AF: Hello my name is Aaron Fountain today is January 28, 2022, and I am interviewing Clarence Holmes over the telephone. I can start my first question. My first question I like to ask everybody is can you tell me about yourself? Where were you born? Where you’re from? Your parents and childhood upbringing.
CH: I was born in Birmingham, Alabama on October 15, 1926. My father was a Methodist minister. My mother was what we in the olden days used to call a housewife. I lived in the state of Alabama in different places as my father was transferred from one church to another. I finished high school in Decatur, Alabama in 1945, and I was drafted into the segregated army before I finished high school. After I was discharged two years later, I came to Cleveland to attend Case Western Reserve University from which I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1950. And then I attended law school and graduated in 1953, and I subsequently passed the Ohio bar examination. I practiced law 62 years, and I retired in 2015. I married in 1953, and we have three children. Karen, who is the oldest and she lives in Boston. She works for a TV station in Boston. She is a community relations director, and she graduated from Boston University. Our second child is Clarence Jr. He attended and graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. He worked for Pfizer and then for Johnson and Johnson. Now he is an independent photographer as a photography business. Our youngest child who is also a daughter, is Leslie and she works for Key Banks. She’s the assistant vice president at Key Bank, and she had one daughter who is a senior in Case Western Reserve University. We hope and expect that she’s going to graduate Phi Beta Kappa, but that remains to be seen. She’s a senior and she’ll be graduating right now in late May or early June. My wife and I have been married 68 years. We are into our sixty-ninth year. So that’s it. That’s a short history of the short and simple annals of the poor.
AF: What would you say the difference between growing up in Alabama and coming to Cleveland being in the Jim Crow south and going up north?
CH: I guess it’s hard to put in words but some of the same things that we encountered in Alabama, we also were faced with in Cleveland. Though we didn’t have segregated schools in Cleveland by law, but in effect they were segregated. What the lawyers call de facto segregation. But in Alabama the school systems were segregated and the lawyers call that de jur segregation. But otherwise housing is very segregated in Cleveland. Even now, not just when I first arrived. I came to Cleveland in 1947. That’s when I got to Western Reserve University as a freshman. But anyhow, things are different. The French have a saying the more things change the more they stay the same. That’s it.
AF: If you remember, what encouraged you to go into law and become an attorney?
CH: The flip answer is it didn’t involve heavy lifting. That is to say, not physically but psychologically there’s a lot of heavy lift. But I think I was encouraged and inspired by my father who always wanted to be a lawyer, but didn’t have the opportunity to go to law school down there. He’s originally from Georgia. But Georgia and Alabama, at the time, there were no avenues for a black person to become a lawyer. So that’s what happened.
AF: I’ve been learning a lot more about the United Freedom Movement, and its campaign against school segregation. I know you headed the organization once, so do you have any memories of the organization?
CH: I do, but just what area you want?
AF: I read a lot about what it did against school segregation in the various protests, and the superintendent and mayor who are very irresponsive in terms of the complaints. Do you know how the UFM came together?
CH: As I already indicated in my opening remarks, my memory is deficient because that was over 60 years ago. But what happened. I was president of the NAACP, the Cleveland branch. There were a lot of organizations that wanted to participate in the civil rights movement. So we kind of organized an umbrella group. That’s what the United Freedom Movement was. It had many organizations, churches, church members, other organizations, urban league, and the Jewish community federation. I forgot the name of the church organization but there was an organization of Protestant churches. I can’t remember their name.
AF: Like Abyssinia?
CH: Well that was an individual church. But I mean there was an organization of Protestant churches that was part of the United Freedom Movement, but I don’t remember their names. One of my regrets is I didn’t keep a journal, which I would urge anybody involved in any kind of civic activity to keep a journal. But I didn’t, so some of the things I can’t fill in for you.
AF: I’m curious what was your role as the president of the NAACP at the time? Like what was your responsibilities?
CH: As head of the organization, I guess the mundane activity was to preside over the meetings of the governing board, as well as to be the leader when we did community-wide meetings. I don’t think it’s accurate to say master ceremonies, but I usually was deeply involved. Then we would have planning meetings where we would discuss tactics and strategies such as when we were working with trying to integrate the Cleveland school system. So that’s generally what we did.
AF: I’ve read a book chapter about the integration campaign and I know that oftentimes you guys were met with violence and the police didn’t respond. Do you have memories of those incidents?
CH: I do, but strangely enough I was never present when the police were anti-NAACP. I never had an encounter with the police all during the time I was president, which was five years from 1960 through December 1964.
AF: I did read about the tragic incident of reverend Bruce Kluder, the young man who was accidentally killed by a bulldozer. I mean do you have any memories of him?
CH: I do.
AF: How was he like as a person?
CH: I didn’t know him very well, but I knew him and I knew who he was. I knew about his activities. I can’t give you a personality sketch of him because I didn’t know him that well. But he was deeply involved in civil rights activity. He gave up his life. He lay down in front of a bulldozer with the expectation that the driver would see him and the driver didn’t see him and ran over and killed him. So what book were you reading from?
AF: It’s a new book. It looks at children in the civil rights movement. He mostly talks about an article somebody published and it looked at the campaign to desegregate Cleveland public schools. A lot of stuff I didn’t know about. I didn’t know that the school board originally tried to educate a certain segment of black students for a half a day and allowed them to go home and brought in another group of black students just to completely make them have no contact with students on the west side that had a lot of room.
CH: Go ahead that’s right.
AF: It had a lot of room and when they did originally let black students attend the schools they couldn’t interact with the white students. Then eventually they’re like, okay they can interact, [but] it was only like 50 minutes per day. It seemed like they were trying to juggle, like trying not to offend white parents but at the same time not trying to fully integrate the schools. It’s like this juggling act that did not placate either side.
CH: That’s right, exactly. What was the name of the book?
AF: It’s called the Young Crusaders. It recently came out but it’s only like a small section of a chapter that talks about that.
CH: I’m not familiar with that book.
AF: I think Harambee City, I think she talks about CORE and their campaign against like police brutality as well as school segregation too.
CH: Incidentally, CORE was a part of the United Freedom Movement. I can’t think of all the organizations that were part of the movement, but CORE was one of them.
AF: I think the book also talked about how the United Freedom Movement came together as a way to deter more militant groups from organizing. Even though UFM, it was pretty confrontational but definitely was not militant in any kind of way how people define it at the time.
CH: Yeah, but whenever you’re doing anything, whatever it is, there’s going to always be people who take exception with what you’re doing and think you should do it another way. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re not right. We had divergent opinions back in the heyday of the civil rights movement. Some people thought that non-violent protest was suicidal, and some people thought that was the way to go.
AF: Do you have memories of any interactions with city officials like Mayor Locher or superintendent McAllister? They seemed very irresponsible.
CH: He was president of the school board. This was an elected position. I had encounters with both him and mayor Ralph Locher. Ralph Locher was not, how can I say this, as far as I remember he was not an open racist. But like many white people, he believed, as far as I can tell, he never said this to me, but he believed in the status quo as many white people did then as well as now. Ralph McAllister, no that wasn’t his first name. I forgot what his first name was. But McAllister was president of the school board and he was, in my judgment, and open racist. But not a member of the Ku Klux Klan. As far as I could remember, he never made any valid racist speeches as far as I know. But he was of a certain attitude like many white people then as well as now.
AF: That’s interesting because my dissertation looks at the San Francisco Bay area, and I kind of realized how racism in northern cities and out west it was very subtle. It was never really like the South where it’s pretty brutally honest. It’s more so people talking in codes.
CH: You’re right, you’re right. Even now many whites tend to, how can I say it, hide their attitudes but their actions tell us where they stand.
AF: I was curious were your kids enrolled in school at the time when you were active in the NAACP?
CH: Yeah. But even though we live in Cleveland, we we’re also in the Shaker Heights City School District. So they went through school in the Shaker Heights City School District and not the Cleveland district. They all graduated from Shaker Heights High School.
AF: What so what encouraged you to move there because I’ve been learning more about Ludlow recently.
CH: Well, Ludlow Community Organization wasn’t in flower when we moved here. The reason we chose this house was for more mundane reasons. It was the first house after looking at eight or ten houses that my wife and I both liked. This is how we chose this house. But we didn’t choose it because of the Ludlow Community Association. Matter of fact, we didn’t know at the time that this house was in the Shaker Heights City School District, but that was an added bonus once we moved in.
AF: What year was that?
CH: We moved here November 1st, 1959.
AF: So this is when some whites were leaving and the neighborhood organized to try to keep Whites moving in.
CH: Yeah, and the other side of that same coin was to keep blacks from moving in. The more whites you move in, the fewer blacks would have a place to move in to. I had some differences with the Ludlow Community Association about their housing policy. Because I thought, my mind was that Blacks are at such a disadvantage generally, not just in housing but in general, that it didn’t make sense for me to be involved in something that would say, ‘well once I move in here, I want to bar the gates so other blacks can’t come.’ That didn’t appeal to me. Also, there was no incentive for blacks to move like they were, I’m not sure the source of the funds, but down payment assistance was given to whites to move in. I don’t know where the money came from.
AF: It came from, whenever they did community gatherings and fundraisers like Ellis Fitzgerald came, they would raise money and use that to back second mortgages for white families.
CH: All right. See I told you my memory was.
AF: It’s perfectly fine. I talked to Shelly Stokes-Hammond, and she didn’t even know that until she became an adult and started interviewing people for her master’s thesis.
CH: Shelley got a master’s, huh?
AF: Yeah, I just talked to her today actually, like probably like an hour after you called me.
CH: Her father was head of the legal committee when I was president of NAACP. He and I passed the bar the same year.
AF: Did you maintain [a] relationships with him afterwards?
CH: Yeah, well of course he went to Congress. While we were still friendly, I didn’t have any contact with him because he was in Washington, and I was still here in Cleveland hanging on by my fingernails.
AF: So even though you had disagreements did you get to know some of the people in the association?
CH: Oh yeah. I did.
AF: I’m kind of curious like who? I just I just talked to Bernard Isaac’s daughter, she’s like the first person I interviewed about two days ago.
CH: He was a big up in the community association. I don’t want to characterize him because he isn’t here to defend himself. He was one of the people who felt that x number of blacks was enough and once a certain quota was reached that’s why some of the people tried to get whites to move in.
AF: Did you ever join the association?
CH: Yeah, at one point I was, for one year I was the treasurer of the association. I joined. I figured I could do more good inside than outside, so I joined.
AF: I know when you joined did try to get them to end that quota against some black home buyers?
CH: I was vocal about it altogether, but my view didn’t prevail. So I became less active.
AF: What year was this when you like became less active?
CH: I knew you were going to ask the first one. I would have to make a note of that question and look up, and then call you back because. It’s probably 19, let’s see we moved here in ’57, ’59, it probably was. I can’t remember. I’ll have to look I have to look at that question and call you back.
AF: It’s no problem. I’m kind of curious about your career after your tenure as president of the NAACP. I’ve seen your name involved in youth employment opportunities and still very active with bettering of the life of Black Clevelanders.
CH: After my last term as president of NAACP, which was December 31, 1964. I went back to the private practice of law incidentally. It wasn’t generally known that when I was president of NAACP I was not on salary. The only thing I got out of the presidency was, only compensation was psychic satisfaction. Some people think I was on salary but I wasn’t. I didn’t even have an expense account. So that was that. But I went back to practicing law. Matter of fact, I practiced law all during the time I was president of the NAACP because even though it took up an increasing amount of my time, I still had to make a living. Pay the mortgage and buy groceries, gasoline for the car, and so forth. I had to keep my practice going.
AF: That makes sense. I talked about my professor because he studies the Black Panther Party and he said a lot of people when they got to old age they kind of struggled because being a revolutionary doesn’t come with a retirement package.
CH: That’s right.
AF: This is just quick question. Is it normal for a president of the NAACP to get a salary?
CH: No it’s not. I’d be surprised if, of course you know there are many chapters all over the country, so they may have different policies. But we had an executive secretary who was paid, who was full-time. Theoretically, I was, but it evolved into being almost full-time
AF: I’m kind of curious, what area of law did you practice?
CH: I was a general practitioner. My practice evolved so that after a while I was doing primarily probate work that is estates, and wills, and trust sometimes. Not many trust, but wills and probating the states. I did very little criminal work.
AF: I would say that was most of the questions I had because some of them we covered.
Aaron [00:00:29] Growing up in Alabama, I was kind of curious, how quickly did you learn about race and race relations?
Clarence [00:00:37] How quickly did I learn?
Aaron [00:00:39] Yeah, like, what did you first started noticing race growing up in Alabama?
Clarence [00:00:46] Oh, it’s hard to remember. It was just part of society. And we didn’t have to be schooled that we were being discriminated against. We just knew. It just was in our bones. I can’t answer that specifically as to what age I was.
Aaron [00:01:33] So another question I want to know more about your service during World War Two. Like, where were you stationed? Can you talk about how it was like to serve in a segregated force?
Clarence [00:01:45] Well, of course, you know, I never served in an integrated force, so it’s hard to compare the segregation with the non-segregation. But I was inducted in Fort Benning, Georgia and I took my basic training in Sheppard Fields, Texas, that’s near Wichita Falls, Texas. And I was stationed after that. After basic training, I was sent to a base in North Carolina where I stayed for three, three weeks. And then they sent me to communication school near Fresno, California, called Camp Pinedale. And after I finished the course in communication, I was of a telephone line man. That’s what they trained me as. Then I went to Terrace, Utah, which is outside of Salt Lake City. And I was there from January of 1945 until August of 1945. And then I was discharged because at the time they were discharging soldiers who had 18 months of service. And even though I didn’t have, what, 14 months at the time. I was supposed to be shipped to Yokohama, Japan, but they called me off the ship because the trip to Japan would have taken a month and a month coming back. So I would only serve two months before it was time to be discharged. So they took me off the ship, and I stayed in Terrace, Utah until it was time for me to be discharged. And I was discharged in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. And that’s the short story of my sojourn in the armed forces of the United States.
Aaron [00:04:57] So when you went to law school at Case Western, how many black students were there?
Clarence [00:05:05] Oh, probably 15, 16. My entering class had six and some of the older students said that six was the largest number that had ever been admitted at one time, but they didn’t have references. That was hearsay passed down from previous graduates.
Aaron [00:05:59] How was the experience being such a small minority in a predominantly white setting?
Clarence [00:06:09] Well, you knew you were black, so you couldn’t get away from that. But I don’t recall anything in the law school that I remember that was obvious to me that indicated any discrimination. But this isn’t to say there wasn’t. I’m just saying it wasn’t obvious any.
Aaron [00:06:45] I was listening to Reverend Caviness say when he came to Cleveland, he kind of noticed that there was a lot of black people kind of adhere to the status quo and didn’t want to rock the boat. So did you notice the same thing when you first came to Cleveland, how there was a stronger emphasis on negotiating behind the scenes rather than direct actions?
Clarence [00:07:08] Well, when I first came to Cleveland, I was busy in college and law school. So I wouldn’t of have had the same contacts and the same insight that Reverend Caviness’ had. And so we were in different positions. I was in a sheltered workshop. That’s what college and law school is. Sheltered workshop.
Aaron [00:07:41] When you got involved in civil rights activity, did you notice that tension play out?
Clarence [00:07:49] Well, there are always people who oppose you railing against the status quo. So there were people who opposed when we boycotted, when we the marched. When we did anything, direct action. There were people who opposed it.
Aaron [00:08:26] Even among the black leadership class?
Clarence [00:08:33] Well, that’s a broad brush to paint. But there were some people who were more well known in the community who opposed what we were doing.
Aaron [00:08:54] Now, if I’m correct, I think Abyssinia Baptist Church, that was the headquarters of the United Freedom Movement.
Clarence [00:09:02] No, I don’t think, no that isn’t true.
Aaron [00:09:05] Okay. Where did the United Freedom Movement meet then?
Clarence [00:09:12] Well, where did we meet? We met in different churches. And the executive secretary of the NAACP was also the chief staff person for the United Freedom Movement.
Aaron [00:09:41] What was your relationship or the United Freedom Movement relationship with the Cleveland religious leaders. I had the privilege to at least talk to two who are still around.
Clarence [00:09:54] Well, generally speaking, let’s say it was a mixed bag. There were some religious leaders who were in our corner and there were some who opposed us. I remember one instance where we were picketing one of the five and dime stores, and one minister whose name I don’t remember, said he would denounce us from the pulpit if we didn’t pull in our tickets. But we paid no attention to it.
Aaron [00:10:53] Oh, that’s kind of interesting. So he wasn’t the only one he’s just the one that you remember.
Clarence [00:10:58] And this one I remember. Yeah.
Aaron [00:11:01] Oh, okay. That’s kind of interesting. So I’ve been I’ve been learning more about the United Freedom Movement. So we talked last time about the school segregation issue, but there also were employment issues such as like the construction of the Cleveland Convention Center. Originally, I think the city did it hire African-Americans on that project and the UFM led a demonstration to demand that they hire black workers.
Clarence [00:11:28] Right.
Aaron [00:11:28] Yeah. Do you have any memories of how that went down?
Clarence [00:11:38] You know you taxing my memory. I think I told you this, I’m 95. And this happened when I was in my mid-thirties. So we’re talking about 60 years ago. So some of the events that I’m trying to recall. The City of Cleveland urgently. How can I say this? They grudgingly pushed some of the construction labor unions to take on some apprentices. So we made an inch of progress when we should have been making a yard. That’s about it.
Aaron [00:12:52] I’ve been learning more about the riots that occurred in Hough and Glenville in 66 and 68, respectively. I know you practicing law, but did you have any involvement in the aftermath of those incidents?
Clarence [00:13:06] Well, I was no longer president of NAACP when the riots came. I’m trying to remember. I don’t think I had any clients who were involved or in charge with any offense. I was more or less a bystander. Because I had retired and I was trying to build up my law practice. My law practice was shot. My law practice, in terms of vernacular, went to hell while I was president of the NAACP. So I don’t recall having any client who was either charged with anything related to the riots. I’m almost sure I never had anybody who was charged.
Aaron [00:14:34] I’ve read to the citizen commission after Hough. So of course there was a government commission where they just blame outside agitators and residents actually interviewed people in the neighborhood and found issues of municipal neglect, discrimination, police violence, etc. I was just kind of curious about where you involved? But that’s okay.
Clarence [00:14:55] Right. You know, one of the usual resistance to anytime a black person says take your foot off my neck, it’s some outside agitators stirring things up. But you don’t need an outside agitator when you know somebody has a knee on your neck.
Aaron [00:15:29] Sure. I imagine you heard those claims while you were president of the NAACP a lot.
Clarence [00:15:36] Oh, well, I won’t say a lot. I heard enough. One of the afternoon newspaper, which was called The Cleveland Press, even editorialized that we were influenced by Communists. Which was another way to denigrate what we were doing. Claimed that the Communist Party influenced. But as I said, it’s enough a burden being black without also being Red. So that was it.
Aaron [00:16:43] Okay. That’s interesting. I talked to somebody who used to work for the Cleveland Press and he told me that it did a pretty horrendous job on covering African-Americans in Cleveland. Did you have relationship with the people who work for the Call and Posts?
Clarence [00:17:02] What you say about the Call and Post?
Aaron [00:17:03] Did you have a relationship with the writers and journalists who work for the Call and Post?
Clarence [00:17:09] Yeah, more or less. From time to time, yeah.
Aaron [00:17:12] Okay. How was that like? And I know they did a pretty good job of covering the rich diversity of Cleveland’s black community.
Clarence [00:17:19] Right. I’m not asking for a name, but what was the position of the person who worked for the Cleveland Press that you talked to?
Aaron [00:17:35] Yeah, I think she was just like your regular journalist who were just dictated to write about whatever topics. And she did inform me that usually, often time there was a lot of emphasis on crime. But whenever a black person harmed another black person, it wasn’t reported on. But when it was black against white or then it was report it.
Clarence [00:18:00] Yeah. That’s true. I recall that is correct.
Aaron [00:18:19] I know you’re about to talk about your relationship with the Call and Post.
Clarence [00:18:27] Well generally speaking, the Call and Post were on the side of the civil rights activity, in general. There may have been some areas where they may or may not have signed on to a particular tactic, but generally speaking, they were on our side.
Aaron [00:19:08] Now, this is the question going to Ludlow that I’m kind of curious about. So I know since the 80s Ludlow became like majority black. Like, I think 85%, if I’m correct. Do you have any guesses as to why that happened, even though it was like an effort to try to maintain integration?
Clarence [00:19:34] Housing opportunities for black people were scarce. A lot of people, including me and my family, came to the Ludlow area. And our kids went to schools in the Shaker Heights School District. All three of them graduated, and all three of them went to college. So it was a desirable community. And that’s why a lot of black people who are interested in coming here.
Aaron [00:20:43] I know a lot of white people have been leaving the neighborhood. Some people argued in the sixties that it was inevitable that it was going to happen regardless of the effort to maintain integration.
Clarence [00:20:54] Yeah. And they were right. That happened. Matter of fact, when we moved here, next door to us was a white family, and they moved. I don’t specifically remember how soon after we moved in that they moved out. But from time to time, we would see the wife at the supermarket. And she would express regret about having moved. But I’m not sure that was replicated in all that (illegible).