Know Our Heritage
The Great Migration
The Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South began around the turn of the twentieth century and lasted through the 1960s. During that time, more than six million blacks moved from America’s rural south to the North, Midwest, and West.
Cleveland became the destination for people from the southern Appalachians and Piedmont region seeking a better life than the South offered, including gainful employment. Starting before the Civil War, Cleveland had a strong abolitionist community, thus the climate here was more accepting of different races than in some other northern cities. The center of the African-American community in Cleveland in the mid-nineteenth century was the old Haymarket district on Central Avenue. Although blacks lived primarily in three east-side wards of the City, each of these wards was thoroughly integrated. Most lecture halls, schools, restaurants and other public facilities were integrated. It was as the Great Migration unfolded in Cleveland that racial prejudice and segregation became prevalent.
The newcomers to Cleveland included younger men, who were single, looking for employment. But also entire families came to Cleveland, groups of friends from the same town and entire religious congregations relocated here. Overall, Cleveland’s population grew 60% between 1910 and 1930, rising to 900,429. The majority of African-Americans coming into the city as part of the Great Migration chose to live in the Cedar-Central neighborhood (which included the area known today as Fairfax).
The boundaries of Cedar-Central are generally considered Euclid Avenue to the north, E. 71st Street to the east, Woodland Avenue to the south, and E. 22nd Street to the west. Central Avenue was a thriving retail street that bisected the neighborhood. Today, Central Avenue has completely changed and the dense building fabric is almost completely gone. But try to imagine what it was like by seeing the historic photograph of the Majestic Hotel, which was located at the northeast corner of East 55th and Central. The largest African-American owned and operated hotel in the city, the Majestic hosted many political, theatrical, and sport celebrities.
In our survey, we documented the Vera Apartment building at 7808-7810 Cedar Avenue as a type of apartment housing where African-American newcomers from the South would live. The Vera was typical of the multi-family buildings that existed along Cleveland’s streetcar lines. These apartment buildings housed many newcomers to Cleveland. Finding employment in Cleveland’s many industries helped many to move up and out to single-family residences.
Some of the vintage housing stock remains in Cedar-Central. The best example we have is Judge Jean Murrell Capers’ home at 2380 E. 40th Street. The home was purchased in 1933 by Edward Murrell, Capers’ father, who contributed largely to the African-American community in Northeast Ohio. Edward Murrell was primarily involved with African-American newspapers, The Post and The Call, which we now know as the Call and Post, the only African-American-owned general circulation newspaper in Cleveland. Jean Murrell Capers was the first African-American woman elected to Cleveland City Council.
Another very important figure in this history is Jane Edna Hunter. Mrs. Hunter came to Cleveland in 1905 after being trained in Virginia as a nurse. She became concerned about the young women who came north to Cleveland and were not eligible, because of their race, to stay at the YWCA. These young women were eager to learn a skill such as nursing in order to improve their station and become part of the working middle class. Yet they were ill-prepared for the big city and they were vulnerable. In 1911, Mrs. Hunter led an interracial effort to form the Working Girls Association in order to build a place where the women could live safely and learn a skill, thus setting them up for a stable life.
The name was changed to The Phillis Wheatley Association later in 1911 to honor the late eighteenth-century Boston slave considered the first African-American poet. After operating out of several locations in the neighborhood, the organization was able to raise the funds to build a new nine story building at 4450 Cedar Avenue. Rehabilitated in the last ten years, today the building is known as Emeritus House.
In the mid-1930s, there was a recognition that more and decent housing was needed to be provided, as Cleveland’s population had grown markedly. The Public Works Administration, a Depression-era program design to provide jobs for the unemployed, built Olde Cedar, Outhwaite Homes, and Lakeview Estates, the nation’s first three public housing developments. These developments were heralded at the time as an important step forward in assisting families at the time that they really needed it. These early public housing developments are some of the best examples of International Style architecture in Cleveland, reflecting bright, stylized visions for the future and stressing horizontal lines and openness.
Outhwaite was the childhood home of two important figures in American political history, Carl and Louis Stokes. Carl was the first African-American mayor of a major American city when he was elected Cleveland Mayor in 1967. And Louis, still alive today, was the first African-American U.S. Congressman from Ohio, who served with distinction for fifteen consecutive terms.
The church is perhaps the strongest institution in the African-American community. In fact, entire congregations were known to move together to Cleveland during the Great Migration. The role that the church has played, including undertaking community development activities, will be explored in a next installment of the “Know Our Heritage” email series.