Cleveland’s history of racial injustice has lasting impacts. But God’s hand is on the city.
By Rev. Delmarshae Sledge
Past is prologue… the past we choose to remember and the past we would rather forget…
A discriminatory founding: In 1802 at the state Constitutional Convention, delegates from northeast Ohio had no concern for the rights of Negroes, and the document that emerged was a white man’s document. Slavery was excluded (by a single vote!), but blacks were denied the right to vote and declared ineligible to hold public office or to serve in the state militia.
Historically diverse neighborhoods destroyed: By 1860, the center of Cleveland’s black population lived the old Haymarket district. Blacks were concentrated there but the area was thoroughly integrated. Cheap housing made the area attractive to impoverished immigrants. Italians and Slavs were the majority but in 1870 the area was home to people from 40 nationalities who spoke 14 different languages. Between 1920 when work started on Terminal Tower and the 1950 start of Innerbelt construction, all residents of the area were forcibly displaced.
A history of exclusion: Prior to 1900 the city grew spatially by annexing nearby towns and unincorporated areas but in the early 1900s eastern suburbs of Cleveland Heights and Shaker and Garfield Heights refused annexation and gained population at a higher rate than the city proper. Few blacks were able to join the exodus from the city. There were only 15 black families in the 3 named suburbs, 10 black families in East Cleveland, 6 in Euclid, 3 in Lakewood, none in Parma.
In the city during the first wave of the great migration in the first half of the 1900s, the housing shortage for blacks was at crisis proportions. Boarding and rooming houses were packed, some newcomers were living in old railroad cars, abandoned buildings, shacks, and tents. The Local Urban League verified that one black family was paying one third more rent than a white family in a similar unit in the same building. Landlords openly took advantage of newcomers, raising rents 25 to 75%. The Chamber of Commerce verified that blacks paid 65% more than whites for comparable housing.
A flash point in Hough: Looking at Hough, the 2 square mile residential section, annexed in 1872, was a fashionable section of the city until the depression. After that, it became a working to middle class white neighborhood. Hough changed from 5% non-white in 1950 to 74% non-white by 1960. Blacks moving in inherited conditions that were already badly deteriorated. By 1936 only 36% of Hough residences were owner-occupied. Deferred maintenance, doubling up renters, taking in boarders, and absentee landlords had become the norm in the area before so called “white flight.”
Hough was the scene of now notorious riots that broke out in 1966 with violence, firebombings, four black residents killed and 50 people injured. The stage was set for this manifestation of frustration and despair in the decades prior. Between 1940 and 50, Cleveland’s black population increased by 76% to 65,000 at the same time black removal (aka urban renewal) displaced over 20,000 blacks, most of whom landed in Hough. They had little choice. Piling people up in deteriorating housing and charging exorbitant rent was the order of the day. The outcome shouldn’t have been surprising.
The church cosigns on discrimination: In many parts of the country, the church supported segregation during Jim Crow – a century of American apartheid. After the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools, Christian academies sprang up to shield white children from attending schools with black students. White churches abandoned the inner cities for the suburbs.
Lasting effects: We still live with the psychic residue of these prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes, and the scars of discriminatory policies mar our city. Cleveland stands as one of the most segregated cities in the nation. Our region’s black neighborhoods have higher rates of asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure. Black babies are more than 6 times more likely to die than white babies. There are nearly 12 times more black youth incarcerated than white, and life expectancy is 6 years shorter if you’re black in Cuyahoga County.
A changing tide: That said, there is undoubtedly a far greater awareness of race as a fundamental fault line in our society, and creative approaches to addressing it are emerging from many sides. It would be a mistake to discount them. Imagine the profound changes that would occur if all people of faith were to step up and speak out unitedly for racial healing and equity rooted in spiritual transformation.
“One night, the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.’”-Acts 18:9-10
God’s vision for the city: In Acts 18:10, God speaks to Paul in a vision and says “I got a lot of people in this city.” God is talking about Corinth, a city that was not unlike modern American cities, not unlike Greater Cleveland – a place of culture and commerce and hope, ripe with divisions and inequity and oppression.
God spoke to Paul in a vision. Vision. To look, to see, to experience, to perceive. More than simple eyesight or hearing. Seeing and understanding. Visionary, prophetic seeing was rare in New Testament times, and it is rare now.
Our religious conduct has political implications and consequences. Our fundamental rights are not equally protected and can be taken away. But God! God’s hand is on the city. It was on Corinth and it is on Greater Cleveland. God’s word to Paul is a word for us. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be silent. Participate in God’s work. Be faithful in the city. God’s eye is on the city. The city is sacred space where God’s work is being done. This word from Acts 18:9-10 is full of hope, purpose, and promise. God has a lot of people in this city. In spite of all the bad reports, God is in the city. Don’t you think God would be pleased for us to help with the healing? I do.