RESEARCHING THE AFRICAN AMERICAN EXPERIENCE AT THE WESTERN RESERVE HISTORICAL SOCIETY
By: Samuel W. Black
Associate Curator for African American History
The Western Reserve Historical Society
Anyone seeking primary source material for the study of African American life and culture in Northeastern Ohio the Western Reserve Historical Society is a treasure. The African American Archives collection of the WRHS has amassed one of the largest regional collections of Africana in the U.S. Since 1970, the African American Archives has collected and preserved papers, records, photographs, prints, newspapers, recordings, digital sources, prints, rare books, artifacts, art, and other items that hold significance for the study of Africana life and culture. The Archives is categorized in four sections: manuscripts, rare and special books, newspapers, and audio/visual collections. Specifically for a study of Clevelandís African American community from 1900 to 1915, the African American Archives offer a number of sources.
The collection houses among its manuscripts a diverse assortment of papers of individuals and families, as well as records of organizations, businesses, institutions, special events, and community phenomenon. Among the papers that cover the period 1900 to 1915 one would find George A. Myers, Charles W. Chesnutt, John P. Green, Myrtle Johnson Bell, the Henry Lee Moon Family, Lethia Fleming, Walter L. Brown, and Garrett A. Morgan. These collections range in topic and content from politics, education, business, civil rights, women, literature, and invention.
The George A. Myers papers are contained in two collections. Manuscript number 1199 contains correspondence from 1912 to 1923. An eight roll microfilm collection (originals owned by the Ohio Historical Society) contain the bulk of Myers papers with correspondence that range from 1890 to 1929. The collection contains significant correspondence with Ohio African American politicians and leaders such as John P. Green, Ralph Tyler, William Parham, William Clifford, Jere Brown, Charles Cottrill, William T. Anderson, and Harry C. Smith. Other noted correspondents were Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Theodore Burton, Marcus Hanna, William McKinley, Joseph Foraker, T. Thomas Fortune, Richard T. Greener, James Weldon Johnson, Reverdy C. Ransom, Robert H. Terrell, and John R. Lynch. Myersí papers are especially significant for the study of African American political thought during this progressive era. The content of the correspondence covers politics, both local and national. Issues discussed is a lynching in Urbana, Ohio in 1897; political appointments by McKinley and local African American Republican political matters.
Charles W. Chesnutt was a Cleveland born novelist, writer, stenographer, and activist for the rights of African Americans. The Charles W. Chesnutt papers range from 1889 to 1932. They contain mostly correspondence but also some unpublished short stories with the authors hand written notes throughout the pages. Chesnuttís activities during this period included the publication of three novels, participation in the Niagara Movement meeting at Oberlin College in 1908, the founding of the NAACP in 1909 and he assisted the Second Presbyterian Church, Menís Committee with their plans to establish a settlement house on Clevelandís east side. The correspondents in the papers include Chicago Defender publisher Robert S. Abbott, Newton D. Baker, Walter Hines Page, Albion Tourgee, and Booker T. Washington.
An associate of Myers and Chesnutt was John P. Green. Green served as a state representative and senator in the late 19th century. He is known to be the first African American elected to office in Cuyahoga County (justice of the peace, 1873). The John P. Green papers range from 1869 to 1910. In addition to his political career, in 1896 William McKinley appointed Green as U.S. Postal Agent. After that appointment he returned to Cleveland in 1905 and practiced law with his sons, William and Theodore. Similar to the Myers and Chesnutt collections, the bulk of Greenís papers consists of correspondence and is also accessible on microfilm. Letters are from members of Greenís family, including his first wife Anne, second wife Lottie, and his children. Non-family correspondence is from the Reverend Sterling Brown, West Point Grad John Alexander, former U.S. Senator Blanch K. Bruce, Wilberforce University President Samuel T. Mitchell, and The Guardian publisher, William Monroe Trotter.
The Mytrle Johnson Bell papers range from 1907 to 1969. Bell was an educator in the Cleveland Schools and the first African American woman CPS administrator. Interesting items in the collection include a program for the Alpha Mu Clubís presentation of a Japanese play, "In Revenge of Shari Hot Su" dated May 26, 1915 at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church, Cleveland. The Club was one of many African American women cultural organizations. Also included is a booklet from the Minerva Reading Club that was established in 1898. The Minerva Club was one of the more respected womenís clubs in the area. Bell was a longtime member and an officer in the club.
Associates of Myrtle Bell were Henry Lee Moon and his family. Henry Lee Moon was a journalist, writer, and executive employee of the national office of the NAACP. Significant, for this time period is not necessarily Henry Lee but his mother and father, Roddy K. and Lena Moon. Roddy K. Moon was the founding president of the Cleveland Branch NAACP, serving from 1912 to 1916. He and his wife remained as life members of the organization. There are two series of papers of this family. The first series spans from 1910 to 1964, and the second series spans from 1868 to 1992. Most of the documents during the period consist of letters concerning the career of Roddy K. Moon who was a meat inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lethia Fleming was the wife of Clevelandís first African American councilman, Thomas W. Fleming. She was also an activist for women causes and served the Phillis Wheatley Association as a charter member and one of its chief supporters for many years. She was responsible for raising $2,500 for the purchase of the first building for the PWA. Fleming moved to Cleveland in 1912 after her marriage to Thomas Fleming. She was teacher for twenty-years in the Virginia and West Virginia schools. In 1914 she became president of the Cleveland Home for Aged Color People. Fleming was a member of national organizations as well. She was on the executive board of the National Association of Colored Women and the National Council of Negro Women. She served as president of the National Association of Republican Women and was Executive Director of the Republican Colored Women organization. The collection includes a hand written bio that covers the years 1907 to 1912 as well as documents on the Cleveland Home for Aged Colored People, an institution that also involved her husband. This collection ranges from 1900 to 1963.
Politics seemed to dominate the collection in the African American Archives for the period 1900 to 1915. An interesting collection of material is the Walter L. Brown scrapbook. Brown was one of the few African American members of the democratic machine between 1900 and 1910. He moved to Cleveland from Tennessee in 1891. In Tennessee Brown was a practicing attorney and involved himself in community politics. George Myers, Charles W. Chesnutt, John P. Green, and Lethia Fleming were all Republicans. Brown represented a very small contingent of Democrats in the African American community. This collection brings some balance to the study of political activism in the community during the early years of the twentieth century. The scrapbook contains newspaper clippings from local papers including the Cleveland Gazette, Plain Dealer, Leader, the Detroit Free Press, the Cincinnati Inquirer, the Cleveland Press, the Cleveland Call, and the Detroit Tribune. Also included are correspondences from Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson, political allies of Brown, permits, certificates, programs, photographs, memos, cards and letters. Interesting materials are programs, clippings and correspondence related to the activities of the Independent Colored Voters League and its support of the Presidential Candidate Senator Robert M. LaFollette. The Independent Colored Voters League was one of a number of African American attempts to form a political party that directly addressed the issues and concerns of Blacks. Brown political philosophy seemed to wane on the support a candidate or elected official would lend to these concerns. Biographical information on Brown and his family include photographs, clippings, programs, and letters.
One of the more dynamic people of the period 1900 to 1915 was Cleveland inventor and entrepreneur, Garrett A. Morgan. The Morgan papers range from 1894 to 1970 and include correspondence, petitions, pamphlets, legal and business papers, memorabilia, drawings of inventions, blueprints, floor plans, all concerning Morganís professional and personal life. Morgan was a migrant to Cleveland arriving in 1895 and immediately got involve in the African American community. He was a member of the LíOverture Rifles, an all Black militia, the Cleveland Association of Colored Men (f. 1908) where he served as treasurer, and the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity of Western Reserve University. Morganís inventions, a hair straightener, safety helmet (gas mask) and traffic signal made him renowned. But his local community activities are significant enough for note as well. The bulk of the collection deals with Morganís inventions, specifically the safety helmet and his use of the helmet in the 1916 Lake Erie crib incident where he saved two lives wearing his helmet into the gas filled tunnel.
Much of the response to the snub that Morgan and his brother Frank received from local politicians, rescue workers, and the Carnegie Hero Commission can be found. Hundreds of signatures on petitions for Morganís rightful recognition are in the collection as well as clippings of his role in the rescue. The Garrett A. Morgan collection is accessible on one roll of microfilm.
In addition to the many papers of individuals and families the African American Archives houses records of institutions, organizations, businesses, and agencies. Noted among these collections and covering the period 1900 to 1915, are the Phillis Wheatley Association, the Eliza Bryant Center (Cleveland Home for Colored Aged), Boydís Funeral Home, and Karamu House, Incorporated. These collections contain administrative files as well as some subject files related to the operation of the entity. Jane Edna Hunter established the Home for Working Girls in 1911. The goal was to provide a home for single Black women and offer the opportunity for jobs, job training, education, and fellowship. The collection consists of Trustees files, financial reports; subject files, correspondence, and files related to Camp Mueller, one of the agency properties.
The first African American institution of social welfare in Cleveland was the Cleveland Home for Colored Aged People or today, the Eliza Bryant Center. Plans for the institution began as early as 1893 when Eliza Bryant and a number of concerned women began to meet to discuss the care of the African American elderly. By 1897 these plans developed into the Home for Colored Aged and a building was purchased on Giddings Avenue (East 71st Street). By 1914 the institution had relocated twice to settled on Cedar Avenue. The collection ranges from 1898 to 1963. The bulk of the material for 1900 to 1915 include records of guests, membership, patients, secretaryís correspondence, managing board files, financial records, and records of the menís auxiliary. The Menís Auxiliary was a support group of local men who raised money and resources for the institution and counted among its membership some of the leading political and businessmen of the community. Longtime president of this group was Jacob Reed, co-owner of Reitz and Reed Fish and Oyster Store and other members were George Myers, owner of the Hollenden Hotel Barbershop, Charles W. Chesnutt, stenographer, Elmer F. Boyd, and J. W. Wills, funeral home directors, and Albert D. Boyd, café owner. The records of this institution will shed light on the philanthropic activities of African Americans as well as the general community of Cleveland.
Business records for the period are limited to the E. F. Boyd Funeral Home. Spanning 1906 to 1944 the records consists of financial and burial file, newspaper clippings, a program and newsletter. Boydís Funeral Home is one of the oldest existing business establishments in Cleveland. It grew in size and services along with the growth of the community. Its initial location was at East 27th Street and Central Avenue, in 1917 Boydís moved to East 43rd and Central Avenue and a generation later moved to its present headquarters at East 89th and Cedar Avenue. This collection will help any researcher looking for information on African American business as well as genealogical research on family members.
Significant for this time period was the settlement house movement. In Cleveland a number of settles were established that offered services to the community. Most of these were geared toward the European communities and included Hiram House (Jewish), East End Neighborhood House (Hungarians, Slovaks), Friendly Inn Settlement, Goodrich House (Slavic), and Alta House (Italians). In 1914 the Menís Committee of the Second Presbyterian Church set out to establish some legacy in the community of the church because of their plans to move to the University Circle area. The result of this legacy was the Playhouse Settlement. Opened in 1915 and directed by a white couple from Oberlin College and the University of Chicago, Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, the Playhouse Settlement began to serve the youth of the "Roaring Third" community. Although this area was not exclusively African American, the focus was on the increasing African American migrant population in the cityís third ward. In the 1940s the organization changed its name to Karamu House and incorporated as such. Itís programs offered theater arts, fine arts, job training, recreation, meeting space and social welfare assistance. Over the years its theater arts program had taken off and the settlement house aspect has diminished.
The Karamu House, Inc. records stored in the African American Archives consist of a wide range of files and documents evidential to the activities and history of this institution. The collection spans from 1914 to 1980 and contain administrative records, subject files, financial records, histories, articles of incorporation, trustee files, proposals, reports, publications, correspondence, plays, memoranda, date books, schedules, newspaper clippings, and other documents. The list of correspondence is legendary and includes people in education, politics, social work, entertainment, the arts, and government. Included is correspondence related to the 1914 planning committee of the Menís Club with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. Other correspondents include Ida B. Wells Barnett, Jane Edna Hunter, and Charles W. Chesnutt. The collection is vital to any study of African American settlement houses and social agencies of early twentieth century.
In addition to the many manuscript collections, those that I have mentioned also have companion photographic collections as well. The individual collections have family images and portraits of individuals and groups. The George Myers photographs contain images of the Hollenden Hotel Barbershop. Noted are photographs of the exterior of the shop and an interior image of the 17-chair establishment. The photographs of Charles W. Chesnutt include family images and portraits. Likewise John P. Green photographs include images of his sons and portraits of Green. The Garrett A. Morgan collection has a sizeable photograph file including family portraits, portraits of Morgan as well as publicity images for his inventions, and images from the 1916 Lake Erie crib incident. The organizations, and institutions listed contain companion photographs with the largest and most impressive being the Karamu House, Inc. photograph collection. This collection contains over 1,300 prints of various sizes and formats. The collection ranges from 1915 to 1972 and includes images of the early buildings to house the settlement as well as its theater.
Equally important for the study of Clevelandís African Americanís from 1900 to 1915 were the newspapers. Included are the Cleveland Gazette (1883-1941), Cleveland Journal (1903-1910), and the Cleveland Advocate (1915-1920). Each paper had its own constituency and focus. The Gazette was published by Harry C. Smith a former state representative and businessman who participated in a number of national organizations including the Afro-American League (1890s), the Niagara Movement (1905), and various local political clubs. In the Ohio House between 1894 and 1896 Smith presented legislation for Ohioís Civil Rights and Anti-Lynching Bills. The Gazette was a "race" paper with strong republican political tones. The Cleveland Journal was published by a group of men from a younger generation than Harry C. Smith. Thomas Fleming, Nahum Brasher, and Welcome T. Blue were partners in the Journal Publishing Company. Their papers espoused the philosophy of Booker T. Washington and often advocated for self-help and support of Black owned businesses and people. The increase in local organization development was followed very closely by the Journal. The paper is invaluable for an understanding of African American political and business development during the first decade of the century.
Between 1910 and 1915 African Americans migrated to Cleveland from various points south, east and west. Mostly southern migrants came in search of jobs, a better living, and to escape the clutches of Jim Crow Segregation. In 1915 Barbadian immigrant Ormonde Forte established the Advocate and reported a great deal on migration issues facing Cleveland on a daily basis. He also reported the War in Europe and the U.S. involvement after 1917. Particular in this paper were the advertisements for hair straighteners, skin lightners, and other products to change the features of African Americans. These products were increasingly on the consumer market and made for advertising sales for the Advocate and other papers. Harry C. Smith for years refused to use these advertisements until financially he could not afford to deny. The interesting note with these types of advertisements is that many African Americans used these products in belief that the oppressive and racist issues in America would be alleviated if they could "whiten" their appearances. These sources offer a great study of racialism and its psychological effects upon African Americans.
The African American Archives contains some one hundred and fifty manuscript collections that are available for research and study. In addition the Archives has available rare and special books written by or about Africans and African Americans. For a study of Cleveland African American community from 1900 to 1915, the collections mentioned here are vital and could lead to a greater search of topics and subjects within that period. Although these collections tend to focus a great deal on Northeastern Ohio, their relevance to the greater world is vital. Scholars and students have the opportunity to utilize the African American Archives for study, these, and dissertations. The Western Reserve Historical Society is located in University Circle and is open everyday for the Museum and Tuesday through Sunday for the Library.