“The Good Life in Shaker Heights”: Integrating one of Cleveland’s most iconic suburbs

By Nichole Nelson

On January 3, 1956, a bomb exploded in the garage of John G. Pegg, an African- American newcomer to the Shaker Heights neighborhood.[1] The explosion was a turning point for the Cleveland suburb: the wealthiest neighborhood in America in 1960.[2] Though it destroyed Pegg’s garage, it also jolted Shaker Heights’ residents into action. Out of the debris emerged white residents’ desire to change their community from one that fostered racial intolerance to one that openly accepted African Americans. Instead of succumbing to fear, they decided to racially integrate.

Emboldened by the landmark Supreme Court decision Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which ruled racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional, African Americans like John G. Pegg began moving to Shaker Heights in the 1950s.[3] In response to this influx of African-American homeowners, some white homeowners feared that they would have to leave their affluent community. Subsequently, some white residents started selling their homes.[4]

Other white residents hoped to remain in the Ludlow neighborhood of Shaker Heights; they felt invested in the community and wanted to continue living there regardless of the increasing black population. Spurred by the firebombing of Pegg’s garage on January 3, 1956, while his home was under construction, white residents, as well as African-American newcomers Winston Richie and Theodore and Beverly Mason, formed the Ludlow Community Association (LCA) in 1957.[5] The LCA’s first president, a white resident named Irwin Barnett, was most concerned with stopping the rumors that “Ludlow was going to turn into a ghetto” due to the influx of black residents and ensuing white flight.[6] As a result of these fears, Barnett sought out strategies to encourage whites to purchase homes in the community.[7] However, two external threats impeded the LCA’s progress: banks and real estate agents. Realtors refused to show whites homes in the Ludlow neighborhood and banks made it difficult for them to secure mortgage financing.[8]

Pegg_John_G_1956
Mr. and Mrs. Pegg, circa 1956, Courtesy of Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library.

As a result of banks and realtors obstructing white homebuyers’ ability to purchase homes in Ludlow, subsequent LCA presidents prioritized attracting white potential homebuyers.[9] These presidents were able to re-attract whites to Shaker Heights using a variety of methods, including lending up to $5,000 for second mortgages to prospective homebuyers who could not afford the cost of a down payment.[10] Many of the LCA’s social events raised funds for white homebuyers’ loans. In 1966, LCA President Alan Gressel invited jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald to perform, and raised $10,000 in ticket sales, which funded the LCA’s activities, including its mortgage program.[11] In 1969, LCA President William Insull, Jr. used the proceeds from the LCA’s production of My Fair Lady to finance loans for prospective white homebuyers to live in Ludlow.[12] As a result of the LCA’s efforts, Ludlow began to reverse the annual rate of change from 1964 to 1967, where home sales were about one-tenth of one per cent from white to black.[13] By 1968, the rate of change transitioned from black to white.[14]

Unfortunately, the LCA’s focus on white homeowners to maintain integration meant discouraging black people from purchasing homes. While the LCA never explicitly encouraged discrimination against black homebuyers, its actions reveal otherwise.[15] Many African-Americans who wanted to finance their homes faced difficulty and few, if any African-American homebuyers purchased homes through the LCA’s program, given the organization’s preference for white homebuyers.[16]

Additionally, African-American businessman William Percy was so outraged by the LCA’s aloofness towards him when he viewed a home that he was “ready to sue the LCA for discrimination.”[17] Ironically, when Percy moved to Ludlow and joined the organization, he began to understand the LCA’s position, and eventually became its first black President in 1964.[18] Percy’s “shared interests” with white Ludlow residents “as the basis for the construction of suburban identities” both motivated his and white LCA members’ ability to disavow their discrimination against black homebuyers as a way to subsequently maintain their community’s property values.[19]

Several events that took place between 1968 and 1979 laid the foundation for Shaker Heights to pursue a more equitable form of integration in the 1980s. By the 1970s, the changing racial climate in the U.S. ushered in by the Civil Rights Movement, the Open Housing Movement, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 produced an environment in Shaker Heights where there was harsher criticism of local fair housing organizations’ problematic policies.[20]

In 1972, Joseph H. Battle, an African-American Ludlow resident, realtor, and President of Operation Equality—a national housing program that the Urban League of Greater Cleveland implemented to ensure that housing practices abided by the Fair Housing Act of 1968—wrote a scathing denunciation of the Shaker Communities Housing Office, for Operation Equality.[21]   The Shaker Communities Housing Office, an organization founded in July 1967, openly preferred white homeowners over black homeowners, asserted Battle.[22] More specifically, Battle lamented the Housing Office’s continued discrimination against prospective black homebuyers, its failure to achieve neighborhood stabilization due to integrated areas receiving a growing African-American population, and the reluctance to support open housing in unintegrated sections of the city.[23] Given the Ludlow Community Association’s role in establishing the Housing Office in 1967, LCA members expressed guilt over the Housing Office’s errors. In 1972, members internally acknowledged that stabilizing Ludlow would become “increasingly more difficult,” that “nothing is being effected to motivate the white brokers at this time…unless the laws are more vigorously adhered to.”[24] Despite the LCA’s internal admission that it was difficult to maintain integration in Ludlow, more criticism would continue to be levied at Shaker Heights’ failure to equitably integrate.

Cosmo Magazine The Good Life in Shaker Heights Color Magazine Cover
“The Good Life in Shaker Heights”, a 1963 cover story in the March issue of Cosmopolitan that year, Western Reserve Historical Society

Tension over the Housing Office’s policies erupted in April 1979 when half of the Housing Office’s coordinators, two black and four white women, resigned in a public protest over the disparate treatment of white and black prospective homebuyers.[25] In a public letter published in the Sun Press, the resigning coordinators cited the ambiguity of whether the Housing Office’s pro-integrative policies were meant to encourage integration or containment.[26] Finally, in June 1979, the Housing Office unveiled a new policy that promised black and white prospective homebuyers equal treatment. Under the new policy, whites were to be shown homes in areas that were predominantly black and blacks would be shown homes in areas that were predominantly white.[27]

Donald DeMarco, who became the Director of Community Services in November 1982, enhanced these policies.[28] Although DeMarco did not work for the Housing Office, as the Director of Community Services, his office oversaw the Housing Office’s seventeen employees.[29] Under DeMarco’s direction, the Housing Office enacted policies intended to “promote and sustain racial integration” instead of aiding homebuyers who want housing in areas that helps “further segregation.”[30] For example, the Housing Office worked with real estate agencies that provided the Housing Office with referrals from homebuyers who were not interested in exploring housing options in an integrated community.[31] Acquainting homebuyers and realtors who were initially opposed to living in and selling homes in an integrated community, with the appealing aspects of Shaker’s vibrant community—such as its excellent schools—were non-race based methods of making these homebuyers and realtors receptive to the idea of living in and selling homes in a community with fantastic amenities, that happened to be integrated.

The City of Shaker Heights also supported the Housing Office’s newfound commitment to equitable integration. In 1986, the City of Shaker Heights inaugurated a homebuyers’ loan program called the Fund for the Future of Shaker Heights.[32] The Fund for the Future of Shaker Heights provided white homebuyers with loans to encourage them to move into neighborhoods that were at least fifty percent black and black homebuyers with loans to encourage them to move into neighborhoods that were at least ninety percent white.[33]

5a38019r
The iconic Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights. Exterior of Plymouth Church, Theodor Horydczak, between 1920 and 1950, Horydczak Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Shaker Heights’ commitment to integration also extended to establishing metropolitan-wide integration by forming an inter-government agency called the East Suburban Council for Open Communities (ESCOC) in 1983. Shaker Heights, in conjunction with the nearby suburbs of Cleveland Heights and University Heights, as well as their respective school districts, founded ESCOC as a joint venture, funded by the Gund and Cleveland Foundations.[34] Led by African-American Ludlow resident Winston Richie, ESCOC provided loans to black homebuyers who purchased homes in suburbs that were less than twenty-five percent black and white homeowners who purchased homes in suburbs that were more than twenty-five percent black.[35] By 1990, ESCOC estimated that it assisted 400 black families in moving into Cleveland’s predominantly white eastern suburbs.[36]

Despite the revolutionary promise of these local and regional fair housing organizations, it was still difficult to eradicate white supremacy’s impact on the housing market. While the city’s policies provided economic incentives to encourage both black and white homebuyers to integrate neighborhoods, few black homebuyers could afford to purchase homes in predominantly white neighborhoods; therefore, white homebuyers still received ninety percent of loans in the early 1990s.[37] Establishing equality proved to be quite difficult in the Cleveland-metropolitan area, given its ranking as the second most segregated housing market in the nation, in accordance with two nationally published independent analyses of 1990 Census data.[38]

This disparity is also important because it reveals that white privilege in the housing market is persistent and cannot be eradicated, only abated. Therefore, the efforts of all three entities to curtail housing segregation underscore that efforts to combat residential segregation have to be consistent and constant because of the housing market’s preference for whiteness and segregation.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Shaker Heights’ commitment to pro-integrative policies waned. ESCOC dissolved shortly after Winston Richie’s resignation as Executive Director in January 1991.[39] In 2002, the Housing Office closed and two offices of city government absorbed its functions.[40] Additionally, the community associations that invested so much time and energy into integrating Shaker Heights in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s began to exist as solely social organizations in the 1990s and 2000s.[41]

One possible explanation for Shaker Heights de-prioritizing its fair housing efforts is colorblindness. The idea that Shaker Heights “accomplished” its goal of integrating its community and therefore no longer needs apparatuses to intentionally integrate is a form of colorblindness. This misconception ignores the housing market’s preference for whiteness and residential segregation, under the guise of equality for all.

These colorblind attitudes have had tangible effects on Shaker Heights’ racial demographics over the past two decades. The absence of pro-integrative efforts places Shaker Heights in danger of completely re-segregating as a predominantly black, middle or working-class community. Racial demographics in 2000 and 2010 reveal that Shaker Heights was beginning to re-segregate without persistent methods to maintain integration. According to the 2000 Census, Shaker Heights was 59.9% white and 34.1% black.[42] By contrast, in 2010, whites composed 54.9% of the total population and blacks comprised 37% of the total population.[43] These statistics are significant because they underscore the white flight that afflicted the community over the past two decades.

This high rate of white flight demonstrates the difficulty in retaining white homeowners and attracting white homebuyers to integrated communities without interventions in the housing market. While it is not negative for a community to re-segregate as a predominantly black community, studies demonstrate that predominantly black neighborhoods struggle with less access to quality amenities and report lower incomes compared to white neighborhoods. Employment discrimination causes black employees to earn lower incomes than white employees. Therefore, integration is desirable not for cultural reasons but rather to expose black homeowners to resources that they otherwise might not receive in a segregated, racist housing market. [44]

The most logical steps for Shaker Heights to stave off complete re-segregation are for residents and activists to be vigilant of the segregation and whiteness that permeate the housing market. While this does not include giving preferential treatment to white homebuyers to reside in the community, these steps should include targeted advertisements to white homebuyers, given many white homebuyers’ fear of living in communities with increasing populations of color. Other steps should include providing mortgage subsidies to both black and white homebuyers and providing financial assistance for black and white homeowners to reside in neighborhoods where their races are underrepresented. Taking steps to encourage integration will also help the community stabilize its home values. Overall, Shaker Heights’ integration can be maintained only if there are concerted efforts to do so.

Summertime Facebook Profile Photo

Nichole Nelson is a PhD candidate at Yale University studying twentieth-century American History, with a focus on post-WWII urban and suburban history. Nelson was the Metropole’s UHA member of the week in April. Read more about her research here. 

Photo at top of the page, Shaker Heights rapid transit line, Jet Lowe, 1978, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

[1] Russell H. Davis, Black Americans in Cleveland from George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969. (Washington: Associated Publishers, 1972), 331.

[2] Thomas Meehan, “The Good Life in Shaker Heights,” Cosmopolitan, 46-51, March 1963.

[3] Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) (Oyez, Dist. file). The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1940-1949/1947/1947_72/ accessed April 22, 2015.

[4] Joseph P. Blank, “Ludlow—A Lesson in Integration,” A Reader’s Digest, September 1968, 194.

[5] Sources: Pegg’s home was located at 13601 Corby Road. Davis, 331; Blank, 194 and “1957-2007: 50th Anniversary LCA—Ludlow Community Association,” 3-4, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5; Western Reserve Historical Society.

[6] Blank, 194.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Trends in Housing,” National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing 9, no. 6, (November-December 1965), Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5; Western Reserve Historical Society

[9] Gilbert Selden served a one-year term in 1959; Bernard Isaacs served as President from 1960-1962; Joseph Finley was President in 1963; William Percy served as President and 1964; Alan D. Gressel succeeded him, serving from 1965 to 1966. Source: “1957-2007: 50th Anniversary LCA—Ludlow Community Association,” 3.

[10] “Trends in Housing.”

[11] 1966 Ludlow Community Association Annual Report, Shaker Library.

[12] Sources: John S. Diekhoff, “My Fair Ludlow,” The Educational Forum, March, 1969, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5, Western Reserve Historical Society; Ronald Spetrino, President of the Ludlow Community Association, to Ludlow Residents. Shaker Heights, Ohio, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5, Western Reserve Historical Society; “1957-2007: 50th Anniversary LCA—Ludlow Community Association,” 3-4, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5; Western Reserve Historical Society.

[13] The Worlds of Ludlow. Report. Shaker Heights: Ludlow Community Association, 1968, 8.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Blank, 198.

[16] Ludlow Community Association Board Meeting Minutes, June 6, 1963, Western Reserve Historical Society Ludlow Community Associations, 1957-1972, Files A-B, Container 1, Folder 9.

[17] Blank, 196.

[18] Sources: Ibid. and “1957-2007: 50th Anniversary LCA—Ludlow Community Association,” 3-4.

[19] Lacy, 186.

[20] Cynthia Mills Richter, “Integrating the Suburban Dream: Shaker Heights, Ohio.” PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1999, 92.

[21] Ibid., 89.

[22] Ibid., 92.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ludlow Community Association Executive Board Meeting Minutes—April 12, 1972 (Western Reserve Historical Society Ludlow Community Associations, 1957-1972, Files A-B, Container 1, Folder 9)

[25] Ibid., 93-94.

[26] Ibid., 94.

[27] W.C. Miller, “Shaker Housing Office Unveils Equality Policy,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 23, 1979.

[28] Donald DeMarco, interview by Nichole Nelson. January 8, 2015

[29] Donald DeMarco, interview by Nichole Nelson. January 8, 2015 and Tuthill, Linda. “Pursuing an Ideal: How Shaker Heights strives to maintain integration,” Shaker Magazine May 1985, 35 (Shaker Historical Society)

[30] Donald DeMarco, interview by Nichole Nelson. January 8, 2015

[31] Ibid.

[32] Angela Townsend, “Cities Help Sell Homes, Racial Mix Special Funds Lend Integration Support,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 11, 2000.

[33] Isabel Wilkerson, “In Ohio, Oasis of Integration,” Herald International Tribune, December 31, 1991-January 1, 1992, Shaker Historical Society.

[34] Tuthill, 35

[35] Ibid., 103.

[36] Ibid., 104.

[37] Wilkerson.

[38] Bill Lubinger, “Pro-Integrative Efforts Assessed Pattern of Segregation Unlikely to Change Study Finds,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 26, 1992.

[39] Terry Holthaus, “Fair Housing Leader Quits, Calling Efforts a Lost Cause,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 13, 1991.

[40] “Communities,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 12, 2002.

[41] Informal conversations with current Ludlow Community Association Presidents, Julie Donaldson and Mary Ann Kovach, underscore the community associations’ transition from integration in the 1950s through the 1990s to social programming in the 1990s and 2000s.

[42] “Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000: Geographic Area: Shaker Heights city, Ohio,” from “Profiles of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000 Census of Population and Housing, Ohio.”

[43] I calculated the percentage of white residents by dividing the number of white residents—15,635 by the total population—28,448. I calculated the percentage of black residents by dividing the number of black residents—10,545—by the total population—28,448.

Source: “Race and Hispanic or Latino Origin: 2010—Con.,” from “Ohio: 2010—Summary Population and Housing Characteristics: 2010 Census of Population and Housing.”

[44] These themes are discussed in detail in Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Mary Pattillo’s Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class, and Mary Pattillo’s Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City.

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