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“We Had Everything” – Remembering Glenville Before The 1968 Shootout

Homes in Glenville on E. 109th St [Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections]
Black and white photo of a row of three story homes on E. 109th St in Cleveland's Glenville nieghborhood.

The neighborhood of Glenville wasn’t always as we know it now. Founded in 1870 as an independent village, it once included what's now Bratenahl, and was essentially a playground for upper middle class Clevelanders.

Until the middle 1950s, more than 90 percent of residents were Jewish, with only a few African-American families. It was the kind of place where longtime resident Geraldine Burton said, “you wanted to live.”

“Oh, it was wonderful.” Burton said. “We had everything we needed right in Glenville. We had A&P, Cleveland Trust bank, bowling lanes, beverage stores, ice cream stores and Kurtz Furniture. Never had to go downtown for anything. Everything was right there in our neighborhood. People knew everybody too. We could even go to sleep with our windows up and our doors open.”

But changes came rapidly. Burton, now 89 years old, recalls her family embraced the shift, seeing more people like themselves involved in the community. Her husband operated one, then eventually five dry cleaning outlets along the backbone streets of St. Clair and Superior Avenues.

But as the racial makeup of Glenville changed, Burton saw from behind the counter of the cleaners attitudes shifting as well .

“Some people would come, ‘Oh, I didn't know this was black, so I'll just go another place.’” Burton recalled. “That's alright. It’s your clothes. Take your business where you want to.”

Banking and municipal policies were driving more blacks to Cleveland's east side but support in the form of new housing, services and schools, was slow to follow.

Historian and author James Robenalt wrote in his recently released book on Glenville, “Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland” it quickly became unbearable.

“The African-Americans at that time couldn’t really go live as easily as they can today in Shaker Heights or someplace else. So it was like the only place to live and therefore it became very overcrowded. The schools were very overcrowded. Sanitation was bad,” said Robenalt. “I think Glenville at the time had about 70,000 people packed into it. Today it’s like 17,000.”

Institutionalized racism was the norm, and it was unrecognized for too long. In May of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Cleveland with scraps of his famous “letter from a Birmingham jail” still in his possession, as he had just been released. His visit energized the crowds but centered on non-violent solutions.

"We will meet physical force with soul force,” he told a crowd.

One year later, Malcolm X came to speak from the very same pulpit, at Cory Methodist Church in Glenville. The self-proclaimed black nationalist freedom fighter urged something different than had Dr. King. He spoke of taking action, even if necessary, violent action.

“It’s not so good to refer to what you're going to do as a sit-in. That brings you down,” Malcolm X said. “Think of the image - an old woman, old man, a chump, a coward can sit. Time for us to start doing some standing, and some fighting to back that up.”

But most weren't listening to Malcolm X. The Civil Rights Act was passed that year, spearheaded by first year President Lyndon Johnson. So when unrest did erupt across America, Robenalt said there was confusion among the majority.

“White Americans were saying: ‘Why are these people rioting? We're having progress.’ And the answer was it was too little, too late,” Robenalt explained. “The explosiveness had been going on for a long time and there was a failure of the white community to acknowledge that ghettos were white-created, white racism.”

In Cleveland, the election of Carl Stokes had been hailed as a benchmark - a major city, with a black mayor. It was believed rioting could never happen here, because black people wouldn't want to make Stokes look ineffective.

It was a direct question asked by a reporter – “Do Negroes feel that Mayor Stokes has been effective?” to Reverend Randall Osborne of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Cleveland once violence had broken out.

“Difficult to say because you have mixed emotions,” Osborne replied. “You have those who feel he has done a very wonderful job. You have others who feel he has been a figurehead. So you have mixed emotions.”

Mayor Stokes also came under attack following the ‘night of fires,’ when money from his pet project Cleveland: Now! had been used not to rehabilitate the community but to arm his supporters with high-powered weapons that some thought were used to kill cops.

The outrage never really quelled during the rest of Stokes’ term.

Rick Jackson is a senior host and producer at Ideastream Public Media. He hosts the "Sound of Ideas" on WKSU and "NewsDepth" on WVIZ.