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Documentary Captures '68 Glenville Shootout Experiences

Police at 106th and Superior (Cleveland Memory Project)

A documentary film crew is recording interviews with Clevelanders about a violent week in 1968. This summer marks the 50 th anniversary of a deadly gun battle in Glenville.  There are different accounts as to what exactly happened, but the filmmakers say they want to make sure the whole story is told for the next generation.

On July 23 rd, 1968, a shootout erupted between police and some Glenville residents who were members of a black nationalist group.  Who shot first and why is still in dispute, although a local television journalist at the time reported that it was pretty clear cut:

“It was almost like another Pearl Harbor as a group of crazed militants let loose with gunfire on police.  When it was over, ten persons were dead, including three officers.  Now, Fred Ahmed Evans, the leader of the militants, goes on trial in a few weeks for murder.”

But, the television news narrative of a gun battle on city streets, followed by looting and property damage, missed the story as experienced by community members.

Former Plain Dealer reporter Richard Peery being interviewed by director Paul Sapin for the documentary "A Few Nagging Questions" (Xray Spex Ltd)

Yahya Abdussabur and Khalid Samad were teenagers that summer.  Walking along Auburndale, near E.123 rd street, the chaos of fifty years ago came right back.

“This whole area was involved in the shooting,” Abdussabur said. 

“Police cars rolled up and pointed guns at us,” said Samad.  “I mean, I thought we were dead.”

Such personal perspectives are being captured by Paul Sapin, an England-based filmmaker who spent his teenage years in Shaker Heights.  It was his father’s connection to the Glenville shootout that brought Sapin back to Northeast Ohio.

“He was in advertising,” Sapin said.  “And a number of people felt that the trial had been unjust.  My father was approached to see if he’d be willing to do an ad in the local press, highlighting some of these injustices.” 

Image from the ad created by George Sapin was turned into a poster (Swann Auction Galleries)

George Sapin created a full-page ad that ran in the Cleveland Press while Fred Ahmed Evans awaited sentencing for his murder conviction.   It pictured the silhouette of a black man in handcuffs, his arms outstretched over his head.  Sapin came across the image in a Google search last year.

“It just literally pops into our view for the first time in nearly 50 years,” said Sapin.  “That prompted for me a hunt.  I became really interested in what had taken place; to try and see whether in the telling of this moment we could get more than one narrative out there.” 

Helping Sapin on this quest is a group of community members who have no memory of what happened in July 1968. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District put him in touch with Glenville high school teacher Shanita Horton, who is supervising a crew of student researchers.  Horton said the filmmakers are following their progress.

Shanita Horton's students are doing a class research project in conjunction with the documentary film "A Few Nagging Questions" (Xray Spex Ltd)

“Actually, it’s turned into an actual course where they’re going to get credit for it,” Horton said.

The students are looking through trial transcripts, newspaper clipping files, and speaking with residents to hear some of the personal stories behind the sensational headlines.  For Yahya Abdussabur, the community was a powder keg of frustrations that exploded fifty years ago.

“The insurrection was due to not being employed,” he said.  “A lot of people wanted jobs, you know, wanted to be able to provide for their families.  That has a serious impact on people. 

Khalid Samad said he likes the renewed attention to Glenville.

“It’s time for the story to be told,” he said.  “People are passing away, you know.  There are still a lot of people alive who were here.”

Director of Photography Víctor Tadashi Suárez records the testimony of Abdul Rahim Abdullah at a Glenville community meeting (David C. Barnett / ideastream)

For the past fifty years, the residents of Glenville have lived with an image of urban decay and danger.  Shanita Horton hopes that recent redevelopment efforts in the community will help turn that reputation around.

“That’s important to me,” she said.  “Because, I’ve experienced a lot of negativity when people find out where I’m from and where I teach.”

And she thinks the documentary project is another step away from that negativity, because it’s sharing voices from the community. 

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.