Carl Burton Stokes was the first African American mayor of a major American city, having been elected mayor of Cleveland, the nation’s 8th largest city, in 1967. He is among the few American politicians whose career spanned all three branches of government — legislative, executive, and judicial. He served as mayor, Ohio legislator, and municipal court judge.
TV20 Cleveland’s video on the unveiling of the Carl Stokes historic marker at City Hall.
A short, multimedia project created by CRS about Carl Stokes.
As Cleveland’s mayor, Stokes “transformed the energy of the civil rights movement into a model of black political power.”
Carl Burton Stokes
Born in Cleveland to Charles and Louise Stokes on June 21, 1927, Carl Stokes’ early life began on East 69th Street where he, his parents and older brother, Louis, lived on the first floor of a “rickety two-family house.” His father, a laundry worker, died when he was two years old. After his father’s death, Stokes’ mother secured domestic work and received welfare benefits to support their family. When Stokes was 11, the family moved to Outhwaite Homes in the Central neighborhood in Cleveland, one of the first federally funded housing projects in the country under the Public Works Administration. Until ninth grade, he was the “pride of the classroom,” but according to his own account, he was soon drawn to a “seamier” way of life. Stokes writes, “[I began] shooting craps, [and] playing poker.”
After suffering with pleurisy, he entered East Technical High School located in Central. The student enrollment at the high school was 90% white, but it “offered the best vocational training in the city.” White teachers had low expectations of the few Black students. When a counselor discouragingly advised Stokes to “pursue a course in foundry rather than a mechanical course” that he really preferred, he eventually dropped out of school. He worked at a foundry and aircraft company for a couple of years.
Stokes in early adulthood
At the age of 18, Stokes joined the army and while stationed in Alabama learned what he characterized as “a clean-edged unadulterated hatred for whites.” He experienced firsthand the racial discrimination that Blacks confronted in the South. Yet he was enriched by serving with educated Black men in his unit and gained “a new value in going to school.” Through the life experiences of these men, Stokes began to understand the importance of completing his education.
He returned to Cleveland in 1947 and re-enrolled at East Tech to finish his high school degree. Upon graduation—using the benefits of the G.I. Bill—Stokes enrolled at West Virginia State College. Within a year, he transferred to Western Reserve University; however, he left school to work full-time as a state liquor agent. Following an unsettling encounter with a bar owner, Stokes decided to quit this job and track his brother Louis into the field of law. He completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota and then returned home to pursue his law degree at Cleveland Marshall Law School at night, while working as a probation officer during the day. When he passed the bar in 1957, he and his brother Louis formed the partnership of Stokes and Stokes with offices located in the Glenville neighborhood.
Stokes Enters politics
Despite doing well financially, Stokes recognized that his passion was in politics. After a few years of working as an assistant police prosecutor, Stokes became the first Black Democrat to win a seat in the Ohio General Assembly in 1963 and went on to serve for three terms. As a state representative, he supported bipartisan legislation, including capital improvement plans that he believed would help the Black community.
In 1962, Cleveland entered its own civil rights movement with mass demonstrations, which included sit-ins and picketing, over the enforced segregation of students in the city’s public schools. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality formed the United Freedom Movement, a coalition of parent groups, civil rights activists, and religious organizations that protested the school board’s systemic segregation practices. While Stokes did not play a leadership role, his “willingness to participate in the school protests illustrated to many of his constituents that he was not concerned about repercussions from the white power structure.” Additionally, his “visible presence during the nine-month crisis convinced the black poor and working class that he identified with their struggle, and it further strengthened their confidence in him as a man of the people.”
Seizing the momentum of community’s mobilization during the school crisis, Stokes ran for mayor in 1965, but lost to Ralph Locher by just 2,142 votes. Two years later, however, Stokes won and made history as “his election forever changed the nature of political power in Cleveland and across urban American as well.”
Carl Stokes’ narrow victory in November 1967 over his Republican opponent Seth Taft, grandson of a president, came with “20 percent of the white vote and almost total support from a black community.” The Black community used its full voting leverage for the first time, and it was an overpowering show of strength. At the time of Stokes election, African Americans comprised 37% of Cleveland’s population. One national commentator observed at the time that “[w]hat Stokes must do, if he does anything that counts, is nothing less than to change, radically and permanently, the quality of life for everyone in his city—and he knew the urgency of change before he took office.”
Mayor Carl Stokes
As mayor of Cleveland, Stokes greatly influenced politics in the city. He secured more jobs for Blacks in Cleveland than any time previously and was emphatic that Black businesses receive city contracts and that banks lend money to the Black-owned businesses. Stokes obtained funding for urban development from local corporations and the federal government. His novel Cleveland: NOW! antipoverty program “sought $177 million from federal, state, local, and private sources for jobs, housing, day care, health, and recreation.” During his time as mayor, he “enforced housing codes, demolished slums, and built 5,500 public housing units.”
In July 1968, Stokes faced his greatest challenge as mayor. The Glenville Tragedy erupted on July 23, resulting in a street battle between Black Nationalists and Cleveland police that took the lives of at least ten people, followed by several days of looting and arson. For the second time in two years, the National Guard was called up. Stokes sought to quell the violence by meeting with Black community leaders and made the controversial decision to have “[t]he national guard cordoned off the riot-torn area, and no white police officers were allowed in, only black law enforcement personnel and community leaders.” The bold tactic worked: there were no further deaths or major injuries. Despite praise from many, others, especially white police officers and some city council members, expressed outrage and demanded that Stokes to be recalled as mayor (the move was unsuccessful).
Stokes persevered. With urban renewal a priority, Stokes fought hard to give low-income families “a chance to live in dignity” by attempting to have public housing built in the Lee-Seville area of the city. Stokes was met with staunch opposition by the city council president and many Black middle-class Lee-Seville residents who felt they had worked hard to build their homes there. “The status-conscious black middle class surprised Stokes by effectively mobilizing against the development” and winning their battle against the mayor. He also pushed for early notions of what is now called environmental justice after the Cuyahoga River burned in 1969.
Stokes changed the political landscape in one major respect by lobbying for the creation of the Twenty-First District Democratic Caucus to “unify the city’s black political party that separated from the county Democratic Party.” Stokes’ re-election campaign in 1969 was built on his first term accomplishments, mobilization of voters both east and west of the Cuyahoga River, and vigorous criticism of his Republican opponent, Ralph Perk. Stokes won the election by fewer than four thousand votes.
After deciding not to seek a third term as mayor of Cleveland in 1971, Stokes gave a public lecture series across the nation. A year later, he became the first Black anchorman for a television station in New York City. He worked in television for eight years and returned to Cleveland to take up the practice of law, representing clients such as the United Auto Workers. During the latter stage of his career, from 1983 to 1994, Stokes was elected a municipal judge in Cleveland. As noted above, President Bill Clinton appointed him U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Seychelles in 1994. He was recognized for his trailblazing service as a public official and was the recipient of 12 honorary degrees, several civic awards, and served as a representative for the United States on “numerous goodwill trips abroad by request of the White House.”
Stokes and his second wife, Shirley Edwards, had three children, Carl Jr., Cordi, and Cordell. With his third wife, Raija Kostadinov, he had a daughter, Cynthia, and a stepson, Sasha. While serving as Ambassador to the Seychelles, he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. After returning to Cleveland, he died in 1996 at the age of 68 at Cleveland Clinic.
Charlie Butts was the former campaign manager for Carl Stokes in 1965 and 1967. He met Stokes in 1965 and helped his campaign after gaining experience in organizational politics and newsletter writing in Mississippi during the civil rights movement. In this interview, he discusses his upbringing, experience in Mississippi, and working for Carl Stokes when he ran for office and as mayor. This interview was recorded at his home in Cleveland on May 18, 2022.
Cordell Stokes is the son of Carl B. Stokes. In this interview recorded in Cleveland, Ohio on March 24, 2022, he discusses his upbringing and his father as the politicians and dad to him and his siblings.
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University, accessed on April 8, 2021, https://case.edu/ech/articles/s/stokes-carl-b.
“Carl B. Stokes: From Legislator to Mayor, and Now a Judge,” Ebony, August 1984.
Moore, Leonard. Carl Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Moore, Leonard. “The School Desegregation Crisis in Cleveland, Ohio, 1963-1964.” Journal of Urban History, vol. 28, no. 2, 2002: 135-157.
Stokes, Carl Burton. Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.
Skow, John. Saturday Evening Post, July 7, 1968, Vol. 241, Issue 18, 23-67.
The Cleveland Historical Team, “Outhwaite Homes,” https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/11.