Today’s young college students were not alive when Clevelander Carl B. Stokes was elected the first black mayor of a major American city in 1967. Nor did they see his brother, Congressman Louis Stokes, begin his 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But students who are part of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Humanities Center at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) have a unique opportunity this year to learn more about the brothers’ historical influences and their breaking down of racial barriers. At the same time, students are experiencing hands-on opportunities that will prepare them to better understand and serve their communities.
“Stokes: Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future” is a yearlong series of events acknowledging the 50th anniversary of Carl Stokes’ election. More than 75 community organizations are participating in the commemoration, with Tri-C’s Humanities Center being one of the leaders.
The Stokes brothers were great-grandsons of a slave and born in the economically disadvantaged Central neighborhood of Cleveland. Carl, born in 1927, was 2 years old when his father died. As a child, Stokes helped support his family by delivering newspapers. After dropping out of high school and serving time in the Army in Germany, Stokes studied at several schools. He eventually obtained his law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.
In addition to being a two-term mayor, Stokes served in the Ohio Legislature, was a municipal judge from 1983 to 1994 and was named ambassador to Seychelles by President Bill Clinton in 1994. He also was the first black television anchorman in New York City.
Louis Stokes was the first African-American congressman from Ohio and served in the House of Representatives for 30 years, beginning in 1969. A lifelong civil rights advocate, Stokes represented Ohio’s 21st congressional district.
“The Stokes story is remarkable in itself,” says Lauren Onkey, chair and dean of the center. “But a commemoration like this is also a history project, a platform of reflection where we see in it from the ‘now’ compared to the ‘then.’ Our challenge is to convey to a generation what happened 50 years ago accurately and honestly so they have access to that information and learn from it. You study the past not just to understand what happened, but to understand our present.”
The center’s students are making significant contributions to the commemoration in several ways. Some are collecting the oral histories of those who were part of the Stokes’ administrations, on their staffs, who were directly influenced by the politicians or who are “regular Clevelanders,” according to Onkey, with a relevant story to tell. The video interviews will become part of a new permanent Stokes brothers exhibit at the Western Reserve Historical Society’s Cleveland History Center that opens in November.
“Our students are being trained how to do oral histories, and will shadow others doing them and then create some on their own,” says Onkey. “Students are not just learning a skill by doing the oral histories, but will see the fruits of their labor in the exhibit. That leads to them thinking about just what the mission of the Western Reserve Historical Society is. We all want to tell the stories of our past, and this is a way to do it.”
Tri-C humanities students also will have the opportunity to research public policy formulated during the Stokes years and to relate that to the present and the future. Looking at housing, education, healthcare and economic opportunities over time allows perspective and insight.
To honor the Stokes legacy, Tri-C and project partners will hold policy forums throughout 2017 “to plot a future course in Cleveland,” according to Tri-C. Policy and leadership development recommendations, the result of the collaboration between eight Northeast Ohio organizations (including student input), will be presented at the City Club of Cleveland in October.
“When students see their work as having an impact, as something beyond a classroom, they invest in it in a very different way,” says Onkey.
The Jack, Joseph, Morton Mandel Humanities Center, and particularly the Stokes commemoration, “opens up a very different Cleveland” for students, she says. They are surrounded by buildings, parks and programs named after renowned Clevelanders, and especially the Stokes siblings, but may not understand the impact of the people honored.
Involving students in this anniversary event helps build new leaders and foster dynamic ideas for Cleveland’s future, Onkey says.
“We are trying to help our students learn how to better engage in the community, how to find their place in the community,” she says. “We are trying to cultivate their leadership skills, not so much to make them bosses, but to help them see opportunities and know how to participate in civic life.”
For more information about the commemoration, visit stokes50cle.com.