The Spark that Set Hough on Fire in July 1966
Fifty years ago in Cleveland, racial tensions were high. As we’ve reported this week, many black residents in the Hough neighborhood lived in overcrowded, poorly maintained rentals. They complained of police abuse and a mayoral administration that was unresponsive to their concerns.
The tension boiled over in the midst of a summer heat wave -- As part of our series “Hough: Before and Beyond ’66,” ideastream’s Mark Urycki takes us back to July 18, 1966.
It was hot and uncomfortable on Monday July 18th in Cleveland. The city was suffering from a heat wave and the predominantly black area of Hough was not comfortable. Hough Insurance man Ed Pinkney recalled in 2006.
“And these people were just jammed together in a small area, a lot of apartment buildings with no air conditioning, no place for children to play, no recreation center or things like that so people were out on the street, primarily just to get out of the heat.
At the Seventy-Niner Café at Hough and East 79th, a black man bought a bottle of wine to go and asked for a glass of water. Owners Dave and Abe Feigenbaum refused the water believing the man was going to use the glass to drink wine in the bar. An argument ensued and they reportedly told a barmaid not to serve water to blacks.
A short time later someone posted a sign on the outside of the café that said "no water for blacks" but used a racial slur. That was the spark that lit a fire.
Black residents smashed windows and set buildings on fire. Hough resident Louis “Luke” McCoy was 18 at the time.
“You could see fire, probably houses, burning, You could see flames in the air. You could hear the fire engines. You could hear the police cars. You could hear people running, you could hear the footsteps because everybody was looting.
The Pastor of Greater Avery AME church, Charles Lucas
“Hough was on fire. I don’t how many fires, I couldn’t remember and it burned down. Hough down that night.
Carl Stokes was a State Representative at the time of the riots. He told WCPN in 1986 that the police reacted with a careless if not brutal response.
“Indiscriminately firing their rifles, handguns, setting up sieges around buildings where it turned out to be non-existent snipers were supposedly located, speaking, shouting at citizens and using all sorts of profanity yelling at people to get off the streets of the neighborhood in which they lived.”
CBS Newsman Bill Jorgenson reported that street gangs and snipers drove off firemen called to the scene.
“There was screaming and beating and fires. The Mobs roamed a 30 block area where most of the city’s 300,000 Negroes lived. There were gun battles and there was death in the street. One woman was killed by a sniper bullet as she leaned out her window to watch the chaos in the streets below. “
That woman was 26 year old Joyce Arnett, a mother of three, who ducked into an apartment building. She leaned out the window to say she wanted to get home to her children. She was killed with a 38 caliber bullet. Police claimed she was hit in a crossfire.
One of the black militants in Hough, Lewis Robinson, said in a 1986 interview that police in a passing car were going to shoot him until they noticed he had his child with him.
“And I ran into the bar that was next to the gasoline station at 82nd street and told the people what had happened. I told them that before this thing is over there might be bloodshed because they just tried to kill me.
“I began to pass the word to the brothers, as we called the guys in the gun club then. And not long there were 6 or 8 cars of brothers in the neighborhood and they came down with guns and they put up a sniper ring around the block where I lived.”
The Hough Opportunity Center was a jobs center near 79th street. Director Fred Barkley watched the riot start outside the 79-er Café.
“We saw it spread. We saw the fire department, the police, and more than 200 teenagers and adults suddenly cascading and billowing down Hough Avenue.”
Barkley told reporters the next morning that as the fires spread, he kept the center open all night for the hundreds of teenagers in the streets.
“We invited them in. We were able to take a certain number of names who were interested in employment. Others came in. Many of them talked with us, used the restrooms, they had pop, et cetera. This was their refuge, their haven.”
Black police officer James Barrett watched fellow officers both ignore violence and over-react to it.
“I walked the street with guys like Harllel Jones, George Forbes, Bert Gardner, Carl Stokes. We walked the street at night. I was working a straight day shift and I’ll bet you from 11 to 3 or 4 O’clock in the morning I was out walking the street trying to walk the street making sure those kids didn’t get killed out there. “
One of those teenagers was Luke McCoy who was carrying a stereo out of a pawn shop window when he was suddenly spotted by a flashlight.
“The policeman had a flashlight in my face and I heard a voice say ‘Luke, is this Luke McCoy?’ It was coming from one of the policemen, you know. And I’m like ‘Yeah.”
The officer turned out to be a guy McCoy played football with as a 12 year old.
“He said ‘Luke, get the hell out of here.’ I didn’t know if he wanted me to put the stereo down and leave or take the stereo with me because I still had the stereo in my hands. I took the stereo with me. That’s the only thing I got out of the Hough riots. “
Things calmed down Tuesday as the sun came up but there was fear that the trouble would start again at sunset. Mayor Ralph Locher decided to call in the National Guard.
“In the interest of public safety of all the citizens of Cleveland I have called upon James Rhodes, governor of Ohio, to supplement the police division of the city of Cleveland with the National Guard. Some 1000 National Guardsmen will be in Cleveland within the next few hours.
It would take the Guard until almost 10 pm before they rolled into Hough. That was too late for 36 year old African American Percy Granger. He showed up to help a friend board up his business and was shot in the head and died.
The Cleveland branch of the NAACP called for the firing of Safety Director John McCormick for not hiring more African American police officers. Chapter President Donald Jacobs.
“Mr. McCormick promised us he was going to do all he could to strengthen the recruitment process to make sure that more Negroes were sought after and that we would have much better proportion in the police force between whites and Negroes.
The presence of the National Guard did quell some of the violence in the area but tensions remained between whites and blacks. Black store owners would post signs in their windows that read “Soul brother” so they wouldn’t be attacked.
Ed Mishic, a white man, stood with his father, armed, outside their store just north of Hough. He was 19 years old.
“The owners stand outside with shotguns. And it wasn’t that they were going to shoot an African American or shoot a white person. They wanted to protect their property.”
The feeling at City Hall was that black militants, possibly communists, were behind the riots. Mayor Locher..
“There’s a lot to be said for that. The way they started at a moment’s notice, seem to terminate virtually at a moment’s notice. They to go from one city to another. That is a theory that has a great deal to be said for it.
On Wednesday July 20, 1966 President Lyndon Johnson was asked about the racial unrest in Cleveland and other cities that summer. Johnson was mostly sympathetic to the inequality that blacks faced and thought white Americans agreed.
“I believe that most of those 90% have come ‘round to the viewpoint that they want to see equality given their fellow citizens. Now, they want to see it done under the law , they want to see it done orderly, and they want to see it done without violence.”
That violence continued on Thursday night the 21st. Sam Winchester of the Kinsman area was standing at a bus stop to go work when he was shot killed by white men in a car. In Little Italy armed vigilantes, said to be defending their turf from blacks, killed 29 year old Benoris Toney, a black man sitting in a car.
By Friday of that week long-awaited rain came and cooled down Hough. Luke MCoy said it was never the same.
“Before the riots there were stores, bars, businesses, poolrooms, a lot of things in the Hough area. But after the riots a lot of that had been turned down. It was almost like a ghost town. “
Four people, all African Americans, has been killed. A Grand Jury investigation of the riots blamed black militants who it said were “avowed believers in violence and extremism.”
With WCPN help from Nick Castele, Darrielle Snipes, Matt Richmond, and Vivian Goodman. Archival help from Lisa Lewis of The Northeast Ohio Broadcast Archives at John Carroll University.