50 Years Ago, U.S. Civil Rights Commission Investigated Crowded Housing in Hough

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In 1965, during a protest for low-income residents, four demonstrators were arrested for dumping dead rats on the steps of Cleveland city hall.

Among those detained was Hattie Mae Dugan, an activist and 30-year-old mother of one. The following year, she testified at a hearing of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

The commission met in April 1966 at Liberty Hill Baptist Church on Euclid Avenue and at the federal courthouse downtown. In the first public session, Commission Chairman John Hannah said this was the beginning of a national inquiry.

“This hearing in Cleveland is the first of a new series of hearings the commission will hold to seek the facts concerning civil rights problems affecting Negro citizens and other minorities living in the inner city,” Hannah said. Recordings of commission testimony were stored at the National Archives.

‘They Were Living in Overcrowded Conditions’

At the civil rights hearing, Dugan showed commissioners photos of her apartment in Hough: the dingy hallway; the kitchen light fixture jutting from a cracked and peeling ceiling; the bathtub, stopped up with water.

“The reason water is in here is that it takes from three to five days for this water to run out,” she said at the time. “I can’t take a bath. I have to go and borrow a bath tub. We don’t have any hot water anyway.”

Dugan said she’d complained about these conditions to her landlords.

“It’s taken them two months to unstop the toilet,” she said. “During my complaints, the building was changed to a different hand, and then I called those people and complained about the ceiling, about the hallways. Still hasn’t been anything done about that.”

Hough was already a densely populated neighborhood by the 1950s, when it became a destination for black residents, both from other parts of Cleveland and from the South. Whites from Appalachia also arrived. As they moved in, other whites left, often renting out their homes.

“They were living in rental property that was not maintained,” Rev. Cecelia Williams said in a recent interview. “They were living in overcrowded conditions.”

Williams said she surveyed Hough residents about their living situations in the 1960s. Some people had tried to become homeowners, she said, signing agreements called land contracts. Under these deals, the seller still had the power to evict.

“Which means that you could get in the house with almost no money down,” Williams said. “But if you missed a payment, there was no legal backup to keep you in the property.”

In 1962, Lois Jones and her family moved into the Hough area, settling between Euclid and Chester. While she said her apartment was in good condition, that wasn’t true for everyone.

“The house that was directly across the street from me didn’t even have steps up to the front porch,” Jones said. “And inside the house, there were like holes in the walls. There were lots of rats and roaches and things like that.”

Urban Renewal Comes to Hough

In the early 1960s, the city slated parts of Hough for urban renewal, pledging to demolish or refurbish homes while securing land for development around University Circle. The project was called University-Euclid. As the years went on, residents complained that their neighborhoods weren’t looking so renewed. 

Cleveland’s commissioner of slum clearance and blight control, James P. Friedman, faced questions about this from Civil Rights Commission counsel Howard Glickstein.

“Why are so many buildings in University-Euclid not in compliance with the housing code?” Glickstein asked.

“There was a policy set down in the department of urban renewal and housing in the city of Cleveland some years ago that there would not be code enforcement in the phase one or the phase in execution of that project,” Friedman answered.

As homes from downtown to Hough aged, new houses popped up in Cleveland’s suburbs, where many white families moved.

“Has the city of Cleveland done anything to expand housing opportunities for Negroes in the metropolitan area?” Glickstein asked.

After 11 seconds of silence, Friedman answered.

“None that I know of,” he replied.

A few months later, the Cleveland subcommittee of the commission issued its report on the hearing. It urged more housing for low-income residents, code enforcement in the University-Euclid urban renewal area, and a citizen-run housing organization. 

The subcommittee wrote: “The recommendations in this report call for ACTION in Washington…in Columbus…in Cuyahoga County…and, particularly, in Cleveland.”

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