Cleveland, Ohio: The Best Location in the Nation

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

We traveled to Cleveland, Ohio this past Labor Day to attend numerous events celebrating family and friends and my husband’s 45th high school reunion.  When he was growing up in Cleveland, it was known as “The Best Location in the Nation.”  Times have changed and although that slogan isn’t used much anymore, Cleveland is still alright.  I’ve been to Cleveland about five times in the last fifteen years and have witnessed the changing landscape of an urban city trying to be relevant in a 21st century world.  But I never really knew its history.

On my first visit in 1996, the urban decay was overwhelming, especially on the eastside of Cleveland where the African American community resides.  Abandoned houses that were ghosts of their former arts & craft architectural glory were falling apart, sloping roofs, peeling paint and crumbling exteriors.

Two-family wooden-framed houses with porches that graced the façade of the formerly elegant homes longed for a happier time.  Trash-strewn vacant lots connected barren landscapes where empty buildings stood in defiance of their certain demise.

Eastside neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio.

Small businesses that serviced neighborhoods – the mom and pop grocery stores, drugstores, barbecue joints, liquor stores – had died a slow retail death.  The Haltnorth Theatre, a neighborhood movie house at Woodland Avenue and East 55th, once a place where young black kids from the Outhwaite Projects, across the street, wiled away countless hours watching grade B double features like The Blob was no longer there.

African Americans have been in Cleveland since the early 1800s.  Settling mainly on the eastside, they worked as unskilled laborers and domestics, but several of these new arrivals became successful businessmen and political leaders, like Madison Tilley.  A former slave, Tilley was “an excavating contractor with 20 wagons, 40 horses and an integrated workforce [that] at times numbered 100,” according the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.  Tilley became one of the five African Americans owning property in 1840 and when he died his estate was valued between $25,000 and $30,000.

More Blacks passed through Cleveland from the 1830s to the 1860s on the Under Ground Railroad (UGRR) on their way to Canada.  University Circle, now a thriving cultural and academic center, was at the heart of the Abolitionist activities in Cleveland.  John Bell, a Black barber, owned a barber shop that became known as the last stop on the UGRR for many fugitive slaves escaping by boat across Lake Erie to freedom in Canada.  There were some whites who were sympathetic to the plight of fugitive slaves and assisted Blacks traveling on the Under Ground Railroad.

Cozad-Bates House located in today's University Circle was a stop on the Underground Rail Road, Cleveland, Ohio.

One prominent abolitionist at the time was Rev. Charles Storrs, president of Case Western Reserve.  The college is located at University Circle among other Cleveland institutions including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Botanical Garden, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Severance Hall, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the Cleveland Institute of Music.

During my visit to Cleveland this time, I noticed that something was different.  As we toured the eastside looking up old addresses of grandmothers and tracking down familiar haunts of days gone by, the trash-strewn lots were now empty green spaces.  Gone were many of the boarded up structures.

Grandmother's house today located on the eastside of Cleveland, Ohio.

Although the areas we visited had not been redeveloped, they looked expectant, like something was going to happen.  Traveling down Kinsman Road into Shaker Heights, I noticed that construction on a strip mall had been completed since the last time we were in town in 2006, leaving the original retail stores across the street empty.

Shaker Square, the historic gateway to the Shaker Heights Community with its quaint Colonial-Georgian brick buildings accented in white wooden facades arranged around an octagonal town center, has seen better days, but it is surviving.  The Colony Theatre is still there, but its name has changed to Shaker Square Cinemas, and has expanded to 6 screens.

Shaker Cinemas on Shaker Square is now a multiplex.

Now CVS, keeping up with the times, has taken up residence in the retail hub.  The surrounding community of beautiful old apartment buildings on tree-line streets is still well-kept.  The difference is young African Americans can be seen strolling the streets and eating ice cream and snacks from the local boutique shops around the square.

Cleveland has a lot to be proud of because of the contributions that so many African Americans have made to science, technology, sports, politics, and the arts. Garrett A. Morgan, inventor of the gas mask and traffic signal, moved to Cleveland in his early 20s and worked as a sewing machine repairman.  He received national attention in 1916 when his gas masks were used to rescue workers trapped in the tunnels under Lake Erie. Morgan also started the Cleveland Call in 1916, a Black newspaper that merged with the Cleveland Post in 1929 creating the Call and Post.  Jesse Owens, another Clevelander, was an amazing track star who attended East Tech High School and won 4 gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Carl Stokes, the first African American Mayor of a major U.S. city, and his brother Louis Stokes, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, grew up in the Outhwaite Projects.

Louis (standing) and Carl Stokes (seated) were raised in the Outhwaite Projects and went on to become a U.S. Congressman and the first African American Mayor of a major U.S. city, respectively.

Their contributions to local and national politics were immeasurable and occurred when African Americans were seeking their equal rights as Americans.  The Phillis Wheatley Association, named for the first published African American poet in America, opened in 1927 in Cleveland; it was originally an agency that provided safe housing for Black women relocating to the North during the Black Migration and is now a multi-service organization serving the Black community.  Eliza Simmons Bryant spearheaded the founding of the Cleveland Home for Aged Colored in 1896 after discovering that many of the elderly Blacks who migrated to Cleveland needed a place to live.

Karamu House, a settlement house founded in 1915 by two Oberlin students, is still in effect today as an arts center focusing on the arts and culture and has historically been a “magnet for African American artists.”  Author Chester Himes, who wrote mysteries and crime novels, grew up in Cleveland and used his experiences as the basis of many of his books.  Himes’ two Harlem Detectives – Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones – made famous by Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge in the film, Cotton Comes to Harlem were characters from his novel.  Directed by Ossie Davis, the film is a perennial favorite.  Actresses Ruby Dee and Halle Berry are from Cleveland and Langston Hughes lived on the eastside in 1917 while attending Central High School where his budding writing career was encouraged with the publication of his works in the school’s magazine.

Looking at Cleveland through a historic lens this time around has been extremely helpful for me as an observer of people, places and events.  I have a greater understanding of the challenges that Black Clevelanders had to overcome in their pursuit of a better life, which on some level is a story that everyone can relate to.  So, it is true, you can go home again, even if it is someone else’s home.

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4 Responses to Cleveland, Ohio: The Best Location in the Nation

  1. Steve Hall says:

    Mrs. Tarrant-Reid, I enjoyed your article in the Cleveland Call and Post very much. I have been reading the Call and Post for ever, but never knew the name was the combination of two different publications. Thank for the history lesson. I have some history about Cleveland to share with you. I don’t know how to send the information via FaceBook. It’s about two Clevelanders who were 1st as African-American in their accomplishments. Let me know how can I send this information to you. Not many Clevelanders know about these men’s accomplishments. Steve Hall-Cleveland Hts, OH

    • Thank you for your comments, Steve. I was also amazed as I discovered the history of African Americans in Cleveland. I was especially interested in the city’s strategic location across the lake from Canada and its participation in the UGRR. Black businesses have also been part of the fabric of life for Black Clevelanders from the beginning which goes to the ingenuity of African Americans post-slavery. Regarding the information about the African American Clevelanders, please leave their names in the comment section on the blog and I’ll be able to retrieve them from the blog. Thanks again for your interest and comments

      • Steve Hall says:

        J. Elmer Reed
        City: Cleveland
        State: OH
        Inducted American Bowling Congress (ABC) now United States Bowling Congress (USBC): 1978 for Meritorious Service
        Reed was the first black member of the ABC Hall of Fame. Perhaps that”s fitting because in the 1940s he was instrumental in the fight against ABCs Caucasian-Only membership rule which was rescinded at the 1950 ABC Convention. After learning blacks virtually were excluded from bowling because of race, Reed traveled to many cities at his own expense in the 1930s to organize black bowling leagues, usually in old, rundown centers. In 1941, he and two partners built the first black bowling center in the U.S. (United Recreation in Cleveland). Reed was one of the founding fathers of The National Bowling Association, Inc (TNBA) (1939) (
        Virgil E. Brown, Sr.
        Former TNBA National President 1965 – 1968
        Dies at 93
        Virgil E. Brown Sr., a pioneering black officeholder, was a Cleveland councilman, Cuyahoga County Board of Elections director, Cuyahoga County commissioner and Ohio Lottery director. He was the first African-American to lead an elections board in Ohio and the first to win a Cuyahoga-wide office besides a judgeship. Brown helped oversee the Cuyahoga County’s human services and plan a new headquarters on Superior Ave. that became the Virgil E. Brown Center.

        Virgil’s favorite hobby was bowling. He was president of the TNBA Cleveland Bowling Senate 1958 – 1961, TNBA National president 1965 – 1968 and inducted in the Cleveland Bowling Senate Hall-of-Fame for Meritorious Service. A Celebrity bowling event hosted by the Cleveland Bowling Senate was held in his honor, May 2008. Virgil and his wife, Lurtissia, were regulars at bowling establishments in Cleveland.

        In honor of Virgil E. Brown, Sr., and to preserve his legacy to the sport of bowling, the Cleveland Bowling Senate named their scholarship program the “Virgil E. Brown, Sr., Memorial Scholarship.”

  2. RICHARD REID says:

    In addition to the Haltnorth Theater on E. 55th, there was the Globe Theater at 5217 Woodland Avenue (address confirmed in 1951 Cleveland city directory) in Cleveland, Ohio

    The 600-seat Globe Theater was located between Gleason’s and the Chatterbox, Cleveland’s two famous venues for jazz and rhythm and blues during the 1950s. Its marquee was supported by two Doric columns. Unusual for neighborhood theaters, the Globe’s auditorium featured balcony seating. The larger Metropolitan on Euclid near East 55th also had balcony seating. From time to time live music and talent shows featuring local talent took place at the Globe.

    The Globe Theater is included on p. 10 of the Cleveland Movie Theaters and Drive-ins Web site:

    Click to access OH%20Cleveland.pdf

    Irvine C. Miller brought his stage production of Brown Skin Models to the Globe as advertised in the early January 1950 editions of The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

    The Globe Theater closed permanently in the mid 1950s and its marquee was dismantled. Although its auditorium was never again used, its lobby was remodeled for the Ebony Boy Barbecue take-out eatery. The Globe and the surrounding buildings were later demolished, and as of 2005, Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority is the titleholder of the landsite of the Globe.
    (notes by Richard Reid, 7 July 2005)

    According to Mabel Snider in the 
Cleveland Jewish News 
”The Yiddish theater was very much alive in Cleveland in the 1920s and ’30s. 

The Duchess and Globe theaters, located at East 55th and Woodland and 
Scoville [sic] avenues, were owned by my father, Samuel Fenster, a furrier by 
trade and producer of Yiddish plays during the slow fur season. 

He hired New York cast actors from Second Avenue and produced many musicals 
and dramas here with local Jewish activists playing the small parts. Many 
well-known Jewish actors performed for him, such as Boris Thomashevsky, 
Maurice Schwartz, Molly Picon, Menasha Skulnick, Luther Adler, Jacob Adler 
and Paul Muni. Paul Muni (whose real name was Muni Veisenfrient) was only 
12 …” (Cleveland Jewish News, 21 November 2003)

    The Globe Theater is shown on the map of the 1912-1913, Volume 2 of the Sanborn Map Company. STREETS: Fiftieth E. [2535-2590]; Fifty-fifth E. [2530-2594]; Fifty-first E. [2530-2589]; Forty-ninth E. [2539-2591]; Outhwaite Ave. S. E. [4900-5312]; Shafer Court S. E. [1-14]; Stranwood Ct. S. E. [4900-4933]; Woodland Ave. S. E. [4901-5431]; SPECIALS: Eliza The; Globe Theatre; Ohio Mattress Co.; Outhwaite School; Post Office Branch 4901 Woodland Ave. S. E.; Reserve Building; Troy Laundry Co.

    The Sanborn map can be viewed at the following link:

    The Globe Theater is also mentioned in The African-American theatre directory, 1816-1960: a comprehensive guide to early Black theatre organizations, companies, theatres, and performing groups by Bernard L. Peterson. “The Globe Th., located at Fifty-fifth St. and Woodland Ave. in Cleveland, OH, was on the reorganized TOBA Circuit, 1920s. In Oct. 1922, this thatre ‘adopted the policy of catering to patrons of both races,’ according to Anthony Hill (Ph.D. diss., 1988, p. 187), ‘and of using both black and white acts.’” Whitney & Tutt played an act there in 1926.,+Woodland+Avenue,+Cleveland+OH&source=bl&ots=k3imcW6GuN&sig=8u2alVWAgQ2wvS4L6u5ZqrRWiM4&hl=en&ei=wiCsToX_JYeGsgKzkNDnDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CD4Q6AEwBA#v=onepage&q&f=false

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