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Know Ohio: Carl Stokes, First African American Mayor of a Major City

In this Know Ohio, we'll meet Carl Stokes, who grew up as a kid from Cleveland and eventually became the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city! 

Class Discussion Questions:

1) Create a campaign poster for Carl Stoke's run for the office of mayor in Cleveland.

Read the Script:

One of the most exciting things about living in this country is that no matter where you start in life, it's possible to rise up and do great things through hard work. Today, I'm going to tell you the story of one famous Ohioan who had it rough as a kid, but he grew up to shatter racial barriers and become the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city. 

Carl Stokes was born in Cleveland in 1927. He was the great grandson of a slave and when he was just two years old, his father died. After that, his mother struggled to provide for Carl and his brother, Louis. The Stokes family lived in the Outhwaite Homes, Cleveland's first housing project — a group of buildings owned by the government that served as homes for families who otherwise couldn't afford them. 

The Stokes boys would help support the family by carrying newspapers and working in neighborhood stores. Carl even dropped out of school to work full time and eventually joined the army, serving in Germany at the end of World War II. But when he returned home, Carl worked hard to complete his education, earning his high school diploma, a college degree, and a law degree. 

With all that education, Carl chose to serve the city he called home. First he worked as a lawyer in Cleveland, but was soon elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, the first African American democrat to do so. Because of his own background, Stokes became a strong supporter of racial equality and welfare for poor people. In 1965, he was narrowly defeated when he ran for mayor of Cleveland, but two years later, he picked himself up and ran again. His opponent the second time was Seth Taft, who was part of the political dynasty. His grandfather was former President William Howard Taft, but Stokes defeated Taft to become Cleveland's first Black mayor and a powerful symbol of a changing nation. 

What's even more remarkable is that he won this election when the city of Cleveland's population was overwhelmingly white. So at a time when racial tensions were high, he had to convince a mostly white population to trust him, a Black man, and he did it the same way he accomplished everything else, with hard work and a sense of humor. 

Because he grew up in Cleveland, he knew it well, and he used that knowledge as mayor. When he ran in 1967, he said, "My style will be management by being on the street, management by walking around. Third persons won't have to tell me what's going on in our city. I'll hear it, I'll see it, I'll touch it myself." 

He served two terms as mayor, and one of his greatest accomplishments was opening up city positions to African Americans and women. After he died in 1996, Carl's brother Louis, also a politician, said that his brother had "inspired Black Americans to aspire to higher political office all over the country," and I think we can all agree that few things are more inspiring than the great grandson of a slave defeating the grandson of a president to hold political office in a major U.S. city.

Instructional Links

Website Article: Ohio History Connection, Ohio History Central, Carl Stokes

Website Article: Black Past.org, Carl B.Stokes

Video: YouTube, Huntley Film Archives, Carl Stokes, Mayor of Cleveland, Archive Film 1967