Resisting Segregation in Cleveland and Across the Country

Resisting Segregation in Cleveland and Across the Country

The Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South was a monumental event in American history. The character of the country as a whole was, arguably, transformed. Volumes have been published on its sweeping impact, but Resisting Segregation by Susan Kaeser tells the story of what happened in one community once African Americans not only arrived in an urban metropolis, but within a generation’s time sought to disperse into a previously all-white suburban area.

Kaeser leads off with a review of historical facts about the northeast Ohio area that Cleveland Heights is situated in. At the turn of the 20th Century, Cleveland was the seventh-largest city in the US. At the 1910 Census, 90% of the population of Cuyahoga County, in which Cleveland is located, lived in Cleveland itself. In 1960, only 53% of the population of the County lived in the central city, representing a phenomenon of the area’s population spreading itself out over more and more land, that for the most part hasn’t stopped to this day. Yet even with Cuyahoga County’s population split about evenly between Cleveland and the rest of the County, at the 1960 Census county 98% of the African Americans who lived in the 457-square-mile Cuyahoga County were concentrated in the 77 square miles of Cleveland. 

When Cleveland Heights was first incorporated in 1901, it was an area of country estates on the far edge of the area from which people would commute to downtown Cleveland in the era of the streetcar. When it was populous enough to be designated a city in 1922, it was regarded in much the way that “exurbs” in the surrounding counties are regarded today—an elite destination for those who want to take advantage of the economy of Cleveland while putting as much distance as possible between themselves and urban problems outside of working hours. Like most suburbs around the country at that time, the minority population was miniscule.

The winds of change blew in with insistent force in the middle of the twentieth century. African Americans returned from serving their country in World War II and demanded an equal share of the benefits of the country they had fought and prepared to die for; soon President Harry Truman desegregated the Armed Forces; the US Supreme Court handed down Brown vs Board of Education outlawing segregation in schools. 

After reviewing the above historical background, Resisting Segregation spends most of its attention on the period in the 1960s when Black households gained a foothold in Cleveland Heights against considerable resistance, and the 1970s era of defending these gains against an equally fierce backlash. Of notable interest is the reactionary role of the realtors’ profession. Through individual realtors’ behavior backed up by official directives from national bodies representing those engaged in their business, realtors told society that residential segregation by race was natural and desirable, and that mixed-raced neighborhoods and communities would always exist in an unstable state destined to tip towards a monoracial endpoint.

The core of Kaeser’s book tells the ground-level, human-scale stories of many dozens of activist Cleveland Heights residents who founded several non-profit groups to do the courageous and painstaking work of seeing to it that the then-new federal Fair Housing Act was translated into integration in reality. After all, as African Americans and their allies painfully discovered, the declaration of school segregation as illegal in Brown vs. Board did not automatically melt away the resistance of pro-segregation forces that still controlled many levers of power throughout the country. When Brown was decided in the 1950s, there would still be decades ahead of a President sending troops escort children into schools, and courts ordering fleets of buses to balance out racial populations in classrooms. Declaring housing segregation illegal would require comparable efforts to bring the promise of the law to fruition in peoples’ lives. And notwithstanding many successes, many neighborhoods—and schools, for that matter—even today do not enjoy the benefits of the diversity of their surrounding communities.

In addition to the organized obstructionism of the realtors’ profession, Kaeser finds the Cleveland Heights government to have been a lagging indicator of social change in the community it represents. Until a citywide vote changed the charter to a strong mayor just in 2019, the city operated with a Council-Manager form of government designed when the municipality was rural and homogenous in the early 20th Century. The mayor was a member of city council elected by his (at the time of the events of this book, not her) peers, and all council members were elected citywide. Of the various pros and cons of this system, one of the upshots was that even if African Americans came to be a significant presence in one or a couple of neighborhoods of Cleveland Heights, little progress in electing someone who looked like them to Council would be made until diversity grew enough to make minority voters a critical mass in the city overall. When faced with one of several incidents where violence and intimidation faced a pioneering Black family, a pro-integration community leader asked the then-mayor how his group could help. The politician replied that “You could disband”.

A series of sidebars profiles several activists who mostly were already settled in Cleveland Heights when the process of integration began, who took initiative to fight the realty companies and give Black families who wanted to move into Cleveland Heights a fighting chance to buy homes on the open market. In some cases this meant seeking out homeowners interested in selling their homes who would be open to selling to Black buyers.

A chapter focuses on the Black pioneers who braved the opposition of some of their future neighbors to buy Cleveland Heights homes. Kaeser points out that these leaders “were ready to advocate for their owns interests…Their leadership helped make integration beneficial to the diverse residents of Cleveland Heights – both black and white.”

Many more details round out the picture of the period of integration of Cleveland Heights as at once a very local happening, and also one situated in the story of African Americans through the United States in the Civil Rights era. The Rev, Martin Luther King Jr, speaks at a Cleveland Heights church. A young clergyman is fatally, if unintentionally run over by construction equipment while protesting the building of an intended-to-be-segregated school in Cleveland proper. A seminary classmate of that person comes to the area to lead a Cleveland Heights congregation, and is blindsided by the racial rancor he finds he has signed on for, yet stays to lead a revision of the church’s catechism to make it clear that that congregation worships a God that calls believers to stand for equality of opportunity.

The subject of Kaeser’s book is local, but it has a lot to say for the many communities around the country who have grappled, are in the midst of grappling today, or are likely to grapple in the future with the complexities of integration.

Featured image is Old City Hall Facade, Coventry Village, Cleveland Heights, OH, by Warren LeMay