As part of Cleveland Magazine's 30th anniversary celebration, the editors have chosen 52 of their favorite stories from the magazine's archives, and wish to share them with you.
A new story will appear every week at Clevelandmagazine.com. It might be controversial, comical, nostalgic or nonplussing. But it will be Cleveland.
From Cleveland Magazine, February 1975
George Forbes drapes his brown-leather, knee-length car coat over a chair and lopes the few feet to his regular luncheon booth at Skippy's, a clean, welllighted soul food diner at East 55th and Central. He slides easily, almost cat-like, into the booth, lazily looking through the front window to the street-a tableau of Superflys, winos, street hustlers and bluecollar workmen. He had greeted many of them just moments ago with soul-brother handshakes and a series of Say-man-how-you-doing's.
"OK, Ruby," he nods to his secretary, "let's continue."
For the last 15 minutes Ruby Moss has been sitting next to Forbes in a chauffeured detective's car, rattling off the dozen or so telephone messages he has received this morning. Her boss is an important man. Because of threats on his life and the subsequent arrest of a 17-year-old white boy who told police, "I was only joking," George Forbes has had two black detectives at his disposal. He is picked up at home in the morning by one of them and driven home at night by the other, the late-night detective cautiously waiting until Forbes is inside his,house before pulling away. (For this reason alone Forbes wants to sell his 1974 Cadillac, which hasn't been driven in months.) While normally Forbes sits up front chatting with his driver, this noon he was in the back seat, listening attentively to Mrs. Moss.
Not until they have been seated several minutes in the restaurant is her recitation finally finished. Today is a normal day."A man in the water department is getting laid off. He's from your ward. Want his telephone number? Can you do anything?"
"All right," says Forbes reluctantly, "we'll try. Get him on the phone this afternoon."
"Cresmont Cadillac. Can you do a commercial studio taping next Tuesday?"
"Why not? Check my schedule. Make sure there's no conflict." He pauses, looks at me. "That's the only commercial I do live. I like that place. That's why."Ruby Moss goes on.
"That man who wants you to get him appointed judge also called. He'll be back in town Friday."
"Tell him to get his black ass back here tomorrow," Forbes growls. "What's he doing out of town, wanting to be a judge. Damn!"
Forbes looks angry. He's wearing the scowl that has become a trademark: deep brooding eyes under raised, poised eyebrows; taut, high forehead; lips curled down. But his demeanor quickly changes as a waitress brings menus to the table.
"Hi, lovely," he says with a smile. "Any muffins today?""No, I don't think so. They all gone."
"Shee-it," says George Forbes, the word drawn out in two distinct syllables."Hush your mouth," the waitress snaps back. Suddenly I begin smiling, then laughing out loud.
"White boy think that's funny when that happens, huh?" Forbes asks me. "A black lady telling me that. You never saw that before, huh? White guy here thinks it's funny."
I tell Forbes, it is funny because it's the first time I've ever head anyone -- black or white -- call him on his mouth. And he swears and curses nearly every waking moment.
The scowl once more becomes a grin, one so big that it slices his face horizontally. 'He looks at the waitress. "Bring this white boy some ribs. Black-eyed peas. Cabbage."You like cabbage?"
Without waiting for my reply, he goes on: "Cabbage and . . . let's see, hamhocks. . . .Oh, God no, not hamhocks . . . . Gotta break in the white fellow easy on soul food. Just some ribs, peas and cabbage and corn bread."
George Forbes is at his best right now, the master of ceremonies of this little scenario here in the middle of the black ghetto, sitting among black mailmen, black anti-poverty bureaucrats, black truck drivers, black cops, black politicians and one white writer. He is wearing a Man Talk checkered suit, inch-and-a-half brown patent leather high heels, cuff-linked white shirt and what appears to be a Cardin tie and carrying on about how white folks, "up North, anyway," cannot appreciate soul food. It seems to disturb him.
"White folks never cease to amaze me," he tells Charlie Carr, dean of black politicians in Cleveland, who is sitting across the table. "Yes sir, the white man truly is an amazing being."Everyone at the table chuckles. George goes on.
"I went home to Memphis. My mom was in a Catholic hospital before she died. You wouldn't have believed it. Why, there were whites coming right into her room, visiting her and our relatives. Hell -- when I was growing up in Memphis the only blacks to get in that hospital were those mopping floors. Talk about things changing! Shee-it! They more advanced than up North. Lemme tell you, something has happened down there and it hasn't happened here yet."
"That's right," says the 70-year-old Carr, who has been a member of city council for 30 years. "Just recently they -- white people -- they yes-suh'd and nosuh'd me all across the South. I couldn't believe it myself. I'd be more afraid today on Broadway than in Mississippi."
George Forbes, the man who walks gingerly in many, racial, business and political worlds, is enjoying this conversation. It is here-or at Juanita's in Glenville or Art's Seafood House on Cedar, his regular postradio show Friday night restaurant-that Forbes, the new Number I black leader in Cleveland, can come to escape the white man's world. For Forbes, the black politician who is president of the predominantly white Cleveland city council-his real center of power-and co-chairman of the predominantly white Cuyahoga Democratic party, and for Forbes the black businessman who is buying a $4-million white radio station with several other (white) businessmen, here there is none of the starchiness of the Oak Room or Top of the Town, where he lunches while on downtown business. Here he puts aside the trappings of white politics and business and relaxes, secure in his environment, at one with his own. "No matter how far I go into the white world," he says, "I never forget where I'm at home."
Still, he is a bundle of contradictions, a study for the psychoanalyst. He is given to moments of anger abruptly followed by almost giddy good humor. He is moody-sullen, nasty, compassionate, often within minutes. He is a tough looking man who, on one hand, can Mau-Mau unsuspecting whites-especially liberals ("The worst kind") -with the crudest of street Ian_ guage and, on the other, speak enthusiastically to a businessmen's group about the need for whites to shop downtown on Saturdays to make the area viable once again.
And he is a politician extraordinaire, one who can forge a consensus within city council even on the most controversial issues and command personal loyalty from near West Side whites never thought possible of any black politician. Though his relationship with his black colleagues perhaps goes deeper, he will not allow any black councilman to best him. Nor will he allow momentary squabbles to become personal and destroy the broad leadership base he is trying to build.
During a recent, well-publicized argument with former councilman Paul Haggard at a city council meeting, Forbes almost had Haggard, a black, ejected from the chambers. The pair met afterward, in Forbes' office.
"You got shit in your blood?" Forbes asked Haggard."No, I'm through." "OK, I got no problem with you," said Forbes.
"White guys would have to go through some formal, ritualistic apology," says Haggard. "We understood each other after that conversation."
Forbes is also a put-on artist who can pull off a practical joke without displaying a crinkle in his stern visage.
"He pulled one of his best last year in our studios," recalls Mickey Flanagan, news assignment editor for WJW-TV, Channel 8. "Just before he was to be interviewed for City Camera Close-Up, he demanded to see the AFTRA steward.
"He told the guy he wanted union wages for appearing on the show, because, through his work at WERE, he was an AFTRA member. The newsmen were panicked and tried to tell him he was appearing as a political figure and not entertaining as an AFTRA member. But he wouldn't budge.
"Finally I said, 'Ah, the hell with him, let's get somebody from city council who can talk well-like Joe Lombardo.' Without a smile, Forbes said, 'Damn, Mickey, you're the only one who knew I was kidding.'"
Says Ruby Moss: "I never know what my day is like until he walks into the office in the morning."
At 43 years old, 160 pounds ("I've gained a lot since I quit smoking"), six feet two inches, George Forbes is trying, it seems, to be all things to all men and somehow accomplishing his goal.
"Every now and then I look at myself and scare myself," he says in one of his many moments of reflection. "To blacks I am the portrait of any angry guy fighting the system, and to many whites I am a desperado trying to destroy them . . . . It's a bitch."
Of course, not all whites believe that or Forbes, who still has to contend with a white majority in council and in the Democratic party, could not retain his new-found positions and power. He has come a long way in a short time. Just five years ago, when he was known to whites as the "prime minister" of the Stokes operation, he had few white associates, no white friends, wore his hair in a defiant Afro, donned dashikis for black street meetings, sometimes carried a .38 to protect himself and stomped, stammered, ranted and raved on behalf of Carl Stokes. If scared whites ever had a walking symbol of everything distasteful in blacks it was the fulminating George Forbes.
Today his style has changed and his efforts have been channeled into conciliatory political leadership, avoiding racial confrontations and seeking to lead the city as a whole, not just his constituents or even just Cleveland's blacks. And as council has wrested leadership from a moribund Perk administration, Forbes' position as council president becomes even more significant. This concept of cooperation and power-sharing is a new theme for black politicians in Cleveland, who just recently were buying a separatist but ineffectual brand of politics from Carl Stokes.
"George and I believe that any longterm progress for blacks will come through the system," says Arnold Pinkney, unsuccessful heir to Stokes' mayoral seat and president of the Cleveland Board of Education. "It is better to be in the conference room and making decisions than out picketing and letting people inside make decisions affecting your life."
In helping to bring blacks back into the political system in Cleveland, Forbes has made alliances that five years ago would have been as plausible as a wedding between King Faisal and Golda Meir. Today he counts among his allies Dennis Kucinich, an irascible, white West Side councilman, who just two years ago delighted in irritating Forbes.
"When Dennis turned on the mayor, Forbes picked him up," says Brent Larkin, Cleveland Press city hall reporter. "They admire each other. Forbes respects his brains, and even has Dennis write speeches for him. He would rather have Dennis on his side than attacking him and the Democratic caucus."
"This is the least racially polarized council I've ever been in," Carr adds. "I can't speak for the constituents, but I can say that of the council members. It also probably is the youngest, most liberal and most educated. When I started here, you only had a few lawyers, a few high school graduates and a lot of eighth-grade graduates."
Forbes, as council president, has really taken an active leadership role, giving committee chairmanships to young councilmen, helping them on legislation and keeping his office open from the time he arrives at 10 a.m. until he leaves in the evening for his radio show, in direct contrast to previous city council presidents, who spent much less time at City Hall.
"When a ghetto black takes a University School-educated white councilman -- Dave Strand -- and tries to educate him in the political process, that's progress," says James Davis, ex-chairman of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, a kind of Voice of America for the business establishment, whom Forbes refers to in public as "The Great White Father." Davis has a very close relationship with Forbes. When city council passed regional transit legislation in December after a seeming impasse, he telephoned Forbes at home later in the day and actually woke him from a nap. "You really had me scared," Davis said, "but I just want to say how thankful I am." Forbes had gotten Out of bed to take the call, "which was something I wouldn't do for many folks."
Being close to the man who most embodies the establishment in Cleveland is yet another paradox in the Forbes character, but it is just these paradoxes which give him an edge over his opposition. "You never give away your moves to your opponents," says Forbes, who is given to repeating "down home" Southern maxims, "you juke him."
Just when the white community wants to wrap its arms around Forbes, he will cut down some white caller on his radio show at night, or level a blast at Mayor Perk, accusing him of playing racial politics. Other times he will tell blacks in public they're still the underdog in a white man's world.
The day after talking to Davis, he cornered a black man in a tattered coat on the street near his law office. "White folks still out front, brother," said Forbes.
"Yeah," mumbled the stranger. "Been that way for 400 years."
Forbes broke into laughter. "Yeah, but we movin' up," he said.
In his law office, Forbes keeps in a laminated frame a newspaper picture of himself visiting blacks in county jail. Attached to the picture is a hate letter signed with a swastika. The sender had also scribbled "Monkey cages" across the jail picture. "It makes me remember who I am and who I represent-poor, downtrodden black folks. That's my base and what it is all about, is blacks . . . . I take the attitude I represent blacks first ... because most problems of the city are problems of blacks.
"But I got no problem with most whites," Forbes continues, "especially a guy like Davis. He can do things, pull strings in places where blacks can be helped. Don't want him out on 55th and Quincy worrying about problems, want him in those boardrooms talking about loans for housing. That's where his strength lies."
But Forbes draws the line. "I may be close to him, but I won't go in the Union Club. That place is in the 19th century -- no, the 14th century, and, look, I ain't no monkey on an organ grinder's back."That he is not.
The youngest of eight children, reared in institutionalized racial segregation, Forbes has come a long way since leaving Memphis 25 years ago. Growing up in marginal poverty, working since childhood and listening to the prescient advice of his mother seem to have steeled him for the sometimes vicious political and social confrontations on his way to becoming one of the top blacks in politics today.
As a young man, he had an example of strength in his mother, Eleanora, who did day work most of her life for white families but also found time to organize her own congregation of the AME Zion Church and insisted that her children attend regularly. To this day, Forbes attends the Werner Methodist Church on East 110th Street each Sunday and, preserving a family tradition, sits down to a big breakfast afterward. The difference today is that he takes his wife and three daughters to a Perkins Pancake House.
His mother died at 81 in December and Forbes, profoundly saddened, discussed her death on WERE upon returning from the funeral: "I began praying for her soul, but I caught myself and stopped. She already had paved the way and didn't need any more prayers."
While Forbes' mother was a strong woman, Forbes remembers his father as somewhat less responsible, though the family owned a small, four-room home in a black section on the outskirts of Memphis. In 1931 Cleveland Forbes lost his arm in an industrial accident in a linseed oil factory, and the company, instead of paying any disability claims, simply allowed him to work there until retirement. To supplement his income, the elder Forbes worked as a part-time sharecropper and it was here, trailing behind his father and a mule, that George caught his first glimpse of Southern traditions 35 years ago. "I remember he would address 9- and 10-year-old white boys as 'mister.' It emasculated him, and he took it out on his family."
He continues: "I remember a white policeman pulling out a pocket knife and cutting off a black kid's mustache, a kid just standing on a corner. i was 13 and working nights as a cook in the Peabody Hotel, and I can still see the trolley stopping in front of the city jail to pick up blacks waiting there with their heads bandaged."
Forbes also recalls white insurance men who walked into his house unannounced calling his mother "girl" or "Eleanora."
"When I visited her a couple of years ago, I cried because I never knew how strongly resentful she felt. She had been very conscious of her dark color. But 40 years later she marched with Martin Luther King. You gotta know what this meant to me."
Mrs. Forbes, who dispensed justice to her children with a peachtree switch, encouraged them to go north after they finished school. She started a chain, One would go north, get a job and send for another. Today three Forbes children live in Cleveland and. two in Chicago.
While Mrs. Forbes was helping her older kids north, George attended all-black Manassas High School, walking 10 miles each way or, if tardy, hopping a freight train and passing by two all-white high schools on the way. But success came early. He was student council president in his senior year.
at the Peabody Hotel, he kept the young corporal in his battalion, which remained in the States during the Korean War.
After his discharge from the Marines, Forbes came to Cleveland and moved in with his brother, Zeke, who later would be his political mentor. Zeke had come from Memphis to Cleveland during World War II and was ~ one of the first blacks to settle in Glenville. Utilizing the GI bill, George entered BaldwinWallace College at 22-"1 had to go to college to get some tools"-and, after a momentary flirtation with the idea of becoming a minister, decided to major in history and government. He wrote term papers on black history, certainly a pioneer venture 20 years ago, particularly on a campus where blacks were outnumbered 2,000 to 25. Along the way, he worked as a night watchman and maintenance man to supplement his income and pledged Beta Sigma Tau, the only integrated fraternity on campus. He becamefraternity cook.
"He'd cook up hamburgers or something and call it 'Hamburger a la Forbe' as if it were from some Paris restaurant," recalls Lyonel Jones, a classmate of Forbes at B-W, now head of the Legal Aid Society. "We were all pretty poor in those days and I can see George coming across campus in the wintertime, still dressed in his Marine greens."
"George wasn't the best student," says Dr. Themistocles Rodis, senior history professor at B-W. "He had too much outside work so his grades were about average. But he always was aware that he was black and not treated equally. In fact, if he thought he wasn't graded high enough, it would come out one way or another."
Dr. Rodis, who was the first white Forbes trusted, remembers his student taking
up "unpopular campus causes." Among those causes-the black student movment was
still a decade away-was the elimination of hell week in fraternities. "I was
a young Malcolm in those days," Forbes laughs. He was also president of the
In his junior year Forbes found a creative outlet as a reporter for the student newspaper, the BaldwinWallace Exponent. He summed up his educational philosophy in an article under the headline, "Thoughts at 3 a.m.": "There's a note of sympathy for education majors who are taught to apply modern psychological methods to the age-old problem of discipline. The whole problem would cease to exist if the future teachers were instructed to crack more heads in their dealings with young delinquents."
He also wrote a column under the nom de plume of "The Gadfly" and closed out his abbreviated journalistic career by revealing his identity:
To some of you it's been a lot of fun reading the column and trying to guess the identity of the character with the pseudonym, 'Gadfly.' For two quarters the column has originated along the lines of humor, facts and student opinions. If the above qualities have been mistaken for smear, slander or a gossip column, then that's too bad on the part of the individual reader and he has my sympathy, but not my apology.
For me it's been a tiresome venture, but an awfully happy one. In fact,
it has been much fun, but I've decided that I'd never make a quarter in the
field of journalism and so I return to history and political science and gladly
devote my entire studies to a career in something other than writing.
(G)eorge- (G)ad (f)ly- (F)orbes
Though he was a facile writer, in those days openings for a black on a Cleveland newspaper were scarce. "I understood that," says Forbes, "besides I wanted to be a lawyer. I had seen Southern injustice to blacks and, truly, a lawyer is an important man in my community. I was just taught to go that way."
During September of his senior year, Forbes met his wife, Mary Fleming, a graduate of Central State, then a social worker in Cleveland, at a party of black B-W students. He invited her to dinner the following week, and, seven months later, on April 4, 1957, Forbes' 26th birthday, they were married. Mary Forbes had been raised in Portsmouth, located on the Ohio River, and had to be acculturized to the Southern ways of her husband. "First time I ever ordered barbecue in Cleveland I was with George and some friends," she recalls. "I asked for it on a bun and everyone laughed."
Forbes student-taught at Glenville High School in his senior year and planned to teach full-time to pay his way through law school. However, he was denied a full-time contract by a black woman at the board of education because, apparently, the de facto quota of black teachers had been filled. Though bitter then, he is philosophical today: "I'd rather have a jackhammer than teach. Next to setting pins in a bowling alley, it's the worst occupation in the world."
For the next three years Forbes worked as a route pick-up man in the post office, while substitute teaching at Collinwood and attending night courses at Cleveland Marshall Law School. During a vacation from the post office, he became a social worker with Aid for the Aged "because I wanted to wear a white shirt." But it lasted only two weeks. "I got my paycheck and discovered my clients were making more than me."
He remained at the post office until 1961, when he became a city housing inspector, a job he held until he ran for council in 1963. Even after finishing law school and passing the bar in 1962, Forbes had not yet considered politics as a career. In fact, he had contempt for politics. He wanted to be another Thurgood Marshall, taking up the causes of embattled blacks and concerning himself only with the great legal issues of the day. With that burning idealism, Forbes matched down to Cleveland Municipal Court to defend his first client, a black man charged with DWI. Forbes was assisted by two other young black lawyers determined to see it through. Their client had been arrested in a restaurant-not in his carand Forbes thought they were home free. But the police, he maintains, fabricated a different story and the judge proved uncooperative.
Determined to appeal the guilty verdict to the U. S. Supreme Court, the outraged young attorney confronted the arresting officers in the hallway outside of court. They were grinning. "There was an easier way to win this case, counselor," said one of the cops, pointing to his wallet.
Even at 31, George Forbes was still in some ways naive. But he would learn quickly.
In 1959, Forbes purchased the house he lives in today on East 114th Street, north of St. Clair. He was one of the first blacks in his Glenville neighborhood. A year before, when a black had moved in on a nearby street, someone had burned a cross at the corner. By 1963, the ward had begun to turn black and Bill Sweeney, the incumbent councilman in Ward 27, was hard pressed to understand the problems of his new constituents. He saw the handwriting on the wall and did not seek re-election.
"George was a logical candidate," says Sweeney. "I knew him through his brother. He was smart, educated and clean-cut. But he was virtually unknown. I asked both papers to endorse him but they refused. In those days George was happy even if his name got in one of the gossip columns."
Forbes, his brother Zeke, and Clarence (Buddy) James, who would become Stokes' law director, sat one day in mid-1963 in Zeke Forbes' bar, the Keystone Cafe, at East 66th and Wade Park. Zeke and James were trying to convince George to run. "Money was a big problem," recalls James, now a prosperous attorney living in Shaker Heights. "We emptied our pockets, slapped all our money on the bar and couldn't come up with $30 between us. That was no way to finance a campaign."
With little money and fewer political contacts, it took some persuading. "At
first George didn't want anything to do with politics," says Zeke Forbes, a
municipal court bailiff who acts as George's liaison with his constituents in
Ward 20. "George said, 'Hell, people will be calling me all times of night and
day just because someone's dog is barking.
Once convinced, Forbes threw himself into the race, enlisting campaign workers, walking door-todoor night and day with his friends and introducing himself to everyone he met. He even borrowed money from then Ward 4 Councilman James V. Stanton to defray costs of printing campaign literature. After the election, Forbes' vote helped Stanton, whom he had known in law school, to topple Jack Russell and become city council president. And though they fought publicly throughout the Stokes years, Forbes and Stanton, now a congressman, always kept their personal friendship intact.
"George was so shy in the early stages of that first campaign that I often had to tell people I wasn't the candidate, that he was," says Zeke Forbes. "He had trouble speaking before an audience."
What George Forbes lacked in poise he compensated for in political instinct. He ran in the primary against a handful of candidates named Brown. To qualify for the general election he would have to finish either first or second.
"We called a summit meeting with Al Brown, one of the candidates," Zeke remembers. "George and his five men and Al and his five men. We met at the old Beef House on Chester. Neither side spoke for a while because We didn't trust each other. Finally, we worked out a deal.
"We convinced Al that he had to attack Anna Brown, the front runner, to assure that he would be among the top two finishers in the primary-he and us-to run-off in the general election. We knew Al wouldn't finish in the top two, but that by attacking Anna he would help draw votes to us.
"It worked out perfectly. I remember that dinner vividly because we