The 1960s were the most turbulent era in Cleveland’s history — and an exciting time to be a newspaper reporter. In his new memoir, former Cleveland Magazine editor Michael D. Roberts offers an eyewitness account of that era. As an ambitious young reporter he covered the major events of the day: civil rights violence, corruption and crime, Vietnam, Richard Nixon, the Kent State shooting and more. In this chapter, he looks back at the Hough riots.
Monday, July 18, 1966, was scorching hot. I was hoping to slip from work early and get a beer around the corner at the Rockwell Inn. I wanted to cover my exit with the return of reporters from their beats, which always created commotion and congregation around the city desk. Over the past year, racial relations in Cleveland had grown in intensity, and news from city hall and the education beat was drawing the primary attention.
The Rockwell Inn was the favored location for a surreptitious escape from the newsroom. The backstairs at the Plain Dealer were easily reached, lightly traveled and emptied about a block from the bar. Conversely, the route to the Headliner held little cover.
I had been sitting on a barstool for only a few minutes when a breathless copyboy named Truby rushed in, exclaiming that the city desk wanted to see me immediately. Not good news. Moments like this created a pingpong of uncertainty. Was I in for an ass-chewing, or was something up?
The summons turned out to be an invitation to the night that changed Cleveland forever. It was a historic waypoint, the first violent rejection of a bitter past that had held half the town hostage for so many years.
“The police beat is reporting a disturbance in Hough,” Ted Princiotto said. “Take a photographer and get out there.”
This was not surprising. Racial incidents had increased on the East Side, most of them revolving around the state of the city’s schools in that area of town. African-Americans were protesting segregation efforts and the lack of facilities.
A dramatic sign of what was to come had occurred on April 7, 1964, when Reverend Bruce Klunder, a 26-year-old minister with the Student Christian Union, was accidentally crushed by a bulldozer during a protest over the building of the Stephen E. Howe Elementary School. Angry protesters viewed the school’s construction as an effort to avoid integration of students in two other new schools.
Klunder laid down behind the bulldozer; the equipment operator, trying to avoid three other protesters who had positioned themselves in front of him, and unaware of the minister’s presence behind him, put the earthmover into reverse. Plain Dealer photographer Dudley Brumbach took one of the most haunting pictures of the civil rights movement in Cleveland, showing the dead Klunder sprawled face down.
That night, in what was reported as the worst civil rights violence in the city’s history thus far, 300 police officers were called on to restore order, using teargas and arresting some 50 people. In a page-one editorial, the paper pleaded for rational leadership on all sides. Government had spent decades ignoring the crowded and squalid conditions infecting the inner city. Those of us in the city room that evening felt a sense of descending dread.
As the unrest and demonstrations mounted, tension seemed to grip Cleveland’s soul — especially on the East Side where Italian and black neighborhoods abutted and area schools were under consideration for integration. The tensions manifested in sporadic and spontaneous gatherings at school sites that drew the police.
I remember one cold morning at Collinwood High School when a group of students assembled outside the school, refusing to go to class. A pickup truck pulled into their midst and out got a man wearing overalls and an Indians cap. “You get in that school or I’ll kick your ass right now in front of the TV cameras,” he shouted at his son. With that, he grabbed the boy by an arm and turned him over to a nearby teacher. “Hold him while I get the other kid.” His actions broke up the querulous assembly and the academic day proceeded uneventfully.
Murray Hill in Little Italy was a territory forbidden to African-Americans. Not only were passersby not tolerated, the threatening nature of the neighborhood was such that black people would drive for miles to avoid the place. Unsuspecting outsiders who wandered into the neighborhood were beaten and on more than one occasion found dead.
One freezing night with Murray Hill in turmoil over an investigation of one such deaths, I remember huddling for warmth and safety in the car of a Cleveland Press photographer outside a church while an angry crowd milled about, loud and threatening. The city desk wanted comments from the protesters, but there was no way I was going to announce that I was a reporter.
So as I drove out to the Hough neighborhood in the fading light that sweltering July evening, I expected more confrontation and simmering anger that would stop short of violence. The scene on Hough Avenue was bizarre. The street was filled with people pushing racks of clothes, carrying boxes of looted goods, and drinking liberated liquor. The crowd was in a festive mood and for the moment there was no sense of danger. Some of the merrymakers were hawking their stolen wares.
Back behind a bowling alley a merchandise mart of sorts had been set up. Men’s suits were selling for $10, liquor $3 a fifth, wine 50 cents a bottle, prime beef $1.25 a pound. As I moved through the neighborhood, several people offered me deals on neckties, shirts and a huge pot roast. The only thing the police could do was take photographs of the frolicking looters for later investigation. I didn’t feel threatened, but was quite aware that the mood could change at any moment and when it did, I’d better be in a safer place.
In the midst of all this, I found a working pay phone. The booth had been battered, its glass broken and its interior smelling of warm urine. It was always a treat to call the city desk in these situations.
The hardest thing for the desk on a story like this was to grasp its magnitude and assign enough people to cover the basics while keeping an eye on inviolable deadlines. But the somewhat cynical desk often wasted time by treating the initial description of events with suspicion. The editors figured that an overzealous reporter was trying to wrest space from them. Several reporters had been dispatched from downtown, but because of the vast chaos of the disturbance none could be readily located.
I was glad to find Bob Daniels on the other end of the phone line. He was on rewrite, thank god. Daniels was quick, accurate and understanding, as good as it got. He comprehended that during a race riot the city desk could not afford to ask for the participants’ middle initials.
Daniels stayed with the story all week and accumulated a massive amount of overtime, so much so that reporter Don Bean, ever the prankster, cautioned that the paper did not have that kind of money and would probably have to pay it off over a year’s time. Editors in the city room were so focused on the developing story that they ignored the string of firecrackers that copyboy Dennis Kucinich set off in an effort to simulate riot conditions inside the newspaper’s offices.
As I described the scene to Daniels, a little boy pressed his face to the fractured glass of the phone booth, his eyes wide with a mixture of excitement and fear. I told Daniels that fires were being lit and that the police were doing nothing to prevent the looting.
“Bob, this one is for real,” I said. “Tell the desk that they are going to need more people out here.” With deadlines pressing, it was clear that we would only be able to present a bare-bones, just-the-facts story in the morning.
We reported that one woman had been killed, numerous people injured, and a series of fires set throughout the neighborhood. As the evening progressed so did the violence, forcing some firemen to abandon the flaming buildings in order to protect themselves. The crowds grew in size and vehemence. Sporadic shooting was taking place and the police were reporting sniper fire. By midnight, it was too dangerous for us to move freely among the ruins of a once-vibrant neighborhood. Even while standing amid the destruction, it was hard to believe this was happening.
Daylight brought some relief from the shooting and arson. Shopkeepers returned to witness their livelihoods trashed by looting and fire. Much of the desecration had taken place right in front of the police, who seemed helpless to prevent it.
In the morning I stood there as Joe Berman surveyed his grocery store, which surprisingly had not sustained severe damage. He tried to secure the door with six-inch spikes, but they didn’t hold. Looters sacked his place in broad daylight along with Larry’s Meat Market, which had served the neighborhood for 19 years. Earl Gamer, the market’s owner, stood distraught outside the business he had worked so hard to maintain.
“I’m ruined,” Gamer said. “That is it. They just put me out of business. They even went into the basement and broke open the safe. I’m broke, flat broke. I can’t and won’t reopen again.” Gamer was bitter, noting that when he first opened in Hough very few African-Americans lived there. “They say we are capitalizing on them,” he said. “That’s not true. They came to me, I didn’t come to them.” Next door, Vincent LiBassi, owner of Larry’s Fruitland, surveyed his devastated store and estimated his losses at $20,000. He just shook his head.
As the men poked through what was left of their businesses, a crowd composed mostly of black youths gathered and laughed gleefully. They mimicked the store owners, and someone threw a rock that spider-webbed the windshield of Berman’s station wagon. It was hot, and Berman’s brow gleamed with perspiration. His hands shook. Defeated, he slumped into his car and asked the police to do their best.
“You know how it is,” one policeman said.
“Nobody appreciates the job you are doing, nobody but me,” Gamer responded. “Look, watch the store for me, but if it’s your life forget about it.”
I asked Berman how long he had been in business here.
“No time to talk,” he said. “Twelve years here, that’s how many. The family wants me out. Huh, you know what the trouble is, don’t ask me.”
The crowd, which had grown to 40, called his name and jeered. Berman drove off, squinting through the shattered windshield.
No sooner was Berman out of sight when an elderly black woman named Tillie angrily confronted the youthful taunters. “What we gonna do now?” she said. “What we all gonna do for food now after you damn people drove him out? Shame, I say shame, shame on all of you.”
A few in the crowd teased Tillie and accused Berman of ripping off the neighborhood with his high prices and poor-quality food. Tillie went on her way, mumbling that young people had so much to learn about the world.
Up the street, Herman Dixon, a black man, painted the window of his market with a sign that proclaimed SOUL BROTHER: BLACK OWNER. “If I’m hit tonight it’s going to be hard to come back,” Dixon said. “There is so much tension on the street, too much, and that is going to draw crowds.” His market was not spared.
Meanwhile, downtown at city hall, Mayor Ralph Locher was the captain of a city totally out of control. With every available police officer working 12-hour shifts, there was no sign that the rioters could be subdued by local authority alone. By noon on that second day, Locher had summoned the Ohio National Guard to retake the neighborhood.
There is nothing more ominous than armored vehicles, heavy weapons and men in battle dress roving a city neighborhood. The firepower represented by this invading force provokes an empty and fearful feeling. One mistake or hostile move could result in numerous casualties.
The National Guard, however, did not arrive until 11 p.m. that second night — and in its absence the rioting and looting continued, along with sniping. One man who was helping to board up a black-owned store was shot in the head, killed by what police called a stray round. The Guard quickly intimidated the riotous crowds.
Over the next few days the violence slowly receded, although sporadic shooting continued in the night and three more people were killed by unknown assailants. By Friday, some semblance of peace had returned to the trashed-and-burned neighborhood. Downtown, the city’s civic and political leaders were trying to recover from the shock of the devastation and the concomitant national news coverage. The New York Times had its best civil rights reporters at work here.
The Cleveland newspapers were interested in determining the immediate cause of the riots. The focus of inquiry was the 79er’s Cafe, where the events that triggered the conflagration had taken place on that hot Monday afternoon. The cafe, a squat building occupying the southeast corner of East 79th Street and Hough Avenue, was a social hub in a neighborhood where cheap whiskey and wine helped blunt the prospect of an aimless, empty future. There were a lot of these hopeless havens in the ghetto.
On Friday morning I walked into the place. It was quiet. There were no customers, and one of the two Jewish brothers who owned it, Dave Feigenbaum, was working behind the bar, readying for business. The cafe was long and narrow, with 20 stools, a couple of booths, and a troublesome cigarette machine that patrons had to pound to get their change. After a couple of drinks, a frustrated customer might beat on the machine until all of the change spilled out, much to the disgust and anger of the Feigenbaums.
In situations like this one, reporters often hesitate to introduce themselves. People may react with either hostility or helpfulness. I walked to the end of the bar while considering how to tell Feigenbaum I was from the Plain Dealer. That was a mistake.
Right then a black man rushed through the door and attempted to vault the bar. Feigenbaum reacted instantly, grabbing a baseball bat. The man tried to scramble over the bar and reach behind it, shouting “I’m going to kill the son of a bitch!” Feigenbaum’s bat struck the man on the wrist, making a snapping sound and sending the intruder to the floor recoiling in pain. The bar owner cursed and pulled out a shotgun. It all happened so fast that I had no avenue of escape. I had walked to the end of the bar away from the door. There was no telling what would have happened had the other man reached the gun first.
That split second told me more about life in Hough than any interview. If I ever taught journalism, I thought, there would be at least one lecture on how to navigate hostile taverns.
The next morning we went with a page-one story detailing the incidents that had triggered the riots. The story was important in that it belied the conspiracy charges that the authorities would weave over the next few months.
Abe and Dave Feigenbaum were not well thought of by their customers. Earlier in the year someone had tried to set their car on fire. Someone had flushed a lighted cherry bomb in the men’s room toilet. There was an attempt to burn down the bar. A year and a half earlier, their uncle, Benjamin Feigenbaum, had been shot to death in his car not far from the café.
Maintaining peace was no easy matter for the brothers. The drinking often led to a contentious atmosphere that invited trouble. There were muggings in the men’s room, many in the crowd had lengthy criminal records and the clientele was under the impression that the Feigenbaums were taking advantage of them.
That Monday a number of patrons in the 79’ers Cafe were in mourning for Margaret Sullivan, an African-American woman who had died on Saturday night. Sullivan was a prostitute who had been arrested a dozen times and at age 16 had given birth to a child. People liked her, and 120 attended her funeral.
Her friend Louise, another prostitute, showed up at the café on late Monday afternoon with a greasy cigar box. Both Louise and Margaret Sullivan had been banned from the 79’er after Abe Feigenbaum labeled them undesirable characters. But Louise was intent on collecting money for Sullivan’s family and wanted to pass the box among the bar’s patrons. Dave Feigenbaum was dubious about the collection.
“I didn’t know where the money was going to go,” he said. “And we had another collection going on at the same time.” The other collection was for a man who had faced charges of 99 to 140 years but got off with a sentence of only two to 15 years. It was a celebratory gift to the prisoner.
The trouble began when Dave Feigenbaum ordered Louise to take her cigar box and leave. She refused. Feigenbaum was insistent. They began to curse at each other, each retort more vulgar than the last. Some customers later claimed that an angry Feigenbaum had uttered something derogatory about blacks. Regardless, the incident with Louise had created uneasiness and touched a collective nerve.
So when a man walked in and bought a pint of cheap wine, tensions in the cafe were already high. They peaked when Feigenbaum refused to give the man a glass of ice water. The wine was a takeout item and because of that, Feigenbaum reasoned, the purchaser did not deserve anything extra.
Angry, the thirsty man turned to the crowd of drinkers and loudly proclaimed that he had been denied a glass of water. He made his way outside, scribbled the words No Water for N------- on the paper bag that had held his wine, and placed the homemade sign on the bar’s front door.
By now a crowd had gathered outside the 79’er; word of mouth soon embellished Feigenbaum’s actions, creating an infectious fury. The jeering crowd around the now-embattled cafe quickly swelled to almost 300. The brothers called the police four times with no response. When someone in the crowd attempted to ignite the building, the fire department was summoned, but the trucks quickly left when no fire was found. Angered, the brothers resorted to contacting local television stations in hopes of embarrassing city hall.
The ensuing riot turned into an unchecked rampage. When police finally did arrive, it was too late. The inability to restrain what was originally defiance emboldened the crowd. It also brought out snipers who throughout the night exchanged gunfire with police.
Later the Feigenbaum brothers would blame the riot on police inaction. Armed with a rifle and a pistol, they had returned to the bar that evening, threatening the crowd and fending off arson attempts.
The impact of the Hough riots was enormous, casting a pall of fear, uncertainty and suspicion over the city. Downtown workers who lived on the East Side did not linger after 5 p.m. Drivers sped along Chester Avenue or took circuitous routes home, and pedestrians both black and white avoided eye contact while crossing downtown streets. It felt like we had all stepped into an alternate reality.
The riots had shamed the city, disrupted business and clearly were about to alter the political status quo. For reporters like me who had graduated from the grit and grief of the police beat, there was little doubt as to what had led to the eruption of violence on that hot July day. But Cleveland’s civic, political and business leaders, who had been caught off guard by the ferocity of events, appeared clueless. They immediately sought to place blame elsewhere. The violence had to have been perpetrated by outsiders, went one line of reasoning, while another held forth that the riots had been planned and executed by subversives, communists perhaps.
Cleveland’s newspapers editorialized for calm and collective thought in the wake of the riots, but they were also clueless in their insensitivity to the true conditions in the community. The papers had played a role in perpetuating the myth that all was well in the city and that occasional stories of black concerns were simply part of urban life.
Excerpted from Hot Type, Cold Beer and Bad News by Michael D. Roberts ($24.95, hardcover, 293 pages). Available at Northeast Ohio bookstores and online from Clevelandbooks.com. Reprinted with permission of Gray & Co., Publishers.