Since its beginning in the early 1970s, the Cleveland Restoration Society (CRS) has focused on preserving commercial and residential historic buildings. But with the support of a $50k grant from the National Park Service and generous donors, they’ve taken up the task of preserving history — African American history to be exact — as the organization has embarked upon the development of a Civil Rights Trail here in Cleveland.
CRS is the largest non-governmental, regional historic preservation organization in Ohio and a National Preservation Partners Network member. With an engaged board of trustees, a professional staff and active programs, the organization is recognized nationally as a leader in the American preservation movement.
Kathleen Crowther, 65, president of CRS, is ecstatic about the project. She notes that the trail is essential to Cleveland because of the city’s role in what is known as the Modern Civil Rights Movement.
“We’re doing it because it hasn’t been done,” says Crowther. “It’s a good moment to mark sites that have been underrepresented in our field of historic preservation.”
Formally called “In Their Footsteps: Developing an African American Civil Rights Trail in Cleveland, OH,” the project involves the installation of 10 Ohio Historical Markers at the top 10 sites in Cleveland associated with the struggle for civil rights for African Americans between the years 1954 to 1976.
Crowther describes the markers as “huge” and “beautifully cast in bronze.” She says the markers are really popular and attract motorists, who will stop and get out of their car to read them. “It signals something happened here,” she says.
The message with this project, Crowther continues, is a need for civil rights in today’s world.
“Civil rights didn’t just start and end,” she adds. She also wants people to know civil rights activities were not exclusive to the South. “It led to some important legislation even in the North.”
Seven of the sites have been identified. The first three announced were Cory United Methodist Church, Glenville High School and a location in the Hough neighborhood near East 79th Street and Hough Ave., where the Hough Uprising was initiated.
Three other locations include: Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, which served as headquarters for the United Freedom Movement and was essential in grassroots organizing under the leadership of Rev. E. Theophilus Caviness; the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, which served as home base for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whenever he visited Cleveland; and a location near the former home of Dorothy and John Pegg on Corby Road in the Ludlow neighborhood.
“We’re ecstatic to be a part of the Civil Rights Trail,” says the 93-year-old Rev. Dr. E. T. Caviness, senior pastor of Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, who came to Cleveland 61 years ago in the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Pegg house was the site of a racially charged bombing in 1956 that became the catalyst for the formation of the Ludlow Community Association, setting a national example as a neighborhood development model created to counteract prevailing prejudice against Black buyers in white neighborhoods.
The seventh and most recent site announcement is the marker in honor of the late Carl B. Stokes, the 51st mayor of Cleveland and the first Black mayor of a major American city, expected to be installed at Cleveland City Hall this summer.
“That marker is an indelible symbol of his efforts to secure Black political power, votes and turn over an administration. It shows where Blacks were able to progress,” says Carl’s son Cordell Stokes.
Crowther calls the project “a pretty heavy lift,” further explaining that there were different aspects of the project, such as securing the markers and commissioning scholars, which required an additional $30 to $50k to be raised.
Additionally, funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities allowed CRS to secure a fellow. Ph.D. candidate Aaron Fountain is currently studying American History with expertise in youth movements at Indiana University. Fountain will conduct oral histories to fill in the content on the companion website. QR codes will be placed on the markers to link back to the website.
“We are not experts in the Civil Rights Movement. That’s why we need the scholars to put things in perspective,” she says.
CRS commissioned Dr. Thomas Bynum and Dr. Donna Whyte of Cleveland State University’s Black Studies Department and Attorney James Robenalt of Squire Patton Boggs to provide the scholarship. Robenalt is also the author of Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland.
“My hope is to leave a mark with the markers and the website, giving something to the community by telling these stories and giving something for future generations,” says Fountain.
The first marker has been installed at Cory United Methodist Church in the Glenville Community. Cory is well-known for hosting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In addition to being a historical landmark constructed in 1920, it became an ideal first site for several reasons, says Crowther.
“They had the facility — a huge building to host speakers and large activities,” she says.
CRS has a sacred landmark committee that provides pro bono technical assistance to religious institutions over 50 years old. They help them identify ways to keep the building operating properly and with repairs.
In addition to the marker installation, Cory United Methodist Church received $500k for exterior preservation. CRS applied to the National Park Service to do an external envelope stabilization on Cory. The entire exterior will be analyzed inch by inch and buttoned-up where needed with these funds.
“It’s important that we are better able to document our history, to have that language on file about Cory,” says Rev. Gregory Kendrick Jr., 33, the senior pastor at Cory. “For us to have this marker, for as long as we can imagine, that legacy will be out in the world. I’m grateful.”
Crowther hopes the markers serve as a unifying activity and wishes to raise additional dollars to install more.
“There are more than 10 places that deserve these markers,” she says. “The trail will never be finished. That’s why it’s important to develop a companion website to provide more information. The goal is to make it relevant for today.”
As a local job, there are no national or state representatives working on it. “It’s our job to narrate our own history,”