In their footsteps: Cleveland Restoration Society plans civil rights trail with historical markers

Cleveland is a significant city in the history of America’s civil rights movement. The city was home for the creation of the United Freedom Movement to oppose racism in schools, employment, and housing. Mayor Carl Stokes was elected in 1967 in Cleveland—becoming the first black mayor of a major U.S. city. The Hough riots in 1966 and the Glenville shootout and riots in 1968 marked the height of racial tension in the city. And the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made numerous trips to Cleveland in support of civil rights.

The United Freedom Movement, spawned by the NAACP, was a coalition of more than 60 groups that organized large public protests and demonstrations against inequality.While the struggle continues to this day as many Americans face inequities in housing, education, and the criminal justice system, the Cleveland Restoration Society plans to mark some of the most memorable moments and locations in Cleveland’s civil rights fight with a civil rights trail.

In October, the restoration society was awarded $50,000 from the National Park Service for its project “In Their Footsteps: Developing an African American Civil Rights Trail in Cleveland, OH.” The organization is one of 44 projects in 17 states collectively to receive more than $12.2 million in African American Civil Rights Grants to preserve and highlight stories related to the African-American struggle for racial equality in the 20th century.

The grant program is funded by the Historic Preservation Fund as administered by the National Park Service, Department of Interior.

“It’s thrilling,” says Margaret Lann, Cleveland Restoration Society’s manager of development and publications, of the news. They applied for the grant in September 2018 and got word that they had received the money this past September, she says. “It’s just affirming Cleveland’s role in that struggle. It’s sharing Cleveland’s story publicly.”

The project will install 10 Ohio Historical Markers—there are 707 bronze, Ohio-shaped markers across Ohio, which are 42 inches wide by 45 inches high, and stand seven feet tall—at the sites in Cleveland associated with the struggle for civil rights for African Americans between 1954 and 1976.

They wanted to use the Ohio markers because they stand out, Lann says. “They are extremely sturdy, and you can see them walking by or driving by,” she says. “You can stop and read them.”

By marking sites in Cleveland where events took place which were pivotal to changes in federal legislation and black empowerment, Lann says, Cleveland will honor the courage and steadfastness of those who brought about legislative and social progress. There is not a lot of historical recognition of Cleveland’s role in the civil rights movement, she says.

“When we looked at how many Ohio Historical Markers are across the state or in Cuyahoga County, there was a very small percentage that represented the fight for civil rights,” she says. “There was a lot of activity that went down in this area.”

The Greater Abyssinia Baptist ChurchNatoya Walker Minor, chief of public affairs for the city of Cleveland, will head the Cleveland Restoration Society’s Civil Rights Trail Task Force that is being created to choose the 10 sites.

The task force will be composed of residents involved with Cleveland’s civil rights movement, scholars, community leaders, and students.

The goal is to implement the 10 markers on the Civil Rights Trail over the next three years, Lann says. “We had to show [the National Park Service] there were at least 10, but we believe there are a lot more of them,” she says, noting that the Cleveland Restoration Society produced “Know Our Heritage: the African-American Experience in Cleveland” in 2012.

Site selection will be guided by published research from the National Park Service on The Modern Civil Rights Movement (1954-1964) and The Second Revolution (1964-1976), and nomination criteria for the National Register of Historic Places’ Twentieth-Century African American Civil Rights Movement in Ohio published by the Ohio Historic Preservation Office.

For more information, contact Stephanie Phelps, Cleveland Restoration Society marketing and events specialist, (216) 426-3106. 

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.