Tag Archives: Public Humanities

Cleveland, Carl Stokes, and Commemorating a Historic Election

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.

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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.”

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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.

ICYMI: The Long Look Back Edition

We missed sharing a lot of great history-related stuff with you, our dear readers, during our August hiatus. Have no fear, a great round-up is here!

Over at the Global Urban History Project‘s blog–our internet bffs–Noam Maggor wrote about “Brahmin Boston and the Politics of Interconnectedness” and Razak Khan about “Princely Architectural Cosmopolitanism and Urbanity in Rampur.”

UHA member Brent Cebul explained the perverse incentives of property tax policy over on City Lab.

From the UCLA Department of Chicanx Studies, a cool map of important Latinx sites in suburban Los Angeles.

The Washington Post’s Made By History vertical recently featured UHA members Andrew Kahrl, Max Felker-Kantor, Dan Berger, Brian Purnell and Jeanne Theoharis, Adam Goodman, Andy Horowitz, Victoria Wolcott, N.D. B. Connolly, and, just today, Heather Ann Thompson.

Following Charlottesville, UHA member Walter Greason’s tweet thread on teaching collective racial violence went viral… we’ll have a reflection from him about the experience on The Metropole next week!

 

I enjoyed the premier episode of Christine Morgan’s new YouTube series The History Gal, and look forward to seeing how the show evolves.

For those who love music as much as they love urban history, I found a Spotify playlist called “Metropolis” for you to jam to this weekend.

And last but not least, a shout-out to us all from the inimitable Ta-Nehisi Coates:

 

Have a great weekend!

Avigail, Ryan, and Hope

Member of the Week: Scarlett Rebman

ScarlettSquareCrop-2-thumbScarlett Rebman

PhD Candidate in History

Syracuse University

@scarlettrebman

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 
My dissertation, “Saving Salt City: Fighting Inequality through Policy and Activism in Syracuse, New York (1955-1975),” uses mid-twentieth-century Syracuse, New York, as a lens to explore the relationship between grassroots activism and federal, state, and local government policies. I aim to uncover the factors that fostered innovative efforts to address social problems in Syracuse–and why these efforts largely failed. Five specific issues dominated community conversations during this time: education, housing segregation, tenants’ rights in public housing projects, employment, and leadership. Examining them reveals that although activists achieved some tangible victories at the local level and even reshaped the realm of possibility in the national political landscape, they were unable to fundamentally alter systemic mechanisms that reproduced inequality and segregation.
I came to this topic in stages. Before starting graduate school, I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services. In this position, I worked with a geography professor to compile census data on the low-income neighborhoods that my organization served, including the one in which I lived at the time. The people with the lowest incomes lived in the areas with the oldest and poorest housing stock, which was expensive to maintain and potentially had lead paint hazards. Moreover, these neighborhoods were racially segregated. I wanted to understand the political, economic, and social forces that created this situation. My boss assigned me Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis to read, and it captivated me and inspired me to study urban history.
As I began to think about dissertation topics, my focus shifted to the ways in which these oppressive urban conditions had been challenged by citizens. Syracuse is a perfect entry point into a study of urban social movements. The city had both a robust civil rights movement and two controversial War on Poverty programs that were terminated by the federal government. Using the case study approach allows me to untangle complicated organizational and political relationships and trace individual careers across organizations, capturing nuances that would be lost in a regional or national narrative.
 
Describe your current work in the public humanities. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?
Last November, I joined the staff at Humanities New York as Grants Associate. This necessarily entailed a transition away from the classroom and has made carving out writing time a challenge, but it has been so rewarding. Humanities New York is a state-level, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our grants and programs allow organizations around the state to creatively engage their communities using the tools of the humanities. I get to interact with representatives of libraries, historical societies, and quite a few academic departments. It’s all about drawing connections–among organizations doing similar work, from the particular to the general, between historic and contemporary contexts. My academic training definitely helped prepare me for this type of work.
Additionally, through my position I’ve acquired a new perspective on how communities both urban and rural are discussing issues such as economic inequality, race, democracy, and immigration. This has informed how I think about the activists that I study. It helps me appreciate that this type of work is ongoing. The issues at the top of reform agendas in 1967 certainly resonate fifty years later. On the other hand, we need to understand the specific factors that inhibited groups from achieving their goals in the twentieth century in order to move forward in the twenty-first.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America and Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy are both incredible books that shine new light on the history of the criminal justice system.
What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies? 
Although it can be daunting when time is so precious, seize opportunities to share your work with community members outside of academia. Consider partnering with a community organization on a humanities project. The results will most likely be unexpected but exciting.
You have done a lot of public history and teaching in the community. Would you share one of your favorite memories of doing this work?
During the 2016-2016 academic year, I was a Public Humanities Fellow with Humanities New York. Each fellow proposes and implements a public-facing project. I worked with the Southwest Community Center in Syracuse to offer a camp on local human rights history last summer. I received a Humanities New York Action Grant through my history department to make the project happen. Eleven young women between the ages of ten and thirteen participated, and I had an amazing co-teacher and assistant. We went on a field trip every day. The best trip was to Harriet Tubman’s house and gravesite in Auburn, New York. The students were amazed that Tubman’s home had been preserved and was not a replica. Harriet was a role model and hero for them, and they were excited to learn more about her legacy. At her gravesite, they spontaneously gathered around the marker and bowed their heads in prayer. History can impact us in profoundly personal ways, and I was fortunate to share that experience with the campers.