Like all Cleveland Heights residents, in late March we received our copies of Focus, the city magazine. The inside cover features an attractive layout of historical photographs, and announces the 100th anniversary of Cleveland Heights’ incorporation as a city. To our surprise, the text includes:
“From our early days, diversity and creativity have been cherished traits. People of all races, religions and economic backgrounds have always been welcome.”
Why are we surprised? Well, for one thing, we recently read Resisting Segregation: Cleveland Heights Activists Shape their Community, 1964–1976, by Susan Kaeser. As Songs and Stories columnist David Budin noted in his April column, the book chronicles the arduous transformation of Cleveland Heights from a white enclave to an integrated community.
During the city’s early decades, Cleveland Heights census data showed only a handful of Black residents, mostly live-in servants and apartment building custodians. In fact, discrimination, enforced by real estate brokers and mortgage lenders, kept all of Cleveland’s suburbs white. It took determination, vision and skilled organizing to make Cleveland Heights a community that would, in 2020, adopt the slogan, “All Are Welcome.” Along the way there were lawsuits, white flight and many, many meetings. Indeed, our current city manager, Susanna Niermann O’Neil, was a fair-housing activist before going to work at City Hall.
Along with Budin and countless others, we remember when African American homebuyers faced welcomes that were anything but warm. From bombing newcomers’ homes to strewing trash on their lawns, from police harassment to hostility in local shops, the message was, “We don’t want you here.” Still, determined Black pioneers persisted, through a combination of courage, solidarity with other new arrivals, and the support of those white residents dedicated to making Cleveland Heights a racially integrated city.
Anniversaries should be occasions to reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. Rather than rewrite our history, we should face it and learn from it, recommitting ourselves to the ideals that motivated those brave and savvy activists of 50 years ago. Much work remains. We hope the city’s newly appointed Racial Justice Task Force will offer insights and recommendations to keep all of us on the journey.
Resisting Segregation, by Susan Kaeser (Cleveland Landmarks Press, 2020), is available at Mac’s Backs. [Prior to the book’s publication, Kaeser generously shared her research, which was essential to us in writing our series, “Before 'diversity'—the integration of Cleveland Heights," published in January, February and March 2019.]
When we submitted our April column, Cleveland Heights city council had approved MetroHealth’s plan for a new behavioral health unit. Before voting, council heard comments from nearly 120 residents who supported the expansion, but opposed the removal of a 0.75-acre section of Millikin Woods for added parking spaces. Cutting down trees seemed especially egregious given the 70 acres of underutilized asphalt parking lots just across Severance Circle. Although there was nothing in the legislation to stop the hospital from moving ahead, there were hints that it might not be a done deal.
Sure enough, according to City Manager O’Neil, city staff was able to negotiate further with MetroHealth officials, in response to residents’ concerns. MetroHealth ultimately agreed to fewer parking spaces, which required only 0.45 acres of trees to be cut, a victory for woodland preservationists.
While council members Melody Hart and Kahlil Seren interceded on behalf of the woods, much credit goes to residents of the Millikin neighborhood. Assisted by sustainability expert Linda Sekura of the Northeast Ohio Sierra Club, they sounded the alarm and ably spearheaded a campaign. Perhaps what’s needed now is an ongoing group to steward and defend the remaining Millikin Woods.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.