Sunday, February 02, 2014

An Unsung Hero, Remembered

A large part of Cleveland’s black history left town last month with the passing of the consummate political insider, Arnold Pinkney. The high and mighty joined with the hoi polloi to celebrate his life and achievements. Even the august New York Times, as close as we come to a national paper of record, took note with an 1161 word retrospective of his life and accomplishments.

But the history of a community is not completely told merely through the lives of its headliners. While Arnold’s choices often made him a front page regular during his adult life, there were many others doing the vital but often unsung work of building community institutions essential to helping those marked with a “badge of inferiority”[1].

These community builders often are content to labor behind the scenes. Their sense of fulfillment comes from seeing their work bear fruit in the expansion of opportunities for the group. They may not avoid publicity but they certainly don’t seek it. And after they are gone, we are often surprised to learn what they did for us.

Roosevelt Cox
Such a person was Roosevelt Cox. He died the day after Christmas and was memorialized on January 4. I attended the service as a family friend and in tribute to his legacy as a co-founder of the United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland, the federated charity that is just beginning to come into its role as a pivotal institution in this community.

Cox, as he liked to be called, started out as a teacher before the civil rights movement inspired him to become a lawyer. He was a hard worker, a shrewd businessman, with a deep sense of family values. He was also, very quietly, one of the last of a now all but vanished breed, a “race man”.

Jay Z                                    Harry Belafonte
The term “race man” can be hard to define, but black folk of a certain age know one when they see one. Hillary Crossley, a contributing editor at The Root, put it this way in a thoughtful column last August that talked about the social responsibilities of Jay Z, Kanyé and other contemporary black celebrities: If there was ever an example of the quintessential ‘race man’ — that earnest, dapper role model unabashedly committed to black uplift — it is [Harry] Belafonte.”

Roosevelt Cox was a race man in that non-exclusionary positive sense. He worked side-by-side with former Lee-Harvard councilman [and later U.S. District Court Chief Judge] George W. White [see here, here, & here] to establish both UBF and its predecessor, B.O.S.S. [Blacks Organized for Social Service]. He also provided critical financial and other support to the fledgling effort organized by local black megastars John H. Bustamante, Arnold Pinkney, and others back in the early seventies. And he was part of the group that bought and developed the land to construct the First Club of Cleveland, an African American golf club located in Lodi, Ohio.

When he wasn’t institution building, Cox was growing businesses, representing working-class people in his law practice and supporting aspiring lawyers with office space and other essentials. Notwithstanding all that, as one of the elder of nine children from Gould, Arkansas, he undertook responsibility for several of his siblings after their parents died, relocating several to the Cleveland area and paying for their collegiate and graduate school education even though he was still a relatively young man himself.

None of this was very widely known about Cox. While he sought no acclaim, he will be missed, even those who benefit from his spirit, effort and vigilance without  knowing he was here.

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Are there others like him in our midst who deserve to be recognized and appreciated? Send your unsung hero/heroine nominees to us at

Are there others like him in our midst who deserve to be recognized and appreciated? Send your unsung hero/heroine nominees to us at rtaATtheRealDealPressDOTcom.

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[1] The phrase comes from the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that legalized racism in the United States.

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