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

By the early 1970s, Cleveland Heights faced realtor actions that, if unchecked, would lead to white flight and resegregation. Real estate agents steered white buyers away from the city, and showed black buyers only a few neighborhoods within it. Blockbusting, intended to induce panic and white flight, took place by phone. When the first black family moved onto a street, realtors would call the neighbors, insinuating that their property values were about to plummet.

At the same time, things were changing at CH City Hall. Activists Jack Boyle and Lucille Huston were elected to Cleveland Heights City Council in 1971. In 1972, the newly configured council chose pro-integration attorney Oliver Schroeder as mayor. Schroeder and four other suburban mayors agreed to enact ordinances banning telephone solicitation by realtors. Cleveland Heights council passed the new law within weeks.

In 1973, Heights Community Congress (HCC) opened its doors, with Catholic activist Harry Fagan as its executive director. Also on staff was Susanna Niermann O’Neil. HCC assumed responsibility for real estate checking begun by the St. Ann Audit. In 1974, HCC successfully sued Rosenblatt Realty under the 1968 Fair Housing Act. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, “Court suits filed by HCC against local realtors set new standards for non-discriminatory treatment of prospective homeowners.”

With changes on council and pressure from the community, the city’s role evolved. In 1974, the city contracted HCC to establish and run a housing service. Two years later, the city took the program in-house and hired O’Neil to run it. (She initially declined the job, protesting to Fagan, “I don’t want to work for City Hall, I want to fight City Hall.” He suggested she try it for a year; O’Neil has been there ever since, and currently is Cleveland Heights' vice city manager.)

On March 15, 1976, council adopted a nine-point housing plan to support integration. The actions outlined in Resolution 26-1976 had originated as demands by those struggling for fair housing since the founding of Heights Citizens for Human Rights in 1964.

The city began working closely with realtors, training them in fair housing practices, and maintaining a list of preferred agents. They marketed the city through the housing service and advertising. O’Neil recalled, “We told the realtors, ‘You sell the houses. We’ll sell the community.’”

Cleveland Heights also initiated point-of-sale inspections, to ensure maintenance of housing stock and protect new owners from unscrupulous sellers. The plan demonstrated the city’s willingness to partner with the community, address issues affecting stability, and effectively counter resegregation.

The city and HCC continued to collaborate to maintain a racially integrated community. The National Civic League recognized Cleveland Heights with an All-American City Award for 1975–76, “in recognition of progress achieved through intelligent citizen action.”

In 1983, co-plaintiffs Cleveland Heights and HCC won a landmark lawsuit against Hilltop Realty for eight violations of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Although only legal costs were awarded, with no monetary damages, it was a resounding moral victory.

Today, people of all races and ethnic backgrounds choose Cleveland Heights because it is racially and economically diverse. As of the 2010 census, the racial makeup of Cleveland Heights was 49.8 percent White, 42.5 percent African American, 4.1 percent Asian, 0.2 percent Native American, 0.6 percent other races, and 2.8 percent two or more races.

Despite some realtors’ 1960s-era predictions, Fairmount Boulevard’s mansions have not become rooming houses. Whites and African Americans are here for the long haul, and those who choose to live here like it that way.

[Throughout this series, the writers have drawn on Susie Kaeser’s as-yet-untitled book, to be released by Belt Publishing in 2020; “The 1972 St. Ann Audit: Personal Reflections,” by Suzanne Nigro; and personal interviews.]

Deborah Van Kleef

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at

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Volume 12, Issue 3, Posted 10:45 AM, 03.04.2019