School and World War II veteran, fell in love with electronics as a child.  In the 1950s, while working his day job as an organ repairman, he purchased equipment that made it possible for him to record musicians in the basement of his home at night.  After he and Louise married in the 1960s, they moved to a home at East 122nd Street and Union Avenue in Cleveland, where they would formally establish the  studio that would make them famous (if not rich) in their neighborhood and beyond. 

From this location, they would record and press 45 rpm records and albums for a diverse clientele that included many of the city’s Black gospel quartets and choirs, 

R & B and jazz groups, as well as blue grass artists, who sometimes traveled from as far away as Cleveland’s west side or West Virginia.  Among the gospel artists to record with Boddie on its Bounty label were the Cleveland Golden Echoes and Walter Humphrey, who went on to serve as the pastor of the New Joshua Missionary Baptist Church.

The company also offered on-site live recording and high-speed duplicating services that allowed them to produce and sell cassette tapes that would be available immediately after an event.  Their on-site audio and video production services were especially popular with Black churches and conventions, both in the city and across the country,

In the wake of Thomas Boddie’s passing in 2006, Louise closed the studio, but interest in the company continued.  In 2011, for example, the Numero Group issued a five-album / three-cd boxed collection “represent[ing] the best of the Boddies’ in-house Soul Kitchen, Luau, and Bounty labels.”  

The Western Reserve Historical Society’s Research Library is now home to the company’s records and photograph collections.  For more information on the finding aid for the Boddie Recording Company, please CLICK HERE. 

A June 8, 2020, Washington Post news article noted that participants in a Black Lives Matter anti-racism protest sang “This Little Light of Mine,” a well-known slave spiritual, as they marched toward the White House.  Although these songs have not been performed during many of the other recent protests, the singing of spirituals, reborn as freedom songs, was a commonplace during the church-based Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  Lessons about the place of these musical expressions in world history and culture were also part of the educational activities of Dr. A. Grace Lee Mims (1930-2019), a co-founder of the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society, a popular soprano soloist, and a faculty member at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. Mims also recorded her Spirituals album in 1981.   Earlier this year, the executer of Mims’ estate agreed to donate her papers and other items to the WRHS African American Archives 

Dr. A. Grace Lee Mims’ husband, Dr. Howard A. Mims (1930-2002), a true music lover in his own right, was a Professor in Cleveland State University’s Speech and Hearing Department, the Director of the CSU Black Studies Program, and the founder and managing-director of the Jazz Heritage Orchestra.

Volunteers Needed | African American Content Update Team for Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

Since 1980, the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (ECH) has been developing local history content to increase awareness and understanding of our city’s history.  In two print editions (1987 and 1996) and an ongoing online platform, the ECH has commissioned and made available contributions from hundreds of scholars and amateur historians, that now amount to over 4,000 entries.  The ECH pioneered this form of urban reference, predating similar projects in New York and Chicago, among other cities, and its website currently sees over 700,000 pageviews per year.  Longtime ECH Editor Dr. John J. Grabowski, the Krieger-Mueller Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University and Historian and Senior Vice President for Research and Publications at the Western Reserve Historical Society, aspires to boost visits to the ECH’s website to over 1 million per year.

With this goal in mind, the ECH in 2018 launched an initiative to reconnect with Cleveland’s local communities by updating existing and contributing new content.  Grabowski recruited eleven Subject Matter Associate Topical Editors to work on a volunteer basis, including Dr. Todd Michney, who is in charge of African American History.  Michney is the author of Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), and currently serves as the interim Membership and Marketing Committee Chair of Quad A.

In the first year of the project, Michney recruited eighteen team members who volunteered to suggest both updates and new entries, and to actually update and write the new entries.  The team successfully updated twenty-five existing articles and added four new ones.  The team members who wrote for the project were Dr. James Borchert, Mr. Michael Fleenor, Dr. Patrick Jones, Dr. Edward Miggins, Dr. Leonard Moore, Dr. Marian Morton, Dr. Mark Souther, and Dr. Regennia Williams.  Morton was the most prolific, working on sixteen articles, including a well-received new entry on Judge Jean Murrell Capers.  Souther contributed three new entries on Leroy Crayton, Isaac Haggins Sr., and Fleet Slaughter.

(Allen E. Cole black and white portrait of Jean Capers, ca. 1880-1930. WRHS Library.)

Michney is gearing up to revitalize the ongoing effort to update African American-related ECH content, after momentum slowed during the past year.  He is currently seeking interested volunteers to participate on the team, either in a consulting role or to update and/or contribute new articles.  To give some sense of the need, the ECH currently has more than 175 entries on African American History, but this represents only about 5 percent of the total.  Black-owned businesses, especially, could be better represented, as the only existing articles are for the Empire Savings & Loan Co., Dunbar Life Insurance Co., the House of Wills, and E. F. Boyd & Son Funeral Home.  Around two dozen of Cleveland’s historic African American church congregations have entries, but many have not been updated since 1996.

(Allen E. Cole black and white portrait of William Boyd, ca. 1949. WRHS Library.)

If you are interested in participating as an ECH African American History content team member, in helping either with written revisions or in a non-writing advisory role, please contact Dr. Michney at:  todd.michney@hsoc.gatech.edu.  Quad A and WRHS members are especially encouraged to volunteer, although all are welcome.  Michney also requests that you send to him any corrections, suggested updates, or proposed new entries, if you have them.

Black Agency & Black Activism | Around Cleveland & Around the World

 

“In the same way that a threat can be just as destructive as an action, “nothing” can be the worst response of all.”  

Robert P. Madison, Architect 
From Designing Victory: A Memoir 

 

“Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.”

–James Baldwin, Writer
  From “Letter to My Nephew”

 

“The nation must listen to what’s being said in the street and understand the impact of living year after year with the feeling of being hunted and unheard if we are to ever recover from the pandemic of racism.”

–The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II
   President and Senior Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach 
   Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival


 

Written by: Dr. Regennia N. Williams, Historian

 

“What’s past is prologue.” Playwright William Shakespeare suggested as much in The Tempest more than 400 years ago, just prior to the beginning of African servitude in what would become the United States of America.  In the first decade of the 20th century, during the era of Jim Crow segregation, philosopher George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”   While both authors are long dead and frequently misquoted, thought leaders throughout the global community are expressing similar sentiments in our time, as they struggle to explain the growing activism and public protests, both peaceful and violent, following the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the knee of Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer.  Many historians–while refusing to accept fate and destiny as acceptable explanations for current events, will admit that one can learn valuable lessons by carefully studying the American past. 

May 29, 2020, was the Friday after Mr. Floyd’s death on Memorial Day and the day before the first round of related peaceful protests and violent unrest in Greater Cleveland, Ohio.  It was also the date that I decided to invite members of the Facebook group for the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society to join me for the     June 1, 2020, launch of a new initiative, “Black Agency and Black Activism, around Cleveland and around the World.”  My goal was to raise awareness about this topic in recent history.

On June 1, 2020, I did, in fact, share a post on Facebook.  That post included a link to a New York Times article with the following headline:  “Two Crises Convulse a Nation: A Pandemic and Police Violence.”   As commentators began to compare the events of 2020 with those of the turbulent decade of the 1960s, I decided that the focus of my “Agency . . . Activism” posts for the first week in June would be the power of the written and spoken word, according to three black men with firsthand knowledge of the 1960s: James Baldwin, Robert P. Madison, and the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II.  An essayist-novelist-playwright, an architect-author, and an activist-educator-pastor, respectively, the words of these men will, no doubt, continue to inspire readers and listeners for some time to come.  I offer the following essay as an open invitation to read, watch, and listen to complete works by and about these men, including the titles mentioned below.

(James Baldwin)

In his December 1, 1962, “A Letter to My Nephew,” James Baldwin—in anticipation of the January 1, 1963, centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the planned August 28, 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” wrote to his teenaged namesake, who was coming of age in a racialized, poverty-stricken environment.  The letter said, in part:

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born [in New York’s Harlem] and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

Baldwin, an openly gay integrationist who never shied away from controversy, went on to suggest that there was nothing wrong with being black and no reason for his nephew to try to be like white men. Instead, the younger James had to do the following:

[A]ccept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.

You don’t be afraid. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man’s definition, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word “integration” means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.

Baldwin subsequently concluded, “[T]he country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early.”

Robert P. Madison is a native Clevelander and current resident of Shaker Heights, Ohio.  Like Baldwin, he  was born in the 1920s and struggled with Depression Era poverty. Madison shared some of his thoughts about what could and should be done in response to racism and racial unrest in his 2019 memoir Designing Victory.

(left to right: Bernard, Julian, and Robert Madison pictured here looking over the model for one of their designs, the United States’ embassy building in Senegal, in 1966.) 

An award-winning architect of international renown, he helped integrate Cleveland Heights, Ohio, through the purchase of land and by designing and building a new home on North Park Boulevard.  He and his family also joined the historically white St. Paul Episcopal Church in that community. In chapter 18 of his book, Madison explained that he “had high hopes for St. Paul and wanted that church to help [him] realize them, particularly given the tone of the times.”  His disappointment, however, is clearly expressed in the following passage:

One Sunday [in 1966], while Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood was still burning, I was particularly eager to hear the message the preacher would deliver.  Would he instruct us on our duty to help promote peace and civility?  Would he work to broaden and unite the community?

No.  Instead, he started talking about a sculpture of the hands of grace some British artist had given the church.  I sat there for an hour, waiting for him to say something about the Hough riots.  Even though the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken from that very pulpit five years earlier, this preacher didn’t say a word about what was going on a few miles away.

Nothing.

So I wrote a letter to the bishop telling him that, while Hough was burning, the preacher was talking about some gift from England.

Nothing.  I never heard a word.  In the same way that a threat can be just as destructive as an action, “nothing” can be the worst response of all. To be true to myself, I knew I had to do something.  So I rescinded my membership in St. Paul’s to return to my old church, St. John A.M.E.  I wasn’t bitter, just disappointed that lasting change takes so long.

In the current season of protests and riots, many religious leaders are refusing to remain silent, including the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II.  Born just two days after the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Rev. Barber has for many years preached, protested on behalf of, and taught about the need for radical change in public and social policy in America, especially as it relates to the lives of poor and low-wealth people. As the Co-Chair of the 2020 Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival, Rev. Barber is viewed by many as being the heir to the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement, since the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated months before the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and March on Washington.  In response to the George Floyd protests and coincident unrest during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Rev. Barber stated:

The nation must listen to what’s being said in the street and understand the impact of living year after year with the feeling of being hunted and unheard if we are to ever recover from the pandemic of racism.

On Monday, June 1, 2020, the Western Reserve Historical Society reaffirmed its partnership “with the African American Archives Auxiliary (AAAA), established fifty years ago to support the African American Archives during a time of intense and important social unrest in Cleveland and the nation.”  This ongoing partnership now includes “In Their Voices: Documenting the African American Experience in Cleveland, An Initiative to Promote Listening, Learning, and Teaching.”  By supporting the collection of first person narratives and other primary documents related to the pandemics that millions of people are talking  about in 2020, it is our hope that secondary works about this period in our history will be enriched as a result of our efforts. 

We are listening, and we hope that you will share your story with us.

Share Your Story

Karamu Theater

Karamu Theater is turning 105 this year! Located in the Fairfax neighborhood, it’s the oldest black theater company in the country, and it’s still one of Cleveland’s premier cultural arts institutions.

Our Karamu Theater collection is one of the most treasured in the African American Archives at the Western Reserve Historical Society. It consists of photographs, correspondence, play scripts, programs, announcements of events, guest books, newspaper clippings, and much more.

Early on Karamu emerged as a premier training ground for talented African Americans like playwrights Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, actress Ruby Dee, and Cleveland artist Charles Sallee . Other stage performers included Minnie Gentry (Terrence Howard’s grandmother), Robert Guillaume, and James Pickens Jr., from Grey’s Anatomy.

Also, A Raisin in the Sun’s first stop off Broadway was at Karamu, and many notable people have attended Karamu performances, such as Carl Stokes, Zelma Watson George, and Muhammad Ali.

Allen E. Cole

Before cellphone cameras and selfies, there was African American photographer Allen E. Cole. Cole was an entrepreneur and a civic minded businessman whose photographs appeared regularly in the Call & Post newspaper, and for many years he was the only black member of the Cleveland Society of Professional Photographers.

Cole migrated to Cleveland in 1917, and worked at the Cleveland Athletic Club for 10 years before opening his home portrait studio, which was impressive for a person of color in that era. It was in his home studio that he photographed Ohio’s first African American judge, Perry B. Jackson.

Because of Cole’s deep civic involvement, his collection has become an invaluable resource for documenting the diverse experiences of Cleveland’s vibrant black community. The collection, some of which can be seen in Digital Cleveland Starts Here, consists of clubs, churches, social and fraternal organizations, weddings, schools, and much more.

Reading, Writing, and Fighting for Justice | Honoring the Legacy of Ida B. Wells Barnett

“We die. That may be the meaning of life.
But we do language.  That may be the measure of our lives.”

From Toni Morrison’s 1993 Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature

 

There is no shortage of books and other resources about African Americans who continue to use the power of the pen in their struggle to bring about a more just society. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, with public libraries and research centers closed to patrons, it is still possible to find many of the publications that inspire readers to think and act in ways that are in keeping with the tenets of democracy. 

This is certainly true when it comes to books about Ida B. Wells Barnett and/or the causes for which she fought.  The daughter of enslaved African Americans in Mississippi, Wells Barnett lived from 1862 to1931, surviving slavery, the Civil War, the overthrow of Reconstruction, and the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic that claimed the lives of several members of her family.  

She went on to become a teacher, and by her own admission Wells Barnett was also a crusader for justice, whose investigative journalism revealed the sordid details about the history of lynching in America and challenged the injustices that allowed mob violence to continue. 

In the wake of the April 2020 publication of the second edition of Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, a new generation of history teachers and students will, no doubt, become more familiar with her story.  With the May 4, 2020 announcement of the posthumous Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board for her journalism, Wells Barnett also joins the ranks of other African American recipients, including Ohio native Toni Morrison, the 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction.

 

To read more on this topic: Click Here.

Athletes, Teachers, and More in the Murrell Family

The notable accomplishments of Lawrence O. Payne include his graduation from John Marshall Law School and his election to Cleveland City Council. Allen E. Cole’s 1935 photograph of the “Payne for Council” women’s basketball team is one of the better-known images in the African American Archives of the Western Reserve Historical Society. What sometimes escapes the notice of history students, however, is the fact that two of the athletes in this photograph were sisters. Jean Murrell Capers (standing on the far left), became a Cleveland teacher, an attorney, and the first African American woman elected to Cleveland City Council. Her sister, Alice Murrell Rose (kneeling, right), also became a teacher. Both were Kentucky natives who migrated to Ohio with other members of the Murrell family in 1919, during the Great Depression, and both attended Cleveland Public Schools.


A professional photographer in Cleveland’s black community during the mid-20th century, Allen Cole documented many African American families through his work. See more of his photographs in Digital Cleveland Starts Here.

Earth Day Then & Now

Happy Earth Day! Cleveland has much to be proud of on this 51st Earth day, and it’s all because of the June 22, 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire.  A month after the fire, Time Magazine published an article on the nation’s environmental problems, and it was that article along with Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes’ successful lobbying for better environmental legislation that helped to ignite national environmental policy change. Following the fire Carl Stokes testified before Congress advocating for greater federal involvement in pollution control, which led to the first Earth Day event on April 22, 1970 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later that same year.

Although Stokes acknowledged the importance of reducing air and water pollution, as Cleveland’s first black mayor he was the first to broaden the focus on how these issues affect low-income and minority communities. Stokes remarked at the first Earth Day event “I am fearful that the priorities on air and water pollution may be at the expense of what the priorities of the country ought to be: proper housing, adequate food and clothing.”  So as we reflect on this Earth Day and continue to champion for the environmental movement, let’s not forget to champion for our urban environments as well.

Honoring the African American Archives Auxiliary’s Founders | Dr. Middleton H. Lambright, Jr.

By Regennia N. Williams, PhD

In recognition of the fact that April is National Minority Health Month, and in light of recent reports of the disproportionately high morbidity and mortality rates among African Americans during the COVID-19 global pandemic, I invite readers to join me in examining the role of African American physicians in the history of the healthcare profession.

I am convinced that the story of Cleveland’s Dr. Middleton H. Lambright Jr. has lessons for the world.  Many biographical sketches of Dr. Lambright mention that this Glenville High School alumnus studied at Tennessee’s Meharry Medical College, was one of the co-founders of Glenville’s Forest City Hospital (1957)—where he became Chief of Surgery; that he served as president of the Metropolitan General Hospital Medical Staff, and was a member of the Board of Trustees of Cleveland State University and President of the local affiliate of the American Medical Association in the 1960s.

None of the biographical statements that I reviewed, however, included the fact that, in 1971, he was one of the co-founders of the group that would later be known as the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Dr. Lambright’s willingness to say yes to the preservation of Black History suggests that he understood the significance of his work with Forest City Hospital, a product of the Black Hospital Movement and an institution located in a neighborhood that was over 90% Black by 1960.

Making a Place for Ourselves: The Black Hospital Movement, 1920-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1995), Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble devotes an entire chapter, “Cleveland: A Black Hospital at Last,” to a discussion of the history of Forest City Hospital.  Having previewed the book, I now look forward to reading the entire volume and learning more about the work of Dr. Middleton H. Lambright, Jr. and Dr. Middleton H. Lambright, Sr., two African American physicians who were active in the Black Hospital Movement in Cleveland.

*For more information of Cleveland’s Glenville Neighborhood and African American sites historical memory, please see:

Frazier, Nishani. Harambee City: The Congress of Racial Equality in Cleveland and the Rise of Black Power Populism.  Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2017.

Leo A. Jackson Papers, Western Reserve Historical Society. The following abstract is  included in the catalog description:

Leo Jackson (1920-1996) was an African American attorney and appeals court judge in Cleveland, Ohio. He was a member of Cleveland’s city council from 1957-1970 where he represented the Glenville neighborhood and Ward 24. The collection consists of affidavits, agendas, applications, budgets, campaign literature, campaign signs, case files, certificates, charts, correspondence, court documents, expense statements, flyers, forms, journal entries, judicial opinions, lists, magazine articles, magazine clippings, magazines/publications, manuals, maps, meeting minutes, memoranda, newsletters, newspaper articles, newspaper clippings, notes, notices, ordinances, petitions, reports, resolutions, rosters, speeches/statements/remarks, syllabi, thesis, and transcripts. The collection also includes seven audiotapes, four film reels, 37 black and white photographs, and 12 color photographs.

 

The finding aid for the Leo Jackson’s Papers (22 containers and 2 oversize folders) is available online HERE.

For information on National Minority Health Month, visit: https://www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov/