Before 'diversity' - the integration of Cleveland Heights [part 2 of 3]

“It was scary because of the attention we got,” recalled Doris Allen. She and her husband Wendell purchased a gracious house on Lee Road in 1965. Although theirs was one of the first black families to move to Cleveland Heights, they weren’t looking to make a point, to be pioneers or activists, or to put their young family in danger. They simply wanted their five children, then between the ages of 1 and 10, to grow up in a racially, ethnically and religiously diverse community.

While Heights Citizens for Human Rights (HCHR) reached out to the Allens, others were not so welcoming. Police stopped their eldest son, still in elementary school, and questioned him for no apparent reason. When Wendell Allen went to a nearby store the proprietor asked, “Why don’t you shop in your own neighborhood?” After garbage and stink bombs were hurled into their front yard, HCHR members spent the night. Recalling racially motivated bombings in 1965 and 1967, members advised the Allens to put the children in a back bedroom.

In addition to receiving support from white fair housing activists, the city’s new black residents formed close ties with one another. This solidarity enabled them to stick it out and ultimately to challenge racism throughout the city’s institutions. Many, including the Allens, Bernice and Lacey Lott, Cornelius Edwards, Betty Nelson, and Robert and Leatrice Madison, went on to become community leaders and barrier-breakers.

By early 1972, another effort by white “housewives” was brewing in Suzanne Nigro’s living room. Nigro and other members of St. Ann Catholic Church had been trained and encouraged by the recently formed Commission on Catholic Community Action to work for social justice in their community.

The women were aware, anecdotally and through personal experience, of steering and blockbusting in Cleveland’s near-east suburbs. They decided, according to Nigro, that “[a]s our first step we needed to document what was happening relative to home sales in Cleveland Heights.” They formed the St. Ann Social Action Housing Committee, and masterminded the St. Ann’s Audit (which would later become a national model).

The method they adopted, known as checking, had been used to document discrimination in rental housing, but the St. Ann committee was the first to apply it to housing sales. Studying real estate ads, they would identify a house on the market, and assign two volunteer couples, one black and one white, to pose as prospective buyers. The checkers sought the same type of house, and were assigned identical incomes, numbers of children, etc. They differed only by race, and were trained to carefully record their experiences. The audit documented blatant steering and starkly different treatment. A mere eight years after HCHR began welcoming black home buyers to Cleveland Heights, it was clear agents were steering white buyers away.

In September 1972, the St. Ann committee presented its results to Cleveland Heights City Council. The following year, the newly formed Heights Community Congress made real estate checking an ongoing part of its housing programs, and ultimately sued several realtors for discrimination, testing the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.

CORRECTION: In our January column we stated, “In the summer of 1970 a group of white youths attacked black youths at the YMCA.” The agency was the YM-YWCA. According to witness Doris Allen, no physical attacks took place. The behavior of the white youths is more accurately described as menacing. We regret the errors.

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

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Volume 12, Issue 2, Posted 9:55 AM, 02.01.2019