THE NIGHT THEY BURNED OLD HOUGH

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 Streets.

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 same again.

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.