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Divided by Design: Tracking Neighborhood Racial Segregation in Cleveland

Detail of a 1936 Home Owners Loan Corp. "security map," showing the East Side neighborhoods near Case Western Reserve University.  According to the map legend, green was considered "best," blue was "still desirable," yellow was "definitely declining," and red was "hazardous." (Ohio State University Libraries)

Like many cities, Cleveland has a black part of town and a white part of town.  These divisions didn’t happen by chance.  Ideastream’s new series, Divided By Design, explores the policies that shaped and isolated our neighborhoods.  But there’s another storyline, too, one of black upward mobility that Todd Michney highlights in his new book, Surrogate Suburbs Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900 – 1980 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). 

 “Polices have shaped the kind of racial geography we see in the cities, on various levels, whether on federal state or local” levels, Michney said.  He said most were crafted during the 1930s, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to shore up the nation’s housing market during the Great Depression.

“We had policies like redlining, which was a project of the New Deal agency called the Home Owners Loan Corporation,” said Michney, a visiting assistant professor in the School of History and Sociology at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  Under that project, he said HOLC officials “basically made maps of what neighborhoods were profitable and what were population trends in those neighborhoods.” 

Assessors for the Home Owners Loan Corporation routinely gave neighborhoods with African American residents a red or yellow color code, which signaled to banks that these were high-risk, “undesirable” neighborhoods that were not worthy of investment.   

 “Following WWII we had some even more aggressive federal policies like urban renewal which came out of the 1954 housing act. And that demolished entire areas of the city mostly bordering downtown.  A large idea there was to shore up the real estate values of downtown. That created a chain reaction of people displaced into other areas of the city.

The highways being built in the 1950s under the Federal Highway Act of 1956 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s leadership also led to racial segregation.   

“The Federal Highway Act enabled white, working class residents to relocate to the suburbs, people who wouldn’t even consider owning a home prior to these New Deal reforms.”  The new highways that were built, said Michney, “gave them a means to get to the suburbs and purchase a house for less than it would cost to rent a house. And it just kind of facilitated this outward flow that increased the inequality between different population groups in the city.”

African Americans who had been steered into Cleveland’s Cedar-Central neighborhood were blocked from moving to the suburbs.  Instead, they moved to the “surrogate suburbs” Michney writes about, like Glenville and Mt. Pleasant.  Michney said these then-rural neighborhoods on the periphery of Cleveland’s city limits were still open to African American homeowners. 

 “Glenville didn’t have widespread deed restrictions, which were statements saying that African Americans or other racial minorities” were barred from buying certain parcels. 

“White homeowners who sold to such groups could actually be sued in court,” said Michney. 

Michney said a “small trickle of African Americans” started moving to Glenville as early as 1915.  “In the case of Mount Pleasant, it was still developing and upwardly mobile black families could buy land there before it was developed and before those kinds of deed restrictions and racial covenants could be put in place.

Michney said Cleveland did not experience the same level and intensity of white resistance to these new black neighbors.

“I certainly don’t want to downplay the violence that Cleveland had,” said Michney.  “There certainly were confrontations that did occur.”  That included frequent clashes at local municipal pools, the bombing of the Towne Casino jazz club in 1953 and the harassment of Lee-Harvard’s first black couple, Wendell and Genevieve Stewart, that same year. (See our interactive timeline for more key moments that shaped where people lived in Cleveland.)

“But Cleveland had a comparatively good record of providing protection, with mayors providing 24-hour, round-the-clock protection to black families that moved into white neighborhoods,” noted Michney.  That included Mayor Thomas Burke, who intervened to protect the Stewarts.  “We also had a much more proactive Community Relations Board, which was founded in 1945, that tried to mediate these conflicts.”

Michney said another factor to Cleveland’s racial peace, compared to other cities like Detroit and Chicago, was its large Jewish population.

“There is a pattern nationwide of Jewish neighborhoods turning over into African-American neighborhoods with less violence,” he said. That was significant for Cleveland, because the city, during the early decades of the 20th Century, “had the second-highest percentage of Jewish population after New York City, and the fourth-largest Jewish population in the country.”

Michney said social scientists and historians believe the pattern is due to several factors, starting with a higher level of contact between Jews and blacks.

“Jews were one of the few ethnic entrepreneurs to set up businesses in African American neighborhoods, which sometimes could lead to conflicts,” said Michney. “But they were willing to have African American customers.”

He said they had a shared experience of discrimination.

“Some of these restrictive covenants were applied to Jews as well as African Americans.”  He said Jews and blacks worked together to have these restrictions outlawed.

Finally, Jews had a higher level of upward mobility than other white ethnic groups, opening their properties to black ownership.    

 “Jews were moving in Cleveland to suburban locations like Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights as early as the late 1920s.  So that created opportunities for upwardly mobile African Americans to move into those formerly Jewish neighborhoods,” said Michney.

Michney comes by his interest in Cleveland honestly.  He grew up here. 

 “Long before I ever encountered them as concepts for scholarly study, I had opportunities to ponder racial, ethnic and religious identities: in biannual visits with family friends in Glenville, during several years spent in a racially integrated Catholic grade school in Shaker Heights, and in the Orange City School District, which includes Woodmere, a substantially African American suburb,” he wrote in Surrogate Suburbs. 

But Cleveland intrigued him precisely because of the dynamics of black upward mobility.

In Cleveland, Michney said, “we see a notable example of a city that, quote, unquote, ‘managed’ its race relations more effectively.  Jet Magazine, for example, ran an article titled, ‘Cleveland: A Friendly City for Negroes.’  Cleveland is a city with a storied past.  And it hasn’t received that much attention from urban historians compared to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or even Detroit. So I was particularly curious to get this story out there so we can start to understand how Cleveland’s path may have diverged, and what stories there are out there that we still need to hear.”

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