African American Cultural Garden

The African American Cultural Garden demonstrates Black people’s commitment to the equitable allocation of public space.

African American Cultural Garden. Staff photo

Civil rights activists waged a sixteen-year campaign to establish the African American Cultural Garden, which embodied a larger fight for access to recreational space.

Cleveland Cultural Gardens

Since 1926, the Cleveland Cultural Gardens in Rockefeller Park have showcased the multi-ethnic heritage of the city’s population. They were first dedicated as part of an effort to combat xenophobia and “Americanization”–public and private efforts to rapidly assimilate immigrants by severing their connection to the ways, tradition and heritage of their native lands. The official mission of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens was “promoting ethnic pride and intercultural understanding.” Between 1926 and the early 1940’s a score of European immigrant and ethnic groups established gardens honoring their cultural heritage.

Unfortunately, nonwhites were not considered part of this project for many decades. Most notable was the exclusion of African Americans, who were rapidly growing into the largest single culturally distinct population in the city, with many migrating from the segregated South. In fact, many were moving into the neighborhoods around Rockefeller Park and the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. Over time, the absence of African Americans from the Gardens became a stark symbol of the limits placed on the ability of Cleveland’s Black residents to fully engage in civic life. The 16-year struggle to establish an African American Cultural Garden became part of the local Civil Rights and Black Power movements in Cleveland, and the Cleveland Cultural Gardens became a focal point for the contemporaneous debates about the place for African American culture in public spaces.

Cleveland Cultural Gardens, 1966. Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.


The effort to include Blacks began in 1961 when city councilman Leo Jackson proposed a “Negro Garden,” choosing a politically strategic parcel of land adjacent to but not within Rockefeller Park with the idea of eventually altering the park boundaries to include it. This plan was thwarted by disagreements involving the chosen site, with a property dispute entering a court battle that was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Certiorari, however, was denied and so the lower court’s decision allowing the City to condemn the property prevailed. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cultural Garden Federation was not initially supportive of the concept. In May 1962, when the Federation discussed the idea of creating a “special Negro garden,” they dismissed the idea, claiming that “the American Garden is the place for any bust of American Negro cultural expression.” To support this opinion, one member paraphrased an article in Look magazine which read in part: “The Negro is American–he does not follow the customs of his so-called ‘old country,’ America is where his roots are.” Ironically, their conclusion was in direct contradiction to the original and inclusive objectives of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation.

As the court case for Jackson’s chosen site wound its way through the courts, the notion of Black representation in the gardens stalled until 1967 when, working with and under the authority of the Cleveland Cultural Garden Federation, a group of prominent Black professionals who were involved with the Cleveland Chapter of the Tuskegee Alumni Association put in motion a plan to place a statue of Booker T. Washington in the American Colonial Garden. The Cultural Garden Federation approved their project and they quickly raised money for the statue. By 1970, the Booker T. Washington bust had been installed in the American Colonial Garden. However, the politics of the time included much criticism of Booker T. Washington’s more conservative approach to Black Empowerment–and perhaps also to the Tuskegee Alumni Association’s conservative approach, as they appeared to be acquiescing to the Federation’s argument that African-American culture was merely “American” culture, and not distinct. And so, twice during the 1970s unsuccessful attempts were made to destroy the Booker T. Washington statue with dynamite. In both cases Black Power groups were accused. This, along with other well-publicized and racially charge incidents in the Gardens during the mid-1960’s, focused the attention of the broader local public (both Black and non-Black) on the question of African American representation in the Gardens that now lay within predominately African American residential areas of town.

Leo Jackson and Inspector Massey looking at 6th District map. Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections

Ironically, it fell to a namesake of Washington’s, a local Black Studies college teacher and political operative named Booker T. Tall, to begin in earnest the project to acquire a separate African American garden space. Tall brought in the local chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, as well as the office of local politician Louis Stokes, and community groups. In 1974 he became the first Black member of the Cultural Garden Federation, and began negotiations with the Federation and City Council for an optimal site for the African American Cultural Garden, beginning with a plot outside of but very close to The Cultural Garden chain. Discussions and negotiations with CGF and City Council took years but finally a city ordinance designating land for an African American garden within the existing Cultural Garden chain was issued in 1977.

The garden dedication took place October 23, 1977. A crowd numbering in the hundreds braved inclement weather for the cutting of a red, black and green ribbon to officially open the African-American garden. County commissioner George Voinovich deliver the keynote speech. Dignitaries from Ghana, Togo, Kenya and Tanzania were also in attendance. Herbert Lyimo the consulate for political affairs from Tanzania, spoke at the ceremony, expressing his hope that “the dedication of this garden will be a bridge to connect the peoples of America with Africa.”

Oral histories

Carl ewing

Carl Ewing is a Cleveland native and grew up near the Cultural Gardens. He didn’t visit the site until he became an adult and is one of the individuals responsible for remodeling the African American Cultural Garden.


Further Readings

“City to Speed Cleanup of Smeared Monuments,” Cleveland Press, September 9, 1966.

“Cultural Gardens Vandals Hit,” Plain Dealer, September 9, 1966.

“East Blvd. Park Deal Stalled Again after Bitter Debate in Council,” Cleveland Press, May 14, 1963.

“Garden Dedication to Memorialize Gas Mask Inventor,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 23, 1977.

“Gardens Grow,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 24, 1977.

“Jackson Fails in Close Vote in Park Fight,” Cleveland Press, May 28, 1963.

“Jackson Loses Battle for Action on Park,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 14, 1963.

“Judgment Entry to the Court of Common Pleas,” 1966, reprinted in “The 931 East Boulevard Co. v. City of Cleveland U.S. Supreme Court Transcript of Record with Supporting Pleadings,” Bernard A. Berkman, Bernard A. Berkman, Paul D. White, US Supreme Court Records and Briefs, 1982-1978, The Making of Modern Law, Print Edition, 29-32.

Letter from Booker Tall to Libby Phillips, June 25, 1973. CCGF archives, Special Collections, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University.

“Monuments are Smeared in Gardens,” Cleveland Press, September 8, 1966.

“Rockefeller Park Bill Due for Vote Monday,” Cleveland Press, December 5, 1961.

“Union Members Black Rockefeller Park Swap,” Cleveland Press, May 27, 1963.

Berbrier, Mitch. “The Peace Path of Cleveland Cultural Gardens: Making Place for Cultures of Peace.” Peace and Change 37, no. 3 (July 2012): 161-187.

Cleveland Cultural Gardens, Western Reserve Historical Society.

Cordell Edge interview, 14, October 2002 (2002), Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 800012.

Hutson, Ron. “Garden Ruins: Black Push for Representation in Cleveland Cultural Gardens,” Call and Post, May 22, 1971.

Lederer, Clara. Their Paths are Peace: The Story of Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens. Cleveland: Cleveland Cultural Garden Federation, 1954.

Lipsitz, George. “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape.” Landscape Journal 26, no. 1 (2007): 10-23.

McGunagle, Fred. “East Blvd. Park Seizure Certain to get Court Test,” Cleveland Press, September 24, 1963.

McGunagle, Fred. “Faster Park Moves Demanded by Leo,” Cleveland Press, May 24, 1962.

Sabath, Donald. “Council Unit Split: Deal for Park Land is Stalled,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 18, 1963.

Sugrue, Thomas. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle of Civil Rights in the North. New York: Random House, 2009.

Tebeau, Mark T. “Sculpted Landscapes: Art & Place in Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens, 1916-2006.” Journal of Social History 44, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 327.

The State of Ohio v. Marvin T. Wolfe, Harrell Jones, Philip Morris, Harold Mitchell, and Albert Ware, Case no.85,587, January 8, 1968, 177, 180-81, Cuyahoga County Archives.

Watzman, Sanford. “Council Oks Deal on Land after Fight,” Cleveland Press, December 12, 1961.

Wiltse, Jeff. Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

Wolcott, Victoria. Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

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