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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Grassroots Activists in Cleveland Heights Came Together in 1960s to Resist Segregation, Promote Interracial Living

Posted By on Tue, Dec 29, 2020 at 8:10 AM

  • Cleveland Landmarks Press

The following is the introduction to Susan Kaeser's Resisting Segregation, Cleveland Heights Activists Shape Their Community 1964-1976, published this year by Cleveland Landmarks Press. Copies can be purchased online at

“Above all, the King years should serve as a bracing reminder that citizens and leaders can work miracles together despite every hardship, against great odds.”
– Taylor Branch, The King Years

In the winter of 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, a handful of young white women met in the Cleveland Heights home of social worker Barbara Roderick. That day, this small group of women committed themselves to a long-term quest to transform an all-white suburb of 61,000 residents into an enduring, racially integrated community. The meeting would lay the groundwork for Heights Citizens for Human Rights, a grassroots civil rights organization devoted to transforming Cleveland Heights. They organized because they knew their elected leaders would never lead such a social revolution. It would be up to them.

Courageous African-Americans, the “foot soldiers” of the civil rights movement, inspired grassroots involvement in unlikely places such as Cleveland Heights, an elite white suburb. Galvanized by these African-American role models, Roderick and her group rejected white supremacy, racial discrimination, and segregation, along with the limits they imposed on the lives and opportunities of those for whom race defined housing choices. They supported the movement and were ready to do their part where they had the best chance of making a difference – their community.

At the time, discrimination was legal, and residential segregation was nearly universal. Starting with the first wave of the Great Migration of African- Americans departing the South during World War I, white property owners in northern cities imposed racial separation. The white real estate industry demonized African Americans as “undesirable” and “inharmonious.” These powerful gatekeepers defined the presence of one black person in a neighborhood as a drain on property values and a destabilizing force on the community. Segregation, enforced with restrictive covenants and intimidation, was their solution.

Segregation was further etched across the American landscape by the New Deal, whose federal housing policies fueled the growth of suburbs and segregation. During the post-World War II housing boom, only single-race neighborhoods were eligible for public funds to finance the development or purchase of suburban housing, making segregation federal policy.

Interracial neighborhoods were characterized as “not a legitimate part of the system; they were assumed to be in a state of pathological transition,” between all-white and all-black. This destructive real estate myth ignored the reality that racial turnover was profitable to realtors, and that real estate practices like blockbusting and racial steering made integration transitional.

Segregation was carefully guarded by the real estate industry and policy makers and endorsed by the racial prejudice of property owners and white neighbors. In 1960, it was so prevalent – and barriers to integration so powerful – that interracial living was nearly nonexistent in the United States. In Cuyahoga County, race defined housing opportunities for 1.6 million people, including the residents of one of its oldest suburbs, Cleveland Heights.

Could good-hearted citizens, focused on their local community, make real headway against such deeply seated odds?

Segregation was national in reach, and experienced in neighborhoods – the logical place to create change. Residents of a street have a vested interest in the success of their neighborhood, as well as significant power to inflict harm or promote harmony. Neighbor to neighbor engagement proved to be a powerful way to strengthen communities and promote stability.

Cleveland Heights activists rejected the rationale for segregation and embraced integration as the hallmark of a desirable community. For them, an open housing market, one in which ability to pay was the only variable that should affect access, was essential to promoting black civil rights and equal opportunity, thereby healing racial division and taming white supremacy.

Sensing the inevitability that African-Americans would find ways to escape overcrowded city neighborhoods, and believing that this was desirable, activists mobilized to improve their community by ending segregation. They were ready to use their time, connections, and determination to achieve a seemingly audacious goal – ending racial segregation. However, there was neither a roadmap for creating change, nor any real evidence they could succeed. Nevertheless, they believed “integration was possible if people worked at it.”

Over the next twelve years, hundreds of Cleveland Heights residents worked through five different local organizations which had been formed to build a stable and inclusive integrated community. In 1976, a critical piece of the puzzle was completed when a municipal ordinance outlawed discrimination, blockbusting, and racial steering, and city council adopted a nine-point strategy to maintain demand for interracial living and guarantee its stability. Local elected officials committed public resources to integration, and from this point on, integration became a selling point for living in this older, first-ring suburb.

Building this stable, integrated community was achieved in two phases. The first created integration and the second defended it. The first section of this story describes the initial challenge: recruiting African Americans to a nearly all-white community. Between 1964 and 1970, Cleveland Heights residents working through Heights Citizens for Human Rights and a variety of regional fair housing organizations recruited and supported African-Americans who were willing to move to a potentially hostile neighborhood. This involved circumventing resistant realtors and organizing neighbors to welcome outsiders. They engaged in a variety of activities to promote among their neighbors respect for African-Americans and their rights, and acceptance of racial change. They also mobilized the community to rebuke violence and embrace integration when, in a handful of incidents, newly arrived black residents experienced intimidation.

By 1970, the city had achieved some level of integration, and the federal fair housing law was in place. This marked the start of the second phase: defending integration. Despite progress, realtors and home owners continued to discriminate, and community comfort with integration was tenuous. The new challenge was to protect integration from white fear and persistent pressure from lenders and realtors to make neighborhoods all-black, a challenge that remains today.

In the second section of this account, I focus on the period between 1970 and 1976, when Cleveland Heights residents created four additional organizations to build upon and defend nascent integration. It ends in 1976 when city government adopted its Nine Point Plan to support integration as the community’s greatest asset.

These four organizations were: Forest Hill Church and its housing arm, the Forest Hill Church Housing Corporation; Committee to Improve Community Relations; St. Ann Housing Action Committee; and the Heights Community Congress.

These community-led projects were motivated by a commitment to social justice and a conviction that massive white flight would be costly and disruptive. Their impact demonstrates the amazing power of grassroots groups to challenge the status quo.

Activism did not spring out of thin air. Only a handful of people established these citizen-led organizations; but because they focused on an issue of significance, they succeeded in mobilizing a large constituency. As a result, these groups provide inspiring evidence of how the leadership of individual community members can animate important social change. For that reason, this book includes an account of each group’s unique origins and the strategies they employed to accomplish their ultimate goals.

For integration to endure, realtors had to relinquish control over where people lived, residents had to accept change, and race had to subside as a variable affecting choice. Advocates used a variety of strategies – from personal appeal, education, cooperation, local laws, and legal action – to rein in realtors who engaged in the highly profitable practices of racial steering and blockbusting. Community organizing grew as a means to address fears, solve problems, strengthen community loyalty, and develop a sense of agency among residents that would make staying in Cleveland Heights desirable and integration viable. A new organization to support housing maintenance, and a new ordinance to require it, addressed another issue that could undermine stability. Also, regional fair housing organizations took the pressure off of integrated communities by pressing for new communities to open their doors and encourage African-Americans to seek housing in many suburbs.

After the initial work to recruit African-Americans to Cleveland Heights, city government marketed the community to both black and white prospective residents and invested in local services that would keep the community attractive. Private programs offered incentives for homeownership that would support integration. The Committee to Improve Community Relations, an African-American organization, played a critical role in changing white attitudes and white institutions to promote successful interracial living. This combination of civic involvement, municipal laws, and city investments was highly effective.

The early and sustained work by enthusiastic and determined citizens paid off. They successfully created a firm foundation to make integration viable and enduring, despite the odds. Leadership by tenacious residents made integration a virtue and turned the definition of a successful community upside down. They built a strong partnership between city government and new, nonprofit organizations that shared responsibility for providing a full range of resources to make integration work. Together, they built a vibrant community that was stronger because it was diverse. They made Cleveland Heights a place where civic engagement was possible and citizen activism was the norm.

Racial justice was also advanced by national leaders. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy declared civil rights a moral issue and called for the nation to advance racial equality. He introduced the first civil rights legislation since the Civil War. After President Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson brought the legislation to fruition with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He also provided essential leadership for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. These laws revived commitment to equal citizenship and made it enforceable.

At the height of his political leadership, President Johnson made clear his commitment to equality as something more than rhetoric by stating, “It
is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must
have the ability to walk through those gates . . . We seek not just equality
as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

Richard Nixon, who became president in 1969, did not share President Johnson's commitment to results. Nixon believed discrimination should end, but he was not willing to alienate suburban voters by supporting a proactive role for the federal government. Instead, he opted for local control, leaving responsibility for meaningful change in the hands of communities. Luckily, grassroots organizations in Cleveland Heights and other communities had already stepped in to advance integration. In May 1970, Barbara Roderick represented Cleveland Heights at the first meeting of National Neighbors, a new federation of 33 grassroots organizations dedicated to multiracial living. The meeting included representatives from many previously white, city neighborhoods that had recently experienced racial change with the arrival of blacks who had been displaced by urban renewal. Other member organizations, like Heights Citizens for Human Rights, were from integrated suburbs where building integration was intentional.

Members came from as far west as the Crenshaw neighborhood in Los Angeles, and as far east as Jamaica Plain in Boston. The meeting, held in Dayton, Ohio, included relatively new groups along with groups established in the 1950s like the Ludlow Neighborhood Association in Shaker Heights, the Hyde-Park Kenwood Community Conference from Chicago’s south side, the West End Community Conference in St. Louis, and Neighborhood Inc. in Washington, DC. Neighborhood groups from suburbs of Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, and Rochester were also there. Ohio was well represented by Toledo’s Women of the West End, and groups from Trotwood-Madison, Akron, and Cincinnati. By 1981, National Neighbors had 125 members in 25 states and had begun securing foundation grants and federal contracts.

Nevertheless, despite persistent grassroots action to maintain integration, National Neighbors closed its national office in 1985. Fair housing had lost its edge, national policy was in retreat, and funders turned away from community organizing. After limping along for a few years with board member Chip Bromley guiding its work from Cleveland Heights, it merged with the National Community Reinvestment Corporation, bringing to an end a golden era of community-led initiatives to advance multiracial living.

The Cleveland Heights story unfolded at the high point of the civil rights movement, when federal commitment to social justice and proactive strategies to challenge residential segregation were at their peak. The early federal retreat from President Johnson’s vision for achieving civil rights confirmed what activists had known from the start: elected officials would not create a social revolution. It was up to them.

Unfortunately, some communities had not acted soon enough or prevailed long enough or they lacked sufficient firepower to resist this retreat. Other communities lacked the amenities needed to attract diverse buyers. But suburbs like Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, Oak Park, Evanston, and Hyde Park prevailed. They proved that with substantial, long-term attention, interracial living was achievable, preferable, and worth the effort.

More than 150 years after the abolition of slavery, white supremacy continues to thwart opportunity and divide society. Neither laws nor civic action have fully extinguished its incendiary power. Nonetheless, Cleveland Heights provides inspirational evidence that citizens working together can confront barriers to equality, change attitudes and behavior, make the political system more responsive, and create lasting social change.

As was true in the King years, citizens and leaders can work miracles together, against great odds. It is still true today.

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