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.


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:

Honoring the African American Archives Auxiliary’s Founders | Mrs. A. Grace Lee Mims

By Regennia N. Williams, PhD


From the Glenville High School Library to the Studios of WCLV Radio and Beyond

An oft-quoted passage from Mr. Kermit Pike’s manuscript history of the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society (formerly known as the Black History Archives Project) states:


In 1971, twenty-three people served on the original Black History Archives Project: Russell T. Adrine, Dr. Tillman Bauknight, Myrtle J. Bell, Professor Thomas E. Campbell, Ernest C. Cooper, Russell H. Davis, Lawrence L. Evert, Ralph W. Findley, Rev. Donald G. Jacobs, Ronald M. Johnson, Butler A. Jones, Dr. Middleton H. Lambright, Robert P. Madison, Professor August Meier, Mrs. A. Grace Lee Mims, George A. Moore, Professor Wilbert Nichols, Ralph L. Pruitt, Robert L. Southgate, Dr. Booker T. Tall, John B. Turner, William O. Walker, and Harvey M. Williamson.


At least two of the group’s founders had known each other for many years.  Mrs. A. Grace Lee Mims and Mr. Robert P. Madison were, in fact, fictive kin—with family ties that linked them to their ancestors’ experiences in rural Snow Hill, Alabama, Mims’ birthplace.


At the age of 15, Madison’s father, Mr. Robert J. Madison, enrolled in the Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute, a much-needed private boarding school for African Americans, because Alabama did not provide education for Black children beyond the eighth grade.  Mims’ maternal grandfather, William J. Edwards, was the founder of the school.  A generation later, she, too, would attend Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute.


In the preface for his 1918 publication, Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt, Edwards described the motivation for both the establishment of the school and the writing of the book:


In bringing this book before the public, it is my hope that the friends of the Snow Hill School and all who are interested in Negro Education may become more familiar with the problems and difficulties that confront those who labor for the future of a race. I have had to endure endless hardships during these twenty-five years, in order that thousands of poor negro youths might receive an industrial education, – boys and girls who might have gone into that demoralized class that is a disgrace to any people and that these friends may continue their interest in not only Snow Hill but all the schools of the South that are seeking to make better citizens of our people. I also hope that the interest may be sustained until the State and Nation realize that it is profitable to educate the black child as well as the white.


Mims’ bandleader and college professor father, her pianist mother, and her six musically inclined siblings all seem to have valued education as highly as did Edwards. After graduating valedictorian from Snow Hill Institute, Mims earned her undergraduate degree at Virginia’s Hampton Institute, where she met her future husband, Howard A. Mims.  When she travelled to Cleveland, Ohio to pursue her Masters in Library Science at Western Reserve University, she benefited greatly from the hospitality of her extended family members, the Madisons.


After living and working for a time in Michigan, Dr. Howard A. Mims and Mrs. A. Grace Lee Mims settled permanently in Cleveland, where she worked for the Cleveland Public Library, and, by the 1960s, at Glenville High School—where she built an extensive Black Studies collection, coordinated a Black Arts Festival, designed a lecture course on Black history and culture, and continued to pursue a career as a classically-trained vocalist who never hesitated to perform the music of Black Americans, including jazz and spirituals.


The recipient of numerous awards and honors, including an honorary doctorate from Cleveland State University, Mims is also known for her service on the boards of numerous arts organizations, her work as a voice faculty member at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, and her programming activities at WCLV Radio, where she hosted “The Black Arts” for more than 40 years.  Her good friend Robert P. Madison was a long-time program sponsor.


In the wake of Mims’ passing on October 4, 2019, I learned that Mr. Madison had asked staff members at WCLV about the possibility of obtaining a recording of a Black Arts program for which he served as a special guest. For a while it seemed that, with very little in the way of identifying information, including the programs theme and broadcast date, no one at radio station would be able to find that recording.  Nevertheless, as one of Mims’ former students, I continued to reach out to family members, letting them know that I was interested in obtaining the Madison interview and anything else related to my teacher’s work in Cleveland.


On the evening of Saturday, February 22, 2020, the family member who is the executor of Dr. A. Grace Lee Mims’ estate invited me to come to her East Cleveland home to pick up a small box of arts-related material that might be of some value. Inside, among the approximately two-dozen recordings was a tape labeled “1/98 Black Arts, Leontyne Price w/ Robert Madison Interview.”


Listening to that January 7, 1998, recording at the Cleveland Institute of Music was almost like being in the same room with two good friends who really loved each other and their work.  Someday soon, I hope to share digital copies of this recording with members of the Madison family and others.


Dr. A. Grace Lee Mims was an incredible educator and ambassador for Black history and culture, and we were blessed to have her with us for 89 wonderful years.

Dr. Shirley Smith Seaton: A Biography

By Regennia N. Williams, PhD

To say that Dr. Shirley Smith Seaton is “Famous in the Neighborhood and Beyond” would be an understatement. However, that is how members of the African American Archives Auxiliary (AAAA or Quad A) of the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) described her in 2015. Today, there is abundant evidence to suggest that this Cleveland, Ohio native, long-time resident of the city’s Fairfax neighborhood, and award-winning educator and administrator is even more “famous” now than she was in the past.

Dr. Shirley Smith Seaton (right) and Dr. Regennia N. Williams at the Cleveland History Center, c.2008. (Photo courtesy of Regennia N. Williams.)

Dr. Seaton is a product of the Cleveland Public Schools. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from Howard University, a graduate degree in education from Case Western Reserve University, a doctorate in education from the University of Akron, and a certificate in Chinese history and culture from Beijing Normal University. Dr. Seaton served as an instructor and administrator at the K-12 and post-secondary levels, and she was the Director of Social Studies for the Cleveland Public Schools. Through her work with Cleveland’s WEWS and WVIZ television stations, parents, students, and teachers throughout the region also benefitted from her distance learning activities.

As a Fulbright alumna, philanthropist, and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and the Coalition of 100 Black Women (Greater Cleveland), Inc., she mentored and helped dozens of students and emerging scholars achieve their educational and career goals, and she supported family members as a wife, mother, and grandmother. Dr. Seaton is a former WRHS board member and a former Quad A trustee.

Selected Bibliography

Aplin, Norita, Shirley Seaton, Juanita Storey. The Negro American: His Role, His Quest. Cleveland: Cleveland Public Schools, 1968.

African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Printed
Program for “Famous in the Neighborhood and Beyond,” Saturday, September 19, 2015. Personal Archives of Regennia N. Williams.

Ross, Lawrence C. The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. New York: Dafina, 2019.

Seaton, Shirley Smith. “A Study of Rapport among Elementary Teachers Reassigned and Not Reassigned to Meet Court-Ordered Desegregation in the Public Schools of Cleveland, Ohio.” EdD diss. University of Akron, 1981.