Teaching Cleveland

Lesson 32

Biographies of Prominent African-Americans in the 1890s


John Patterson Green, known as the "Father of Labor Day", was born April 2, 1845 of free parents in Newberne, North Carolina. After his father died, Green's mother moved her family to Cleveland. He attended Central High School and became a lawyer in 1870. He began to practice law in South Carolina but moved back to Cleveland in 1872. He was elected Justice of the Peace in 1873 and became the first African-American elected to public office in Cleveland. Green was elected to the State House of Representative in 1890 and introduced House Bill 500, that established Labor Day as a state holiday. In 1894, Congress passed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday.

Through his career as State Legislator, Green sponsored and supported 21 major bills on behalf of labor. Green also fought for the passage of legislation to create funds for the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, funding for Cleveland Gordon and Rockefeller Park and state appropriations for Wilberforce University.

Green was an active supporter of the Republican Party and during the 1890s he became closely acquainted with Marcus Hanna and George Myers. He actively campaigned for the Republican ticket and in 1896, as a result of his efforts, he was appointed United States Postage Stamp Agent in 1897. In 1906 he left government office and returned to Cleveland to resume his law practice. He also authored several books and articles. He practiced law until his death at the age of 95.


Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Cleveland on June 20, 1858. While a young child, his family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina where he grew up. Chesnutt returned to Cleveland when he was 25 and became a stenographer while studying law. He was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1887. Although he never actually practiced law, he continued as a court reporter to support his family and his real interest, which was writing.

Chesnutt became a master of the art of short-story writing. In 1887 he had seven short stories published in the Atlantic monthly magazine. Chesnutt's stories depicted African-Americans as human beings, not stereotypes or subtypes. Through his writings he tried to bridge the race gap and raise the issue of civil rights. In 1899, Houghton Mifflin Company published a collection of his short stories, titled The Conjure Woman. Color Line was also published in 1899 and received complimentary reviews. Other published novels include The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Traditions, The Colonel's Dream.

Charles Chesnutt continued to write articles, give lectures, and was active in the Cleveland community through the 20th Century. He died November 15, 1932.


Miss Rachel Walker taught in the Cleveland schools for a few years before she followed a career as a singer. She studied in New York and then expanded her musical training in Europe. In 1895 the music critic of the Cleveland Leader wrote: "I listened to one young lady whom I regard as the coming soprano of the Age, Rachel Walker. I am confident.... she will prove to be one of the greatest living singers. Her vocalization is extremely soulful." Miss Walker became well known in the New York musical circles. She was known as the "Creole Nightingale" and was a favorite of the roof garden audiences. She joined the Robert Downing Company and sang in a Greek Tragedy produced for an opening in Washington D. C. in 1896. Shortly thereafter, Miss Walker went to Europe to study voice. She lived in London, England and performed throughout Europe. At the outbreak of World War I she returned to Cleveland where she married. However, due to the lack of opportunities for African-American singers in the United States during the early 20th century, her career came to an end.

Black Americans in Cleveland by Russell H. Davis, Associated Publishers, 1972.


Harry Clay Smith was one of the pioneers of the African-American press and was elected to three terms in the Ohio General Assembly. He and three associates founded the

Cleveland Gazette in 1883. He became sole proprietor of the weekly newspaper and continued its publication for 58 years. He was elected as a Republican to three terms in the Ohio General Assembly and sponsored two significant laws protecting the rights of African-Americans in Ohio. The Ohio Civil Rights Law of 1894 provided penalties for discrimina-tion in public places. In 1896 Smith sponsored the Mob Violence Act that served as a model for anti-lynching laws across the country and introduced in the United States Congress. He continued in politics and tried to gain public office again as the Republican Candidate for governor in 1926 and again in 1928. Although he lost both bids for the nomination, he felt he had broken ground as the state's first African-American candidate for that position.

The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, David D. Van Tassel & John J. Grabowski, Indiana University Press, 1987.


After settling in Cleveland, Ohio in 1895, Garrett Morgan became an important inventor, businessman, and leader in the Cleveland African-American community. When Morgan first moved to Cleveland he found work as a sewing-machine adjuster. By 1907 he went into business for himself and established a company to sell and repair sewing machines. Morgan continued in a variety of businesses including a tailor shop, manufacturing of hair-care products, and development of the National Safety Device Company. Morgan was also an inventor who designed several successful devices such as the round belt fastener, a friction drive clutch, the traffic light and a safety "breathing device". The "breathing device" was a safety helmet designed to protect the wearer from inhaling smoke and ammonia. Morgan was able to demonstrate its life-saving use during the Cleveland Waterworks explosion on July 25, 1916 when he wore his device into the gas-filled tunnel beneath Lake Erie to rescue several workers.

Morgan was also involved in the development of institutions in Cleveland designed to help the African-American community. He founded the Cleveland Call, a weekly newspaper, the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, was a member of the Phyllis Wheatley Association and the NAACP.

The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, David D. Van Tassel & John J. Grabowski, Indiana University Press, 1987.


William H. Clifford was an African-American public servant and Republican politician who served two terms in the Ohio Legislature in the 1890s. Clifford was born in Cleveland and worked for seven years at the Woodruff Palace Car Co. before he developed a career in public service and politics. He began with a job in the county clerk's office in 1888. He was soon promoted to the position of cost clerk where he received the highest salary paid to an African-American in the service of the state, county or local government up to that time. Clifford became involved with the Republican Party and soon held various offices. In 1889 he was the Vice President of the Ohio Republican League. In 1891 he was a member of the State Republican Executive Committee and was elected as a delegate-at-large to the National Convention of Republican Clubs. He was an assistant sergeant-at-arms at the National Republican Convention in St. Louis in 1896.

Clifford was elected to two terms of the State Legislature (1894-95 and 1898-99) as a member of the Ohio House of Representatives and was appointed to a position in the Auditors Office in the War Department in Washington D. C. He held this position until his death in 1929.

Black Americans in Cleveland by Russell H. Davis, Associated Publishers, 1972.


As the wife of William H. Clifford, she was prominent in the social and civic life of Cleveland and later, Washington D. C. Carrie Williams Clifford was a teacher and taught school in Columbus until her marriage to William Clifford brought her to Cleveland. She helped form the Ohio State Federation of Colored Women and served as their first president. She was the founder and editor of their publication Queen's Garden. She also wrote and published poetry and magazine articles. Mrs. Clifford was an outspoken advocate of the rights of African-Americans and helped organize the Washington D. C. chapter of the NAACP.

The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, David D. Van Tassel & John J. Grabowski, Indiana University Press, 1987.


Harry L. Freeman was a composer, chorus director and teacher. An article in the March 25, 1898 Cleveland Press compared Freeman with the famous composer Wagner. When Freeman was 21 years old he wrote the romantic opera "Epthelia." He next wrote "Plantonus" a sacred opera. In 1898 Freeman wrote a work composed of four operas which he called "Valdo". Freeman was always interested in African music and used African characters and the African Folksong in "Valdo." He was described by Johan Beck, a noted composer, director and violinist, as the most promising musical student he had ever met.

In 1901 he wrote the opera "Nada." The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra played parts of the score in a concert at Gray's Armory and received great appreciation by the Audience.

Freeman was a professor of music at Wilberforce University in 1903 when African-American comedy shows began to grow in popularity. He was soon asked to become the music director of Earnest Hogan's Musical Comedy Co. He was later asked to direct the singing in another African-American show, "Red Moon," by Cole and Johnson. In 1930 he won the Harmon Award as a composer of the first African-American opera produced in New York.

Harry L. Freeman went on to direct the Freeman School of Music in New York until his death in 1954.

Black Americans in Cleveland by Russell H. Davis, Associated Publishers, 1972.

back to lesson

website design credits