Learning from a Cleveland Legend: A Conversation with Leon Bibb

By Todd Michney, Ph.D.

Journalist Leon Bibb recently spoke to me about his family roots, his youth growing up in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, and where African Americans stand in the aftermath of the Trump presidency. Bibb studied journalism at Bowling Green State University, served with distinction in Vietnam (winning a Bronze Star), and worked at the Plain Dealer before starting a storied television career. In 1972 with WCMH in Columbus, he became the first Black news anchor in Ohio. In 1979 Bibb moved back to his hometown to join WKYC, and from 1995-2017 he anchored for WEWS, where he continues as a commentator. Bibb is a longtime resident of Shaker Heights.


Mr. Bibb began by explaining how he came to be born in Alabama in 1944: although his parents arrived in Cleveland in 1940, his mother returned to her ancestral home to give birth to him when his father, who worked for the U.S. Navy Department, was sent to serve in World War II. After initially living with his father’s relatives on East 86th Street in Cedar-Central, Bibb’s parents moved the family in 1947 onto Parkgate Avenue in Glenville. “You’re gonna pay big time to live out there,” their relatives told his father, “You’re going out to the Gold Coast and it’s expensive.” While still a predominantly Jewish area, Glenville was the city’s most up-and-coming Black middle-class neighborhood. His parents went in together on a duplex house with his father’s sister and her husband who was also a veteran; they were attracted by the stately Miles Standish Elementary School across the street and the Cultural Gardens at the end of the block. “We were surrounded by the Black professionals,” Bibb told me, “doctors, an architect, people who owned funeral homes, dentists, teachers, and assistant principals of schools.” As for Glenville in the 1950s, he joked, “if you could not find it on East 105th Street, you probably could live without it.” There were movie theaters, a new car showroom, hat and shoe stores, delicatessens, grocery stores and markets, hardware stores, pharmacies, soda shops and more. There was Scatter’s Barbecue, and nightclubs like the Tijuana and Café Society where the country’s biggest jazz bands stopped on tour. He watched the neighborhood’s demographics shift as he advanced to Empire Junior High School and then Glenville High School; only five white students remained by the time he graduated in 1962. “It didn’t worry me too much,” he recalled, because the people who were moving in were Black people who seemed to be very nice, and we were all very nice.”


“I don’t know how my childhood could be better,” Bibb emphasized. He and his friends spent their time playing Little League baseball at Gordon Park, where they named their teams after the star Cleveland Indians players: the “Colavitos,” “Helds,” and “Dobys.” The City’s Recreation Department and Board of Education kept the playground at Miles Standish open in the summer, even sponsoring crafts classes and other activities; Bibb learned to play the ukulele. Twice a summer the Show Wagon would perform for kids and parents alike, with a band or quartet, baton twirlers, maybe a comedian or ventriloquist. Bibb and his friends even organized track meets for a friendly competition with nearby Pierpont Avenue: “We would have a 100-yard dash, a 50-yard dash; we would have the 200-yard dash, the mile bicycle run. We would have a stopwatch and keep records – and we did this all by ourselves, there were no adults involved.” He felt he had been largely shielded from the hurts of racism, aside from a handful of negative encounters with kids from the Sowinski area, a Polish enclave on the other side of Rockefeller Park.


Mr. Bibb recalled family trips to visit relatives down South, or for funerals, and how his parents instructed him and his sister that they would be avoiding gas stops or bathroom breaks after crossing the Ohio River. On one trip around the time Emmett Till was murdered, his father had made a tense but successful stop in Kentucky for Pepsi-Colas to go. “I know it was hard, because you want your kids to know that they’ve got rights. But they also wanted their son to not be murdered,” he reflected on his parents’ dilemma. “All that is part of what it takes to survive in America and be Black,” he noted in referring to the organizations African Americans have built for self-advancement, notably fraternities and sororities which can now count Vice President Kamala Harris among their members. “Since 1619, we’ve been a strong people who just don’t go away; our strength is in our stick-to-it-iveness, our pursuit of education and dealing with the racism which is always out there.”


Todd M. Michney is a native Clevelander who teaches at Georgia Tech. He is the author of Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Photos: 1-Leon Bibb in 4th Grade, early to mid-1950s. 2-Leon Bibb and his cousin Allen Moreland on Parkgate Avenue. 3-Leon Bibb’s father (Leon Bibb, Sr.) with his sister Shirley in front of the Bibb home at 9122 Parkgate Avenue.


Women Making History | Zelma Watson George

Zelma Watson GeorgeZelma Watson George became a symbol of African American achievement in several fields ranging from operatic diva to United Nations diplomat. After moving to Chicago with her family she earned a sociology degree from the Univ. of Chicago and studied voice at the American Conservatory of Music. Later she added advanced degrees in personnel administration and sociology from New York University.

Her journey would bring her to Cleveland to examine the John G. White Collection of the Cleveland Public Library. She would go on to write a musical drama based upon her research, “Chariot’s A’Comin!”, which was telecast by WEWS-TV in 1949. That year Zelma assumed the title role in Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera, The Medium, at Karamu Theater. She was selected by Menotti himself to repeat her triumph in an off-Broadway revival of the work. As an African American appearing in a role not written for one per se she was likely New York’s first example of non-traditional casting.

In the 1950s Zelma served on several government committees at the national level, culminating in a world lecture tour as good-will ambassador and an appointment as U.S. alternate delegate to the United Nations General Assembly (1960-61). From 1966-74 she served as director of the Cleveland Job Corps. Following her retirement and the death of her husband, she lectured, wrote, and taught at Cuyahoga Community College.

Women Making History | Fannie Lewis

Fannie Lewis

Fannie Lewis earned her tough as nails reputation as a tireless leader and dedicated public servant who worked hard to improve conditions in not only her own ward, but also the city of Cleveland.

Fannie Lewis was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but her heart was in Ward 7 of Cleveland, which she represented for almost 30 years. Lewis first gained public attention when she was photographed talking to National Guard troops after the Hough riots. After the riots Lewis became a recruiter for Neighborhood Youth Corps, and was eventually promoted to recruitment coordinator. Wanting to take a more active role in her community, Lewis ran for City Council in 1979, and began her first term as councilwoman in 1980. During her time in office she advocated for voting rights, the Cleveland school voucher program, the construction of new expensive homes in the Hough area known as “Fannie’s Mansions”, and she was also responsible for the “Fannie Lewis Law” which required that city residents make up at least 20 percent of the work force on city construction contracts that were above $100,000. Serving for 28 years, Lewis is the longest-serving female council member in the history of Cleveland, and was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996.

Women Making History | Rowena Jelliffe

Rowena Jelliffe and Karamu House

The dream of Rowena Jelliffe was to build a center where people of different ethnic cultures could find common cause

coupled with hard work materialized into the establishment of Karamu House, a nationally recognized interracial community center. Mrs. Jelliffe, born in 1892 in New Albion, Illinois. It was her early upbringing that Mrs. Jelliffe often credited for giving her a sense of dedication to the ideals of gender and racial equality. She came to Ohio in 1910 to attend Oberlin College, where she was the president of the Oberlin Women’s Suffrage League and met her future husband, Russell, who also campaigned for women’s rights.

After marrying in 1915, the Jelliffes moved to Cleveland where they were hired by the Second Presbyterian Church to conduct neighborhood improvement projects. They bought two houses and named them Playhouse Settlement. The settlement welcomed all races and educated the neighborhood residents through art. The Gilpin Players, the first theater group, was started in 1920, and in 1927 the theater opened. The theater was called Karamu after the Swahili word that means a place of joyful meeting. After moving in 1950, the name of the settlement was changed to Karamu House. Through the Jelliffes’ work, Karamu House prospered and expanded its programs.

Besides working on projects related to Karamu House, the Jelliffes were also involved in the establishment of important civic welfare organizations such as the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Association, the Community Relations Board, and the Cleveland Urban League. They were delegates to the 1921 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention in Atlanta and they attended the Pan-African Congress in Paris. In 1963, the Jelliffes retired from Karamu House and spent much of the 1960’s campaigning for civil rights. After her husband’s death in 1980, Mrs. Jelliffe served on the boards of the East Cleveland Theater and the Fine Arts Association of Willoughby

Women Making History | Lethia Cousins Fleming

lethia fleming

Lethia Cousins Fleming was many things throughout her life; campaign organizer, women’s and civil rights activist,wife, and politician, to name a few. Although Mrs. Fleming was most well known for her work in politics, both locally and nationally, she was also a twenty-year employee of the Cuyahoga County Child Welfare Board where she worked following an unsuccessful bid for her husband’s city council seat in 1929.

Born in Tazewell, Virginia in 1876 to James Archibald and Fannie Taylor Cousins, Mrs. Fleming was educated in Ironton, Ohio and later at Morristown College in Tennessee. Following college, she returned to her home state where she was a suffragist and taught for twenty years, until her marriage to Thomas Wallace Fleming in 1912.

After their marriage, the couple moved to Cleveland, where Thomas, a lawyer, would later become the city’s first African-American councilman. Only two years after the move, Mrs. Fleming became the chairwoman of the Board of Lady Managers at the Cleveland Home for Aged Colored People (later the Eliza Bryant Center) and was also part of many national organizations. She was a charter member of the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, the Traveler’s Aid Society, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Cleveland Branch). An ardent supporter of the Phillis Wheatley Association (PWA), her fundraising efforts led to the purchase of the first PWA building.

Though she did not win her husband’s city council seat after his imprisonment, Mrs. Cousins was active in politics on a national and local level. She worked on galvanizing support among African-American women for three Republican presidential candidates: Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, and Alfred M. Landon. She chaired the executive board of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and served as president of its Ohio federation. She served on the executive board for the National Association of Colored Women and the National Council of Negro Women, in addition to serving as president of the National Association of Republican Women and executive director of the Republican Colored Women organization.

Then & Now | Amanda Wicker

Students at the Clarke School of Dressmaking and Fashion Design

Contributed by Patty Edmonson, WRHS’s Museum Advisory Council Curator of Costume & Textiles

The Hunt family lived in Hancock and Washington Counties, in Georgia, at the turn of the 20th century. In 1900, Henry Hunt farmed and his wife Barbara cared for their five (eventually eight) children, including Amanda, born March 5, 1894. Mandy, as she was then called, became increasingly close with her mother and siblings after her father died in the following decade; as an adult, she lived with brothers Julian and Albert at various times. Perhaps because her parents could neither read or write, Amanda was driven to pursue her own education and career at Tuskegee Institute (now University), and as an apprentice to Addie Clarke in Washington D.C. Around 1924, Amanda married fellow Georgian McDuffie Wicker. The couple lived briefly in Savannah, Georgia before moving to Cleveland where Amanda started her dressmaking business and McDuffie worked as a Barber. The Wickers were hardly unusual in their move north, and were part of what is known as the first Great Migration. Black rural southerners sought opportunities in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. The first wave of migration began around 1916, when cities experienced shortages of industrial laborers during World War I. Amanda Wicker was a member of Cleveland’s “Georgia Club,” which provided southerners a place to connect and celebrate their Georgian heritage. Clevelanders from other southern states organized similar clubs. By 1936, approximately 15,000 Georgians lived here in Cleveland. Although Amanda’s mother remained in Sandersville, Georgia, she visited her daughter frequently.

After 1925, Amanda operated the Clarke School of Dressmaking and Fashion Design from her home on Cedar Avenue. During the late 1920s the Wickers lived on Cedar Avenue, and after McDuffie’s 1929 death Amanda continued to live and work at various addresses along Cedar between East 89th and 95th Streets. [Map] Perhaps the biggest landmark in her neighborhood was, and still is, the Antioch Baptist Church at the corner of Cedar and East 89th Street. Amanda was integral to the church; she served as a charter member of the Beehive Bible Class, was a member of the Cora Boyd Mission Circle, the Fifty-Plus Club, and the Ta-Wa-Si- Club. At the end of her life she lived in Antioch Towers senior apartments.

Located primarily at 8911 and 9202 Cedar Avenue, the Clarke School offered classes for this predominantly African American neighborhood until the 1980s. Although anyone could take classes, many pupils were students from Central High School, which, along with Wicker, created an annual student fashion show beginning in 1941. The accompanying publication, called The Book of Gold, helped raise funds for student scholarships. Wicker and her instructors taught drawing, pattern drafting, tailoring, millinery, and other course. The lay person could sign up for a course to revamp their own wardrobe, but her focus was on preparing young people for the garment industry. Students could learn how to operate industrial machinery and other skills related to mass production. In 1948 the school became G. I. approved, which meant that veterans enrolled and changed the makeup of the student body for a time. Amanda worked with the Veteran’s Administration liaisons to spread awareness of the program for Black veterans. Beyond running a school and teaching the trade, Amanda Wicker worked with personal clients and served as the second vice president of Cleveland’s chapter of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, operated for and by Black designers.


dresses from the Clarke School of Dressmaking and Fashion Design


Amanda Wicker impacted Cleveland through her civic work of providing important skills to young people and actively engaging her neighborhood. In June of 2021, the Cleveland History Center will open an exhibit about Wicker and her work. The exhibit will share, for the first time, 14 garments made by Amanda, as well as the rich photographic archive of the school, and thus a community. Visitors will come away inspired by the story of a self-made Black woman who lifted those around her.


Then & Now | Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Cleveland 

Contributed by John J. Grabowski, Ph.D., Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications, using resources from WRHS’s African American Archives.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Cleveland on numerous occasions.   He first came to the city on August 7, 1956. At that time he was the leader of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and he reported on it before the National Negro Funeral Directors Convention held at the Hollenden House Hotel.

During the 1960s his visits became more frequent. He spoke at a number of churches, including Antioch Baptist, St. Paul’s Episcopal in Cleveland Heights, and Cory Methodist Church.   When he appeared at Cory on May 14, 1963, a crowd of 10,000 to 14,000 lined the streets as he arrived.   The church could only seat 5,000, so extra appearances were soon set up.   While many of these visits focused on Civil Rights actions in the South, by the mid-1960s his appearance in Cleveland focused on issues in the city. In 1964, a week after winning the Nobel Peace Prize he came to Cleveland to lead a “march on the ballot box”. Other visits that year continued a focus on voter registration.

He returned to Cleveland a number of times in 1967 and these visits focused again on local issues relating to Civil Rights, the treatment of the Black community, and again voter registration.   He played an important role in getting voters to register during Carl Stokes’ mayoral campaign that year.   His last appearance that year in the city took place on December 16 when he participated in a debate with James C. Davis, President of the Cleveland Bar Association on the topic of civil disobedience.

In 1968 he returned to speak to a small group on the east side early in the year.   He was scheduled to return to the city on April 10th.   That would not occur – he was assassinated on April 4th. Robert F. Kennedy, who was scheduled to speak at the Cleveland City Club the following day did so, with great sadness.   His speech was titled “On the Mindless Menace of Violence” and within his prepared remarks he noted “This is a time of shame and sorrow” and also focused on the issues facing poor people in the United States, referring to that situation as “another kind of violence” which resulted in “the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books, and heat in the winter.”   In two months Kennedy would also be the victim of an assassin.

The Western Reserve Historical Society is fortunate to have in its collections a number of images of Dr. King during his visits to Cleveland. Many of them were taken by Max Schoenfeld , a labor, peace and Civil Rights activist.   He was also a member of the executive board of the United Auto Workers Local 45.   His large collection of negatives document not only Dr. King’s visit, but also protests in Cleveland led by the United Freedom Movement. Maintained in the Society’s secure negative vault, they form an extraordinary document of the 1960s a time of change that has yet to see its complete fulfillment.

Then & Now | Martin Luther King, Jr.

Contributed by Patrice Hamiter, African American History Archivist, using resources from WRHS’s African American Archives.

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day seems particularly poignant against the backdrop of recent events that seem to chip away at the “dream“ that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned. This is currently evidenced by the insurrection on our nation’s capital, the rise of racist subversive groups, voter suppression, the ravaging effects of the coronavirus on black communities, police killings of black men and women, and violent protests and riots.

No one can argue the significance of Dr.’s King’s legacy; living a life of activism that has generated monumental strides for equality, and reach far beyond the civil rights movement. In just over a decade he accomplished what few could in a lifetime, but it was only the beginning.  We continue to face the challenge of gaining civil rights for all, and like Dr. King, we have to understand the impact of working together to push for one common goal.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and an iconic activist who led marches and protests for black people’s civil rights, right to vote, desegregation, and labor rights. One of his first and most notable acts of activism was leading the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. When on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white a man on a city bus.

The boycott lasted for 385 days, and became so intense that Dr. King was arrested and his home was bombed. The boycott ended on December 20, 1956 and resulted in the United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses. The boycott transformed Dr. King into a recognizable activist and leader during the civil rights era, and in 1957 he rose to national prominence by becoming the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The SCLC practiced nonviolent protest tactics, and though there were many stand-offs with segregationists and police that sometimes turned violent, Dr. King the son of a minister, remained committed to advancing civil rights through non-violence and civil disobedience. He was inspired by his religious beliefs, and the non-violent activism of Mahatma Gandhi. Ironically, the FBI labeled Dr. King a radical, and made him the object of many investigations trying to link him to communism.

As the head of the SCLC, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most visible spokesperson in the civil rights movement.  In addition to helping organize non-violent protests, he was arrested and jailed for ignoring an Alabama state court injunction against demonstrating. It was during this time in jail that he penned his now famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was in defense of non-violent resistance to racism. Later that year, four young African American girls died in a racially motivated church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Dr. King delivered the eulogy for three of the slain girls.

In 1963 Dr. King helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or as it’s most commonly known, the “March on Washington.” The march made specific demands to help end racial segregation in public schools, address civil rights legislation, employment discrimination, and protection of civil rights workers from police brutality.

The march was criticized because it was originally conceived as a forum to air grievances about the desperate condition of southern blacks and to publicly denounce the federal government’s failure to safeguard the rights and safety of civil rights workers and blacks. Some felt that organizers gave into pressure, and criticized the march as being too sanitized. Malcolm X dubbed the march the “Farce on Washington”, and the Nation of Islam forbade its members from attending the march.

Despite the tensions and criticisms, at the time the march was the largest gathering of protesters in Washington, D.C.’s history. With more than 200,000 people attending the peaceful event, Dr. King delivered his now famous I have a dream speech. The march, along with Dr. King’s speech, which is regarded as one of the finest in the history of American oratory, helped to put civil rights reform at the forefront of the United States agenda, and facilitated passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Dr. King’s non-violent approach was not universally accepted by some members of the black community who were angry at the violence against blacks.  Malcolm X, accused Dr. King of working “to keep Negroes defenseless in the face of an attack.” And black psychologist Kenneth Clark called the philosophy of loving one’s enemy “psychologically burdensome.” Nevertheless, on October 14, 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to achieving racial equality through nonviolent actions, and his activism and leadership in the Civil Rights movement.

In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. led marches in Selma, Alabama to call attention to it’s history of using violence to prevent African Americans from voting.  Due to the marches, seven months later President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a voting rights bill to Congress that would expand the 14th and 15th amendments.  The bill banned race based restrictions, making discriminatory voting practices illegal. It was quickly adopted by Congress and signed into law as the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, and is considered to be one of the most far-reaching pieces of Civil Rights legislation.

Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968 during a trip to Memphis, Tennessee to support striking sanitation workers, but he didn’t die in vain.  There has been progress and people of color contribute to almost every facet of society. More African Americans have professional and political positions, access to higher educational opportunities, the black middle class has grown, there are more black millionaires, and more persons of color have significant roles in the television and movie industry. Among the greatest accomplishments was the election of Barack Hussein Obama in 2008, as the first African-American President of the United States.

But, despite these strides, African American still face inequalities which prevent them from assuming their rightful place in this country, a country they built.  Outright racism, policies that don’t effectively address systemic racism, and a complete lack of attention to important issues continue to create large disparities within education, health-care, employment, and fair treatment within the justice system.

This only means we have more work to do. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only federal holiday appointed as a national day of service to motivate and inspire everyone to volunteer to help improve their communities.  This is a creed that all Americans should be striving for and carrying with them every day to honor Dr. King and his legacy, so that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can be within every American’s reach.


Cellist Donald White: Making History While Making Music

Written by Dianna White-Gould
Guest Contributor

Cellist Donald White and his wife Dolores White, a pianist, composer, and educator.

Monday, October 7, 1957, was the day Donald White, a young African American cellist, had envisioned for a lifetime. He was on his way to take his seat in the cello section of the internationally acclaimed Cleveland Orchestra in Cleveland, Ohio. The orchestra was celebrating its 40th anniversary and had just returned from a triumphant European tour. This was a childhood dream of his when he was growing up in Richmond, Indiana. Now he was going to be joining one of the greatest symphony orchestras in America at a very significant time in history, the Civil Rights Era.

Before 1957, there were no African-Americans hired as full-time members of the five major symphony orchestras. White’s hiring was a historic moment in the midst of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. His tenure in the orchestra spanned from 1957 – 1995. He has the distinction of being the longest-serving African American member of one of the top five orchestras.

White was a native of Richmond, Indiana and the middle child of his family’s seven children. He started playing cello when he was 16, and he was drafted into the Navy in 1943. After leaving the Navy, he earned a music degree at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Following a successful audition with Maestro George Szell, White was invited to join the Cleveland Orchestra.

Darrow White and Dianna White-Gould perform in Reinberger Chamber Hall, Severance Hall.

Donald White and his wife, pianist, composer, and educator Dolores White, lived in Cleveland and raised two children, both musicians. Dianna is a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory where she studied piano and music education. She went on to obtain a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. She has frequently performed the works of her mother and other African American composers, including Hale Smith and H. Leslie Adams from Cleveland, Ohio. She is on the faculty of Tri-C and The Music Settlement and is the vocal director at Dike School of the Arts. Darrow is a Heights High School graduate and Hall of Fame Member from 1977 for Outstanding Musician. He went on to graduate from Yale University,

Hartt School of Music, and Boston University and has a Doctorate in Music Education. He works as an educator in Virginia.

Cover of the program for a Memorial Tribute Concert to cellist Donald White. (Praying Grounds Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University.)

Zephrine Burks Shares Her Story | Faith, Family, and Fashion Series

Part II in the Faith, Family, and Fashion Series for
The WRHS “Share Your Story” COVID-19 Digital Collecting Initiative
Tonya Byous, M.Ed., Interviewer and First Lady of the Philippi Missionary Baptist Church
Regennia N. Williams, PhD, Scholar-Consultant

“Even though times have changed, I still believe in giving God your best with your dress.”  –Zephrine Burks

Rev. Samuel Burks and Mrs. Zephrine Burks are pictured here with their children, c. 1961.

Mrs. Zephrine Burks can point with pride to her many accomplishments as a musician, educator, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and former First Lady of her church. At the age of 90, Burks is especially proud of the fact that faith, family, and fashion consciousness continue to play important roles in her daily life, even in the era of COVID-19 and social distancing.  

Born in Cleveland in 1930 to Sadie Mae and William Buchannan, Zephrine was named after her mother’s music teacher in Tuskegee, Alabama, her parents’ birthplace.  Like her mother and namesake, she also loved music.  In describing her introduction to the formal study of music, she stated: 

Rev. Thomas Lee, the Pastor of Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, announced that any parent who wanted their children to take piano lessons could bring them down to the church, where a professional music teacher would offer lessons, and the church would pay for the lessons.  Fifteen students started, and two students completed the course of study. I was one of the students who finished the program.

Her piano lessons began in 1937, when she was seven years old.  At the age of nine, she began to play for the Sunday School at Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, and she still has fond memories of growing up in the church:

I was the only child, and my mother saw to it that I was always well dressed.  When we were getting ready for church, my mother would say, “Always give God your best,” and she would dress me accordingly.  I continued in that same manner with my children and grandchildren.  

Zephrine attended Cleveland Public Schools, graduating in 1949, the same year in which she married Samuel Burks.  After her marriage, she followed her husband to and played piano for her father-in-law’s church, St. Joseph Missionary Baptist Church, and Rev. William D. Burks was Pastor. When her husband became pastor of St. Joseph Missionary Baptist Church, which was later renamed Olive Grove Missionary Baptist Church; Zephrine became the First Lady of that congregation.  

According to Zephrine, she never wanted a preacher for a husband.  As she put it, 

When Rev. William Burks announced that his son Samuel Burks had accepted the call to ministry, the church clapped, and I cried. I went home and told my mother, and she said, “Listen to me, if the Lord called him, you pray and ask the Lord to make you the minister’s wife that He would have you to be.  Encourage him [your husband], and the Lord will bless both of you.” It was my mother who encouraged me, and I followed her advice.

After becoming a member of the local Minsters’ Wives Club, the women who inspired her most were Clara Banks and Anna Chatman, First Lady of the Original Harvest Baptist Church, who was fond of saying, “Zephrine you can do it!”  At the Olive Grove Missionary Baptist Church, First Lady Zephrine Burks also became the Minister of Music and a Sunday School teacher. Pastor and First Lady Burks would raise six children while working as servant-leaders in the church, and all of the children studied music.

First Lady Zephrine Burks and Rev. Samuel Burks (center) and their six children.

As a 19-year-old, Zephrine Burks had joined the Cleveland Baptist Pastors’ Wives Club, and she served as the secretary for that organization when Sadie Allen was the president.  Under the presidency of Anna Chatman, the name of the group was changed to Cleveland Baptist Ministers and Pastors’ Wives. Today, Burks serves as the chapter vice president.  Burks also served as president of the Calvary Hill Baptist District Association Women’s Auxiliary for over 20 years. In describing her various leadership roles, she said,

Whatever I did in the church, at the District level and with Ministers’ Wives, I did it all because of my love for Christ. It was important to me that my children and grandchildren serve the Lord with the same enthusiasm and adoration! I tried my best to be an example for all of them –and the members of the church that my husband and I led.

Even though times have changed, I still believe in giving God your best with your dress. I often tell young Christian women going to church [and wearing short dresses and skirts] to, “Tell your shoes to give a party and invite your dress down!”

Mrs. Zephrine Burks is shown her with her granddaughter (and interviewer) Tonya Byous, First Lady of Cleveland’s Philippi Missionary Baptist Church.

Find out more about the Western Reserve Historical Society’s “Share Your Story” COVID-19 Digital Collecting Initiative HERE.



Then & Now | African American Cultural Garden

By Patrice Hamiter, African American History Archivist

It was in 1969 that Booker Tall, a Cuyahoga Community College professor and one of the founders of the African American Archives at WRHS, began what turned out to be an eight-year long labor of love to claim a spot for the African American Cultural Garden.

Tall wanted the garden to live within the Cleveland Cultural Gardens grounds. The grounds, which are located within the 276 acres of  Rockefeller Park, is a collection of public gardens situated along East Boulevard & Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Each of the gardens celebrate a different ethnic group who has contributed to the heritage of Cleveland and of our country.

So, the Association of African American Cultural Gardens, which included Mr. Tall, along with Clarence Fitch, Carol Bugg, Bob Render, Glen Brackens, and the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life & History set out to bring an African American Cultural garden to the Cleveland Cultural Garden grounds. They planned to accomplish this by way of a media campaign throughout the city of Cleveland.

As a result, on October 23, 1977, the African American Cultural Garden (or the Afro-American Cultural Garden as it was called then) was dedicated to a four-acre site by then-Mayor George Voinovich. The site, located on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive at the St. Clair exit, is where Tall stood before a crowd of five-hundred and declared the four-acre area the future site of the African American Cultural Garden.

At the time of the dedication, the Association of African American Cultural Gardens (AAACG) had planned to honor six notable African Americans: Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Garrett Morgan Sr., inventor and founder of the Cleveland Call & Post newspaper; Jesse Owens, the 1936 Olympic gold medalist; John P. Green, an elected official who introduced the bill that made Labor Day a holiday in Ohio; Jane Edna Hunter, who established the Phillis Wheatley Association to assist unmarried black women; and Langston Hughes, a poet and a playwright who was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

But unfortunately, this version of the garden never came to pass; soon after the dedication, Booker Tall passed away. Then, not long after that, the AAACG became inactive, interest waned, and the construction of the African American Cultural Garden lay mostly untouched.

Then around 2003, there was renewed interest in completing the garden. It was spearheaded by the late Cordell Edge, who was a longtime Glenville resident. He was appointed to engage a committee to cultivate and develop the African American Cultural Garden.

Due to Mr. Edge’s work, interest in the garden gained momentum, and in 2012, the AAACG secured its non-profit status and elected Carl S. Ewing as its new president. Mr. Ewing worked with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who organized a task force to develop and implement a plan for the garden.

Architect W. Daniel Bickerstaff II, of Ubiquitous Design, LTD., was commissioned to design the African American Cultural Garden, and raise funds to complete the first phase of the three-phase design. According to the AAACG website, The African American Garden will be designed as the Past, Present, and Future Pavilions.

In 2016 ground was broken on the first major installation of the garden, the “Past Pavillion”. The concept of the Past Pavilion is to translate the experience of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It represents the corridors and dungeons in the slave castles along the western coast of Africa.

The Pavilion also includes an Infinity Fountain that depicts the illusion of the tranquility of the Atlantic Ocean as seen through the Pavilion’s “Doorway of No Return”. The “Doorway” is a sandstone structure that portrays the notion of unknown transition. The Middle Passage of the Past Pavilion alludes to the sense of going down into the bowels of the slave ships.

With the first phase now completed, Booker Tall’s journey that started over 40 years ago is ongoing. Currently, AAACG is continuing its fundraising efforts to secure the $2.6 million dollars needed to complete Phases Two and Three of the garden.

If you’d like to learn more about the African American Cultural Garden, please CLICK HERE. You can also visit http://aaacg.org/. To learn more about the garden’s design, this video of architect Daniel Bickerstaff explains more about his concept at the 2016 Juneteenth celebration and ribbon-ceremony in the African American Cultural Garden: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZtX798LvU4.

Then & Now | Stephanie Tubbs Jones

Stephanie Tubbs Jones was the first African American woman from Ohio elected to the United States House of Representatives, and served the state’s eleventh congressional district for nearly ten years.

Tubbs Jones was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Mary Looney Tubbs, a factory worker, and Andrew Tubbs, an airline porter at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. She was the youngest of three daughters, all of whom were raised in the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland.

Tubbs graduated from Collinwood High School with acclaim and began college at Case Western Reserve University in its first year of federation, 1967. At CWRU, Stephanie Tubbs Jones founded the African-American Students’ Association (now the African American Society). Jones earned her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and a minor in psychology in the spring of 1971. She was in Delta Sigma Theta, a predominantly black women’s sorority founded in 1913. In 1974 Tubbs Jones graduated from CWRU School of Law with a Juris Doctor (J.D.).

From 1976 until 1979 Tubbs Jones worked as the assistant prosecutor of Cuyahoga County and was elected as a judge for the Cleveland Municipal Court in 1981. Tubbs Jones was appointed to the Cuyahoga County court of common pleas in 1983 by Ohio Governor Richard Celeste. Tubbs Jones served there for eight years before being appointed prosecutor for Cuyahoga County.

Tubbs Jones was named Chief Prosecutor of Cuyahoga County in 1991. She was the first African American prosecutor in Ohio, as well as one of the first African American women to become the prosecutor of a major American city.

In 1998 Stephanie Tubbs Jones ran to replace Cleveland’s 11th district Congressman of 30 years, Louis Stokes. Tubbs Jones ran on a platform of political experience and community service, winning the Democratic nomination and continuing on to win the general election with more than 80% of the vote. She was re-elected four times and served in congress until her death in 2008.

In her first year as a congresswoman, Tubbs Jones wrote and passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Enforcement Act of 1999. Tubbs Jones’ legislative focus on children, education, and healthcare lasted throughout her time in Congress, and she authored and passed several more bills to promote healthcare and child welfare. Tubbs Jones also served on the House Ways and Means Committee, where she supported Social Security, Medicare, and progressive pension laws.

Tubbs Jones spent much of her congressional career on the House Ways and Means Committee; after the 2006 election Nancy Pelosi selected her to chair the House Ethics Committee. Tubbs Jones co-sponsored legislation to broaden health care coverage for low and middle income people and legislation to promote programs that supported the re-entry of convicts into their communities. She authored legislation that required certification for mortgage brokers and stiffer penalties for predatory loans. Tubbs Jones was also an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Various prominent political figures fondly recalled Tubbs Jones after her death, as former President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton said that she was “one of a kind” as well as “unwavering, indefatigable.” Barack Obama said “It wasn’t enough for her just to break barriers in her own life, she was also determined to bring opportunity to all those who had been overlooked and left behind – and in Stephanie, they had a fearless friend and unyielding advocate.”



Race and the Politics of Respectability | The 1920s from the Vantage Point of Ida B. Wells

Regennia N Williams, PhD
Distinguished Scholar of African American History and Culture

At the start of the “Roaring 20s,” Ida B. Wells was a journalist, educator, author, suffragist, clubwoman, social reformer, leader in the anti-lynching movement, and a wife and mother.  A native of Mississippi, she was born in slavery in 1862.  By the time of her death in Chicago, Illinois in 1931, she had achieved a fame that was rare for any woman, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, and nationality.  In her lifetime, she would claim friends, allies, rivals, and enemies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and across the color and class lines that frequently divided blacks and whites in America, including those in Cleveland, Ohio.

Wells’ biographer Paula Giddings described her as one of the most uncompromising leaders of her time.  In ‘Ida: A Sword Among Lions’, Giddings recounts the story of Wells’ work with and, sometimes, disagreements with such leaders as suffragist and diplomat Frederick Douglass, historian and fellow founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) W. E. B. Du Bois, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, & Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU).  

Articles in the black press and other publications suggest that Wells, despite her many disputes with some well known leaders, also found trusted allies in the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and among mainline black churches across the country, including Cleveland’s St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is interesting to note that some poor and working class African Americans found the “uplifting” messages of NACW members and other “respectable” reformers somewhat off-putting, since they reflected certain class and cultural biases regarding alcohol consumption, church decorum, and clothing etiquette.

Tragically, despite the best efforts of Ida B. Wells and other African American suffragists, within a decade of the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, thousands of black women in the South would join the ranks of the politically disenfranchised, just as black men had done so in the decades following the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment.  African Americans’ ongoing desire to secure and exercise voting rights would, however, help to fuel the Modern Civil Rights Movement after World War II.

Then & Now | The Euclid Beach Park Riot

Municipal swimming pools, beaches, and dance halls were arguably among the most segregated areas of public access in the United States through the mid-twentieth century. Many swimming pool and amusement park demonstrations regarding equal access are documented after the end of World War II in 1945. Some suburbs of Cleveland had strict housing and segregation laws restricting African Americans and others that were not changed until the 1950s. Protests occurred all across the country in urban centers like Cleveland, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In many instances, a city’s amusement parks with their segregated swimming pools, skating rinks, and dance pavilions were protest locations. Euclid Beach Park was no exception.
African Americans were not permitted to use the Park’s swimming facilities, Roller Rink, and Dance Pavilion. On August 4, 1946, protesters arrived at Euclid Beach and for the first time in its history, a picket line marched in front of the main gate. The protests continued for the next seven weeks and violence broke out on August 23rd. Members of the civil rights group, the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE), attempted to enter the Dance Pavilion. After the group was ejected from the Park, another CORE member, Albert Luster, arrived late and according to reports was beaten by a Euclid Beach Park policeman as he sat on a park bench.
The violence escalated on September 21st in an incident that has become known as “The Euclid Beach Park Riot”. A scuffle ensued among members of the Euclid Beach police force and two off-duty black Cleveland police officers. They intervened after witnessing the rough ejection of several CORE members attempting to enter the Dance Pavilion. The altercation resulted in one of the officers being shot in the leg with one of their own revolvers. At the behest of the mayor, Euclid Beach closed a week early and the following February, an ordinance which outlawed amusement park discrimination in Cleveland authored by Charles V. Carr was passed into law by Cleveland City Council. Any amusement park operating in Cleveland needed a license from the city which could be revoked for racial discrimination of their patrons.
Charles V. Carr was a legendary civil rights lawyer, local businessman, and Democratic politician in Cleveland who had a connection to Euclid Beach Park. He was a fixture in Cleveland’s political scene for thirty years, serving on the City Council from 1945 to 1975. Throughout his career he fought against racial discrimination in Cleveland’s public spaces.

Then & Now | Alonzo Wright Moves from Mundane to Millionaire

(Photograph of Alonzo Wright’s first SOHIO station, 1935.)

Born in Fayetteville, Tennessee, Alonzo Wright (30 Apr. 1898-17 Aug. 1976) began his career as a shoe shiner and messenger. From those humble beginnings he went on to become Cleveland’s first African American millionaire. He moved to Cleveland in the 1910s with a reported six cents in his pocket. Alonzo went to night school to earn his high school diploma while also holding down various jobs as a teamster, foundry hand, mail truck driver, and most notably, a garage attendant at the Auditorium Hotel. He met SOHIO executive, Wallace T. Holliday during his eight years working as an attendant. Holliday offered Wright a desk job at Standard Oil, but Wright requested to operate a service station instead. With Holliday’s help, Wright became the first African American to lease a SOHIO station.

Wright’s first station was located at E. 93rd and Cedar in a predominantly African American Cleveland neighborhood. He improved his business by offering extra services, such as windshield cleanings and tire and radiator checks. By 1937 he operated six SOHIO stations. By the time he ceased operations in the early 1940s, he ran 11 gas stations.

 From Service Station to Serving His Community

Wright was very passionate about using his success to help the African American community. He created opportunities and hired more black youths by 1940 than any other business man in America. He was also an essential founder of the Cleveland Development Fund which endeavored to eliminate African American slums.

Unfortunately, Wright was met with racial adversity despite of his business success and standing. When he moved into an all-white section of Cleveland Heights in the 1930s, his home was bombed. He later moved to a 200-acre farm in Chesterland, Ohio in 1947.

Wright left the service station business as gas rationing for World War II slowed sales. He turned to the real estate market instead, opening his own real estate investment firm, Wright’s Enterprises, in 1943. Among his most impressive purchases were Carnegie Hotel and the Ritzwood Hotel. He also established Dunbar Nursing Home. By the 1960s his focus was mainly centered on industrial and residential construction. Wright passed away at his home in Bratenahl at the age of 78 and was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.

The legacy of John D. Rockefeller’s first endeavor into oil refining (1862) as the Rockefeller & Andrews Oil Company in 1862 progressed to Standard Oil in 1870, Standard Oil of Ohio in 1890 and to SOHIO in 1911. Alonzo Wright was able to prosper as a young SOHIO entrepreneur in the 1930s into the 1940s. Later in 1978, SOHIO would merge into British Petroleum., and became known as BP in 1991. Today, the Standard Oil legacy lives on in the familiar green BP sunburst logo and slogan: Beyond Petroleum (2001).

Faith, Family, and Fashion: Before, During, and Beyond COVID-19 | A WRHS “Share Your Story” Initiative

Regennia N Williams, PhD
Distinguished Scholar of African American History and Culture


For the keepers of traditions in a variety of faith communities, women’s attire has long been viewed as more than just a fashion statement. Among those who engage in corporate worship activities, head coverings, for example, are often related to beliefs about modesty, outward signs of respect, unity, and the establishment of a sense of community.  This fall 2020 series of articles on Faith, Family, and Fashion will shed light on different traditions in Northeast Ohio and encourage area families to share personal stories and images related to keeping religious traditions alive during COVID-19, even when large gatherings for worship and other purposes were sometimes discouraged. 


While preparing to write my introduction for the series, I thought about “Hattitude Sunday,” a celebration that became increasingly popular among many Christian women following the publication of Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats in 2000.  The publication’s beautiful black and white photographs and quotes from many of the women in those photographs document the pride that is associated with looking your best, especially on Sunday morning, and doing your best to support the church, an institution that historian W.E.B. Du Bois described as both a “social center” of Black community life and a “religious center of great power.” 

As children attending Sunday morning worship services at Cleveland’s New Joshua Missionary Baptist, my siblings and I looked forward to the annual Easter programs that provided opportunities for us to wear Easter bonnets and chapeaus and hone our public speaking skills during special holiday pageants.   

In recent years, as young people, in particular, began to embrace the sneaker culture and more casual attire for school, work, and worship, I have always been pleasantly surprised to meet those faithful members of a special sisterhood of Black church women who continue to wear their crowns with style and grace.  For them, every Sunday is “Hattitude Sunday.”

As ministers or the spouses of ministers, music directors, worship leaders, deaconesses, missionaries, Sunday school teachers, and church mothers, these women hold respected positions of great responsibility, and their life stories help to inspire other members of their families, their congregations, and their communities. 

For this reason, I asked Mrs. Tonya Byous, an accomplished educator and a church and community leader in her own right, to help me launch what I hope will be an intergenerational, interreligious dialogue about Faith, Family, and Fashion, by telling the story of her grandmother, Mrs. Zephrine Burks.  We look forward to sharing the details of Mrs. Burks’ life story along with those of other women in the coming weeks.  We also welcome your suggestions for women that we might include in this series.

For more information about the Share Your Story initiative, please click Here. 





Photo Credits:

1st Image: (In 2014, the women of the East View United Church of Christ in Shaker Heights, Ohio welcomed the opportunity to participate in the congregation’s “Hattitude Sunday” program.  Pictured here (left to right) are Marian Elder, Jacqueline Johnson, and Jewell Kirkland. They are holding gift copies of Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. Photograph courtesy of Regennia N. Williams.)

2. (Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats in 2000.)

3. (Left to right: Lana, Regennia, and Nathaniel Williams, Jr. at the New Joshua Missionary Baptist Church, c. 1963. Photo courtesy of Regennia N. Williams.)

4.  Mrs. Zephrine Burks. Photo courtesy of Tonya Byous.)

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

By Regennia N. Williams, PhD
Distinguished Scholar of African American 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

By Regennia N. Williams, PhD
Distinguished Scholar of African American History and Culture

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

By Regennia N. Williams, PhD
Distinguished Scholar of African American History and Culture


(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

By Regennia N. Williams, PhD
Distinguished Scholar of African American History and Culture

“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.