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.