Know Our Heritage

Blacks in Business

Even in the city's early years, blacks were involved in business in Cleveland. George Peake, the inventor of a new hand mill for grinding grain, moved from the east coast to Cleveland in 1809 with his wife and two sons. Peake was the first African-American settler to this new city, little over a decade after its founding and about a century before the Great Migration. In her book Confronting the Odds: African American Entrepreneurship in Cleveland, Ohio, Bessie House-Soremekun relates that, during the 1820s and 1830s, "blacks served as horse breeders, seamstresses, blacksmiths, masons, bricklayers, farm owners, hair stylists, tailors and manufacturers."

Madison Tilley, born a slave in 1809, escaped and came to Cleveland. By 1840 he was one of only five black men in the city who owned taxable property. He became an excavation contractor and employed up to 100 men. Tilley became a leader in the black community. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, by 1860 there were nearly 800 African Americans living in Cleveland, mostly on the east side. While many black Clevelanders were unskilled laborers or domestic workers, almost one third were skilled workers.   

Another African-American entrepreneur who came to Cleveland and found success was Garrett Morgan. Morgan first came to Cleveland in 1895 and worked with textile machinery. He started his own clothing manufacturing company as well as the Morgan Hair Refining Company. He is best known as the inventor of the gas mask (1912) and the traffic signal (1923). Morgan lived at 5202 Harlem Avenue, off of E. 55th Street. The house was demolished in 1989.

As the Great Migration rapidly increased the number of African Americans in the city, discrimination increased and conditions for black workers deteriorated. This dramatic swelling of the African American community also increased the number of buildings that could tell the story of the African American experience in Cleveland. Many of these buildings are still standing while others are endangered or have already been lost, along with the stories they had to tell. The primary purpose of the survey conducted by the Cleveland Restoration Society for our 40th Anniversary Legacy Project was to find these buildings and begin to revive their stories.

One business that is well represented in the CRS survey of African-American landmarks is that of the funeral home. Serving an almost exclusively African-American clientele, the funeral directors who established these businesses were among the most respected members of the community. Founded in 1905, the E. F. Boyd & Son Funeral Home is located in an Italianate style former residence at 2165 E. 89th Street. Originally located on Central Avenue, the business has been at the current location since 1938. Elmer Franklin Boyd, who also founded the Cleveland Funeral Directors Association, operated the business until his death in 1944. His son, William F. Boyd took over and ran the business until 1991, when he in turned passed the business to his son William F. Boyd, II and his siblings-making three generations of community leaders to run this establishment.

The House of Wills Funeral Home was founded in 1905 by J. Walter Wills, Sr. Originally located at 2525 Central Avenue and called Gee & Wills, the funeral home moved several times to locations along E. 55th Street before settling at 2491 E. 55th Street in 1944. Designed by Frederic W. Striebinger, this imposing edifice was constructed in 1900 as the Cleveland Gesang Verein, German singing society and social hall. Between 1921 and 1932, it housed the Cleveland Hebrew School and Institute, reflecting the changes in the neighborhood over time. The House of Wills operated from this location until 2005. The business closed completely earlier this year.

The Dunbar Mutual Insurance Society was founded by M. C. Clarke in 1936 at 5708 Woodland Avenue and named after African-American poet and Ohio native Paul Laurence Dunbar. Clarke, an examiner from the state insurance department, had been sent to Cleveland in 1925 to examine several struggling insurance societies. Clarke consolidated the assets of those societies and in 1942 incorporated the Dunbar Life Insurance Company, what would become one of the largest African-American owned businesses in the city. In 1945, Dunbar built a new office at 7609 Euclid Avenue, on the front of the Luther Allen Mansion. In recent years, the addition was demolished. Dunbar merged with a Chicago-based company in 1960.

Another African-American owned business with a very long history in Cleveland is the Crayton Sausage Company, founded by Leroy Crayton in 1932. He opened a manufacturing and distribution center near Quincy and E. 90th Street in 1937. The current industrial-style building at 5299 Crayton Avenue was constructed in 1954. By this date, the company, valued at over a million dollars, distributed sausage to over fifty cities throughout the United States. Leroy Crayton died in 1963 and the street was renamed in his honor in 1971. This was the first street in Cleveland to be named for an African American.

Many of these businesses could not have formed had they not had financing. Herbert S. Chauncey received a charter in 1919 and opened Empire Savings & Loan on E. 55th Street. A second branch opened on Cedar Avenue in 1926. Empire catered to a mostly African-American clientele and made it possible for their members to purchase homes and build collateral to open businesses. Chauncey also established the Peoples Realty Company, which both sold and developed property for the African-American community.

A notable African-American contractor during the post-industrial period, Arthur Bussey of Bussey Construction, also catered to a mostly African-American clientele. Bussey built the homes on Myrtle Avenue and Highview Drive, including his own, to attract a higher-income buyer. The design of the homes included Cape Cods and ranches. In these homes, Bussey added higher-end features such as stone facing for the façade, projecting bays with picture windows, and gabled vestibules. Many homes also have decorative brickwork and multiple, oversized chimneys. These high-style features meant the homes could be priced near $35,000. Bussey Construction advertised the neighborhood solely in the Call and Post, an African-American newspaper.  

Myrtle Avenue homes built by Bussey Construction.  Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.


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"Know Our Heritage" is inspired by the Cleveland Restoration Society's 40th anniversary project, The African American Experience in Cleveland. With support from the Ohio History Fund, we share with you the important connections between historic sites in Cleveland and the significant people and events that shaped them.