Cory United Methodist Church

Marker unveiling ceremony. Staff photograph.

Cory United Methodist Church has been selected as a site of significance on Cleveland’s African American Civil Rights Trail because of its history as a central meeting place for grassroots Civil Rights organizing, and as the primary venue to host some of the most renowned speakers of the time.

Cory marker unveiling ceremony. Staff photograph.

News 5 Cleveland gave special coverage to the announcement that Cory United Methodist Church would be on the Civil Rights Trail.

early history

The site has a storied and layered history. Designed by architect Albert F. Janowitz (1867-1937), the building was constructed between 1920 and 1922 in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. It served as the Cleveland Jewish Center and synagogue for the Anshe Emeth Beth Tefilo congregation from 1922 to 1945. In 1946, Cory United Methodist Church, one of Cleveland’s oldest African American churches, purchased the former synagogue for $135,000.  After spending $35,000 on repairs, the congregation moved into the old Jewish Center in 1947.

Cory UMC was known as Cleveland’s largest Black-owned church in the 1950s and 1960s. Given its large membership (3,000+) and deep connection to the community through the many services it provided, the church became a key venue for grassroots organizing for civil rights and the most important platform for influential civil rights leaders to address Cleveland’s Black residents. The building provided ample room for meetings of all sizes, small to large public events.

Cleveland Jewish Center. Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
W.E.B. DuBois. Public domain.

civil rights pioneers

The Glenville Area Community Council invited W. E. B. Du Bois to be a keynote speaker at a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) rally on February 5, 1950. Two thousand people of all races came to hear Du Bois and other speakers address problems of inequality and discrimination in the United States. On September 24, 1951, the church hosted a membership drive for the Cleveland branch of the NAACP, featuring a keynote address by renowned civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall. Cory UMC continued to host events in partnership with the Cleveland NAACP Chapter including numerous membership drives and workshops to train canvassers.

King and malcolm x

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Cory on numerous occasions, drawing enormous crowds. An estimated 5,000 people packed the streets surrounding the church during King’s visit on May 14, 1963. Prior to King’s arrival, the traffic around the church was at a standstill for 20 blocks. Designed to hold 2,400 people, the Cory sanctuary brimmed with 4,000 Clevelanders, eager to hear King’s remarks about the power of non-violent protests against segregation. King told a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he had never seen a “more aroused response… than I’ve seen in Cleveland, Ohio tonight.” King would deliver his last speech in Cleveland at Cory as well.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Cory. Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio.
Malcolm X at Cory. Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio.

The Cleveland chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) brought both Malcom X and Black author Louis Lomax to speak in Cleveland on April 3, 1964. It was at this event that Malcom X delivered the first iteration of his famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech from the Cory pulpit. The speech advocated Black nationalism and encouraged strategic voting (the ballot) to avoid the need to take up arms in self-defense (the bullet). Throughout the speech, Malcom X addressed numerous issues that affected African Americans living in Glenville—the use of gerrymandering to squelch Black votes, white flight, the violence facing African Americans at home and those in the military, and the injustice of living in a community that cannot control its own schools, safety, or economic well-being. This speech has been praised as one of the best American political speeches of the 20th century.

Listen to the full speech here:  https://radar.auctr.edu/islandora/object/auc.047%3A0654

A crowd listening to MLK at Cory during his visit. Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio.
UFM demonstrating against school segregation 1963. Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection.

grassroots organizing

In addition to hosting the most famous speakers of the civil rights movement, Cory was active on the grassroots level. When Carl Stokes ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1967—the first African American to hold that office in a major US city—the church held campaign rallies for him. Grassroots activists took to the pulpit to advocate for Black voter registration and education.

Cory UMC also played a central role as the host site for many of the United Freedom Movement (UFM) meetings. Established in Cleveland on June 3, 1963, the UFM fought for civil rights in the areas of education, employment, health, housing, and voting. The Reverend Sumpter Riley of Cory UMC played a significant role in the UFM, at one point serving as its president.

Carl B. Stokes. Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection.

Footage of the anti-school segregation protest where Bruce Klunder, a young minister of the church in Cleveland, tragically died.

The UFM was heavily involved in demonstrations against racist school policies set by the Cleveland Municipal School District, regularly organizing protests, rallies, and boycotts to promote integrated classes and halt the construction of new public schools that would lead to further segregation. One such effort involved a city-wide boycott of schools by 68,000 Black students, fueled by the accidental killing on April 7, 1964 of Reverend Bruce Klunder by a bulldozer during a protest at the construction site for a new elementary school. Local churches, including Cory, opened their doors to students for the city-wide boycott. According to the April 25, 1964 issue of the Call & Post, Rev. Sumpter Riley was quoted as saying, “Let no one go home and say that churches are remaining silent or inactive, for we are doing our part.” It was noted that most of the “mammoth mass meetings” leading up to the boycott were held at Cory, and collections were taken from the congregants to help fund demonstrations and protests. In the following decades, Cory’s relationship with the civil rights movement continued through its own community services to promote equity and education.

community engagement

Cory United Methodist has long-standing community programming that has been in place for decades. These programs include the Cory Kitchen, a satellite program of the Cleveland Food Bank started in 1971, and the Eaton Family Credit Union (formerly Cory United Methodist Credit Union) that has been in existence since 1958. Over the years, other community programs ranged from a day care and senior services; music programs and performances, including the Cleveland Orchestra’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. concert (1987-1997, 1999); a Head Start program; job fairs and computer classes; and the Council of Fathers, a non-profit organization established to support and educate fathers. Since 1961, the City of Cleveland’s Division of Recreation has leased a portion of the church for use as the Glenville Community Center. Making use of the former Jewish Recreation Center, the Rec Center offers an indoor basketball court, indoor swimming pool, and a variety of other spaces for art and athletic programs.

Letter from Congressman Louis Stokes to Cory. Cory United Methodist Church archives.

Together with the notable architectural significance of the church, the role that Cory UMC played in Cleveland’s history led the building to be designated as a local landmark in 2012 by the Cleveland Landmarks Commission. In August 2016, the church was determined to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by the Ohio Historic Preservation Office for its association with “a broad pattern of history” and its embodiment of “the distinct characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction.” Today, Cory United Methodist Church remains an iconic symbol of Cleveland’s civil rights movement.

The Modern Black Church

Cory marker. Staff photograph.

Cory UMC, like many Black churches, followed the prophetic tradition of Black preachers using their pulpits to “challenge the hypocrisy of white American racism.” Throughout American history, Black preachers have decried the contemporary injustices Black people experienced, whether in regards to chattel slavery, lynching, segregation, police violence, and other moral ills. Out of the 19th century, the Black church and its leadership promoted social uplift, liberation, pragmatism, and Black nationalism. In the 1960s, theologian James H. Cone developed the concept of Black liberation theology, which argued that the “plight of Black Americans must be a central concern of the church.”

The place of the Black church in Black America has changed in recent decades. According to the Pew Research Center, Black Americans attend church at a higher rate than their non-Black counterparts, and pray more often. Respect for churches’ role in seeking social justice remains high, but there is a widespread perception that they have lost influence in recent decades. Black adults born after 1980 are less likely to attend church as often as their elders, and those who do attend are more likely to do so in a multiracial congregation and are more likely to be unaffiliated with any denomination. The perception of the lack of influence is pervasive. The Black church has not spearheaded any recent political uprising like Black Lives Matter; however, members are more likely to hear preaching about race relations and criminal justice reform than those who attend multiracial or white churches. These trends do not diminish the legacy Black churches have made, but they call into question on what their roles will be in the future.

Oral histories

Willie Wilson

In this interview, Cleveland native Willie Wilson discusses his upbringing, tenure at Howard University, Black-owned engineering firms in Cleveland, and his affiliation with Cory United Methodist Church.

Charles Williams

In this interview, Charles Williams discusses his upbringing in the Glenville neighborhood and his relationship to the church.

Gallery

Further Readings

Butler, Anthea, ‘Church,” in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, ed. Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman and Jake Siliverstein. New York: One World, 2021, 335-353..

Call and Post (1962-1982); Cleveland, OH.

City of Cleveland, City Record, Ord. No. 1262-12 By Council Member J. Johnson. An Emergency ordinance designating Cory United Methodist Church (formerly Anshe Emeth Synagogue) as a Cleveland Landmark, Nov. 2012.

Cleveland Plain Dealer; Cleveland, OH.

“Cory United Methodist Church,” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, (Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University). Accessed 18 February 2021. https://case.edu/ech/articles/c/cory-united-methodist-church.

Ellis, Lloyd H. A Guide to Greater Cleveland’s Sacred Landmarks (Kent: The Kent State University Press, 2012), 97-99.

Tressler, Donna “Cory United Methodist Church,” Cleveland Historical, accessed 17 February 2021
https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/643.

Wolf, Barbara. “‘I Have a Dream’ leads top 100 speeches of the century” University of Wisconsin-Madison (University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A & M University: 1999) accessed Mar 15, 2021 https://news.wisc.edu/i-have-a-dream-leads-top-100-speeches-of-the-century/.

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