Before "diversity"—the integration of Cleveland Heights [part 1 of 3]
How many transformative social movements have started over a pot of coffee?
Just as the campaign to stop the freeways from decimating the near East Side suburbs was driven by women through a network of garden clubs, the movement to integrate Cleveland Heights began with a handful of women in a living room. In the early 1960s, some Cleveland Heights residents involved in the struggle for school desegregation in Cleveland began to question the virtually all-white composition of their own neighborhoods and schools, and to focus their attention closer to home.
In that era, women married to white professional men rarely held paying jobs. Cleveland Heights, located near University Circle, attracted many families of doctors and college professors. Early in 1964, Barbara Roderick invited some friends over to discuss integrating their community and its schools. In June of that year, Heights Citizens for Human Rights (HCHR) officially launched.
HCHR members documented the role of the real estate business in maintaining segregation and worked to open their neighbors’ minds. A simple survey of realtors operating in Cleveland Heights found none who were willing to show houses to black prospective buyers. In response, HCHR organized street watches to identify residents preparing to move. The organization would try to persuade them to sell by owner, or through the regional nonprofit Fair Housing Inc. As black residents gradually moved into Cleveland Heights, HCHR recruited them to the ongoing effort.
Resistance to integration was not subtle. Homes rented or sold to African Americans were periodically bombed and vandalized. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Heights municipal government took a dim view of integration, rejecting HCHR demands. City council’s only response to racist violence was to increase the penalty for vandalism, and call for “stability.”
By the early 1970s, violent incidents led to the formation of two key organizations.
In the summer of 1970 a group of white youths attacked black youths at the YMCA. Black parents responded by forming the Committee to Improve Community Relations (CICR). CICR skillfully built relationships to advocate for fair treatment of black residents by city institutions. In 1974 it filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding institutional racism in the schools.
In January 1972, a fight between white and black students occurred at Heights High. CICR member Doris Allen, who had witnessed the 1970 incident at the Y, called a community meeting the next day. As a result, religious and civic leaders formed the Heights Action Committee, also known as the Carmelite Group, which met in the Carmelite monastery at Fairmount Boulevard and Lee Road. Their work, along with the soon-to-be-famous St. Ann’s Audit, would lead to the founding of Heights Community Congress in 1973.
The movement to racially integrate Cleveland Heights deserves book–length treatment. Heights Observer columnist Susie Kaeser has authored an as-yet-untitled volume to be released next year by Belt Publishing. She generously shared her research, which we have drawn on extensively. Suzanne Nigro’s monograph, “The St. Ann’s Audits: Personal Reflections,” was another source. We had to omit many, many names and accounts of people central to this story simply for lack of space. Our apologies.
Cleveland Heights’ annual Democracy Day public hearing inspired us to start “Heights of Democracy.” The event was created by a November 2013 ballot issue supporting a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution stating that only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to Constitutional rights, and that money is not speech. On Thursday, Jan. 17, Cleveland Heights City Council will host the city’s sixth Democracy Day in Council Chambers at 7 p.m. Citizens may offer testimony (up to fice minutes each) about the influence of corporations and big money on our political system. Come to have your say, or just to listen!
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is a writer, activist and lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, and has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.