Some things do change
Our next-door neighbor was going to be singing on the Gene Carroll Show on a Sunday morning in 1958. We were excited because the teenager would be competing for some kind of prize and the opportunity to perform on the program again. So, my mother bought 100 postcards—printed with postage worth 3 cents each—and made us all fill them out with the kid’s name on them and address them to WEWS Channel 5 to vote for him.
Our 100 postcards weren’t enough. The next-door neighbor kid lost, though he had performed well. But he had sung “I Believe,” an inspirational ballad. “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows,” it begins. The song had been a hit in 1953 for Frankie Laine, and then covered by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Pat Boone, and many others.
Our friend Amzie did it well. But the winner was probably some white kid, singing something like Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash.” Oh, yeah—did I mention that Amzie was Black? And that he wasn’t really, exactly, our next-door neighbor?
We lived on Belmar, in the first house after the apartment building that fronted Mayfield. Amzie lived in that apartment building, in the basement, with the only Black family in the building, or on the street, or—almost—in the whole city. His father was the custodian in the building, which was, I believe, the only way Black people got to live in Cleveland Heights at that time. He was the only Black kid I remember at Coventry School at that time.
My great-aunt, my father’s father’s sister-in-law, who owned the house we lived in and who lived in the downstairs unit, was racist enough that I picked up on it when I was very young, like 6 years old. Even at that age, I was offended by some things she said and couldn’t understand why she would say them. And it wasn’t just she, in my family, who said these things; it was pretty much my grandparents’ whole generation—ironically, Jews who had been persecuted themselves, in Europe, which had prompted their move to this country in the early 1900s. (And whether they knew it or not, people didn’t like them too much when they got here, either.) But their racism was not passed down to my parents’ generation, nor to mine.
Even when I went to Heights High in the mid-to-late-’60s, when the school’s population was around 3,000, there were still hardly any Black kids there. Once, when I was lecturing a journalism class at Heights, in the early 2000s, I started by saying that when I had been a student there, I knew literally every Black kid in the school. There were cries of disbelief. I said, “No, really—I did. All six of them.” They could scarcely believe that, either.
But it was true. Cleveland Heights was pretty happily completely white. But around that time—mid-’60s—many of the original homeowners, especially in my neighborhood, north and east of Coventry and Mayfield roads, started moving out and/or dying; and their kids, who had already moved to University Heights or South Euclid or Beachwood (or Florida or Arizona) started selling their parents’ houses or renting them out, many to Black people who had been living in Cleveland or East Cleveland. That only hastened white flight.
In my neighborhood, white families merely fled. In more upscale areas they took stronger actions, like bombing houses that had been sold to Black people. And, of course, conspiring with real estate agents to keep them out altogether.
Susan Kaeser, who also writes for the Heights Observer, has written a book about all of this. Resisting Segregation: Cleveland Heights Activists Shape Their Community, 1964-1976, published by Cleveland Landmarks Press, delves into the history of racism in housing in the Heights, and the organizations that formed to help the situation, such as the Committee to Improve Community Relations (CICR), in 1970, and the Heights Community Congress (HCC), beginning in 1972.
I moved out of my parents’ house in late 1967. The first Black family moved onto the street, across from my parents, in around 1974. By 1978, my parents were practically the only white people left on the street. A couple of years later, one of the members of that first Black family told my parents they were moving. My father asked, “Why? I thought you liked it here.” The woman said, “We do. But we moved here because we wanted to live in an integrated neighborhood. And this isn’t.”
With the help of those organizations, racial relations and balance in Cleveland Heights became more normalized. By the time my kids started school, in the early ’90s, they were in the minority (in the public schools), and it took them years to figure out that there was any difference between us and the Black families they knew, which would not have pleased my relatives, just two generations away.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.