Saturday, October 29, 2016

Growing Up Black in Cleveland • Around Town Tomorrow: Sunday on Tap

​Cultural Anthropology, Part I: Growing up Black in America
What I learned from my Sunday School teachers

I used to think Protestants did a pretty terrible job teaching children what religion was all about. My opinion was largely based on a narrow sample size: my own experience. I was still in junior high school, and we spent a lot of time in my Sunday School classes on the Old Testament, reading about people with weird names who lived a very long time ago in places no longer on current maps of the world. [I loved geography.]

Many of those Biblical folk behaved very badly and often paid a terrible price for their misconduct and disobedience. Violence seemed a regular part of their lives, from sacrificing animals to endless wars fought between tribes that no longer existed, except for one group that seemed to keep meticulous oral records of who begat whom in what order through an endless Hebraic lineage that was somehow related to the people around today who were known as Jews, whom I understood to be a distinct and significant branch of white people. Mixed in with all of this was a great deal of climate change, except in biblical times and through at least the 1950s it was called pestilence. Locusts and floods and drought occurred with generally unpredictable frequency, wreaking havoc on the world.

The New Testament was different. It was a lot more accessible. It was shorter, only 27 books compared to the OT's 39. (There was a whole lot of memory associated with all this Sunday School, which was tough because it was only once a week for an hour or so, and it was basically about a whole 'nother
Mt. Zion Congregational Church
10723 Magnolia Dr., Cleveland OH 44106
[Photo 1980s?]
world that had no easy translation to my world, whose epicenter was the Northeast side of this big city called Cleveland that had a gigantic downtown. And I knew that New York City and its Empire State Building dwarfed Cleveland itself. (I was there once as a kid with my family: we were at someplace called Radio City Music Hall, where I froze when a live mike was thrust upon my supposedly precocious self. The experience left a scar, but that's another story.)

The New Testament seemed totally unrelated to the old one, except the two were bound together. Literally. I liked the New Testament better. Jesus was special, a man like no other, though it was hard to comprehend exactly how.

I probably had about seven or eight teachers in my Sunday School career. Three in in particular stood out. One was Mrs. Harding, a kind but extraordinarily serious small woman who seemed to talk without ever moving her teeth or lips. She doubled during the week as the librarian and typing teacher at my school, Empire Jr. High, where our paths seldom crossed. It wasn't until I was much older that I learned she actually had a smile, kind of a minuscule shift of a couple of lip muscles accompanied by a nearly imperceptible twinkle. You’d miss it if you weren’t looking for it. I don't know if she developed her humor in later life or if I just became a more sentient creature.

Mrs. Harding's self-control stood in stark relief to her sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Moore, a rapid talking nonstop torrent of energy. A world traveler way before that was common, Mrs. Moore stood out because she was a black woman (medium brown, actually) with a 1950s head full of totally white Big Hair. Had I known the words I would have said she was phenotypically unique.

Betty Moore started the church Gift Shop as a way to raise money for the coffers. Her fondness for jewelry, her keen eye for trinkets, many selected during her world travels, when combined with her indefatigable energy and ebullience, made the Gift Shop a destination. Out of town visitors and even people from other congregations would come to Mt. Zion's Gift Shop. Originally open only after worship, the space devoted to her enterprise was soon expanded, and the shop was opened before service as well. It became a great place for a procrastinating absent-minded kid of my ken to find a last-minute Mother’s Day notion or Christmas present.

Back to Sunday School and the two teachers I most had in mind when I started this piece. I can't say much about Gertrude Cobbs except she was sweet. Really sweet. Probably had Job's patience squared because she had a class of mostly 13-year old boys with boundless energy and raging hormones. Whatever she persevered in trying to teach us, whatever she did in the rest of her life, Mrs. Cobbs surely earned a place in Heaven just showing up every Sunday to try and deal with us.

I may consign myself to perdition with this admission: the class was taught in the minister's office. Our minister was a tireless worker, much beloved for his devotion to the Church and his even more beloved wife. He had an inimical preaching style that was rooted in deep faith, explicated by reason and supported by scholarship. He knew the name and circumstances of every one of his members, nearly 800 at peak. When he was home I called him Dad. Yeah, the PK was the leader of Mrs. Cobbs' bad boys.

The teacher I remember most was Wanda Dickey. She was a slight, compact woman, extraordinarily neat and totally self-contained. An insurance agent during the week, Mrs. Dickey was a model of rectitude, very detail-oriented, and wholly intolerant of nonsense. We could not dither on her watch. She held us accountable. I don't recall her being any more successful with that approach in terms of our learning, but she did keep us knuckleheads in check.

Later in life, I came to share with her, her husband, and a wonderful lawyer named Dick Gunn the 900 square feet of office space that housed two legal offices and the insurance agency her husband had founded. Also a lawyer, Roosevelt Dickey was a courtly, Georgia-born gentleman who was one of my father’s best friends, and an early Negro member of Cleveland's Community Relations Board. I spent many odd hours talking with one or both of the Dickeys during the workweek. A teacher at heart, Mrs. Dickey taught me a few life lessons during the roughly five-year period we were office mates.

I recall most vividly her insistence upon separating the act from the perpetrator. She would judge a deed coldly and without compassion but she would not demonize the perpetrator. In refusing to label the miscreant she seemed perhaps to be allowing for the possibilities of atonement, forgiveness, redemption.

Mrs. Dickey is just one of the three hundred or so reasons I despair at the possibility of Donald Trump as US president. This candidate, who makes the Beverly Hillbillies seem cultured, sees the world totally in terms of himself, casts everything in the world in personal terms, assigns or denies value to every individual he encounters, and is judgmental in the extreme. I’m quite sure all of my Sunday School teachers would be reviled by his behavior.

Trump's candidacy, like Bernie Sanders', has highlighted structural problems with our economy and our politics. But that result comes at great cost to our civility and our society.

The man who indiscriminately shouts fire in a crowded theatre is seldom the person you would trust to direct the evacuation, especially when he also claims the sole capacity to heal the afflicted, rebuild the temple in gold, and do so at a bargain. Jesus Christ, who does he think he is?

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Sunday on tap

I realized a while ago that you could learn a lot about someone if you understand where and how they worship. As a preacher’s kid for most of my life, I was usually bound to my home church. We didn’t really participate much in the preacher and choir exchange and visiting that occurs among many black churches. Since we were for more than a century the only black Congregational Church in the area, perhaps the whole state, any sort of denominational exchange we had with other churches was perforce with white congregations. I remember visiting suburban congregational churches in Lakewood, Middleburg Heights, Chagrin Falls, and Brecksville, for instance. These were all lily-white parishes, some of which liked to see themselves as broadminded; they loved any exchange they could have with us on such designated days as “Race Relations” Sunday. Before long my father stopped participating in such events with any pastor or congregation that favored such exchanges only on such artificial occasions.

My larger point is that in my youth I seldom visited other black churches during their normal Sunday morning worship unless our family was out of town. So I really had little idea of what my non-Mt. Zion friends experienced on Sunday mornings.

Perhaps for that reason, I've relished attending Sunday mornings at unfamiliar churches when they have special programming. This week we received notice of two such occasions. Tomorrow, the eminent Marian Wright Edelman, longtime fighter for civil rights and a forceful, tireless, and articulate advocate for children, will be speaking at two area churches with a message on the importance of voting. She will be at The Word Church, 18909 South Miles Road at 10:30AM and then later at South Euclid United Church of Christ, 4217 Bluestone Road at noon.

We also received notice that Minister Louis Farrakhan will appear via satellite at First Cleveland Mosque, 3790 East 131 Street. Doors will open at 10:30AM and the program will begin at 11:00AM. The program will be streamed online at We understand that First Cleveland may be the oldest continuous African American masjid in the United States.

Also on tap tomorrow is a Community Forum on “Clean Drinking Water: Myths, Realities and the Future”. The program is a part of the excellent “Forums that Matter” series sponsored by First Unitarian Church of Cleveland, 21600 Shaker Blvd. The guest speaker will be Julius Ciacci, executive director of the Northeast Regional Sewer District.  

Forums begin at 9:30AM and end at 10:45AM, leaving you enough time to get to your own church, or find a seat upstairs at First Unitarian if you wish. The church is located at 21600 Shaker Blvd.

Daylight Savings Time Ends at 2:00AM next Sunday, November 6.

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Friday, October 28, 2016

Celebration and Community; also, Community Police Commission seeks director

Where have all the lawyers gone? 
Musings on the Minor Bar Association Trailblazer Awards

Judge Randolph Baxter,
US Bankruptcy Court [Ret.]
Today the Norman S Minor Bar Association hosted its annual Trailblazers luncheon at a posh downtown hotel. Today's luncheon was a celebration of the wildly successful careers of three extraordinary African American attorneys: Randolph Baxter, Paul Harris, and Yvette McGee Brown.

Yvette McGee Brown
Partner, Jones Day
Judge Baxter served with distinction for more than a quarter century as a US Bankruptcy Court Judge. Judge McGee Brown rose to the highest echelons of her profession when she was appointed to serve on the Ohio Supreme Court. And Paul Harris has over the years emerged as one of the most influential behind the scenes leaders in Cleveland's professional and civic circles as corporate counsel at KeyBank.

Paul Harris, KeyBank
The resume of each of these lawyers is impeccable, and filled with community service beyond their outstanding legal accomplishments, a larger record of which can be found here. Indeed, while Judge Baxter has been retired for some years, Judge McGee Brown and Mr. Harris will no doubt continue to be active community leaders for some time, Harris here in Cleveland and McGee Brown in Columbus where she is now a partner in Jones Day, one of the world's leading law firms.

The Norman S. Minor Bar Association is itself to be saluted for continuing its unblemished record of highlighting the best and brightest careers that black lawyers are forging against the odds.

And make no mistake; even the law profession itself recognizes how daunting the prospects are for black attorneys to succeed. Just this year both the Cleveland and Ohio bar associations addressed rampant discrimination within their own ranks. Leadership within each of these organizations has stepped forward to address the ways in which America’s original sin continues to infect personnel decisions in law firms and corporate offices.

I was a guest at several sessions addressing these issues at this year's annual Ohio State Bar Association meeting in Cincinnati. Hundreds of attorneys from around the state were held at rapt attention for the sessions I attended. One featured the incomparable Nathaniel Jones, a retired federal appellate court judge of the Sixth District based in Cincinnati. Judge Jones deserves a post of his own and we will soon deliver on that responsibility, especially because a part of his remarkable journey left indelible tracks here in Cleveland.

The most lasting takeaway from the State Bar meeting was the presentation on implicit bias. Some may have recognized that phrase when Hillary Clinton used it this month in her presidential campaign while responding to a question about police practices. The oppositional heat her mere use of the phrase generated was irrefutable proof that implicit bias resides as a virulent force in the body politic.

My real concern here, enmeshed in today's worthy celebration of noteworthy careers, is how these successes seem in some ways increasingly estranged from the communities that made them possible.

Community has been a focus of ours these past few weeks. Much of this recent conversation has focused on Glenville — the warm, rich, diverse and vibrant neighborhood of my youth. What happened to it? Why did it happen? Most importantly, what can be done to renew it?

To the latter point, Glenville's community development corporation, the Famicos Foundation, held its second annual fundraiser last night, where it unveiled a master plan[1] into which more than 500 of its estimated 20,000 residents had input. As we surveyed the nearly 200 supporters in attendance, we recognized several black attorneys of our acquaintance — Vanessa Whiting, Sheila Wright, Mona Scott, among them. While Ms. Whiting is in private practice, and a fierce and devoted warrior in the ongoing struggle for racial and social justice, we didn't see one attorney there who might routinely address the legal issues of ordinary community residents. [2]

The absence of black attorneys whose practices are rooted in the community is starkly emblematic of larger issues. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, when America was great (chuckle, chuckle) black attorneys in high-powered corporate legal circles were more rare than hen's teeth. But there was an abundance of black lawyers in the community, with offices in plain sight up and down Cedar Ave., East 55th, and East 105th. Former Congressman Louis Stokes noted in his just-published posthumous memoir how proud he was to open Stokes and Stokes with brother Carl on St. Clair Ave., immediately east of East 105 St. Ironically, that office was short-lived: not long after it opened, Lou's jaw dropped when the already-legendary Norman S. Minor himself stopped in unannounced to invite the brothers to join him in establishing Minor, Stokes and Stokes.

The record shows there never have been more talented lawyers of any hue than the community-based Norman Minor and Lou Stokes. As opportunities slowly began to open in the legal profession in the late Sixties, black attorneys, including black women attorneys, began to show their extraordinary professional competence on a wider stage, even while regularly battling outright hostility, to say nothing of implicit bias, from colleagues, judges, and corporate clients. The experiences of early pioneers like Paul White (Cleveland’s first black law director and subsequent Baker Hostetler partner) Owen Heggs (Jones Day), Andrew L. Johnson, (first black president of then 4,000+ member Cleveland Bar Association), or Leonard Young (Ferro Corporation) were fraught with aggressions both macro and micro directed their way.

We have come a mighty long way. Today, we are no longer surprised to learn that Robyn Minter Smyers has been selected to lead Thompson Hine, that Rhonda Ferguson is chief legal officer at Union Pacific, or that the aforementioned Paul Harris is KeyCorp general counsel. We have no doubt they earned their positions and the perks attached thereto. Undoubtedly they heeded the injunctions of the ancestors to be twice as good.

But something has also undoubtedly been lost when black neighborhoods are no longer home to the legal descendants of Norman Minor, Lou Stokes, Perry B. Jackson, Jean Murrell Capers, Lillian W. Burke, John W. Kellogg, Al Pottinger, Stanley Tolliver, and a host of others. Glenville councilman Kevin Conwell touched on this last night when he talked about the paucity of day-to-day role models in the community.

The absence extends to professionals of all stripes. Commercial thoroughfares in black communities were once full of physicians, accountants, and dentists. I
Marvin M. Fisk, DDS
remember the much-beloved Marvin Fisk actually living above his dental office at 8923 Cedar Ave. Dr. Fisk served his profession and community well enough to be recognized with an annual award given by the Ohio Dental Association.

I'm not a Luddite. I don't wish a return to the glorious days of somebody else's mid-century America. I don't even pine for the glorious days of the Kansas City Monarchs and the Cleveland Grays of the old Negro Leagues, though I would love to have seen Satchel Paige on the mound, Josh Gibson at or behind the plate, and most especially Cool Papa Bell on the base path.

Nonetheless, something has clearly been lost. The path to desegregation, integration and inclusion has parallel tracks labeled corporatization and monetization and globalization that have collectively assaulted our Glenvilles, Houghs, Centrals, Fairfaxes, Mt. Pleasants and Lee-Harvards. Independent doctors have all but disappeared; virtually all are now on the payroll of our local medical behemoths. Solo legal practitioners operate from home or have flexible virtual space in suburban office parks. Dentists may retain the best balance in terms of independence, community connections, and compensation.

Mike Nelson, current president of the Cleveland NAACP is perhaps the last African American to have run for significant non-judicial political office from a private law practice base. Almost all black judicial candidates run from the cover of a job. Common Pleas Court Judge Cassandra Collier-Williams was a notable, and successful, exception. Is the quality of our political representation diminished by the reluctance of our highly trained legal talent to get into politics?

We only intimate here the challenges ordinary central city residents face in securing affordable professional services to help navigate their lives. Transportation can become a major obstacle when you can no longer walk or take a simple bus ride to a lawyer, doctor, accountant, dentist or realist’s office.[3]

How do we bridge the aching chasm between our professionals and the ordinary Willies and Willie Maes whose protests and votes and marches and demonstrations and riots helped open the doors so that our prodigious natural talent could attain a broader platform?

What are your thoughts and observations?

I invite you to share your responses, ideas, and comments here. Those of you who do respond — I appreciate each and every response — typically do so by direct emails that we think have so far escaped Politburo attention. And I always reply. But these issues require a robust public discussion that we hope you will join.

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Cleveland Community Police Commission seeks executive director

The Cleveland Community Police Commission emerged out of citizen advocacy and a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and the City of Cleveland announced in May 2015. The Commission is made up of ten civilian representatives and one representative each from the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Black Shield.

The Cleveland CPC has a broad charge to:

• Develop and make recommendations for comprehensive police reform.
• Represent community voice and interests and develop recommendations that reflect an understanding of the values and priorities of Cleveland residents
• Publicly report to the City and community and provide transparency on police department reforms

To assist in carrying out this charge, the Commission will hire an executive director. The application deadline is Nov. 8.

The Job description can be found here.

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[1] The plan can be accessed here.
[2] John Anoliefo, executive director of Famicos, did announce his agency's free legal clinic and its valuable work in helping people caught up in our system of justice to get a solitary blemish expunged. More than 600 people have benefited from this service, which I think he said is open to all. Call 216.791.6476 for more information.

[3] The term Realtist may seem a typo to some. It relates to the fact that black real estate agents were excluded from membership in the all white realtors association and even un able to access the comprehensive listing service of properties available for sale, just another way segregation and subjugation were reinforced. The Realtors went so far as to copyright the word Realtors, forcing black agents to invent a new term — Realtist — for their organization.