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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

ETHNIC AND RACE RELATIONS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

ETHNIC AND RACE RELATIONS. In 1930 James C. Jones, the manager of a REAL ESTATE office in Cleveland, wrote to a representative of JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, JR.†, regarding the ALTA HOUSE property that Rockefeller owned in LITTLE ITALY. "The entire neighborhood is 100% Italian," he wrote, but he questioned how long it would remain so. "If there is ever a break in the population, I am inclined to believe it will be taken over by colored people," he concluded. That Little Italy remains a vibrant Italian neighborhood more than 6 decades later would surprise Jones, but it serves to illustrate the remarkable persistence of ethnic loyalties, the limited success and the nuances of ethnic assimilation, and the ability of the community to maintain its ethnic "purity" in the face of sometimes violent ethnic and racial competition for space and resources in a crowded urban environment.

The pattern of the settlement of Cleveland in its early years established the dominion of white, English-speaking, Protestant Anglo-Americans over the social, economic, political, and cultural life of Cleveland. By virtue of being the first to settle and develop the land and prosper from its resources, these migrants from New England and New York and the early immigrants from England, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Wales were able to establish the social norms to which they thought all subsequent arrivals would have to relate. But later ethnic immigrants had their own ideas about what that relationship should be, and they insisted upon retaining as much as possible of their own language and culture. The early Irish, German, and Czech immigrants established a pattern that later ethnic arrivals would follow. They developed their own self-segregated nationality parishes, schools, neighborhoods, mutual benefit societies, fraternal clubs, cultural organizations, and social welfare institutions, such as orphanages and old age homes. For individual immigrants, these institutions constituted a comfortable network of familiar associations that helped ease the transition that the 1915 Immigration Bureau report described as "simple folks coming from their farming communities of Europe into the very vortex of our modern industrial life in a large city."

As the number of foreign-born immigrants in the FOREST CITY swelled, Cleveland's Anglo-Americans sought ways to exert their control over the assimilation and Americanization of an increasingly diverse foreign population, whose alien cultures and religions they feared would ruin their city in particular and their country in general. As tools of social control they turned first to the public schools and to a host of voluntary moral reform organizations and quasi-public social welfare institutions; but as needs increased, they supplemented these private agencies with municipally financed institutions, like the Immigration Bureau, to protect and assist new, arrivals. They also turned to political reform as a means of centralizing municipal power and limiting the power of the ethnic vote.

Between the 1850s and 1930, a constant, shifting struggle emerged as the city's Anglo-American middle- and upper-classes struggled to enforce and maintain moral and social discipline in a city populated by growing numbers of European immigrants, many of whom were Catholics and Jews. Religion and ethnicity were thus tied together, and anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism were important aspects of nativism in Cleveland and the rest of America. For example, EDWIN W. COWLES†, Cleveland's most notorious anti-Catholic during the last half of the 19th century, railed against both the church and the drunken Irish from his position as editor of the CLEVELAND LEADER. In addition to the external pressures brought to bear from Anglo-American assimilation efforts, tensions within and between ethnic groups intensified as communities developed and as older immigrants sought to influence the behavior and facilitate the assimilation of more recent arrivals.

Education was the first tool that Anglo-Americans used to try to inculcate the habits of "proper" behavior and good citizenship. In 1870, for example, bilingual education was adopted in the public schools in the hopes that offering some classes in German would attract into the schools the 2,000 German students who attended private schools. This policy, the superintendent explained, did "not tend to Germanize America as it [did] to Americanize the Germans." Within a decade, the number of German children attending private schools had dropped to 200. By 1887 the evening adult education program was attracting 2,000 immigrants to its classes in English and in civics in preparation for the naturalization exam. Public school programs for both immigrant children and adults were expanded repeatedly between 1870 and 1920, but the number of parochial schools also increased, making it possible for large numbers of ethnic students to escape the Americanizing influence of the public schools. The development of settlement houses such as HIRAM HOUSE provided new avenues for Americanization and educational efforts, as well as for other urban social reform work.

In addition to education, religion became another important tool in the Anglo-American Protestant campaign for social discipline. Protestant churches began to establish their own missions in ethnic neighborhoods, hiring a minister to conduct church services in the language familiar to the neighborhood's residents. By 1926 Cleveland was home to 19 such missions, 5 of which catered to Hungarian immigrants, 4 to ITALIANS, 2 for CZECHS, and individual missions serving POLES, ROMANIANS, Yugoslavs, and RUSSIANS. Other Protestants argued that ministering to the spiritual needs, of immigrants was not enough and that the church should deal with secular needs as well. Full-service institutional churches, such as PILGRIM CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, which became an institutional church in 1894, and Broadway Methodist Episcopal Church, founded as a mission in 1872 and transformed into an institutional church in 1918, offered coeducational classes, sponsored social clubs, and provided facilities for a variety of recreational activities.

Even in the settlement houses and similar organizations where the desire to help immigrants adjust to their new environment, well-meaning social workers could not escape their own prejudices and cultural biases. The head worker at Alta House was dismissed in 1902, with much reluctance by members of the board, after some disparaging remarks she made in a letter to a colleague in Chicago were made public and offended many residents of the neighborhood. As late as Dec. 1941, a club worker's reports on meetings of one ethnic women's group at the YWCA's Intl. Institute contain pointed comments about the members' poor behavior: the "girls" (all of whom were older than 21) were "quite lacking" in "personal manners," which the club worker attributed "to the general behavior pattern of their own particular nationality group."

In addition to tensions with Anglo-American Protestant society, Cleveland's ethnic groups sometimes were at odds with one another. Old World political and cultural antagonisms sometimes flared up in the New World. For example, Old World tensions between Poles and Ukrainians from Galicia resurfaced in Cleveland when the latter, believing that the Poles had dominated the Galician government and had deprived Ukrainians of economic opportunities, refused to live in Polish neighborhoods. A plan by the Magyar community to erect a statue in PUBLIC SQUARE to honor the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth (see KOSSUTH MONUMENT and LOUIS KOSSUTH'S VISIT) was opposed by members of the Slovak community, who viewed the nationalist hero as insensitive toward other ethnic groups in Hungary; the statue was erected in 1902, not in the city's symbolic center, but at its outer edge in UNIVERSITY CIRCLE. This was not the first sign of trouble between these two groups. In 1890 tensions between Magyars and Slovaks in ST. LADISLAS CHURCH prompted the Magyars to withdraw and form their own church.

A recurring issue in the history of the Catholic church in Cleveland was the degree to which the church would accommodate its ethnic members by providing ethnic priests and offering services in their native languages. Cleveland's first bishop, LOUIS AMADEUS RAPPE†, favored prompt Americanization of immigrants and refused to establish ethnic parishes. His refusal prompted first the Germans and then the Irish to complain to Rome, and Rappe was forced to, acquiesce in the development of nationality parishes led by ethnic priests such as STEPHAN FURDEK†, who served both Slovak and Czech parishes and established several important Slovak institutions in Cleveland. By 1908 34 of Cleveland's 65 Catholic parishes were considered nationality parishes rather than territorial ones. Infighting between Germans and the Irish continued to be a problem for the church, however, as did other ethnic tensions, such as the creation in 1913 of a Cleveland parish of the POLISH NATIONAL CATHOLIC CHURCH. The evolution of Judaism in Cleveland reflected a similar ethnic tension between established German Jews and later arrivals from Eastern Europe, who were more orthodox in their religious practices. The resulting debate between the adherents of reformed, orthodox, and conservative religious practices echoed the controversy in the Catholic Church about the preservation of a unique identity in a new land.

By 1920 the Americanization efforts of the public schools, settlement houses, and other agencies and institutions had the paradoxical effect of bringing a great many Anglo-Americans into closer contact with ethnic cultures. The result was a sharing of cultures that over the next several decades spawned efforts to promote cultural pluralism and to celebrate and preserve ethnic folk cultures. The leaders of these efforts sought to educate the public about Cleveland's various ethnic communities as a means of fostering greater tolerance and understanding. These pluralist educational efforts included ELEANOR LEDBETTER†'s publications on the Yugoslav, Slovak, and Czech communities in Cleveland (1918-19); the development of various ethnic cultural gardens by the CLEVELAND CULTURAL GARDEN FEDERATION, beginning with the Hebrew garden in 1926; the annual folk arts festival sponsored by the CLEVELAND FOLK ARTS ASSN., starting in 1950; and the initiation of the annual All Nations Festival in 1962 by the Nationalities Services Center (see INTERNATIONAL SERVICES CENTER). Thus, after World War I the Anglo-American approach toward the various ethnic groups changed from one of suspicious attempts at control and assimilation to one of assistance, acknowledgement, and celebration. This shift reflected the growth and maturation of the ethnic communities, the relative success of assimilation efforts, the proven loyalty of the ethnics through their contribution to the war efforts, and the increasing political power of the ethnic communities.

For many of the Eastern European ethnic groups that had settled in Cleveland between 1880 and 1920, the period between 1920 and 1950 was a time of growth and stability for their communities. The pattern of ethnic community development and self-help that they had followed became the model through which most whites came to view the ethnic experience and, perhaps more significantly, the standard by which, they measured and judged the development of the African American community (see AFRICAN AMERICANS) in Cleveland. But the white ethnic model failed to take into account significant differences between the white ethnic immigrant experience and the plight of African American newcomers from the South. Prejudice and discrimination toward blacks ran deeper and was more pervasive than anti-ethnic sentiment, adversely affecting the economic, housing, and educational opportunities available to blacks. The economic consequences of discrimination made it impossible for African Americans to accumulate the resources for community development on a par with the white ethnic communities.

Assimilation was a goal that Anglo-Americans desired for white ethnic immigrants, but it was not a goal that it pursued with African Americans. While relations between Anglo-Americans and white ethnic groups gradually improved, race relations between blacks and whites worsened considerably during the 20th century before they began to improve. Students of the African American experience in Cleveland note that throughout much of the city's history, Cleveland has offered its black residents as liberal an environment as could be found in America, but the comparative aspect of that assessment leaves room for many inequities. Kenneth Kusmer has noted the substantial economic opportunities available to blacks and the relative absence of racial segregation and discrimination in Cleveland during the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. But between 1870 and 1915, increasing job discrimination meant that blacks could not advance up the economic ladder into the emerging middle class, while housing discrimination through "whites only" sellers' policies and restrictive covenants made it difficult to move out of the Central Ave. district. Black residential patterns were thus circumscribed in ways that those of whites were not. At the same time, Cleveland's racial egalitarianism was beginning to weaken with the rise of new scientific theories about racial differences; this scientific racism helped lead to heightened discrimination and increased segregation in theaters, restaurants, and recreational facilities. Race prejudice in Cleveland increased considerably after 1915, a trend evident in the tone of newspaper articles; in the rhetoric of white politicians who fanned the flames of hatred; in the showing of racist films such as Birth of a Nation; and in the hiring policies of the police department and in the administration of the public schools. By 1915, for example, both EUCLID BEACH PARK and LUNA PARK were open to blacks only on designated days.

Increased discrimination and segregation was partly an indication of the fear aroused among whites by the Great Migration of blacks from the South. Between 1910 and 1920, Cleveland's black population increased by more than 300%. This vast increase led to a housing crisis for Cleveland's blacks, who found available housing to, be both scarce and expensive. The housing crisis strained race relations as blacks turned to white neighborhoods in search of housing; but whites sought to maintain the "purity" of their neighborhoods through mutual understandings, restrictive clauses, and, increasingly during the 1910s and 1920s, violence. As Kusmer notes, "the staunch resistance of certain urban ethnic groups" was an "important factor in containing and channeling the black population."

Both nationally and in Cleveland, African Americans disagreed over how to respond to these new circumstances. An older elite group of conservative blacks, who had both business and social ties to the white community, generally favored continuation of integrationist efforts; but a younger group of businessmen and politicians who drew their income and support from the black community tended to favor the self-help approach and eschewed activism on behalf of equal rights. JANE EDNA HUNTER†'s plan to develop the PHILLIS WHEATLEY ASSOCIATION to serve as a black YWCA in Cleveland was the subject of a major struggle between those who favored pursuing integration and those who understood the benefits of self-segregated institutions when integration had been denied. A new era of black leadership by the "New Negroes" emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, composed of men and women who favored both racial pride and solidarity, while at the same time working on behalf of equal rights. Working largely through the NAACP (see NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE), these leaders strengthened existing black organizations, worked behind the scenes and in the courts to end discriminatory policies and practices, and took a more active role in local politics. The growing power of blacks at the ballot box during the 1930s and 1940s transformed politics into a new battleground in race and ethnic relations. The continuing increase in the black population raised in the minds of some whites the specter of a black political takeover of the city; such fears provided some of the motivation for the regional government proposals put forward and defeated in the 1950s.

By the 1950s, a remarkably self-conscious racism had taken hold in Cleveland. Various white leaders acknowledged in private that they knew that race prejudice and discrimination were wrong and would have to change, but they attributed their own persistence in discriminatory practices to their own cultural upbringing, to personal preferences, and to the unproven "fact" that their customers or the general public would not stand for integration and social equality. Another common rationalization was that African Americans somehow were still undeserving of equal treatment, often bolstered with anecdotes intended to illustrate how the black community, in demanding equal treatment through the NAACP, the Urban League (see URBAN LEAGUE OF GREATER CLEVELAND), or the FUTURE OUTLOOK LEAGUE, had not yet measured up to the self-help standards established by white ethnic communities. Instead, such comments reflected the prejudices of the speakers and their lack of knowledge about individuals and institutions in the African American community, especially those which worked steadily and quietly behind the scenes, like the black churches. This lack of awareness and understanding of the black community had disastrous consequences during the 1960s when overcrowded schools, inequities in housing, and job discrimination became the major issues prompting the formation of a local civil rights organization, the UNITED FREEDOM MOVEMENT (UFM), and when riots rocked HOUGH in 1966 and GLENVILLE in 1968.

The election of Carl Stokes (see MAYORAL ADMINISTRATION OF CARL B. STOKES) in 1967 as Cleveland's first African American mayor was a major triumph for the black community, and, with 20% of the white voters willing to give him their endorsement, it marked a watershed in race relations as well. In some ways it was the culmination of the local white liberal response to the concerns expressed by the civil rights movement. A variety of organizations, including the LOMOND ASSN., the LUDLOW COMMUNITY ASSN., Fair Housing, Inc., and PATH were created mostly by liberal whites to work on housing issues; PACE coordinated efforts to improve the public schools. Improvements were painfully slow in housing, prompting the CUYAHOGA COUNTY REGIONAL PLANNING COMMISSION (RPC) of Ohio to label Cleveland "the second most segregated area in the nation" in the 1980s. The lack of progress in the schools prompted the NAACP to file suit in 1973 against the Cleveland Board of Education, which was convicted of segregating black students within the schools and ordered to use busing as a means toward integration.

The demands and protests of the civil rights movement, the HOUGH RIOTS, and the GLENVILLE SHOOTOUT, and many policies and actions of the Stokes administration angered many white Clevelanders, although others supported the movement for racial equality. Racial animosities ran high during this time, especially between blacks and white ethnics, many of whom viewed civil rights demands as direct threats to their neighborhoods and their well-being; some responded by joining the exodus to the suburbs, others by electing an ethnic mayor, Ralph Perk (see MAYORAL ADMINISTRATION OF RALPH J. PERK), to succeed Stokes in 1971. Paradoxically, the civil rights movement, by focusing on the issues of racial identity, cultural pride, and self-determination, helped to inspire and provoke the "new ethnicity" of the 1970s, in which white ethnics took a renewed interest in their backgrounds and neighborhoods. The attempt to renovate SLAVIC VILLAGE/BROADWAY, in the late 1970s and 1980s was one example of this new ethnic consciousness at work in Cleveland.

Ethnic and race relations in Cleveland over the last 200 years reflect both change and continuity. Over time, the major groups in Cleveland have become increasingly tolerant of one another, a result of the passage of time, of the work of activists since the 1910s to create a more tolerant, pluralistic atmosphere, and of the rise since 1945 of the black middle class. Cleveland now celebrates and markets its ethnic and racial diversity, yet ethnocentrism, traditional loyalties, and old antagonisms persist. New ethnic rivals (or scapegoats) are never difficult to find, it seems. Prejudice, suspicion, and fear remain powerful human emotions, and in ethnic and race relations these emotions ebb and flow with the arrival of substantial numbers of new immigrants; as changes in the economy give rise to concerns about employment opportunities and wage and income levels; and in response to particular local events, developments in the old homeland, and the perception of new foreign enemies.

Kenneth W. Rose

Rockefeller Archive Center

Last Modified: 16 Jul 1997 10:41:05 AM

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