By Avigail Oren
On November 7, 1967, the citizens of Cleveland elected Carl B. Stokes mayor. Stokes became the first black mayor of a major American city, a considerable feat in a majority-white metropolis. During his two terms as mayor, from 1968-1972, Stokes represented all Clevelanders and sought to universally improve the city’s neighborhoods, while simultaneously attending to issues of civil rights, economic justice, and police brutality.
This year, the 50th anniversary of Stokes’ election, Cuyahoga Community College’s Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Humanities Center has organized a yearlong community initiative to commemorate the contribution of Mayor Carl Stokes and his brother, Congressman Louis Stokes, to the city. As one part of the multifaceted programming being offered during the Stokes: Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future commemoration, Urban History Association member Todd Michney, Assistant Professor in the School of History and Sociology at Georgia Tech, led a one-week seminar sponsored by Case Western Reserve University’s Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative. During the second week of July, twelve faculty, instructors, and graduate students from Case Western Reserve (CWRU) and Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) joined Michney for “Carl B. Stokes and Black Political Power in Cleveland: A 50-Year Retrospective.”
On July 12, I drove up from Pittsburgh to observe the seminar and interview participants. After seeing the call for applications circulating through the UHA network a few months earlier I had become intrigued by the topic and the concept: to teach instructors about this history so they could convey it to their students. Having lived only a two-hour drive from Cleveland for the past six years, and, even more embarrassingly, having written a bit in my dissertation about the city’s Jewish community during the urban crisis, I knew nothing of Carl Stokes and his mayoral administration.
The goal of the seminar, in fact, was to promote more teaching of the Stokes brothers’ legacy within CWRU and Tri-C classrooms and, consequently, to encourage conversations amongst undergraduates about the connections between Cleveland’s present issues and past struggles. “Coincidentally, or maybe not,” Michney noted, “Stokes’ legacy seems relevant today.” Civil Rights and police reform are still major issues in Cleveland in 2017 despite that Stokes “strongly attempted to reform the Cleveland police department, which was engaged in all kinds of intimidation, brutality, and deaths of people in custody.” Thus the aim of the seminar in particular and the Stokes commemoration more generally has been to revive Clevelanders’ memory of Carl Stokes’ struggle for racial and social justice and to trace how his contributions continue to influence the present fight for a better Cleveland.
Several participants in the seminar were motivated to apply when they realized that they knew so little about such an influential political figure and period in Cleveland’s history. The seminar appealed to Cara Byrne, a lecturer in the Department of English at CWRU, “because I saw a deficit in my knowledge of Cleveland and of African American political figures who shaped the city.” Brian Clites, who teaches in the department of Religious Studies at CWRU and is a recent transplant to Cleveland, applied for the seminar to better familiarize himself with the city’s history. He recalled that when he received the announcement of the seminar, he realized “I never read about Cleveland when preparing for my exams,” and that “so much of [urban religious history] is told through the lens of big cities.”
Teaching inspired other participants to apply for the seminar. “Because Tri-C has spearheaded [Stokes: Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future],” Trista Powers, Assistant Professor of English at Cuyahoga Community College explained, “colleagues approached me last year and said, why don’t we as faculty collaborate and introduce this content within our classes in our respective disciplines?” The seminar thus presented a timely opportunity to read, learn, and discuss Stokes and his mayoral administration. “I am actually going to be creating a classroom curriculum completely predicated on teaching about the Stokes brothers, particularly Carl Stokes,” Powers told me, “because I teach college composition at Tri-C and part of my pedagogy is I try to incorporate really specific topics as part of the underpinning of the course, and this is an area that has been an interest of mine for such a long time.” For Powers, the seminar “was a perfect fit for me, perfect timing.”
Elise Hagisfeld, a doctoral candidate in history at CWRU and a graduate instructor, likewise saw the seminar as an opportunity to develop new course material. As a historian of philanthropy and foundations and a Cleveland native, Hagisfeld found Stokes’ Cleveland: NOW! Project—a public-private partnership to fund community-based efforts to revitalize the city—particularly fascinating. “I’m looking at ways to take this information and use it in a course that I’m teaching in the fall on Introduction to Nonprofit Organizations,” Hagisfeld explained, in order to “help students who are studying in Cleveland learn about where they are and how philanthropy and nonprofit organizations and civic leadership and business interests in the city have worked together—sometimes not so successfully—in the past.”
Cleveland: NOW! initially met its fundraising goals, but faltered after the 1968 Glenville shootout revealed enduring antagonism between the city’s black communities and its white police force and consequently punctured white Clevelanders’ belief in the possibility of racial reconciliation. For Hagisfeld, this makes it an especially valuable case study. “I think it’s … important to recognize [that] there’s a lot of celebration around those kind of public-private partnership successes,” she noted, “and there is a lot of silence around public-private partnership failures. And I think it’s just a fabulous point to study.”
On the day I attended the seminar, I entered the Baker-Nord Center’s conference room in the midst of the discussion and quietly found a seat alongside a wall of windows. The twelve participants sat around a large table in the middle of the room, the tabletop covered with books and laptops and coffee cups, framed by the immense and ornately carved light wood mantle of the fireplace behind them. Despite the group having met for the first time only days before, the conversation flowed easily as participants passed ideas amongst themselves.
The topic of discussion that afternoon was “Black Political Power in Action: Carl Stokes’ Mayoral Administration.” Stokes gained the support of Cleveland’s white elite after the Hough Riots of 1966, when confrontations between black Clevelanders, white vigilantes, the police force, and 2,200 national guardsman over six nights in July left four dead, 30 injured, and 300 arrested. The city’s businessmen, in particular, hoped that Stokes could heal the city’s racial divisions and prevent future outbreaks of violence, which were costly to Cleveland’s economy. Bolstered by white votes, Stokes was elected to administer an institutionally racist government structure; he entered office with a mandate from his black voters to reform a municipality and a police department that were resistant to change. With little time and few resources, Stokes set about trying to change the people in power. In addition to hiring more black community members into government positions, Stokes also sought to change the perceptions of people in power. Particularly with career policemen, Stokes emphasized the sociological context of the neighborhoods and communities that gave rise to the Hough riots (and later, to the ’68 Glenville Riot). “The more I read about him,” one participant shared, “the more appreciation I have for what he was able to accomplish with so little.”
These efforts always required striking a delicate political balance, to maintain the support of both white elites and the black community. Stokes faced criticism from both sides, from white elites who were disappointed that he could not easily solve race relations and prevent more rioting and from Black Power activists who did not believe the mayor was doing enough to serve black interests. Conversation amongst the seminar participants centered on how Stokes’ experience was emblematic of black people who try to lead and have to fight for legitimacy, requiring them to project a non-threating confidence.
The seminar participants who identify as people of color related very personally to this aspect of Stokes’ legacy and the city’s history. As the conversation concluded, one participant confessed of the day’s material, “as a person of color, it’s traumatic.” This comment prompted the discussion to turn towards the pedagogical implications of discussing history that feels so personal to both instructor and students. “That’s what we have to remember when we take this back to our classrooms,” a participant noted, “that black proverb, ‘You have to work twice as hard [to succeed],’ it’s not just academic.” For her, Carl Stokes’ struggle to rise in politics and to improve the lives of black Clevelanders revealed how, for Stokes as well as for her students of color, the work is “also emotional and psychological.” Reflecting on this conversation afterwards, Powers added, “as a woman of color, it was hard to read about [Carl Stoke’s] challenges because some of those challenges were race-related challenges. So from that standpoint, it really struck a chord… reminding us of the level of grit and resiliency he had.”
Indeed, this is one of Michney’s take-aways for UHA members seeking to do similar seminars. “A lot of the value in this has been a meeting of the minds,” he noted, “and understanding people’s experiences.” Michney’s role as the seminar instructor provided an opportunity to review the history he knows so well from a number of new perspectives. After the day’s session, he reflected that:
It’s been a real reminder for me that, yes, I study living history and I may have grown up in this area, but I’m working with people in the seminar who have a more direct connection to the neighborhoods we’re studying. I grew up in the suburbs, they grew up in Hough, or their parents were activists with CORE. So I’m in a position to learn from them. It’s really helped to adjust and inform my own perspectives. It’s just so important to be a listener instead of a talker, and to bounce around these interpretations until they seem to be as good and useful and reflective as they can be. If they can’t be perfect they can at least resonate.
Participant Neeta Chandra, Assistant Professor of English at Tri-C, echoed this sentiment in her own reflection on the experience, agreeing that, “the personal insights, the lingering pain and agony that Blacks, and some participants were able to share by their and their family[’s] experiences were very special, disturbing and eye opening!”
Shemariah Arki—a native Clevelander and a dynamic educator, activist, organizer, and facilitator of the Women of Color series at CWRU’s Flora Stone Mater Center for Women—was one of the participants who shared personal and family stories with the group. For Arki, the seminar readings and discussions provided important context for her own family history. In the 1960s and ‘70s, her father was involved in the Black Nationalist party and her aunt helped to found the Cleveland chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). Learning about the Stokes brothers’ political careers and the history of Cleveland politics more broadly contextualized the liberation work of her family members for Arki, which made the seminar experience doubly meaningful.
Elise Hagisfeld likewise found the historical context she learned in the seminar to be emotionally fulfilling. “The ability to really study [Stokes’] election and tenure as mayor,” she reflected, “is helping me make sense out of the contemporary geography of the city, and when I say contemporary geography I mean that both physically and emotionally, the tenor of politics in the city and what’s informing debates we’re having now, and how far back those debates really go. … It’s very moving and personal to me, as a Clevelander.”
Pedagogically, the seminar inspired participants to consider how to incorporate the Stokes legacy into their courses this fall. Erin Phelps, a doctoral student in sociology at CWRU, sees immense value for students who learn about Carl Stokes. “[H]is legacy,” she thinks, “can help youth nationally understand 1) the power of their voices, 2) the necessity of involvement in government, 3) that failures are within the recipe for success, 4) change can happen, 5) and the power of community action.” Insights like these demonstrate how the seminar will yield dividends for the commemoration. “I think increasingly people want to continue this further as they’ve become personally close,” Michney reported, and participants have discussed collaborating on classes, conferences, and the writing of a white paper. Most importantly, it has ensured that the story of the Stokes brothers will continue to be taught and remembered, and that their legacy will inform another generation of politics and reform in Cleveland.
The Cleveland Humanities Collaborative is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Avigail Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her writing can be found here.