Aaron: So my name is Aaron Fountain and today is September 23rd, 2022, and I am with Bill Barnett in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Bill: So how are you, Aaron?
Aaron: I’m doing good. Doing good. So I’ll start off with the first question. Can you tell me about yourself? Where were you born, your parents and childhood upbringing?
Bill: I was born in Shaker, actually in Cleveland, in a hospital called St Anne’s Hospital in Fairhill. It’s not there anymore. And born in November 1956. My parents were Irvin and Emily Barnett and they were from Cleveland. And my father grew up in Shaker. He was born in 1925, and my mother was born in Cleveland and she grew up in Cleveland Heights. And they married and lived by Shaker Square until they bought their first house, which was in Ludlow. I had, at that time, an older brother. Subsequent to that time, I had two younger sisters. I just give you a background of my parents. My father was an attorney. My mother got a master’s in business and then also got a law degree later on. And then she went back to school and she got a masters in religious studies. She was kind of a perpetual student.
Aaron: Ok. How were their backgrounds like? What about their upbringing? Where were they raised, how were they raised?
Bill: Middle class. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a pharmacist, and he didn’t have a lot of money. And my grandfather on my father’s side was a shoe salesman. So they kind of grew up in modest means. Both my mother and father went to college, of course, and then went to graduate school. What were there professions? My father was a lawyer and my mother was a community organizer. He was a lawyer in downtown Cleveland. And he had a general practice and a litigation practice. One of his major cases that he had was he represented Jane Fonda when she was arrested in Cleveland in 1970 as part of the peace movement. She was coming to Cleveland to give a speech and she was arrested at the airport, and he represented her in that case. That’s pretty cool. After the bombing the community responded in diverse ways. But what do you think led your parents to push for integration? Well, the story that my mother tells when she brought a small history was that they bought the house in September 1956, moving from an apartment by Shaker Square. And this was the first purchase of a home they had made. And they had made an investment that they didn’t have the funds because they got the money from their parents. And I was born in November 1956. And shortly after they purchased the house and moved in, they saw some for sale signs going up and they worried that their investment was going to be going south because people were saying, you better sell your house now, or else you’re going to lose your investment. They were concerned about that and they didn’t know quite what to do, and they were not by any means organizers, community organizing or anything like that. And then my mother tells the story that in the spring of 1957, she went out taking my brother and I for a stroll, and she met her neighbor across the street was African-American, Mr. Price. And she talked to him and found him to be very nice. And people that he talked to, he talked to her about people getting together and organizing some meetings to help restore the community balance and just to talk about what was going on. And then they got a visit from Dr. Drew Cain came to our house in June of 1957. So the people are getting together and having a meeting to talk about community organization. And so then my mother attended that meeting and saw that they were not very organized for being community organizers, and they were talking in circles. And so she said, ‘Why don’t we have a barbecue?’ Just get people together and be able to mingle and to sort of meet one another on a casual basis. So Dr. Cain arranged to have the barbecue at his house, and they had about a number of families got together, and he from there started to do more organization, more community get together, things like that.
Aaron: So the first president Irwin Barnett, your father, he faced unsurmountable odds to reverse white flight. Do you remember the community events they held to raise money for white homebuyers?
Bill: The one that I remember is, well, this is not raising money for homebuyers. But in 1963, they had an event where they had the ambassadors from a number of African countries come to Cleveland. My mother had seen an article about African-American ambassadors having trouble when they were going from New York to Washington. Not getting served at the restaurants. And she wanted to show that this was not the way it was throughout the United States. And she want[ed] to invite the ambassadors to come to Cleveland to see Ludlow and to see what was going on in Ludlow. She contacted a number of people from the Kennedy administration, the ambassadors, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, but was not able to get any kind of other than a formal response from them nice letter, not get any kind of input into contacting the ambassadors. So she had a friend in Cleveland who was part of the Kennedy campaign, and he put her in touch with somebody in the State Department, and they were able to get the ambassadors to be contacted. My mother contacted them directly. They came to Cleveland for a party in a get together in 1963, February. And I remember that because I remember having them at our house for a dinner, and there was about 300 people at the event all together. And then subsequent to that time, the ambassadors came back for events and they had Ella Fitzgerald, they had other big events, Severance Hall and also at Shaker Square Theater, which were fundraisers used to promote the Ludlow Community Association. One of the things that they needed to do was they needed to raise money for advertising, for getting people to be interested in coming to Ludlow because they were subjected to blockbusting and redlining because of the banks and the real estate companies. So they wanted to get money for advertising and they got money from the Cleveland Foundation. My mom actually wrote a proposal for a grant, which was awarded to the Ludlow Community Association for that purpose. And also they used Cleveland Foundation money to hire a coordinator for the housing office in Shaker. You were talking about the African diplomats and the letters that your mother sent them which actually contextualized those letters, because I never really know what prompted them to respond. And getting back to you were asking about raising money. Fundraisers. And so they sold stock in the Ludlow Community Association because it was a corporation. And they wanted to raise money so that they could also provide low income, low interest loans to families wanting to move into Ludlow. And that gets into the pro-integrative approach that they took, which was appealing to white families to move into Ludlow because the realtors were not showing the homes to white families, they’re only showing homes to African-Americans. And the banks were not loaning money to white families. So the Ludlow took a kind of a unique approach and reached out to white families to try to balance the level of integration. And they were. It took a while, but they were able to finally tip the balance and become fully racially integrated. And it was an approach that was controversial because it was basically discriminatory towards the minority families in favor of the white families, which is not something you would normally do in terms of creating racial diversity. But because of the fact that there was such an imbalance, you had like a, I guess, the way I think about it is the free market. You like the free market to do what it’s going to do, and let the families move in who are going to move in, and want to move in, and have the funds to move in. But the balance was tipped against the integration, full integration of the system of the community, because they had realtors who were conspiring to not sell to white families and the banks were conspiring to not loan to white families. So they needed some kind of an approach that was drastic that would change the dynamic and that was the pro-integrative approach that they used. And so while it was controversial, it also helped tip the balance and make Ludlow an integrated community for most of the generation, they engineered that process. I guess they tried in other places and it didn’t work out quite as well.
Aaron: Oh, that is true. I heard other places around the area.
Bill: Yeah, they tried to do it in Moreland and Lomond. And those communities were not quite as successful in terms of getting balanced racial integration.
Aaron: That went through three questions that I had. It’s perfectly fine. There’s always follow-up questions as well. As a child, how was it like attending racially integrated schools?
Bill: It was the only thing I knew. It was it was fine. I mean, it was natural to me and it was normal. And I found that I had friends who were both African-American and white friends. That sort of carried through for the rest of my years of education. And then I went to places like Northwestern where I met people who grew up in racially segregated communities, which were mostly white. They had totally different experiences with people of the other races because they were so insular in terms of their race and their upbringing. And that was kind of the way Cleveland was too. Cleveland was very insular in the sense that the lily-white communities in the East and people wanted to stay away from the city in the inner city. And they that caused the white flight in Ludlow and some other places. When communities started changing over people started gravitating to those all-white communities. And it was very interesting
to see people’s mindset, which was very disturbing because you see that they were running away from something they didn’t know. Which my parents also were unaware of mingling with people of different races when they were growing up because they kind of grew up in white communities as well. But they found that when they got a chance to meet people from other cultures and races, they found that everybody kind of has the same goals, same desires, and they found they could be very good friends with each other. That’s kind of how Ludlow took off and took place.
Aaron: I was kind of wondering you grew up in an integrated community, where are people in your family who knew about it and found it a little peculiar at the time? So I once asked Carolyn Milter about how people reacted in her family. She said most of them didn’t say much, except made some remarks that were kind of subtle, like, ‘well, you might want to move later.’
Bill: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I’m not aware of anybody who made comments like that from our family.
Aaron: I talked to Shelley Stokes-Hammond and as she recalled how in high school, although it was integrated, people kind of started to self-segregate themselves socially, especially when it came to dating. I don’t know if you noticed the same patterns.
Bill: Yeah. I noticed the same thing, especially in high school, but there was a lot of integration amongst the groups. I mean, I was friends, I played music, and I was friends with people who were African-American and played with them and associated with them. And there was some self-segregating going on, but it just seemed to be more people who knew each other well and people who gravitated towards each other. But it wasn’t a formal thing. It wasn’t anything that people expected.
Aaron: The flyer, you sent some documents that had different pioneers. One was an Asian-American family that I didn’t know much about, the Namkoongs.
Bill: Namkoong, sure.
Aaron: I didn’t know much about them. Who were they?
Bill: They were a family that lived on Ludlow, and I went to school with one of their children, Diane and my brother went to school with their son named Steve. Their father was an engineer,
I think at NASA. And they were from Korea and they were just a lovely family. They were part of the whole Ludlow experience.
Aaron: Did you get to know some of the other members like the Isaacs? Because I interviewed Maxine Isaacs.
Bill: Bernie Isaac and my parents were very good friends of the Isaacs.
Aaron: How was that friendship?
Bill: I don’t know. I mean, they were friends going way back to the early days of the Ludlow organization. I can’t remember what Bernie did. He might have been a doctor. Can’t remember.
Aaron: I read your mother’s obituaries and saw that she remained quite active in her older age. Can you talk about that?
Bill: Yeah, as I said she was a perpetual student. So my sister had studied religious studies and my mom got interested in after the 9/11 problems, the World Trade Center bombing, the problems that resulted in their people having negative attitudes towards Arabs, people of Arab decent and Islamic religion. I grew up Jewish. My mom was always a person who felt very strongly about people being treated poorly or who were misunderstood. So she decided that she would try to understand a way that people could talk to each other and get to know one another, similar to the Ludlow experience. So she figured that the only way she could do that was to go back to school. So she went to University of California in Santa Barbara for their religious studies program, and then she went to London to go to school for studies in Arab studies. And then she wrote a study guide and created an organization called Communities and Conversation, which was to basically bring together the three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam, because they all come from common roots and they have common understandings. And she figured that if people from those three religions could get together and talk, just basically have conversations with one another, they would shed their fears and distrust and make the world a better place. So we would have these meetings at different libraries. And she had the study guide readings from the different religions to talk about things that are similar in common between the different religions. It was very enlightening because people came from these backgrounds where they were experience in their own religion and they didn’t know anything about Judaism, for example, and people who were Jewish didn’t know anything about Islam
and didn’t realize that there were very similar common backgrounds experiences, and histories. And so she did that and that was a very interesting project that she got going in Cleveland and Chicago. Things kind of didn’t take off (illegible) far. And she ended up losing her memory somewhat in 2015, and she moved to Texas, where my sister lives. And so then she ended up in a nursing home, passed away in 2020. So she was very active in terms of her later years. But in her earlier years, as I said, she was a housing advocate and community organizer. She developed some housing at 30th and central. There’s an area behind St Vincent’s Hospital and it’s there scattered site housing. And it was the first time that low and moderate income housing that were in individual units where people would basically have it was a break from the old projects where they would build these big brick institutions looking buildings. And housed people there were on assistance programs and this was a program where they would have these individual homes where people would be able to take care of them, treat them like their own. And I think the experiment was very good because you see a lot of these (illegible)-type programs going on today for low- and moderate-income housing. She was kind of a pioneer. It was called the Cleveland Interfaith Housing Corporation. It was under the guise of a Catholic church. I think it was on Euclid by Cleveland State.
Aaron: If I remember correctly, was their attempt to build low-income housing near Ludlow. If I remember correctly from the archives I looked up.
Bill: I don’t know. I know that they did build some housing over there in the Onaway Ludlow area. I don’t know anything about it though. It’s relatively new.
Aaron: Was your father the same as your mother in his later years?
Bill: Well, he didn’t have later years. My father passed away in 1975. He was 49 year old. So he had a very short, abbreviated life, but he was very active in the Jewish Community Federation, as well as social action committee from Fairmount Temple. And they were very involved with the civil rights movement of my parents and political movements as well, working for Kennedy and working for Johnson over the years.
Aaron: I wonder how many young Jewish families lived in Ludlow? I kind of wonder how much that contributed to the push for integration. Given the usual liberal tolerance Jews tend to have on race.
Bill: I don’t know how many, but there was probably a fair number. I think because Ludlow was if you know the history at all about Shaker Heights, they had those deeds restrictions and the Jews were kept out. The Roman Catholics and African-Americans going back to 1925. And I think when they saw an opportunity to get beyond the deed restrictions that people began to move into the Ludlow, the fringe communities like Ludlow and Moreland. My dad grew up in Moreland, but I think they saw opportunities to buy a home in Ludlow, they were probably less expensive there.
Aaron: We’re in Ludlow did you live?
Bill: Lived on Beckett. About two houses away from the Cleveland border. Beckett between Onway and Southington, the nice house, a small house. We were going to move because my sister was born, along with my two sisters and then my parents sold the house because they bought another house they offered by another house in Ludlow. Bigger house. And then the last minute, the people who were selling the house backed out of the deal. And we didn’t have a place to move to in 1966. So they moved across the railroad tracks down Onaway. I went to school for fifth and sixth grades in Onaway, but it was only because they lost the deal on the house after selling our house.
Aaron: Okay, so two more questions.
Bill: Ask as many as you want.
Aaron: Contacting the African diplomats. Were there any other method that you did to promote Ludlow beyond the neighborhood?
Bill: Well, like I said, they got money for marketing. They put together some brochure and they had a, my parents were just part of the Ludlow Community Association, but the Association itself had input with Shaker Heights to get a housing community coordinator who could help reach out to families. And one thing that they did was they provided loans, low interest loans to white families. And they put the brochure out for advertising purposes to advertise the Ludlow Community. And the events that they had, like at Shaker Square and Severance Hall were promoting the Ludlow Community overall. Got good publicity and press.
Aaron: Were your parents politically active prior to Ludlow?
Bill: No. My father was just beginning his law practice. He was 27 years old, 28 years old. My mom was just the new mother. She was a mother at 20 years old. So they didn’t have any community activity before that time. It was more out of necessity because they were worried about their home value being lost. The first time they made a move to buy a house and then they saw that dozens for sale signs went up. And was interesting at some point time Shaker banned the use of for sale signs. Any kind of lawn signs probably because there’s a direct result of that blockbusting effort. And that was since reversed more recently. That’s why you see Home for Sale signs again, but for a long time you didn’t see any for sale signs in Shaker.
Aaron: So one of one question I have is, can you talk about your life as an adult and in what ways Ludlow influenced you? Well, as I said, I kind of grew up in an integrated neighborhood and that sort of spurred me to well, it just kind of was my way of life in terms of my associations with people and just how you interact with folks. I became a lawyer in 1981 and went into private practice and represented people from the different communities. Because I was in private practice, it basically dealt people of low-income means. And so I had quite a lot of experience in dealing with a lot of the issues of low-income families. And so that was kind of my basis and in the law. And then I went on to work in corporate law firm, and then I went to work for a company called State Industrial Products, where I worked for 35 years until I retired in December of last year. My wife and I, we both went to Shaker. We knew each other in high school, but we met in 1980, and we got married in 1982 and we decided we want to live in Shaker. We both grown up there. We valued the experience of growing up in integrated community. So we had three kids and they all went to Shaker, graduated from Shaker part of the summer, part of the SCORE program, student government on race relations. And they all benefitted from that experience of growing up in an integrated community. And then my grandson and granddaughter live in Shaker, and he’s in second grade at Lomond. So he’s also experiencing what it’s like to grow up in an integrated community. Going back, my mother-in-law went to Shaker, my father went to Shaker. So we have like four generations of people all went to Shaker. Some of us were there during the integrated period of time. My father, my mother-in-law, they were there in the pre-integration.
Aaron: Pre-integration as to prior to the ‘50s?
Bill: Prior to the ‘50s
Aaron: That’s all the questions I have. You really did cover some that I was like, I was going to ask that.