By Walter Johnson
While attending A New Day In Hough
celebration, I witnessed an amazing event. Cleveland mayor, Jane Campbell
actually raised the Red Black and Green flag on the corner of E.79th
Street and Hough Avenue. (the heart of Hough)
Almost 36 years ago, events at this crossroads sparked what turned
out to be six nights of turmoil and racial disturbances, qualifying
as one of the most emotional racial incidents in Cleveland's hstory.
On July 18, 1966, at dusk of a steamy hot Monday, someone posted a
sign outside the 79'ers bar, situated on the southeast corner of E.79th
Street and Hough Avenue. The sign read, "No Water For Niggers". To
make matters more difficult, the bar manager and a hired hand, who
both happened to be white, patrolled the front of the bar, with shotguns,
to show that they meant business. Hough's population was almost 90,000.
Over 78,000 of whom were African-American. All living in an area that
stretches from E.55th to E.105th Streets. Bordered on the north by
Superior and south by Euclid Avenues. A crowd of over 300 people gathered
at the crossroads in a matter of minutes.
The Cleveland Police Department arrived, in force, to diffuse the
situation. However, the presence of the CPD only intensified the crowd's
anger. Rocks and bottles began to take flight, someone fired a shot
or lit a firecracker and police responded by firing volleys overhead
to disperse the crowd.This tactic backfired setting off a wave of
firebombings and arsons that spread west to 71st and east to 93rd
When firefighters arrived to put out the flames, snippers disrupted
firefighter and police activities. Sporatic snipper fire, from various
apartment and house windows, caused delays and even pull outs for
safety's sake. This caused massive fire damage and heavy losses. The
action also brought aggresive police response. Homes and apartments
were busted into with Gestapo style search and seizure tactics. On
the streets, police shot out the street lights for cover and began
returning fire to suspected snipper positions. Joyce Arnett, a 26
year-old mother of three, was shot dead, when calling out a window,
trying to get permission to go home and check on her children.
For six nights the disturbances continued.
On tuesday night, the arsons increased. Looting, which had begun Monday
night, began to get out of control.Businesses along Hough, Wade Park
and Lexington Avenues, were vandalized. Cleveland mayor, Ralph Locher,
called in the National Guard to quell the disturbances. Initially,
1000 guardsmen were called into Hough.
Early Wednesday morning, Percy Giles, a 38 year-old off duty seaman,
was shot and killed at E.86th Street and Hough Avenue. Police had
reportedly been exchanging gunfire with snippers in the area. Giles
was the second fatality of the disturbance. When the arsons and looting
continued, another 700 guardsmen were called in.
Early Thursday, the arsons and violence spread beyond the Hough area.
The University Party Center at 10626 Cedar Avenue, was tourched. Because
of the disturbance at the party center, Henry Towns, a 22 year-old
resident of Cedar, loaded his family into his automobile and attempted
to flee the area. According to police, Towns attempted to crash a
police roadblock and his 1957 convertable was riddled with bullets.
When the smoke cleared, Diana, Town's 16 year-old wife and her three
year-old son, Christopher Green, were critically wounded. The couples
seven month-old son, Emanuel, and Mrs. Town's 12 year-old half brother,
Ernest Williams, were wounded less seriously. Capt. James Pletcher
of the National Guard was also wounded in the melee. Two police cars,
responding to the incident, collided and four officers were injured.
Early Friday, 54 year-old, Sam Winchester was fatally wounded. The
incident brought the death toll to three. The disturbances and arsons
were reported as far south as Kinsman Road and as far north as St.Clair
Avenue. In the nearby Murray Hill area, armed vigilante groups were
formed. Rumors of Black marauders, invaiding thier neighborhood were
circulated. The FBI was called in to check the possibility of outside
agitators causing the problems.
Early Saturday, a group of vigilantes happened upon 29 year-old, Benoris
Toney, who was sitting in his car in the parking lot of the Dougherty
Lumber Co. at E.118th Street and Euclid. Toney was killed by a shotgun
blast. That night, the disturbances officially ended with a report
of a snipper shooting out a rear-view mirror of a National Guard jeep.
When the dust settled, four lives (all Black) had been lost and hundreds
had been injured, some critically. Police had made 275 related arrests.
Literally, blocks and blocks of homes, apartments and businesses along
Lexington, Wade Park and Hough Avenues, were destroyed. Thousands
of people were displaced. During the disturbances, tens of thousands
lost electrical and telephone services. Utility workers were not allowed
into the area, it was weeks before all service was restored. Over
240 fires, mostly arsons, were tabulated. Neighborhood businesses
were dealt a death blow. Many never recovered from the week of disturbances.
The Cuyahoga Couty Grand Jury investigated the incident and concluded
that the "riots" were the result of Communist agitators. Mayor Locher
agreed with the jury's findings. Later, when informed that the Rev.
Martin Luther King was coming to make Cleveland a special project
for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the mayor stated,
"I will not meet with extremist." The Mayor's statement suprised no
one in the Hough area. His sentiments pretty much reflected how goverment
and the authorities felt about the population of the Hough, Cedar-Central,
Mt.Pleasant, Glenville and Outhwaite neighborhoods.
In the 50's, white flight to the suburbs transformed Hough from the
quasi-affluent remnant of the once magnificent Millionaire's Row to
a rat infested, poverty strickened, over crowded ghetto. The attitude
of the CPD was to, " keep these people in their place." Brutality
and intimidation were the preferred methods of operation. Although
there were shopkeepers who were fair, compassionate and respectful,
many were not. On the first of the month, shopkeepers raised prices
considerably, to take advantage of wellfare and social security recipients.
The majority of the households were rented. Absentee landlords would
collect rent and immediately take off for the comfort of the suburbs.
Little was done to improve conditions in the area. Improvements under
the guise of urban renewal, was dubbed, "urban removal". High unemployment
and overcrowding led to gangs and criminal activity. As a result,
the CPD became even more aggressive in the neighborhood. The no care
attitude at City Hall only compounded the situation. Conditions were
ripe for civil unrest.
Cleveland was not alone with racial disturbances. A year before, the
Watts area of Los Angeles exploded. Less than a week before the Cleveland
incident, 4,200 National Guard troops were called into Chicago to
quell racial disturbances there. Explosions of racial violence were
also repeated in Tampa, Dayton and Cincinnati. It seems that Ohio
was well represented in the annuals of the 60's period of racial unrest.
Myself, being a resident of Hough at that time, am able to offer a
brief personal observation of the occurance .
The damage was incredible, what were once thriving businesses or crowded
apartments, were gutted and in shambles. The damage was everywhere,
the area looked like a war zone. Before the disturbance, Hough was
basically a shopkeepers community. Despite the white flight in the
50's, the area was littered with hundreds of various specialty shops.
Oddly, the damage appeared to be somewhat selective. In many instances,
businesses with a reputation of fairness were spared the torch. It
was almost tornado- like, the way one place was gutted and another
was untouched. Despite the fact that many businesses remained unscathed,
the incident caused a business flight. The developement of shopping
centers and malls didn't help matters much. One by one, the shops
that I used to love to frequent, moved out. Hough would never be the
I remember the pain, suffering and hardships that the incident caused.
Friends and loved ones were suddenly homeless. People had to leave
the nieghborhood to get food, supplies and medicine. During daylight,
people ventured out to take care of their affairs. At night, families
huddled together in their homes, hoping that the carnage would avoid
them and their nieghbors. Many went without electricity and telephones.
As often the case, it was the poor who suffered the most. Before the
disturbances, conditions were unbearable, the disturbances only made
matters more difficult. Social service agencies and some businesses
put forth a tremendous effort aiding those affected by the disturbances.
What I remember most, were the roving carloads of police, many out
of uniform and in plain, unmarked cars. These rovers patrolled the
nieghborhoods intimidating and brutalizing people, under the guise
of keeping the peace. I personally, felt the cold steel of their sawed-off
shotguns against my skull and their boot leather pressed against my
backside. Hough, at that time , was a living hell.
Today, at the crossroads where the burning down of the old Hough began,
The Mayor proudly raises the Red Black and Green flag. One can look
in any direction and see plenty of up scale housing. Although there
is plenty of room for improvements, lots of issues to tackle and many
obstacles to overcome. Hough has come a long way in 36 years.
Information obtained for this article comes from The Plain Dealer,
Cleveland Press and Saturday Evening Post microfilm collection at
the Cleveland Public Library. The Plain Dealer and Cleveland Press
microfilm collection, along with Special Collection's Cleveland Press
clippings at Cleveland State University Library.