The Cleveland Civil Rights Trail
An ongoing project recognizing local landmarks for Black history.
Written by: Lynn Nichols
On December 10, 2021, the Cleveland Restoration Society and the Ohio History Connection unveiled the first of 10 historical markers on Cleveland’s African American Civil Rights Trail. The trail, which is on-track to be completed later this year, will honor buildings, neighborhoods and events pivotal to the civil rights movement from 1954-1976.
The project is funded by a $50,000 federal grant from the National Park Service, which the Cleveland Restoration Society received in October 2019. The 10 markers will serve as educational resources to the community. Cleveland Restoration Society president Kathleen Crowther told News 5 that each marker will include a QR code, which visitors can scan to find out more information about the historical site.
The first site recognized on the African American Civil Rights Trail was unveiled at Cory United Methodist Church on East 105th Street.
According to the Cleveland Restoration Society’s website, the organization was first founded in 1972 by Thomas Campbell, Olive Deany Tabor and Maxine Goodman Levin (namesake of CSU’s College of Urban Affairs), with the goal of preserving and restoring Cleveland’s historic buildings and other landmarks. For example, Karin Connelly Rice wrote for FreshWater that the Cleveland Restoration Society has previously worked to honor Cleveland’s Black history, in a 2012 project titled “The African-American Experience in Cleveland.”
The first site recognized on the African American Civil Rights Trail was unveiled at Cory United Methodist Church on East 105th Street. From 1950 on, Cory UMC hosted many civil rights leaders and activists. According to the Cleveland Restoration Society, Cory UMC was the largest Black church in Cleveland of the time, which brought a wide audience for speakers including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Louis Lomax, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The church was also a site for local voting rights organizing, and a frequent meeting place for Cleveland’s civil rights coalition, the United Freedom Movement (active 1963-1966).
The purpose of recognizing Cory UMC, she said, “is to bring awareness to our young people so that . . . when they walk down this street [they] can remember and never forget.”
FreshWater’s Kelly Quinn Sands reported on the December 10 unveiling ceremony, which featured speeches about the historical significance of the site. One speaker was Prester Pickett, coordinator of the Howard A. Mims African American Cultural Center at Cleveland State, who recited from speeches by Dr. King. Kel Shabazz, a Cleveland-based poet and CSU alum, also presented part of Malcolm X’s speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” As the Cleveland Restoration Society notes, Malcom X actually gave the first version of the iconic speech at Cory UMC on April 3, 1964 — before his famous appearance at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit. At the ceremony, Civil Rights Trail chair Natoya Walker Minor emphasized the importance of this marker to our understanding of Cleveland’s history. The purpose of recognizing Cory UMC, she said, “is to bring awareness to our young people so that . . . when they walk down this street [they] can remember and never forget.”
The second marker on the trail will be at Glenville High School, part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. After the election of Carl Stokes, Cleveland’s first Black mayor, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech to the student body of Glenville High School. He delivered the address on April 26, 1967, almost one year before he was assassinated in April 1968. Dr. King spoke directly to his audience of young people; we can hear laughter in the first minutes of the audio and cheers later as he engaged them with jokes and narratives. He focused his message on the power of youth to further social change, pointing to Carl Stokes’ election as a sign of opportunities for progress in Cleveland.
He focused his message on the power of youth to further social change, pointing to Carl Stokes’ election as a sign of opportunities for progress in Cleveland.
Dr. King structured his speech around the three essential steps all his listeners should take, “in order to be truly free”: knowing their self-worth; exercising every right and freedom available to them; and taking action in the civil rights movement. “Every Black person in this country must rise up and say: ‘I’m somebody,’” he urged. “‘I have a rich, proud, and noble history, no matter how painful and exploited it has been. I am Black, but I’m Black and beautiful.’” The Cleveland Restoration Society connects Dr. King’s message of empowerment, perseverance and nonviolent protest to the Black Lives Matter movement, with hope that the marker at Glenville High School will continue his message of inspiring young activists.
The third historical marker will be placed in the Hough neighborhood, on the east side of Cleveland. The historic neighborhood was the site of massive riots in July 1966: “the most significant urban uprising in Cleveland,” according to the Cleveland Restoration Society. An entry for Case Western Reserve University’s online Encyclopedia of Cleveland History describes the riot’s inciting incident on July 18, when a white bar owner refused to serve a glass of water to a Black customer. After that, a crowd of citizens of all ages assembled, throwing rocks and bottles in protest. As the Cleveland Restoration Society points out, though, the uprising had still deeper origins in systemic racism against African American residents, including “substandard housing, criminal injustice, and the lack of public accommodation.”
Black community leaders in the 1960s as well as today’s historians recognize the uprising as a consequence of racial inequity, which is why the Cleveland Restoration Society named the site as essential to Cleveland history.
Over nearly a week of riots, hundreds of people were arrested, dozens were injured and four were killed. The exact number of injuries is contested in historical records, but between 30 and 50 people were injured. All the people killed were Black, and police brutality in the city’s response included incidents in which officers shot Black families and bystanders. After the uprising, government officials and civil rights organizations argued over the cause of the unrest, with the mayor and other city officials blaming outside influences, or Black nationalist and communist organizations. Black community leaders in the 1960s as well as today’s historians recognize the uprising as a consequence of racial inequity, which is why the Cleveland Restoration Society named the site as essential to Cleveland history.
The city of Cleveland is home to a long and rich civil rights history, encompassing systemic racism and struggle as well as resistance and progress. As the Cleveland Restoration Society continues to select and unveil sites, all of us can learn from these landmarks and feel inspired to further activists’ legacy through the Black Lives Matter movement of today.
For more information on the Civil Rights Trail, visit www.clevelandrestoration.org/african-american-civil-rights-trail. The project site includes news coverage, updates on selected markers and community events, as well as the complete audio recording of Dr. King’s speech at Glenville High School.