Aaron [00:00:00] Today is May 18, 2022. I am Aaron Fountain with the Cleveland Restoration Society, and I’m interviewing Charlie Butts. We can actually get started. So the first question I love this everybody is can you tell me about yourself? When were you born? How were your parents and childhood upbringing?
Charlie [00:00:38] You want to know when I was born, it was a long time ago, February 16th, 1942. I was born in Connecticut, but came to Bedford, a Cleveland suburb when I was five. So I’ve been an Ohioan except during the time of the civil rights movement where I was in the South for three years. I was raised by parents who were willing to encourage me to have experiences that broaden the kind of experience I would have had at that time, largely all white suburb of Bedford. Just before the beginning of the last period in fourth grade, I would go out into the courtroom and get my coat and glasses on and go out, catch a bus into Cleveland. Then cross-town bus, the kind that had the antennas and the rubber tires going across 105th Street. And they kept the Quincy bus bound 89th and Quincy to go to Karamu three times a week when I was in fourth, fifth and sixth grade. And there I participated in the children’s theater. On stage that first day, I met Hilary Moses, who became a very close friend, was the best man at my wedding. He lived on East 59th Street between Central and Quincy, and I was in his home and he was in my home, which was very important for both of us to be introduced to each other friends and the kind of questions and things that we burrowed into. I think because of the nature of us coming from those different cultures, which were even more pronounced then than they are today, that we more quickly found ourselves talking about very serious things. Religion, sex, the world situation. And of course, we thought the world was a mess that we were inheriting. So actually I’m doing some work on my memoirs. And when I wrote that story, I realized that helped answer the question that many people had asked me. Why did I go to the South? They didn’t really have an answer at the time when people would ask me, why are you here? Or When I’d come back up and speak at colleges and places when I was raising money and what have you, why are you doing this? I didn’t know a good answer, but certainly that experience that my parents encouraged me to do changed my life in many ways.
Aaron [00:03:52] Can you talk about your experiences in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer?
Charlie [00:03:57] Actually, Freedom Summer was the summer that I left. It was the summer of 64. Beginning in 61, I was first in Fayette County working with John McFerrin, where the sharecroppers that they were trying to register to vote, many of them got tossed off the land because they tried to register to vote. And there was one black landowner who gave some of his land and some tents were donated and they were living in tents. When I talked to those people, I was down there first in the wintertime, so it’s the South, but it still got pretty cold at night. And I said, how was it? They said, ‘Oh, they these tents are pretty nice. They don’t let the wind through so much like our shacks did.’ The privations that they were living through, of course, they had no running water and no electricity, and no heat, but neither did they in those shacks. So in my lifetime, we had millions of people living in these kind of conditions. But also in my lifetime, they were living at a time where they could be put off the land. They were living in at a time when they could be killed. And there was no accountability for it. That’s in my lifetime. I’m old, but that’s still not that long ago. They didn’t kill everybody. But because you could, it meant you could exploit to the inch degree. Whether it was sexual exploitation or economic exploitation. And that first experience while I was there in Fayette County, I heard the story of this little boy that come home from school. And he was looking for something to read. There was no books there, but he’d been learning to read in school. Wanted to read some more. He found a slip of paper, though. There were many words on it, but there were some numbers. Well, he’d been working on his songs, too, so he started adding it up, adding it up, was perplexed. Added it up again, he said, ‘Daddy, this isn’t right. Oh, yes, it is, boy. No, I don’t think it is. I can’t make add up.’ Of course, the father wasn’t able to add. This was the receipt from the cotton gin, where the annual income was determined from the results of growing their sharecropping, and even that they were being cheated on. Unfortunately, the father, when he began to inquire about this, went to his community elders rather than going directly to the gin. So that they could warn the teacher. And if they were going to challenge this, they knew the teacher had to get out of town. Otherwise, he would have been at the Hatchie River, my lifetime. So that was my first experience. And then I later went to Jackson, Mississippi, worked with Medgar Evers. Medgar and two other gentlemen had started a newspaper as part of supporting the campaign for a black man running for Congress, reverend R. L. T. Smith senior. And one of the three gentlemen was an independent grocer, his son, Robert Otis Smith, Jr. The two of them and Medgar and a doctor had started this paper to support this candidacy. It’s really quite a good idea because they didn’t think there was much opportunity that he was going to win that primary. At that time, the South was a completely Democratic, Dixiecrat state, as with the rest of the South. But it was an opportunity to provide education as to why the vote was important and what it could mean to be in Congress. Well, the election was over just before I got there. And they didn’t think they could keep the paper going. I thought having a newspaper in the South that would tell the truth would be quite valuable. And so I went to Medgar and Robert L.T. Smith and said, ‘Would you mind if I kept it going?’ And they said, ‘Look, you could do it if you want, but we don’t have any more money to put into this.’ I think they looked at that the way so often we look at young people and say he doesn’t know what he can’t do. And it’s true. Often young people don’t know what they can’t do, so they do it. I had enough money to get the first little sheet just to make it, so I didn’t miss a week of publish. And then got enough advertising for the following week to have it actually printed as a newspaper. And we kept it going. And that’s what I did down there, run the Mississippi Free Press. It became the third most read newspaper in Mississippi, which actually says more about how little Mississippians read newspapers that how big it was. But there was only two daily newspapers that were bigger than we were in terms of circulation. Of course, I was there through the time that they assassinated Medgar. When you look back, you wonder how you survived, right? But while you’re there, it changes focus so much. I mean, as a student of the sixties, I kind of looked at the world as a mess. Big business, big government, big labor, all of them. It just kind of screwed it up. And how do you change the world? But when you get engaged, by then the focus got very narrow and I was very enlivened. And so just the matter of raising the money to put the paper out each time as well as getting the news. You don’t think about staying alive. It is our living. The amazing thing was that the young people that were down there, most of them from the South, high school, college, there was a feeling that we could win this. We had no reason to believe that you could take on the power structure, the sheriffs, the judges, the newspapers, and the government. But we felt like what we were doing was important and right and we could win. And it’s another case of young people not knowing what they can’t do. Of course, the 64 civil rights bill was important. But my feeling, it was the ‘65 voting rights bill that really changed the world.
Aaron [00:12:15] So when you came back to Cleveland. I know you was at Oberlin College. What did you do when you came back in 64?
Charlie [00:12:21] I came back in 64. And by that time, I was married and had a child on the way and actually had two kids, four at Oberlin while I was completing my schooling.
Aaron [00:12:38] In his autobiography, Stokes recalled that he received a phone call from you after you read his announcement in a newspaper. So what inspired you to assist him in ‘65 when he first sought to run?
Charlie [00:12:51] I think I mentioned before we started our interview here that I knew John Siegenthaler, who was the publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, and maybe at that point he was just editor, became publisher. But he had left and became kind of a right hand man to Bobby Kennedy, attorney general to JFK. And I stopped to see him in Tennessee on our way back when we moved up north to return to school. And so he asked me what I thought I’d be doing. And I’d heard stories from him about the Kennedys, including their playing touch football. The more familiar kind of stories or the more intimate kind of sport. And I thought that they had some prospect of changing the world. That’s what they wanted to do, but they were in a position to maybe do some of that. And I thought that was important, and it seemed like they were having fun doing it. And I thought that was important to bring good thing. So when he asked me the question what I thought I might do it, maybe I look into politics. And that’s the first time I realize I had said that, that I thought that politics could be a noble profession. So I was back in school. I got involved with a campaign with Don Pease, who was running for the first time for the state Senate in Oberlin. I was mostly going to school. I didn’t have a lot of time, actually. Probably Alice was more engaged than I was, but I got to know him. And so when it came to summer and I wanted to get some experience in a political campaign, I went to Don and asked his guidance and this is an off year. So it was mayors and judges and council people and things like that. And he said, well, he had a colleague who he thought was going to be running for or was by that time running for mayor of Cleveland. And it was Carl Stokes. So I think he probably made the first phone call and suggested that maybe Carl should talk to me. So I came into Cleveland and we talked for maybe half an hour and then he had to start on some rounds. So I’m in his white Chrysler with him, going around and he’s asking me about the South and experiences there, and he’s talking about the campaign. And pretty soon I realize he’s saying what we’re going to do, that I was going to be part of this campaign. And became the only staff person 15 hours a week as campaign director. So I actually found a place and we had flophouses in Cleveland at that time. I found a place to stay for the next couple of nights until I was able to find an apartment to move my family in. We took off. I think he thought that somebody who could survive in the South and keep a newspaper running, which meant I had to have strategy and policy and kind of a business of being able to run something that maybe that could be helpful. So hopefully it was.
Aaron [00:16:50] How would you describe Stokes as a person having known him personally?
Charlie [00:16:56] Well, what he, of course, is famous for is that charming smile that could just turn a room. And saw more than one occasion where there was a considerable hostility in a room and he walk in and give that smile and he’d just win them over. I was the campaign director, but he was the campaign manager in the sense that he understood politics. As you probably know, he was the first black Democrat elected to the state legislature in Ohio 1962, three years prior to the first time he ran for mayor.
Aaron [00:17:47] I read his autobiography before this interview. So you recall the sheer difficulty both of you experienced when you sought to acquire 35,000 signatures for the Board of Elections in ‘65?
Charlie [00:17:58] Well, as I said, I think that was Friday where I interviewed him. The following Monday, he said, Charlie, get the media in here. Well, the media at that time, we had two daily newspapers, the Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Press. Three commercial television stations, Call and Post and some radio stations. There might have been one other, I don’t think there was a Sun at that time. Anyhow, it wasn’t that hard to pull together the nine or ten. And they came. What he wanted to tell them, I didn’t know before I heard it from him, was that because he’d been circulating both petitions to, Democratic petitions to be in a Democratic primary for mayor, as well as independent petitions to be on the ballot as an independent in November for mayor. And he announced that if by June 21st, his birthday well before the filing deadline, they could collect 32,000 signatures, twice the number necessary. You’d need more than just the bare minimum, but twice the number is huge. If we could get by the 21st, then he would file and run as an independent. I thought he was nuts. I thought this was crazy. So they ask them some questions and went away, and the two of us were left. And I said, ‘Carl, do you know how many signatures we have?’ He said, ‘no. How many have we collected so far?’ Because they’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks before I came. 1,478. Then gave his patented Stokes smile and said ‘well, you got your work cut out for you.’ And so in that fairly short time that remained, what he proved was that he was a brilliant tactician. Because I think he felt that if we can’t do this rather huge chore, if there isn’t this kind of support, maybe shouldn’t run. But if there is, he will have already demonstrated that he can be a viable candidate. And so the Friday before the 21st, I think, as I recall, it was on a Monday. He promised he was going to file if he had enough. On that Friday, I had a number of his most trusted advisers and counted and recounted and checked, and we had just over 16,000. Friday before the Monday. That Saturday, they came in every way. They came in by car and by bus and by taxi, and many of them [indecipherable]. And if I hadn’t been so busy reaching out to more people and having people picking them up and all the kind of things involved in that, it was set back and watch the thing of just absolute beauty. Sunday, of course, with all the collections that would be going on at the churches was a huge draw of them coming in. And so late into that night, Sunday night and a quarter of three, we had 30,120 some. And I knew how many I had coming in from my runners that were still out picking up partial petitions, even though there’s five here and 19 there. So I knew that we were all for our 32,000. It was a brilliant political tactic that I think more politicians should use. I’ve always been a great advocate of having a pre-campaign, in a way. And he put it all on the line because he indicated quite seriously, I think he meant if he didn’t make it, he wasn’t going to run. So they really put themselves into it. And now we knew who we’re really willing to campaign, as well as those people who have made all kinds of promises and didn’t really do very much. It’s sorted all that out. Very important in the campaign.
Aaron [00:22:38] It’s apparent that Carl Stokes picked up enough white votes to be placed on the ballot. Do you remember the trepidation some white voters had about elected him initially?
Charlie [00:23:02] Well, I mean, racism was very freely express back in the sixties. I guess I’m not quite sure I know your question.
Aaron [00:23:15] What some of their fears initially? I know racism is pretty omnipresent, but what were some white voters’ fear about having a black mayor.
Charlie [00:23:26] I’m trying to think if it was ‘65. Or ‘67. But Carl had been in the legislature since 62, took office in 63. Every labor measure that had come before the legislature, he had supported, hardly supported. He didn’t really expect to get labor support because they tend to support incumbents. The labor movement in Cleveland wasn’t all that liberal. But when the ad came in, the big ad came in The Plain Dealer that said they to elect Locher to save the city from burning. Clearly a racially charged. It was jarring. So not only we didn’t get their endorsement, didn’t think we would, he got kicked in the rear pretty hard, pretty blatant attack. We were talking about it. Actually, he was driving in his white Chrysler. I remember we were going around the corner and he looked over and he said, Charlie, remember, power never comes easily. That many times to think of that since.
Aaron [00:25:08] It’s also true that Stokes recall that even some black politicians opposed him in ‘65. Did you encounter any of that opposition?
Charlie [00:25:20] There were three up and coming, young councilmen. George Forbes, Leo Jackson, and Clarence Gaines. None of them supported Carl in 1965. The only support we had was Jimmy, Bell and Charlie Carr. And then there was one councilman who is being challenged and decided to come with Carl. That was it in ‘65. The election night in ‘65, when it was clear that it was very close. In fact, it ended up in a recount, as you probably know. We lost, but it was close enough that there was a recount. George Forbes was very quick to come over that night, and he knew that Carl would be running again and that he thought he had a great chance at winning. It’s hard to know exactly why they didn’t support Carl. But I have a theory that because of the experience of most black people growing up at that time, they didn’t have a dad who was part of a corporate structure. They didn’t have a family that had all kinds of business experience. What they saw were preachers and funeral directors who had organizations that sometimes were pretty large and pretty powerful, but never reached farther than what the head man could kind of control. He didn’t have much experience with the tenants and captains and so on. And so they just couldn’t envision kind of taking on a campaign as big as a city. This is just kind of my guess. I don’t know. And how it was that Carl was able to envision this because he did allow a very organic campaign, or at least he allowed me to do what I wanted. I allowed certainly an organic campaign where ideas would come in, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. But the ones that worked were really important. To give you one example, there was a church lady came to us and said, ‘I want to have a tea for Carl, bring all my best church ladies in.’ And she did. Nice group of people. And, of course, Carl charmed them to death. And then after he spoke, this church lady stood up and said to her friends, ‘Three things I want. I want you to pledge that you’re going to vote for Carl Stokes.’ They all said, yes, they they’re going to do that. She said, ‘I want you to all give me a dollar for Carl Stokes.’ They were all happy to do that. Probably someone put a little bit more input at the door. ‘And I want you all to pledge that you’re going to have a tea invite your friends, and ask them the same three things.’ And in the ensuing Sundays, I had the diplomatic chore of trying to balance these competing teas for my candidate to get them distributed because they, of course, all wanted him to be there. And each Sunday the same woman would bring in a paper grocery bag filled with $1 bills. And while our campaign had known major donors wasn’t raising very much money, the $5,000 we raised that way, it was a considerable amount. But what was even more important as those 5000 people had contributed and invested in the campaign, and they were going to follow their investment. They were committed. And so that’s the kind of organic thing that came from, bubbled up from the people. It was example of many of those kinds of things that the campaign used.
Aaron [00:30:29] So in his autobiography, Stokes give this really illustrative account when he debated Ralph Perks at the Cleveland City Club. Were you there? And if so, do you have memories of the event or do you have memories of your preparation going through all those tax documents?
Charlie [00:30:45] Both. It came about because Carl had challenged something that Ralph had said. And Ralph had taken umbrage to that, a little back and forth. And so it came up, ‘challenge you to a debate.’ Carl accepted right away, or Ralph did. Whoever initiated the other accepted because Perk was looking to get some more attention, because he was kind of as a Republican candidate in a Democratic city. He had nothing to lose. And so I think he had me reach out to the City Club and set this up, and they were eager to do it. So it was established. So we contacted everybody we could find that knew about city government, city finance, city safety issues, the utilities. Everybody we could and had a hotel room where they came in and met with Carl and they went over statistics and he read things because he knew he had to be better prepared because the standards of the sixties. You can’t just be equal to your White opponent. So he had lots of facts and figures and just regularly all his answers he could da, da, da, da, da. He give sources and all kinds of things. But Perks was pretty clever and he had been prepared clearly by a PR firm of some kind, and he had some charts and things. But one of the things he got a big kick out of doing was he had a bunch of, I think they were poker chips. He would talk about there was waste in this department. He put up poker chips on the podium. Waste in that department. Said ‘we’re going to get rid of all that.’ He bashed them all onto the floor. Is was pretty effective. Carl suddenly, he usually cock his head when he was getting ready to [indecipherable] and that little smile on his face and said, ‘well, cutting waste is important. But Ralph, you’ve got to remember all those people,’ and he pointed to the floor, ‘are people.’ I said that wrong. ‘All those chips are people.’ And it just kind of undid all of Ralph’s kind of clever, cute, little ploy. But the fact that he had all of this data and spoke with confidence. I remember talking to a lot of people in the community and said, what do you think? ‘Well, I didn’t understand a lot of what he was saying. Be he sure did tell them, didn’t he?’ They were very, very excited. And that debate was very important to give Carl credibility within his own community. I mean, it’s not that he didn’t have any, but it certainly enhanced it. This guy, he won that debate in their mind and he can run the city. So they were very excited about that.
Aaron [00:34:41] I’m wondering about this because I have a limited amount of campaign experience, like very limited. So I’m just wondering, how exactly do your campaign team reach out to voters on the west and east side of town? I know Stoke didn’t want to run two different campaigns. But what was the strategy in that?
Charlie [00:34:55] Yeah, certainly he had nothing different that he said one place or another. He got invited a lot more on the east side than he did on the west side. In 1967, he did have more consistent. I think all the councilmen probably supported him in 1967 on the East Side and Mike Zone right here in near West Side also supported him. Took a lot of blowback too. His whole family did. Joe Mcmanaman and there was a number of recognized people. Pastors and others that stood up. But it’s also just being willing to go into the West Side market, to come out to places on the West Side and be seen and talking to people. And that’s how you change a lot of folks, right? Or win a lot of folks. “Oh my. You’re a regular person, and it seems makes sense. And why not?’ Remember, we know that Cleveland is a majority minority city, a majority black city. The black population in 1965 and probably not much different in ‘67 is 37%. And prior to that election, the percentage of blacks registered as a population would have been less than the white population. So the difference would’ve even greater. We did change that registration number though, in ‘67, registering massive numbers of people. And remember, at that time, there was no registering online. There was no registering on of form I bring to your house. You had to go down to Paint Avenue or wherever it was. You had to go downtown and physically register to vote. So for people many of whom didn’t have cars, working all day, jobs, and so on. This was a challenge.
Aaron [00:37:35] Quick question. Was the West Side more Republican than the East Side?
Charlie [00:37:40] Marginally, but it wasn’t very Republican. The whole city was quite Democrat. If there were Republicans, there’s probably a few more of the West.
Aaron [00:37:52] I was curious. I know the final result, they got one out of five of the white vote. So I imagine Taft got most of the white vote percentage wise.
Charlie [00:38:00] But Taft’s vote for it wasn’t because he was Republican, it was because Carl Stokes was black and he was the other candidate. Taft, a very decent guy, but a guy who had lived in Pepper Pike or someplace in the suburbs had moved into the city to run and was Republican in a Democratic city. I mean, normally that’s not a race. The Democrat would automatically win. So he didn’t win with Republican votes. I mean, I’m sure he got all the Republican votes there were. But that’s not how he would have won. He won because the other candidate was black. He didn’t win. But I mean, he came close and was able to make a race out of that because. He did not win.
Aaron [00:39:06] In ‘67, Stokes did receive endorsement from like the Plain Dealer and business leaders. What changed? Was it the Hough Uprising that occurred in 66 or what changed from ‘65 to ‘67 to get endorsement from groups that did endorse it previously?
Charlie [00:39:22] Well, for the same reason that George Forbes came over election night in 1965, I mean, he almost won with virtually no institutional support. The party didn’t support him. The newspapers didn’t support him, business didn’t support him. His own elected officials and the district he represented as a state rep didn’t support him and he still almost won. So it’s pretty clear that he was poised to make a race two years at that time, just two year terms, just two years later. So I think they, first of all, thought there was a great chance he was going to win. People like to be on the winning side, and particularly if it looked like somebody who might be a fresh start. We saw this 2021 in Cleveland. I mean, there was the idea, the freshness of a young Justin Bibb. That was a big part of his appeal. It wasn’t so much the things they stood for. It’s this the new ideas. Let’s try a new direction. Not that Carl didn’t have ideas and people didn’t like his ideas. But I think the overwhelming feeling was, let’s try a new direction.
Aaron [00:40:50] Okay. Can you recall the atmosphere on election night in ‘67? The black prescient were the last counted. I know there was lot of skepticism in the air for what the final result would be.
Charlie [00:41:04] Well, actually, Taft was ahead and many of his people were quite excited. But Seth was wise enough. He asked the right question. What wards are out, what precincts are out? And when he saw what precincts were out, he knew he lost. Because we didn’t have any friends at the Board of Elections, Louis Stokes and I went over to the election board. And when it became pretty clear what was going to happen, Lou went back. But I decided to stay until, it actually enough were in that he gone ahead and anything that remained out was Carl’s and it was only going to get better. And then I wanted to go back to the to the campaign headquarters that I had opened up at quarter five that morning when the first volunteers came in for all the Election Day activities. But I couldn’t get anywhere near the front door because they were dancing in the streets on Superior Avenue. I went around to the back where there was a freight entrance. People were back there too, but I was able to maneuver my way up to the door. But there’s too many people that jammed up against it and jammed on the other side, couldn’t possibly open that door. So a little window in this cargo door has little lines running through it to keep from breaking. And I couldn’t see the podium that we’d set up the day before for where he would be surely making this announcement. But there was these three TV cameras for the three commercial stations had to be moved in that day because they were huge things at that point that had to be on dollies. And there was a little monitor that the videographer was looking through, and I could see that. And so I could see this little image of Carl standing up there saying, this is one time I can surely say, God bless America. That was in the Rockefeller building. And, you know, you asked about the attitudes of people and why they were supporting him in this. I thought it was this sense of something new because two guys had just bought the Rockefeller Building, gorgeous building with quite a past that gotten to be pretty raggedy. And they had hopes of restoring that building. And they thought that Carl was the kind of person that would provide the leadership that would see that kind of change throughout the city that they wanted to see, which would be good for their building. And so Lou had made contact with them and suggested I go over and talk to them about seeing if we could get a space from them. And we ended up with a pretty large, very nice storefront, a back office that I thought would be perfect for Carl to have his meetings in. And then kind of down a little alley and up some stairs, a large room that would end up being our phone room. And we got that for free. And that was where our campaign headquarters were. But I think it’s a reflection of the kind of willingness to say, let’s try something new. Let’s try this guy. He seems to have good ideas and give us a fresh turn in Cleveland.
Aaron [00:45:04] If I’m correct, you did join administration after he was elected, right.
Charlie [00:45:08] Yes.
Aaron [00:45:10] What was your role in administration when you worked?
Charlie [00:45:15] There was a civil service. Well, I guess there still is a civil service board. One of the board members was also the executive director who would actually be a full time position work at city hall in terms of running that division. And the purpose of that was to have for those people under civil service. Now, of course, the mayor has the right to appoint certain folks that serve at his pleasure. But all the bigger part of the bureaucracy is responds to tests that are posted, and you do the tests and then you’re called off those lists according to your position on those tests. And that also is for promotions. So, of course, the hot place, the hot topic was the way we selected police and fire, particularly police. Then how we promoted those positions. And there was a policeman who had for years been running a tutorial on how to take these police exams, and he’d have them in his basement over a period of weeks and charged a pretty hefty fee. And one of the requirements when you came in was he were to memorize a particular question. So there’s enough people there to cover all the questions. So every year he would get the answers, the questions and the answers to all of the questions. Because you could always remember one question that you could bring back to him, right. So this meant that it was a memorization. It had nothing to do with person’s qualifications to be a safety officer, right. And certainly didn’t have anything to do with your promote ability to the higher ranks. But this this was a guy who made a lot of money from this. And of course, everybody was in his basement was white. So we decided to change the way these tests were and wanted to look at different aspects. But also, we didn’t want to give it to people who would pay to kind of have, they really had the test. They had all the tests. The two or three tests they changed the questions up some, but he had them all. So somebody came into those exams, not really seeing any new questions at all. Well, we turned the applecart completely upside down. Took a lot of blowback, as you might imagine. I’m not sure we were terribly successful in changing the way we attracted in the end in those first years. Well, we were. I mean, there were certainly more black applicants. There were certainly more black cadets that came into the force. We certainly were the beginning of the change of that culture, which has been a battle that’s been going on, in a way, right up to the present day.
Aaron [00:48:48] I did cover one question I’m going to ask you. So I’m kind of curious, though, when I interviewed his son, he told me that his father often is that remember, for environmental policies.
Charlie [00:48:57] You say he hasn’t remembered?
Aaron [00:48:59] Oh, yeah. People don’t often don’t think about his environmental impact.
Charlie [00:49:03] Well at the anniversary of the fire, the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. There is a fair amount of talk about Carl’s role in that. That incident really ignited him. But he also was very focused on wanting to make Edgewater and Gordon, particularly the parks available for swimming, for young people, for everybody, but particularly for young people who just didn’t have places to go except the street. But the lake was so polluted. Initially what he did was actually bring some curtains. Have boyds and then curtains that actually cordoned off part of the water in Lake Erie and then chlorinated that and tried to clean it up so that it could be used to swim in. You’ve probably seen the picture. It’s iconic. One of my favorite shots of him was with his pants rolled up and running with all these kids running after him. Big grins on their face through the water. So it was almost as much inspired by wanting the water to be available to his constituency. We didn’t talk much about environmental lingo. It wasn’t on people’s lips at that time. But he really was a forerunner.
Aaron [00:51:01] In his autobiography, Stokes said the Glenville shootout and his controversial decision to remove white police officers from the area haunted and colored every aspect of his administration until he left. Do you think that assessment was accurate?
Charlie [00:51:16] Well, who would be to argue with the man himself. What I certainly do know is that one of the things about, if you’re a minority candidate and you receive white liberal support or maybe not so liberal, but white support for some other reasons, they tend to be very much interested in patting themselves on the back, and they’re very proud of ‘look at me, what I’m doing.’ But it also means that if you slip up in any way, they may be the first to just simply turn tail. And when the Plain Dealer turned on Carl, he took that quite personally and quite hard I think. That’s my best assessment as why he didn’t run for reelection a third time.
Aaron [00:52:21] Stokes, he did get along with some city council members, some members he clashed with. How was his relationship with the city council during his tenure as mayor?
Charlie [00:52:41] Council leadership took him on. And it was not a good relationship. It was not one that was where they were able to ever get to the point. Well, let’s focus on what the city really needs. So almost everything was a battle. It’s not as though they didn’t get anything done. But I mean, it was a pretty caustic relationship led by the leadership of council. He certainly had friends on council and certainly had support. And that was during the rise of those three councilmen, of course, George Forbes, who went on to become a leader and council president for many years. So he sort of had support. But the leadership at that time was not supportive.
Aaron [00:53:42] I have two more questions. Can you talk about your life and career after you left the Stokes administration?
Charlie [00:53:52] Well, I did have a community newspaper that I ran for a couple of years here on the Near West Side, called the Penny Post. And it dealt with local issues. One that’s kind of sticks out in my mind is there was a plan when we were building the interstates, cutting up the city and dividing ethnic neighborhoods and ethnic church constituencies by this roadway. A great deal of land was bought out here, ‘65th Street, because they were going to put a spur. In fact, they did install a spur off of 71 to come up. It was supposed to come right through the middle of the near west side and join the shore way. And we took this on and said enough is enough. You’ve been cutting our city up and it’s all just so suburban people can come downtown and get back home again. And we’re losing tax base, but more importantly, we’re losing continuity of our communities that are being broken. And so our newspaper really challenged this kind of made a champion of it. And Mike Zone, who at that time I think was chairman of the Finance Committee. So a position of some importance joined us and took on supporting that not being built, because of course it was coming right through his community on the near west side. There was a lot of money at that time being thrown around on these big construction projects. I suspect there was a lot of it that could have been of animate available to council on its own to help his kids through college. But he fought it. He never he never looked at anybody’s dime. And we succeeded in stopping that. So it’s quite appropriate that the land that got bought up for the interchange with 90, with this spur which never got built, the spur part coming up, it was going to cross into 90 and have interchange there and come up to the freeway. All of that land had already been purchased and cleared and stayed empty for a long time. And so it’s quite appropriate that that’s now the site of the Cleveland Recreation Center called the Michael Zone Recreation Center. Quite appropriate. I had the newspaper, and then in 1974, I stood for office the first time and ran in the district for the state senate, 330,000 people in it. I told you, voter registration is always important to me. Well, I won that election by two votes. Two votes. For years, we had people come up, couples come up and say, you know, we’re the ones. And of course, as long as they were the people, I mean, as long as they did, in fact, vote for me. They were the two. Every two were the two, which is a nice way to look at who are your boss is. And often when you’re elected, you somehow are above everybody. But everybody were the ones that actually made it happen. And I always look during my 16 years in the state Senate that they were the boss. And so I did spent 16 years. Maybe you follow it really on the initiative that I saw with Carl and his interest in providing the lakefront for the people of the city, the area which is now Edgewater Park, would be overgrown every year. The city would usually mow it once and usually find bodies down there. It was not a place you took your family as a couple of ball fields where people play. Some people would dare to go swimming. There was no protection. But it was not a place for your family. And same for other places on the east side and so on. So I knew that we had 62 state parks in Ohio, but none of them were really within reach to the people of Cleveland, unless you had a car and ready to go. And it’s nice to have those that’s for hiking and fishing and that kind of thing. But I thought we should make that into a state park. But I knew that the policy of the state of Ohio was not to put parks in urban places. They said there’s too many people. But I think they meant was too many of those kind of people. At any rate, we decided to have a petition campaign and we started with our own volunteers. And then I began briefing my aid Wade Hill lined me up with every kind of organization where I want to pitch this and got people excited about it. My line was kids ought to be able to see. [Brief disruption]
Charlie [01:00:13] So their position was that they didn’t put parks in urban areas because there’s too many people to take care of. I think what they really meant was too many of those people. So we decided to. Focus attention on it by having a petition campaign in support of having a state park here at Edgewater, Euclid Beach, Gordon Park, and all the way along. And my aide, Wayne Hill, lined me up with all of the groups that would have me, and most of them did. And I made my pitch. And my line was that kids ought to be able to see sunsets when you live in the city, too many houses, right. You don’t see the sun, you need to have horizon. And of course, you have that at the lakefront. And so we were very successful in getting lots and lots of signatures so that when I had those signatures, I went down and met with the governor. That time the governor was Jim Rhodes, Rhodes had a policy of having kind of three offices. So that just like when you go to the doctor’s office, they set you in there and you’re sitting there with your clothes off waiting for the doctor to come in. The doctor comes in, he can come in when he wants or she can come in when they want, and leave when they want. And he did his the same way. And I thought maybe I was in good shape because I was actually in his office, in his actual office. I wanted to tell him a story because he asked me. He knew why I was there. But, what are you up to? And I was able to abbreviate the story a lot because it was a story about him. But it was really that when Carl, we were in a campaign and I remember it was the ‘65 or ‘67, but a thing called blockbusting was going on. And this is where with the efforts to desegregate some of the suburbs that real estate people would go into the neighborhood and say, you better sell your house because the black people are coming. And so he gets scare people so they could buy a house for below market value and then they could turn around and sell it to those blacks looking to be able to move out of the city and they would pay higher than market. Well, Carl absolutely hated this. This whole process and was able to pass the bill, dial-on. And the governor vetoed it. When he heard about this, he slammed on the phone and said, ‘Carl, Charlie, get me an appointment with the governor. I’m heading down there.’ He went down, got into his Chrysler and roared down to Columbus. He was really annoyed. I did set it up. So he’s able to go right directly in. He walks into the office and Rhodes, says, ‘Hello, Carl. Sit down, Carl. Why did you veto my bill?’ He presses a little buzzer and says, ‘Bring in the Stoke file.’ Well, Carl is a newly elected black, so he probably was ‘65. He hadn’t been there that long. Have been going around the state, speaking to all kinds of groups. And one of the main themes was haranguing against the governor. So all these headlines were state representative comes to Toledo and talks about Rhodes, comes to Youngstown, talk to him up in Cleveland. So he has this file. He brings it over and shows it to me. Now, you wouldn’t want a bad governor like that to for a good bill like yours, would you? Carl looked up at him and stood up and shook his hand. He said, you just taught me a very important lesson. That you can find ways to work with people and maybe you can have more success. And although Rhodes and Stokes had very different political philosophies, they actually got along quite well and did a number of things together, not the least of which was the challenge to change the congressional districts so we can have a black congressional district. So anyhow, that was the very abbreviated story I could tell very quickly because he knew it. And of course what I was conveying was that, is there a way. I said, ‘You got quite a bit going on with that.’ And I said, ‘Well, do you want to lead this or do you want to oppose it?’ I was offering it to him. I think we ought to have a park up there. And so he had just come out of his cabinet meeting and he was still in the next room. And he said, ‘Teeter, Teeter, come on in here.’ So Dr. Robert Teeter was the head of Ohio Department of Natural Resources. So I think we ought to give this boy here, I thought it was a senator, give this boy here, that park he wants up there. And Teeter said ‘yeah, but the policy of the state of Ohio is not to put parks in urban areas.’ Then he took a line and I had just given him and he said, ‘yeah, well, I think we ought to put the parks where the people are.’ Well, Teeter knew who appointed him. He saw which way the wind was going. And he said, okay, Governor, and the policy in the state of Ohio has changed. So the headline was, Rhodes to Bring Billion Dollar. I mean, he always exaggerated everything. Billion dollar or whatever it was park to Cleveland. Some of my friends were disappointed. They said, ‘well, you didn’t get credit either get credit on that.’ We got the park. And of course, I did get credit. I didn’t get it in that headline, but that’s sometimes how you get things done. So that was that was one of the one of the projects that we’re leave behind for Cleveland. Of course, after I left office, the parks were not as well taken care of by the state. But initially, they put $12 million in, put in good restrooms, which are kind of key if you’re going to have families. And Smokey the Bear Rangers, the Rangers weren’t everyplace, but their perception was that they were around. So people felt comfortable to go there. It’s people that what makes places safe, right? It’s when it’s isolated. And so there’s there were cyclists there and dawn to dusk might come over the rise any time. So you always knew that there was people around. So it was had a feeling of safety and became the second most used state park in the nation. Only Jones Beach in New York had more uses. Now there are bigger parks, but they’re not state parks, as most states are like Ohio. They don’t put parks in urban areas. So we changed, at least temporarily, the policy. As you know, things have fallen in decline. And they transferred it to the Metro parks now is doing a wonderful job of taking care of business and preserving that that wonderful asset that Cleveland has. When we entered into the campaign, there was a restaurant on his ninth street. Why is it slipping my mind at the moment I said it often. But it was a fish place. But they had windows facing the city and a dumpster at the back. It was as though the lake wasn’t there and it was as though everybody looked that way, that the lake was an impediment between here and Canada instead of seeing it as an asset. Of course, ever since, any time you see any poster or video promoting Cleveland, they will show the lake seagulls, the lighthouse and sailboats.
Aaron [01:09:03] My last question, it’s kind of like the big one. What do you think is the legacy of Carl Stokes?
Charlie [01:09:11] Well, no question the fact that he made history and what that said to other generations, what the possibilities are in this country. Being on Time magazine with your mug on Time magazine. It was just terribly important and moving our country down the road that it needed to go to bring more equality to power in this country. The other thing that is not talked about very much, but there were lots of jobs that the city had that he could offer to Clevelanders and since a disproportionate were not to minorities when he came in, I think it’s probably fair to say that a disproportionate were to minorities after he came in. And so for several thousand families in Cleveland, this was a good middle income, steady income that allowed you to buy a house, you send your kids to college. And that, of course, is the piece of financial discrimination that was missed that so many folks had after the Second World War, if you worked in those redlined areas that most blacks were. And so that changed the lives of a lot of people and gave us another generation of educated minority kids who could step up into leadership in all places. So that’s not talked about much. But I think that was really, really important. And so it was high profile.
Aaron [01:11:16] I would add laying in a blueprint for other black mayors of major cities like Tom Bradley, Harold Washington.
Charlie [01:11:23] No question. Absolutely no question. A matter of fact in ‘65. The Gary people from Gary, Indiana, I forgotten his name right now, but they came down to help us. But what they were doing is coming down to watch and see what they could learn. And so there was communication with others who were running or planning to run for office in the future. But it became much more possible once you had something you could point to. So they can do it in Cleveland, where they had 37% black population. We ought to be able to do it here.
Aaron [01:12:10] That is all my questions. I appreciate the time.