Then & Now | Guarino’s

(Black and white photograph of Mama Maria and her granddaughter. 1958. WRHS Library.)

 

Today’s Little Italy is one of Cleveland’s “hottest” neighborhoods with an incredible set of restaurants, artist boutiques, and, of course, the annual Feast of the Assumption.

This year, because of the Covid-19 crisis, the neighborhood is quieter than usual and absent the Feast and even the procession that is the religious center of that celebration.  Everything seems far different this August.   It is a time, perhaps, to reflect on what the neighborhood was, and how it has changed.    And a good spot to begin with is food.   And, there probably is no better place to start than with Guarino’s.  founded in 1918 by Vincenzo Guarino, an immigrant who had come from Sicily in 1898.  It is the oldest restaurant in the neighborhood and, one of the oldest in the city.    Its story tells us much about the neighborhood and how it has changed over the years.

It began as poolroom and tavern with an apartment above.  It was purchased by Vincenzo in 1918 with savings he had accumulated from his employment as a road worker.   When he married that same year his wife Mary, began preparing meals in the back dining room.   The clientele were neighbors and friends.   So, it was an intimate, integral part of the neighborhood at a time when few people in Cleveland traveled far from home to eat out and a time when eating out was not the norm.  It was a working class neighborhood.  Many worked at Lake View Cemetery, but there were numerous businesses and industrial sites along the railroad line at the northern border, including the Ford Assembly plant (now home to the Cleveland Institute of Art) that provided employment.   During Prohibition, the restaurant served liquor in coffee cups – it was not so much “breaking the rules” but keeping with the tradition of a true taverna.   And it fit the clientele nicely – many of whom came to celebrate baptisms and weddings.

Over time Guarino’s attracted a wider, non-Italian clientele as Italian food became more popular, many of whom would probably have been academics from nearby Western Reserve University and the Case School of Applied Science, and University Hospitals.   That trend would accelerate in the years after World War II when eating out became more common and Italian cuisine began to appeal to a broad spectrum of Americans.   Some historians credit this to the experience of GIs who in served in Italy in World War II and acquired a taste for the cuisine.  And certainly that new affinity for Italian food was reflected in the success of Cleveland Chef Hector Boiardi’s products, marketed via television in the post-war years.

Nevertheless while Guarino’s attracted new customers, it still served a neighborhood clientele.  That continues today, although many “neighbors” now commute from suburban homes to enjoy meals there.  Vincenzo died in 1954 while on a trip to Italy and his son Sam took over the business, running it until his death in 1987.  Then his wife Marilyn and her friend Nancy Phillips continued the tradition.

Yet, while that tradition continues, so do the changes on the “Hill”.   Many of the boutiques that now attract tourists were formerly “Ma and Pa” grocery stores, hardware stores, a travel bureau (which helped arrange passage to and from Italy), and a variety of other enterprises that made Little Italy – like other Cleveland ethnic neighborhoods – a self- sufficient entity.     And today it is sometimes difficult to see the “past”.    The change has been problematic for some – one sign recently posted on a street read something like the following: “This is a Neighborhood, not Tourism Site.”    But amidst the change, it is good to have Guarino’s and other evidence of the past.  Murray Hill Road is still paved with red bricks – a pavement that many Italian-Americans laid on Cleveland’s streets in the early 1900s.   Walk the streets and look at the wrought iron fences. They are likely the product of a company that once stood near the Rapid Transit station.   Also look for the names carved on stone blocks set into the upper level of many buildings – they are the names of those who proudly built them in the early years of the twentieth century.

Then & Now | The Cleveland Feast of the Assumption

What is The Feast of the Assumption?

 

Observance of The Feast of the Assumption on August 15th each year is a Catholic tradition celebrated by Holy Rosary Church in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood beginning in 1898.  The event is casually known as “The Feast,” which leads to confusion for those who are unclear that the word “feast” has a religious connotation.  In Catholicism, “feast” refers to an annual religious celebration, usually the day on which a saint is honored.  Because a large festival with lots of food is a part of The Feast of the Assumption celebration, the meaning is sometimes taken literally to mean it is the time to “feast” or eat. 

The Feast of the Assumption is the commemoration of the assumption of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, into heaven, body and soul.  This is an important dogma of the Catholic faith.  While the secular celebration that includes food, amusements, entertainment, and socializing draws many people to the Little Italy neighborhood, Holy Rosary Church works to emphasize the religious aspects and rituals of the event. 

The religious rites of The Feast of the Assumption include a solemn mass celebrated on the morning of August 15th, followed by a three-hour procession throughout the streets of Little Italy.  A statue of the Virgin Mary placed atop a trailer adorned with flowers and religious banners leads the procession.  Spectators along the procession route will often place offerings near the statue.  Following the statue is the pastor of Holy Rosary Church reciting prayers.  A large crowd walks along with the procession, including the Italian Band of Cleveland playing music, people reciting the rosary, some dressed in regional Italian costume, and sometimes children who recently made their First Communion.

During each evening of The Feast, the rosary is recited at the shrine to Our Lady of the Assumption.  On the final day of the festival, a candlelight procession through the streets is held in honor of Mary and concludes with a short prayer service.

Origin of The Feast of the Assumption in Cleveland’s Little Italy

 

Italian immigrants began settling in the area centered around Mayfield and Murray Hill Roads, which later became known as Little Italy, in the 1880s.  Many came from towns in and around the province of Campobasso, Italy, with the most numerous coming from Ripalimosani, Italy.  They eventually created the Ripalimosani Social Union, once the biggest Italian society in Cleveland, and are credited with initiating the first neighborhood-wide celebration of The Feast of the Assumption in Little Italy in 1898.

August 15th is an important day in all of Italy and it is called Ferragosto.  But it is a particularly meaningful day for the Ripesi (people from Ripalimosani) and has been for centuries.  The central church in Ripalimosani is Chiesi di Santa Maria Assunta (Church of the Assumption,) which was founded in the 14th century.  Besides commemorating the Feast of the Assumption with a mass and the typical Catholic rites, the town’s celebrations begin a few days prior to the 15th and include several processions to and from the church and a horse race with a huge festival.

Little Italy’s early Feast celebrations primarily involved those living in the neighborhood.  Several years later, Italians from nearby neighborhoods and cities also began attending the Feast, increasing its numbers, vendors, and the length of the celebration.  It was quite the spectacle and the newspaper reporters of the day were taken by not only the large religious procession, but the happy crowds, smells of good food, and the amazing fireworks.   Non-Italian Feast-goers grew in numbers over the years, too, and The Feast has become one of the top summertime events for Clevelanders of all nationalities and backgrounds.

As most immigrants do, the Ripesi brought the customs of their homeland to their new city.  Observing The Feast of the Assumption provided a way for them to maintain the connection with and perpetuate parts of their culture as the process of Americanization began to erode some of it away.  It also provided a means to transport that culture through succeeding generations, and it has worked. The Feast is still going strong in the same neighborhood built by the immigrants 122 years later. 

Then & Now | Cannoli Recipe from the ISDA

Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA) began in 1930 as a small community of Italian immigrants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. These new Americans, who had rejected the oppressions of the Old World to embrace New World democracy, truly valued their newfound freedom and right to vote. The Order ISDA is now one of the largest Italian American organizations in the country, uniting communities across states to celebrate, preserve and promote the Italian heritage.   It was one of the founding organizations of the WRHS Italian American Collection.


Ingredients

Serves: 12

For the Shells:

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or shortening
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 dash of salt
  • 3/4 cup Marsala Wine
  • 1 egg white
  •  Oil for frying

For the Filling:

  • 3 cups full fat ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 6 tablespoons mixed candies fruit peels
  • 6 glaced cherries, finely chopped

Directions

To make the shells:

  1. Mix together the flour, butter or shortening, sugar, and salt. Begin to add the wine, adding enough so that you have formed a fairly firm dough.
  2. Knead for a few minutes until smooth. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature for one hour.
  3. Cut the dough in half, and roll thinly to about a 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into 4 squares. Place a metal diagonally across each square, and wrap the dough around the tube. Seal the edges with a little beaten egg white.
  4. Heat the oil in a large pan until it reaches a temperature of 375 degrees F. Drop one or two tubes into the hot oil at one time, and cook until golden. Remove from the pan, cool, and gently slide the cannoli shell from the tube.
  5. Continue to make the rest of the shells in this manner.

To make the filling:

  1. First let the ricotta sit in a strainer over a small bowl in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to remove excess water.
  2. Mix the ricotta with the rest of the ingredients. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Fill each cannoli shell carefully, and sprinkle with a little extra powdered sugar if desired. Chill until you are ready to serve.

Recipe notes:

  • You can even dip the end of your shells into melted chocolate.
  • You will need 3 to 4 metal cannoli tubes to make these cannoli, which are readily available at most kitchen stores.
  • Do not fill the cannoli siciliani too far in advance, or they may become soggy.

Then & Now | Little Italy Bakeries

For many visitors to Cleveland’s Little Italy, a stop at an Italian bakery usually tops their list of things to do, and rightly so.  Italian breads and pastries are some of the tastiest around.  It took centuries for Italians to perfect their baking techniques and recipes, and when they immigrated to Cleveland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they thankfully brought these skills with them. 

While many bakeries have come and gone since Little Italy’s establishment as an Italian neighborhood in the 1880s, two bakeries have become area staples, Presti’s Bakery & Café and Corbo’s Bakery.  Each have their own unique flavors and specialties.  And each has their own interesting history.

Presti’s Bakery is said to be the oldest operating bakery in Cleveland.  Rose and Charles Presti, Sr. opened the bakery in 1903, specializing in bread using a family recipe brought from Sicily. The bakery moved locations several times before settling at its current location on Mayfield Road in 1999.  Son Charles, Jr. operated the bakery after his parents, and now his daughter Claudia is in charge.  Presti’s features a variety of pastries, but many visitors, particularly during The Feast of the Assumption festival, enjoy the sausage sandwich pizza – a slice of square pizza topped with a whole sausage and peppers.  The pizza is folded around the sausage and eaten like a sandwich.

Corbo’s Bakery was first known as Corbo’s Dolceria when it opened in 1958.  It quickly became well-known in the neighborhood for its delicious Italian pastry.  The first owners were Joseph and Antoinette Corbo, then their sons John and Sal took over.  Now John’s son Joe Corbo and his wife Selena operate the business.  Besides their shop next to the old Mayfield Theatre in Little Italy, they have expanded to selling their goods in grocery stores and have opened several other locations around Northeast Ohio.  The two items in high demand at Corbo’s are the cannoli and the cassata cake.  They make the cassata in the traditional Sicilian way with cannoli filling and maraschino cherries as well as the Americanized way with fresh strawberries and custard.

Then & Now | Weddings

Weddings look a lot different in 2020 than they did even just a year ago. The COVID19 pandemic has forced couples as well as industry professionals to reevaluate and adapt to the new standards and procedures brought on by the coronavirus. However, that has not stopped couples from starting their Happy Ever After. How do post-COVID19 weddings look compared to ceremonies of the past? Keep reading to find out.

Microweddings

A microwedding is an intimate ceremony that consists primarily of immediate family and close friends. This new style of wedding gained traction in 2020 as more and more couples adjusted their guest-list to meet local and state health official recommendations to control the spread of COVID19. Microweddings were a feasible and realistic option for couples who did not want to postpone their nuptials, but still wanted to be with loved ones. Often this style of wedding is accompanied with a virtual element so long-distance relatives and friends could still participate and celebrate with the happy couple!

Besides a reduced guest count, microweddings follow all the traditions of a wedding ceremony designed by the couple. Often times, microweddings can feel even more special to all involved given the intimate ambiance.

 

Sequel Wedding

A sequel wedding is another style of ceremony that gained traction during the COVID19 pandemic. Exactly what it sounds like, a sequel wedding is when a couple has more than one ceremony. Typically, the first is small and resembles a microwedding or even an elopement. This is then followed by a larger-scale second ceremony at a later date, which resembles a more traditional wedding and reception. By delaying the larger celebration, couples can still marry while allowing their guests time to feel comfortable and safe attending a large gathering. Sequel weddings also open the door for couples who want to bring their original vision to life, but may need to wait until a later date.

Shift Wedding

Shift weddings are a creative blend of microweddings and sequel weddings. The name really explains it all. A shift wedding is a celebration with multiple smaller, more intimate groups that stagger throughout the day to meet social distancing and CDC health guidelines. One group of guests, typically family and the bridal party, would experience the ceremony and then another group may join for a small cocktail party. Perhaps later in the day other groups would filter in and out for a celebratory reception. Similar to the microwedding, a virtual element may be incorporated so guests can participate throughout all the day’s events, even though they may only be present in-person for a portion of it. This has become a great option for couples who want to celebrate without missing out on sharing the experience with all of their original guests.


Whether it’s an intimate microwedding in the lush Hanna Garden or an elaborate shift reception in the Crawford Rotunda, the seven acre campus of the Cleveland History Center in University Circle provides an elegant backdrop for any style of wedding as guests enjoy stunning decor, classic architecture, and historic collections from cars to clothes.

Nestled near the scenic Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Hale Farm & Village is another perfect location for a romantic and unique wedding ceremony. Surround your guests in the picturesque setting of our 90-acre grounds. The charming historic buildings dating from the mid-19th century are clustered around a pristine village green. Hold your historic moment in the 1850 Greek Revival Meetinghouse or in the newly renovated Gatehouse.

For more information on how you can book your 2020 ceremony, however that may look, visit (rentals page). You can also fill out a rental inquiry form by CLICKING HERE.​

 

Then & Now | Voting Rights for Women

(Lethia C. Fleming)

The centennial of the League of Women Voters reminds us to celebrate women who amplify the voices of one another, and lift one another. One way that Cleveland women do this is by working to increase voting rights and access for all women. 

Almost as soon as women could, theoretically, vote, Lethia Fleming (1876-1963) disrupted the LWV second annual convention, held in Cleveland, asking league leaders to take a stand for disenfranchised African American women in the south. Although her speech was not part of the official program, parts of it made its way into the Plain Dealer on April 11th, 1921. Alongside Louise Davis, Fleming spoke on behalf of the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs when she said: 

“We will ask first for a resolution by this convention asking the new congress for an investigation of [voting] conditions in the south. If that is impossible, we will ask for a resolution merely stating formally that the National League of Women Voters stands ready to cooperate with our efforts to better conditions in the south.”

Fleming later served as President of the Ohio Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and both Presidents Harding and Hoover asked her to mobilize women of color to benefit their presidential campaigns. Her work paved the way for Cleveland women to continue pushing for voting access.

Ohioans like Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins continued this work decades later through the League of Women Voters. Jefferson-Jenkins served as President of the LWV of Greater Cleveland before becoming the first African American President of the National League in 1998. Jefferson-Jenkins promotes the importance of local elections, voter registration, and campaign finance reform. Her work in the early days of the internet was groundbreaking in terms of voter participation among young people. In 1994, the LWV launched the Wired for Democracy project, which recognized that the internet could be a powerful tool for voter registration and education. As the project’s trustee, Jefferson-Jenkins oversaw the study of new media impact on elections and how future technologies could impact voter education. Today, she is also the author of important histories of Black women in politics.

(Meryl Johnson)

Still more women work beyond the League of Women Voters to make voices heard. Meryl Johnson taught in Cleveland Public Schools for 40 years before joining the State Board of Education in 2016. She empowers young people through voter registration, letter writing to newspapers, and speaking at community forums. Johnson’s grassroots work equips students to become future change agents. She says: “One of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much is the opportunity to show my students the importance of activism.”


 

Visit VOTE411.org to register to vote!

VOTE411 is committed to ensuring voters have the information they need to successfully participate in every election. Whether it’s local, state or federal, every election is important to ensuring all laws and policies reflect the values and beliefs of the community.

 


 

 

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

(Fannie Lou Hamer. Library of Congress Photograph)

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

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

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

Then & Now | The Spirit of Goodyear

Built in 1982, the Spirit of Goodyear blimp gondola saw service on three airships, logging more than 41,000 hours of flight during its 31 year history. From 1982-1992, it was mounted on the blimp America based in Spring, Texas; from 1992-1999 it was on the Stars & Stripes in Pompano Beach, Florida; and from 2000-2014 it served the Spirit of Goodyear blimp in Suffield, Ohio. In 2014, the Spirit of Goodyear retired from airship service and received recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records as “The Longest Continuous Use for a Blimp.”

The gondola, which is the pilot and passenger compartment of the blimp, is currently located within the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum, in the Setting the World in Motion exhibit. At 23 feet long and 3,400 pounds, the gondola is one of the largest artifacts in the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum.

This now retired piece of transportation history appeared over some of the world’s largest sporting events such as the Super Bowl in 1990, 1994 and 1995, Major League Baseball World Series games in 1982, 1983 & 1984, The Kentucky Derby, the Daytona 500, U.S. Open tennis and golf, NCAA football, including the Cotton Bowl in 1990, NCAA Final Four basketball and NFL games. In addition, well-known celebrities, such as David Letterman and astronaut Dr. Sally Ride, have flown in the gondola.

Then & Now | A Whole New Ballgame

In a world saturated with sports (albeit mostly virtual nowadays) it is hard to envision a time when sport was simply a passion and a pastime rather than a mega-business. That was just the situation in Cleveland in the 1850s.

By the 1850s Cleveland had become a relatively prosperous city thanks to its transportation links – the canal, the lake, and a growing number of railroads. Harper’s Universal Gazetteer for 1855 referred to it as the “emporium of Northern Ohio.” With a population approaching 40,000 (it had just merged with Ohio City the previous year) it was creating a somewhat wealthy business class and a growing middle class, both of which had time for recreation.

One of the oldest sports, horse racing, became organized. The Cleveland Jockey Club, founded in 1850 sponsored both pacing and trotting races at an annual five day meet likely held at the Forest City Course located between what are now E. 9th and E. 14th street. But ownership of a fine horse was then, as now, an expensive proposition. But the 1850s also opened up other areas of somewhat more affordable recreation.

For the Scottish immigrant, curling was perfectly suited to a Cleveland winter and was first reported in the 1850s. The decade also brought the advent of the billiard hall, then and for many years a hangout of young men that would develop a rather dubious reputation.

And it was young men who shaped two of the most important sports to appear in the decade, rowing and baseball. Rowing grew nationally in popularity with the advent of the Harvard-Yale competition (itself mimicking the contests held by British universities). Three years after the first Harvard-Yale “regatta” in 1852 a group of Clevelanders formed the Ivanhoe Boat Club. Around that time another group of young men, some of whom were graduates of Cleveland’s Central High School (established in 1846 and the first high school west of the Appalachians) formed another club, the Ydrad rowing club. Fortunately for posterity the small minute book of the Ydrad club, led by “Captain” Marcus A. Hanna, is preserved at the Western Reserve Historical Society. The entries relate to fees for buying a boat and having “fun” that for March 30, 1862 includes the line: “Motion that the Club do as they did last summer i.e. go up to Rocky River and get drunk.” Increasing river traffic, pollution, and service in the Civil War, rather than inebriation would end this short period of rowing memories.

That minute book, however, also offers some clues to the most important sport to rise in Cleveland at that time. The back pages list the players for the Central High baseball team, among whom was Leonard Hanna, Mark’s brother. Early notices of ball playing turn up in the Cleveland newspapers of the 1850s. Cleveland, however seems to have been a bit late in truly adopting the game as it had already gotten a start and a set of rules laid down by Alexander Cartwright in New York City in 1845.  Interestingly, in that year a city ordinance banned “ball playing” on the Public Square but in 1856 it repealed the law.. Some hard evidence of arrival of the sport in Cleveland was a ball game reported on Public Square in 1857.. And, at the Ohio History Center there exists an ambrotype image of a ball diamond on the Square taken in that decade. In 1856, the sporting newspaper of the era, Spirit of the Times referred to the game as “The American National Game of Base Ball.”

The Civil War that followed only served to popularize the game. WRHS holds an image showing soldiers playing ball at Fort Pulaski. As the troops traveled, the game went with them and after the war it became more than just a game — it became an American passion.

Immediately after the War, in 1865, the city’s first organized amateur team, the Forest City Club of the Forest City Baseball Association was formed. Its first game – against the Penfields of Oberlin – resulted in a 67 to 28 loss. Its games were played on Case Commons located on Putnam (now E. 38th Street) between Central and Scovill. By 1868 the Club had 150 members and a decent record against other area teams. But it would shortly follow the move of the Cincinnati Red Stockings which went professional in 1869. The move to employ paid players resulted in the loss of many of Forest City’s amateur adherents who feared for the “purity” of the game.

Fielding a mixed team of professionals and amateurs, the Forest City team played its first professional game on June 2, 1869 against the Red Stockings. And, you probably guessed it… Cleveland lost by a score of 25 to 6.

Amateur baseball would continue to thrive in Cleveland up to the present, a reminder in its own way of the changes in sporting culture that took place in the city in the 1850s. But from then to now, the money has been “on” the professional game, whether it be baseball, football, hockey, basketball or any of a number of sports that excite fans and form the basis of a mega-billion dollar national “industry.” It is, indeed, a whole new ballgame.

David Berger | An Olympic Hero

David Berger was a Cleveland born and raised athlete who immigrated to Israel in 1970. A weightlifter, David won a place on the Israeli 1972 Olympic Team. It was David’s dream to compete in the Olympics but that dream soon turned dark as Palestinian terrorists invaded the Olympic Village in Munich and held David and the 10 other members of the Israeli team hostage.

For more than 16 hours the hostage situation dragged on, all of it broadcast internationally on ABC TV. In the end, the Israeli team members, including David, were killed in a battle to rescue them. The world was horrified. The event remains one of the great tragedies in Olympic history.

David’s life and death, however, came to symbolize the courage of athletes everywhere. In 1980, a National Memorial was erected to honor David on the grounds of Cleveland’s Jewish Community Center. With the help of David’s family, The Western Reserve Historical Society made a concerted effort to collect items related to David’s life. Among those items were David’s Parade Uniform, cap and yarmulke. Those artifacts are currently on loan to the US Olympic and Paralympic Museum, scheduled to open this July 30. The lent artifacts and David’s story have been given a prominent place of honor in the new museum.

Then & Now | Joseph Black Joe Hodge

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

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

Founder’s Day | July 22nd, 1796

On July 22nd, 1796, a small party of surveyors arrived at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. Led by Moses Cleaveland, a lawyer, Revolutionary War veteran, and director of the Connecticut Land Company, the party’s mission was to survey land owned by the company so that it could be sold to the public. That land, known as the Connecticut Western Reserve, makes up present-day Northeast Ohio.

On reaching the mouth of the Cuyahoga, Cleaveland decided that the site was the perfect place for a city. There was easy access to water, and high bluffs nearby offered protection. Cleaveland set two of his surveyors, Seth Pease and Amos Spafford, to work laying out where the new city’s streets would go. They also incorporated a 90-acre public square into their plans, as that was a common feature in towns throughout New England.

Pease’s surveyor’s compass and journal, along with one of his early maps of the Western Reserve, are now treasured artifacts in the Western Reserve Historical Society’s collection. He went on to a long and distinguished career as a surveyor and cartographer in the United States. Spafford became one of the leading citizens of the young city of Cleaveland. As for the founder? Moses Cleaveland returned to Connecticut soon after deciding on the site for the new city. He died in 1806, having never returned to the city that bears his name.

Over the past 224 years, Cleveland has been called many things from the Best Location in the Nation to the Mistake on the Lake, and everything in between. But as we celebrate Founders’ Day, we’re happy to call Cleveland home.

Then & Now | Celebrations of Independence

(Souvenir book of black and white postcards with colored cover. The book celebrates “Fêtes en l’honneur l’indépendance Tchéco-Slovaque ” or, “Celebrations in honor of Czecho-Slovak independence.” WRHS Library.)

 

While July 4th serves as the day we celebrate the independence of the United States, the diversity of our city and our nation creates a panoply of other celebrations that led to independence or major political changes that shaped the many individual communities that form our nation.

For Mexican Americans, September 16 marks the beginning of the battle for Mexican independence in 1810 and Cinco de Mayo celebrates the defeat of the French regime that had taken over Mexico on May 5, 1862.   Polish Americans celebrate May 3rd as the adoption of the Polish Constitution on that date in 1791.  Turks celebrate Cumhurriyet Bayrami, on October 29th commemorating the creation of the modern Turkish Republic in 1929, and for the French Bastille Day on July 14th recalls the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, a military fortress and Prison.  Italians will choose June 2nd to celebrate the end of the monarchy and beginning of the new Republic of Italy in 1946.

And more broadly there are dates that commemorate the independence and freedom of wider segments of our population – Juneteenth marks the final ending of slavery in the United States in 1865, and Pride Week recalls The Stonewall in New York City, on June 28th 1969, an event that marked the beginning of “independence” for the LGBTQ community.  All of these celebrations, and more, are part of a nation that came into being because of a declaration adopted in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

Then & Now | July 4th, 1968

On July 4th, 1968, the Cleveland Plain Dealer front page carried a notice of that evening’s Festival of Freedom, the annual fireworks extravaganza at Edgewater Park.   All would seem normal if one’s eyes simply stayed on that notice, but the headline was about a sniper attack in New York City, where one person was killed and several injured.  All in all, it was another piece of bad news in a bad year.

The Tet Offensive opened the year and, for many Americans, destroyed any hope they had for a victory in Vietnam and their faith in the reports of progress that had been presented by the administration and the armed forces.  Then on April 4th Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee.   Urban rebellions quickly followed in many American cities.  Cleveland, however, was spared the violent aftermath, thanks to the leadership of Mayor Carl Stokes and Black community leaders.   The day after Dr. King’s assassination, Democratic presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy gave a scheduled speech at the Cleveland City Club.  Its title “On the Mindless Menace of Violence” spoke volumes about the chaos of the era and referenced, obliquely, the events of the night before when Kennedy broke the news of Dr. King’s death to an outdoor audience of African-Americans in Indianapolis.   But even while staying on script in Cleveland, Kennedy was powerful, noting that “the slow destruction of a child by hunger and schools without books and homes without heat in winter.”  Just a little over two months later, Kennedy was also dead, murdered by an assassin after giving a speech in Los Angeles.

Whatever plans Clevelanders had for July 4th 1968, they were doubtlessly heavily encumbered by the state of the nation.  Overall the mood of America was bleak.  At the start of summer, a Gallup poll found that 36 percent of Americans felt the country was a “sick society.” Another, earlier poll in that year found that 48 percent felt the war was a mistake and 40 percent believed it wasn’t.   By the end of summer, the number had flipped to 53 percent against and 35 percent for participation in what they felt was a justified war.  While we don’t know with certainty as to what Clevelander’s attitudes were, they may well have paralleled national opinion.

The July 4th issue of the Plain Dealer – all 136 pages – echoed the bad and the good news of the time.   The New York sniper incident was accompanied by calls from the President and others for better gun control, but then Cleveland pitcher Louis Tiant had struck out nineteen the previous day.  And the Cleveland Browns were getting ready for a new season, but there were racial tensions on the team.   John Wooten had met with coach Blanton Collier to discuss those issues, most notably one directed toward black players at a celebrity golf outing at the Ashland Country Club.   The combination of war, violence, and racial conflict is clearly apparent in the newspaper, but often obscured by pages of sales and entertainment advertisements.   But then Cleveland was at peace, one could perhaps enjoy the Fourth.  But that would last only until July 23, when the Glenville Shootout took place claiming the lives of seven people, including three police.  That would be followed by the chaos of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in late August.  It was, perhaps, a year and a time unlike any other for those who experienced it.

Then & Now| Bicycles in Cleveland

Right now in Ohio, going for a bicycle ride is a great way to get some exercise and destress. While many of us own bicycles today, over a hundred years ago they were still somewhat new. During the 1890s, the bicycle presented an interesting problem for women, who wore long skirts for every occasion. Slightly shorter skirts worn with boots became the most acceptable solution, as pictured below in this 1890 issue of the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Also below is a photo taken in 1896, each woman rides a two-wheeled “safety bicycle” in their skirts. Some women tried to clip their skirts up or together to create a bifurcated garment, but most seem to be able to ride without modification. A search through the U.S. Patent Office archives reveals dozens of contraptions for women cyclists, but one wonders how popular they actually were.


There are more than two billion bicycles in use around the world today. The first vehicle to be called a bicycle was the high wheeler, developed in France in the 1870s. Because there were no gears, the high wheel pushed the bike farther with each rotation.

While the high wheeler pushed the rider along at speed, it could also be dangerous to operate. It was difficult to mount and dismount, and falls from a high wheeler could be lethal. By the 1880s, chain-driven bicycles allowed for smaller front wheels and spelled the end of the high wheeler.


The Winton Motor Carriage Company actually started out as the Winton Bicycle Company, both of which operated right here in Cleveland. Alexander Winton moved from producing bikes during the cycling craze of the 1890s to automobile production in 1897.

The Future Outlook League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Section 1

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

 

Section 2

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

 

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

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

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

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

 

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

 

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

Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932)

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

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

 

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

 

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

Dr. Angela Davis (b. 1944)

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Ava DuVernay (b. 1972)

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

African American Music Appreciation Month | Thomas Boddie

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

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

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

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

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

The Agora | African-American Music Appreciation Month

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

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

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

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

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

By Regennia N. Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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