The Stuff of History 

Museum founder keeps memories and grudges alive.

Icabod Flewellen and his archives. - WALTER  NOVAK
His name is so quaint, it could be written on slate in a one-room schoolhouse: Icabod Flewellen, the letters rendered in a florid hand.

But whether he was born quaint or blossomed into quaintness is hard to tell. He was a bookish child -- if someone "born 40" can be called a child -- with peculiar ideas. He asked lots of questions, usually of grown-ups who had no interest in answering them.

"I call myself an oddball," says Flewellen, who founded Cleveland's first black history museum. "People say they know me, but you ask them who Icabod Flewellen is, they can't tell you. I have very strange ideas about what works and what doesn't."

An avalanche of papers spills from his ramshackle, three-story house, where there's barely room to walk. Sepia-toned photographs rest on step landings, and the telephone rings weakly under a mountain of newspapers. He's reserved half the attic to live in, patching the peppermint-pink walls with duct tape.

Call him eccentric, but the grandfatherly archivist is no recluse. Technically, he was an amateur historian until 1993, when he became the oldest-ever graduate of Case Western Reserve University. The Western Reserve Historical Society has been courting him for 20 years, hot for his home collection of African Americana. And Cleveland's African American Museum, which he directed for many years, has thrown parties in his honor.

But he hasn't shown up for some of those parties, because the museum that he started ultimately humiliated him. In 1985, board members locked him out of the building, cut him off from his artifacts there, and replaced him with another director. He accuses them of bad business practices; they paint him as a hardhead.

"It happened before I got here," says current director Nancy Nolan-Jones. "He was indeed locked out. That was three administrations ago. We've all tried to make amends. He's definitely not locked out now."

But he still feels as though he was robbed. Next to his armchair rests a photo, blown up to poster size, taken the day he got canned. In it, he's struggling futilely with a barred door.

"I've never been able to think in my life," he says. "But I've got one hell of a memory." Which serves him well as a historian -- and as a grudge-holder.

Neither the African American Museum nor the historical society will be getting Flewellen's papers. Flewellen scorns the historical society because, he claims, it neglected black history until the 1970s. What's worse, when he applied for membership in 1945, the board denied him because he was black.

"I sent them a check, and they sent the check back," he says. Only 19 years later would he become a member, with the help of a white friend.

This is news to WRHS director Kermit Pike. "I've worked with him for a long time," Pike says. "Let me put it this way: We're well aware of his collection, and we've let him know that we'd be helpful in preserving it."

Nonetheless, Flewellen has quietly decided to donate his life's work to the East Cleveland Public Library, which has a primarily black constituency. Strapped for cash, the library is trying to raise funds for expansion, which includes plans for an "Icabod Flewellen Room."

"There's so much stuff, and it's so disorganized," says Greg Reese, library director, of Flewellen's archives. "But there are many things that would interest a historian."

Like the photograph, taken in 1916, of the annual black cotillion ball held downtown. The revelers are arranged according to wealth, rich in front and poor in back. Or the painting of George Washington's black son, the 90-year-old photo of the city's black doctors, and the file cabinets stuffed with keepsakes -- bulletins, yearbooks, concert programs -- from Cleveland's black churches.

Having his name inscribed on a library wall is poetic justice for Flewellen, 84, who grew up in West Virginia when blacks couldn't set foot in libraries. Craving knowledge about black history, he befriended a newspaper baler. The friend saved the discarded black papers for Flewellen to devour.

"So many facts were in there," he marvels. "There were black newspapers from all over. And then I got him reading the papers, too. He even built me a shelf up there, and when he found something he thought I'd like, he'd set it there."

Flewellen's family cared little for black history. They were fairly ambivalent about little Icabod, too. But his father -- a "singing preacher" who traveled constantly and "spent so much time saving people, he never got around to saving his own family" -- at least planted a seed.

"He was going down to the train station to see the World War I soldiers coming back," recalls Flewellen, who was four then. "I asked 'Can I go with you?' It was the white troops. They had three or four [marching] bands welcoming them back.

"We went again the next day. Again, three or four bands.

"On Friday, that's when the colored troops came in. Not a band there at all. Not even a Jew's harp. One of the soldiers had lost a leg. He was with the group, his mother helping him along."

The lack of fanfare opened his eyes. "I wanted to find out why. There were several black bands right across the river. Someone could've called them up. And the Elks band could've been there, too."

On impulse, his father bought him a book on the mistreatment of black soldiers. "That was the only thing my dad ever did. And that's how I learned to read. Well, the funny papers first. My mother helped me read the funny papers."

His mom and younger siblings took off when he was 12. "She left me with my daddy. And Daddy left me at the parsonage. I lived by myself all my life."

He dreamed of college, but had to settle for segregated vocational school at West Virginia State College. "There were 50 students, and you're there for six months," he remembers proudly. "The top 10 they kept for another six months. I was there for the first top 10, and the next top 10, and the next top 10."

He longed to study aviation, but the program wasn't open to blacks. So he volunteered at the airport, hoping to "steal" an education.

Believing in the power of the pen, he dashed off letters to Franklin Roosevelt, asking for an aviation program. "I musta wrote him by the dozens," he recalls. The aviation school, the first for blacks, was established before he left.

With historian Carter G. Woodson's blessing, Flewellen came to Cleveland "on Thanksgiving Day 1945" to start the museum. He'd read that the city was the most liberal place for blacks to do research.

Once here, he took a job as a federal messenger. "I could have taken the clerk's job -- it paid more." As a messenger, though, he could do his own research between deliveries, knocking on black families' doors, asking if he could photograph heirloom pictures, diplomas, and other memorabilia.

In the late '60s, he was hired as a janitor at Case Western, where employees received three free credit hours per semester. "That way, the school could pick up the tab."

He'd spent his whole life trying to get an education. At age 78, he got the all-important paper to prove it.

"I don't know what other people's experience has been," he reflects, "but for everyone that's kicked me in the teeth, there's somebody trying to keep people from kicking me in the teeth."

Calling Flewellen "one of those cantankerous old uncles everyone has, but you love him anyway," Nolan-Jones says she hopes that someday, the museum and its creator can be at peace. "We have his picture hanging in the museum," she says. "We'd love to have him back. But in Mr. Flewellen's heart, it probably will never be resolved. There are several African American museums around the country like this, started by people who spent their life collecting things, and it's their baby. Then it gets to be an institution, and it's not theirs anymore. And they can't accept that."

Especially if they're an institution in themselves.

More by Laura Putre


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