Glenville Shootout Casualties Included Carl Stokes’ Political Ambitions
The schools were segregated. The houses were dilapidated. White-owned businesses were leaving. Jobs were scarce.
But with the election of an African-American mayor, there was a feeling of hope again. Carl Stokes was ripping off the blinders.
“Over the years you see, City Hall had fairly systematically rejected everybody in the community, not just black people, not just poor white people, but business and industry and everybody,” Stokes said in a 1968 press conference.
His words meant that finally someone was seeing the issues in Glenville and elsewhere and would affect change.
Carl Stokes did initiate a program designed to improve conditions citywide. Called Cleveland: Now!, its goal was to raise $1.5 billion over ten years, targeted for funding community centers, health-clinic facilities, housing units, and especially youth activities. There was a jobs component as well.
But many felt left outside its offering, and a growing black nationalist movement that called itself New Libya had other goals, destructive goals.
One of their leadership, an acquaintance of the mayor, Fred Evans, who later took the name Ahmed Evans - worked within the system and was able to secure a $10,300 grant through Cleveland: Now!
The money was meant to fix up a dilapidated and abandoned store on Hough Avenue, for helping local youth learn African arts and crafts.
But the undercurrent of trouble persisted.
Police heard rumors of an upcoming planned attack against black leaders on July 24, taking it as fact, though it came from a questionable source.
On edge, the department placed squad cars in the area of Lakeview Road and Superior and Beulah Avenues on July 23rd.
Investigations still question where the very first shots originated, but a tow truck driver - dressed similarly to the police at the time - suddenly found himself struck by gunfire.
Author James Robenalt is an attorney who has studied the riots, the Stokes years, and what made Glenville erupt. He says the first victim might have been an officer, responding to what he thought was 'another' officer making an arrest.
“The first guy to get shot is a policeman who shows up,” said Robenalt. “Willard Wolff jumps out of his car where he sees a very tall guy who's not dressed as a policeman in plainclothes, but he’s 6’4”. He’s got a gun. He’s got an African-American guy on the ground in front of the nationalists’ house and he said, ‘I’m going to go get a wagon to take this guy in, and he runs off. And at that point Williard Wolff gets shot right between the eyes and is killed instantly. His partner gets shot seven times and survives.”
To this day, the tall man has never been identified.
The federally sanctioned 1969 report by Louis Masotti and Jerome Corsi says a black nationalist was the first person killed.
Fred Ahmed Evans was later quoted as saying that from his point of view, it was the nationalists who were ambushed, and not the police.
In response, Cleveland Police officers poured into the area. They moved in on a house on Auburndale Street where they thought gunfire originated, but quickly realized they were outgunned.
The radical group New Libya, later found to have used money from Ahmed Evans' Cleveland: Now! grant, had purchased sophisticated high powered weapons, including M-1s.
City issued six-shooters were no match.
“So within about a two-hour time frame, it was just pure chaos and brutal savage gunfire going on in this two block area in Glenville,” said Robenalt.
“I've talked to a lot of people who were around back then and a lot of them did just lie down in their homes and hope that it passed. There's real questions about how many other people were involved in sniping and certainly looting broke out and the rioting started and the National Guard had to be brought in.”
When morning came, three policemen and three nationalists lay dead. So too, a bystander.
The city was in shock, the police descended again in force - rioting ensued, shops were burned, and looted.
Residents were terrified. Most were uninformed as to why this was happening.
Geraldine Burton was working in her family-owned cleaners on East 101st and St Clair, and heard the commotion. Her story matches many others.
“I don't know. I truly do not know what went wrong,” said Burton. “Just all of a sudden looked like it was just, I was at the store and I was all by myself, and I didn't really know what to do this particular night of the fires. Well, I said, I guess I better go home.”
Now 89, she still vividly remembers witnessing the fires, and the looting, and a heavy police presence.
Mayor Stokes later said in a news conference that despite the carnage, what Cleveland witnessed was not a full on riot - that the attacks were targeted, and well-planned.
“The rioting or civil disobedience has been the frustrated rebellion or reaction of a deprived population to an unresponsive city government… That was NOT reflected in last night's incident,” said Stokes.
But once darkness fell, there was an escalation of fear. Civic leaders were on the streets, hoping to maintain calm.
One recognized street minister turned social worker, DeForest Brown, spoke to reporters about their goal for the second night of trouble.
“We, out of our concern, have accepted the responsibility of trying to restore order of a chaotic situation,” Brown said. “We have requested the mayor to respond in the way he has and have accepted this challenge and many community leaders will be out talking to those in the black community tonight about the responsibility of that community toward itself.”
With that support, the mayor then took the controversial stand of pulling all of the white officers from Glenville, hoping people would respond to black officers. Even today, historians debate whether the action saved lives. There were, however, no lives lost following the initial shootout.
But the black officers were too few for adequate patrols. And they were outnumbered by National Guardsmen on those same streets -- white National Guard -- so the rioting and looting continued.
The uprising cost the city an estimated $2.6 million - about $18.8 million in today's money. And the financial connection to Ahmed Evans, later found guilty of murder, was the political death knell of the Cleveland: Now! redevelopment plans, which had, until then, achieved national praise and were being adopted in some cities.
Mayor Stokes was elected for another term in 1969, but following the Glenville shootout, the higher expectations for his political career, were done.