Maxine Isaacs

Maxine Isaacs, interview with Aaron Fountain, April 27, 2022, Zoom. Edited for clarity.

AF:      My first question is, I always like to start off with a soft opening. Tell me about yourself, like where you were born, grew up, your parents, and childhood upbringing.

MI:      I grew up in Cleveland, mostly in Cleveland. I was born in Cleveland and lived in Painesville, Ohio for the first five years of my life. Edling, where my sister was born she was with me in Painesville. She’s a year young. We moved to Cleveland when I was about. I must have been four because it must of been because my baby sister the youngest of the three of us was born right after we moved. So that must be part of the reason why my parents moved to Shaker. The other reason was for the schools. The Shaker schools at that time were considered the best in the country. They moved into Ludlow at that time, so that would have been 1952. I was born in 1947. We lived in Ludlow the whole time while I was growing up. My parents stayed there after we all went off to college. They eventually moved out to the three village condominium out in Beachwood, I guess it was after we had all gone on to other things.

AF:      What were you parents’ professions?

MI:      My father was a salesman, a manufacturer’s representative/ Cleveland at that time was a big center for manufacturing and there were these people, manufacturer representatives, who represented the factories and traveled around them in my dad’s case the Midwest. He represented factories that built plumbing and heating supplies. My grandfather, my mother’s father owned a factory that built, they were called pipe nipples, which I always found very embarrassing, but =they manufactured plumbing supplies. That was just the field he was in. He was a real salesman. He loved sales, he loved his customers, and he loved traveling around basically Ohio and Michigan. That was what he did. My mother was a housewife, homemaker

AF:      That’s interesting because I know Ludlow was this upper middle class community, especially looking at how the houses were

MI:      Ludlow at that time was it was very close to Cleveland. I think it was bordered on two or three sides by Cleveland. That was the least fancy neighborhood—the neighborhoods are all named the elementary schools—it was the least 50 neighborhood in Shaker. I wasn’t aware of that when I was five years old, but it made sense that that would be the place where black families would begin to move in because it was adjacent to a lot of Cleveland neighborhoods where there were a lot of black families. That was I think how the Peggs ended up moving in. Shaker Heights was what the Jews called a restricted community. Jews were not welcomed there, blacks were not welcomed. Shelley had come across this quote from my father. It was created by a family called Van Sweringen to create a very exclusive community, Shaker Heights. My father years, later years, when he was talking about what happened with Ludlow and bringing integration and everything, he said the Van Sweringen project ran out of gas. I’d never heard that quote, but I thought it was a great quote. It was over and that’s was what began to bring change Shelley was surprised that I remembered the bombing of the Peggs’s house. I don’t actually remember the bombing. I was nine years old. I believe it was 1956. I had been saying all these years was 1957, but it was 1956 I just learned recently. But what I remember is, I was in fourth or fifth grade, something like that, and all my friends left. Their families fled. All my friends of course were white because the Peggs were the first black family to move into Shaker Heights and they all fled to the for the suburbs to the east. Beachwood and Orange and all the suburbs that that lie beyond Shaker. I remember that being very traumatic because one day they were there and the next day they were all gone. I didn’t understand it, and I remember my parents talking to me about prejudice and people being afraid and all this stuff but I don’t actually remember the bombing or when it dawned on me that something very peculiar had happened. So that’s my memory of it. I told Shelley I think that, go on. I mean we have we should talk about the creation of the Ludlow Community Association.

AF:      We go time so you can continue if you like.

MI:      I’m happy to know if set up an interview and you have a format, I’m glad to fit into your format if to do that and go in an orderly way rather than discursive.

AF:      it’s okay, I usually let people speak sometimes they might lead to something I didn’t know. I’ve had experiences like that. You said your friends left. Was it immediate or was there any kind of like ability?

MI:      I can’t remember, I was so young, but I remember it being traumatic. I had a good friend who lived maybe five, six houses away from me and all of a sudden she was gone. Her family they moved out to Orange I think or something like that, one of the suburbs. I remember coming home and asked my parents where did Patty go? They explained to me about prejudice. I think that was the first time I ever taught that lesson about that some people were prejudiced is the way they put it. They weren’t interested in being prejudiced. I think they felt that they had fought hard to get to Shaker Heights. They wanted their kids to be in those schools. I have a little side story about my father which I think is sort of revealing. He was in the Navy during World War II and he was stationed at Great Lakes, which is outside of Chicago. He had come from a town of 900 people. His was the only Jewish family in that town the rest of them were mostly Polish Americans. When he was in the navy, I think he by that point was he an enlisted man and ended up as a lieutenant junior grade. At some point along the way, the navy was looking for officers who could train, they knew that they were going to have to segregate the war and so they had to train black officers and independent officers. They realized they had to train people had developed some tests that would be tests for racism. Out of this they chose a handful of people, of which my dad was one, and he understood he was selected because he just didn’t have any racist attitudes. It wasn’t part of his makeup. He was part of a small group that would train the black enlisted men at that time who would become officers as soon as the navy was desegregated. The class that they trained, there’s been a book written about it called The Golden Thirteen, who were the first officers in the navy to be ready to go as soon as desegregation occurred. He’s a remarkable man. I miss him a lot we. He just had no prejudices at all. He was a very open person. He was very fair. He was very judicious and he was sort of sort of, we would say colorblind or something. He just didn’t see it. That was what he taught us and I’m very proud of that lesson. I’m proud of that legacy.

AF:      What do you think explains that?

MI:      I think it was probably the idea of experiencing prejudice as a Jewish family in a Polish town. Wisconsin was really notorious during World War II. They were holding wound rallies. They were not in favor of World War II. They were very pro-Hitler. They were they were of Polish-German descent. There was a lot of that going on. It wasn’t a clear message.  I think that was part of it. I think he at some level was aware of prejudice against his family. But I also think maybe it was had to do with that he didn’t know any black people until he until he, I guess, did two years in teachers college or something right after high school. He didn’t have any predisposed ideas of how this was all supposed to work. He was just very open to people and to whoever he met.  He was just fair by nature. He didn’t like the idea that somebody would be judged adversely for whatever reason, for whatever superficial reason. He wanted people to be treated fairly and the same. He was quite a remarkable person. My mother I think also learned a lot from him.  She was with him all the way through all the Ludlow stuff and everything. But he was the leader. He was the one who showed us the way to do this. I think when he saw these people leaving, he said ‘I’m not going to do that. I worked hard to get here. We can make this work. Why can’t we make this work? This is this is just a neighborhood. These are just people. Let’s just make this make it happen.’ Which would have been very much his attitude. Looking back on it later after Ludlow was well established and all the things he’d worked for were pretty well established, I think he would have said that was the accomplishment of his life. He was very proud of what they did there.

AF:      That’s really interesting. I know your father was the president of the Ludlow community association from 1960 to 1962 and he was integral in increasingly the membership and reverse and white flight. Do you have any memories meetings held at your home?

MI:      I don’t remember being

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. One thing that I think we should talk about before we talk about before we. You document white flight and as he explained it to me later and as I understood. The realtors were playing a very harmful role in those early years. They were they were scaring everyone to death. They would they would go to white families and they would say black families or black people are coming and they’d buy their houses cheap and sell them dear to black families. That was the way it was working.  The first thing that they remember that they had to do was they had to kick out the realtors and they created a housing office. It was it was controversial in the community because it was a sort of a big business in Cleveland real estate. They said they can’t be here, they’re no help to us, they’re making it worse. They just set as a goal as I recall it. You’ll know this better than I when you maybe it already, but when you’ve done the research. I think that the goal to have the school be fifty percent black, fifty percent white. In other words they weren’t directly addressing the housing. It was more amorphous than that. They couldn’t control really housing, right. But they wanted what they called orderly integration and that was the phrase. They wanted the classes in the schools to be about fifty percent, black fifty percent white. (14:31) By the time I graduated from Ludlow in the sixth grade, I think they’d already begun to achieve that. I graduated from high school in [19]65, so what year would that have been when I would have graduated from Ludlow. I graduated at 17.

AF:      52?

MI:      No, 52, that was that was when we first moved and I was five years old so probably around 1960. Maybe something. Maybe a little bit earlier than that.

AF:      Around the late 50s.

MI:      They had already begun to achieve it. When we went into junior high, and I remember this very well. By then, our class was about 50 percent black, 50 percent white. Some very distinguished people who went on to very distinguished careers in that class. We were the first entering class at the junior high that was integrated. I don’t remember that thinking anything in particular about that, but I look back on it and I think for the system that was probably a shock, right that we were coming in. Then by then Moorland, which was another school district, they were having the same experiences, and they created a housing office, and they did all the same things. They used the Ludlow model and then began to do the same things in the moorland district as well. But we were the first ones to go. Woodbury was the junior high at that time and we were the first class that was integrated. It’s wonderful.

AF:      I’m kind of curious because this is definitely my research aligns in terms of high school student activism. How was it like attending a school like that at a time when most black and white kids were certainly were not in integrated schools and when they were already socialize a lot.

MI:      you mean when we were in junior high in high school?

AF:      yeah during high school.

MI:      By the time we got to high school, of course, the high school was fully integrated. By 1965 it had been accomplished. There were two junior highs. Woodbury was where I went was more integrated than Byron, which was the other junior high school. There was a little bit of a, I don’t know how you describe it and how teenagers are, I think that there was a little bit of class difference. The Byron kids looked down on the Woodbury kids a little bit. The Byron population was wealthier. The houses were bigger around that junior high than around ours. I think there was a little bit of that but in the end it didn’t amount to much, I don’t think. But I vaguely remember feeling like somebody was looking down on us. But I always thought it was about money. I didn’t think it was about race. That’s because I was my father’s daughter so I was sort of oblivious to it. I’m  sure it was there but I just wasn’t I wasn’t aware of it.

AF:      No, that’s perfectly fine. I’m kind of curious. So one thing I know about Ludlow is that they held a lot of community gatherings where they’ll have people come and watch films, they will have actually speakers who are politicians, governors, ambassadors. Do you remember attending any of those events?

MI:      The ambassador and his wife from Mali came and I don’t know what the event was or why they came and they stayed with us. Which felt like such an honor. It was very dramatic in our lives to have an ambassador and his wife staying in our home. That’d be interesting to know about and I don’t know a lot about it. They must have been very good at publicity because they got a lot of at the time. They got a lot of attention for what they were doing. It was part of the civil rights movement, it was a small corner of it, but it was a part of it. I remember there were a lot of events but I don’t remember anything specifically. My father ran for Shaker Heights city council in 1964 on the strength of what they had accomplished in Ludlow. He was very proud of it, and he was the leader. People wanted him to run, and he wanted to run. He wasn’t a great public speaker but he was sort of a natural leader. He ran for the city council that was, I’ve had a life in politics now since then that was my first campaign and it made a big impression on me. He was out every night doing I think they called them coffees or something campaign events. He lost by 800 votes for an at-large seat. When I asked him, because it was definitely on the strength of what they’d done in Ludlow, and I asked him later what was what do you think that was about. He said Shaker wasn’t ready yet for integration. He had to run city, Shakers heights as a city, had to run city-wide, [and he] wasn’t running just in the Ludlow area and the rest of the community wasn’t ready yet 64. That’s his thought.

AF:      (20:39) I’m curious he said this was your first time getting involved like politics what was your role during his campaign

MI:      Just with the way campaigns ran in those days, a local campaign. We had filing boxes full of names, and we made calls, and we tried to get people to come to these coffees. We sent out flyers, addressed envelopes, send things to people’s houses. It was just a very basic campaign work, it’s all done on computers now, but it was it was sort of very basic. I did get hooked on politics. My father was friends with Carl Stokes at the time. Actually Carl Stokes officiated at my first wedding. I got married in 1969 and he was the officiate. My husband, that marriage didn’t last too long, but we went to Washington and I went to work for Lou Stokes, which of course is how I knew Shelley. Worked for Lou for three years. Then went to work for Walter Mondale, who was senator from Minnesota and who was a few years later was running for president. Then he dropped out and became Carter’s running mate and became vice president. When Mondale ran for president in 1985, I was the press secretary. I was the first woman’s [indecipherable] to a major candidate. He of course He lost to Reagan in 1984. But I really loved politics, my father loved politics, he did all the Mondale events was Mondale was running for president. After Mondale was defeated, I married another man and then I went back to graduate school and got my PhD in policy studies it was at the University of Maryland. Then started teaching at the Kennedy School at Harvard in 1994. That’s my whole story. And then about, oh gosh, I think maybe a dozen years ago or something, instead of teaching graduate students I started teaching freshmen at Harvard about presidential campaigns. That’s what I’ve been doing until last fall when I retired.

AF:      You said the ambassador stayed at your house. Did you get the chance to know some of these people a little bit more like a personal level?

MI:      You mean like the ambassador?

AF:      Yeah like a little personal level. Was it politically engaging?

MI:      Yeah, when they stayed with us I remember we had family dinners with them and it was totally fascinating. I mean it brought the world right to our doorstep and it was very exciting. I can’t remember what the event was that brought them there. Probably giving them some kind of award or recognition of some kind. The other thing is that my father through those years got very involved with the Urban League. He was very active in the Urban League things like that. The Ludlow experience took him into a lot of interesting directions.

AF:      Like what?

MI:      The friendship with Carl Stokes certainly and Lou. I think he met Whitney Young. I don’t know if he met Martin Luther King. But he met he met a lot of important figures in the civil rights movement. It was the it was the issue he cared about most is in his whole life. He just kept at it.

AF:      That’s really interesting. I was also curious too, I know you say he did lose friends early on with integration started. Did that also happen as you went through junior high school in high school?

MI:      I had an interesting experience. I went to my 50th high school reunion from Shaker. People kept coming up to me saying how much they admired my parents. I was so surprised. I didn’t know anybody knew anything about my parents or had paid any attention my parents. We were we were in one elementary school district and doing our thing. It made me realize that I probably was self-conscious, and again I think it was because of class rather than race, but I probably was self-conscious about coming from a poorer neighborhood is the way I saw it. I didn’t think that their accomplishments were viewed as accomplishments. It was a big revelation for me because I realized that I had gotten something screwed up in the back of my head where I didn’t feel as proud of them as I definitely should of have. Until I knew that a lot of people had taken note of what they’d achieved. Then I understood better that that whatever I was self-conscious about coming from a poorer neighborhood or whatever was immaterial to them. But I thought it was a big deal. Does that make sense?

AF:      No, that makes sense. I was curious you said foreign neighborhood. What part of Ludlow did you live in?

MI:      We lived Onaway Road which ran at the very edge of Shaker. We were like four houses away from the Cleveland border. And the back of our house back bordered on the Cleveland border, so we were right in a corner. Shaker was an exclusive suburb, so the further you got from Cleveland the richer it got. I was conscious of the fact that we lived very close to Cleveland and that Cleveland, it wasn’t like being in the heart of Shaker Heights. I’m embarrassed about it now because I think kids are stupid, but I think somehow I had got some notion in my head that this wasn’t a good neighborhood compared to what the people I was socializing with by the time I got to junior high.

AF:      Can you talk about your life experience after graduating from high school and what type of impact you think Ludlow had on your adult life?

MI:      I don’t know if Shelley mentioned this to you, but it actually this call from Shelley and from you comes at the most amazing time in my life, because I’m doing something I’ve wanted to do my whole life. I’m going to be 75 this year, so I’ve been around a long time. I have always wanted to write a play. I love the theater. I spent a lot of time in the theater, but I had never written a play I’d never written any fiction. I’ve been working this day for most of the pandemic. I do an online class, and we’ve been doing it for like a year and a half the same group of people. It’s basically about a family over 60 or 70 years. Their lives intersect with politics over that whole time. I found myself writing more and more about my father. I’ve been I’ve been in the process of thinking about, I think basically the thought is. There are a lot of acts of individual heroism by very ordinary people like my father was [who] I thought was extraordinary, but he was my father. But just ordinary people, not famous people. Acts of courage and being willing to defy the conventional wisdom and all that stuff. It happens all the time but you don’t hear about it. The play kept asking the question, if nobody remembers and there’s no record of it essentially, any living record of it, does it doesn’t count? I’ve been grappling with that in the play, and then out of the blue Shelley calls me and says, it just it’s so emotional for me, ‘they’re thinking about putting a marker in Ludlow for this for this achievement on the African American historical path.’ Is it or what is it?

AF:      Trail

MI:      I feel like that’s it’s the answer to the question I’ve been asking for years, right. How does history record this stuff, which is not it’s not big history it’s but what an impact. They changed the city of Shaker Heights forever, certainly changed my life and my family’s life forever. It was important. I think the fact that you’re doing this, it’s not just historically important it’s very it’s emotionally important for me. It’s gonna somehow go into my play because the character has been grappling, the main character who’s a woman about my age, and she’s been grappling with this question about history and memory and things like that. It comes at a very, very meaningful time for me. I’ve been thinking a lot about my father lately because he had a very sad ending. He had dementia for the last 14 years of his life. It was really tragic. He had such a good mind. It wasn’t Alzheimer, it was dementia. He basically had aphasia, he lost his ability to speak very much. It was sad, it was really sad. My mother outlived him for about three or four years and then she died also.

AF:      What year did they pass away?

MI:      He died in 2014, and she died in 2018 I think. I can tell you, this is important so I’ll tell you. It’s important to me anyway. My dog is driving me crazy, go away. She wants to play. So my mother died September 17, 2018 and my father died November 21, 2014.

AF:      So not too long ago.

MI:      Not too long ago but it was, I remember Reagan’s wife said he had a long goodbye. That’s how it felt. We lost him long before he actually died. I’ll tell you the other thing and I put this in my play, this is this is very poignant to me. One of his big allies in the Ludlow fight was Winston Richie. He was a dentist. They were very close friends and they did all of their scheming and plotting together trying to figure out how to do this together. They ended up in the same assisted living complex and they didn’t recognize each other. Isn’t that something? I put it in my play. I let them have a moment of recognition in the play but they basically were completely unaware of each other.

AF:      Did your parents still lived in Ludlow in their own in their old age, or did they move?

MI:      No, they moved to three village, which is this apartment complex in Beachwood. They were pretty old, they were very reluctant to sell the house. They love that house but they eventually felt they it was too hard. It was an up and down house, and they had to be on one floor. All the things that happened to people as they as they get older. My mother was driving and they had a car accident. By that time my father was suffering from dementia. They ended up in Judson, which is assisted living by University Circle. He was by then in the dementia wing in the memory wing, and she had a lot of physical problems. In the car accident, she broke both her legs so she had bad arthritis and problems with her hips and everything up to that. So, she was pretty disabled. She was being treated differently than he was. They had all their meals together but they weren’t they were no longer living in the same room.

AF:      I was trying to revert back to something because the audio started breaking up. You said you worked for Walter Mondale presidential campaign.

MI:      I was his press secretary in 1984.

AF:      1983 oh that’s when he ran for president.

MI:      He ran for president against Reagan who was running for his second term.

AF:      The press secretary. I know about that campaign Susan Ferraro (Geraldine Ferraro)

MI:      No, who’s that?

AF:      I’m talking about the vice presidential nominee.

MI:      Geraldine Ferraro.

AF:      Oh, I said Susan Ferraro. Yes, her. What was all your foray in politics? I think you said you worked as press secretary for Walter Mondale 1984 campaign. I know he said he knew Carl Stokes. What else what else did you do in your career?

MI:      Before I went to work for Mondale, I worked for Mondale in the senate before I worked. So, going the other direction, I went to work for Lou Stokes when I when I first moved to Washington. I worked for him for three years in the early 70s. Then I left his staff to join Walter Mondale’s senate staff, and I was with Mondale in the senate for about three years. I left for a year to do some other stuff. When he was nominated as carter’s running mate in 1976, he brought me back, and I was I was on the campaign plane and everything. I worked for Mondale when Mondale was vice president for four years in the White House. Then we left and he named me his press secretary. I was his press secretary when he was beginning to run and then eventually running for president. After he was defeated, we won one state Minnesota 84, I got married and I went back to graduate school and decided I needed to learn about what I’d been doing all these years. I went to Johns Hopkins and then University of Maryland, got my master’s and my PhD and started teaching at Harvard in 1994.

AF:      What did you teach at Harvard? What subject did you teach?

MI:      I taught two subjects one was presidential campaigns and elections, and the other was public opinion and American foreign policy, which is which I’d written my dissertation about. I started teaching in the Kennedy school, which is graduate students but I eventually migrated to teaching freshmen, which is what I taught for the last 16 years.

AF:      Are you currently retired?

MI:      I retired last fall

AF:      Oh ok, I know most academics don’t retire until they’re usually in their seventies. It’s very rare somebody retired in the sixties

MI:      Yeah, but I’m in my seventies. I had been teaching at that point for 27 years. It was hard because I lived in Washington now I live in New York and I commuted to Boston for 27 years every week in the fall. I never taught in the winter, but I taught in the fall. It was actually the travel that eventually wore me down rather than the teaching. I like the teaching.

AF:      How many people do you keep up with from the Ludlow community I know Shelley is one of them.

MI:      Yes, but Shelley and I have only reconnected this week. I haven’t kept up with anyone from those years. I ran into some of them from at the 50th high school reunion, which was nice to see them. Those friendships turned out to not be the permanent ones in my life.

AF:      That’s pretty common when people get older I know that from experience too. I would say that is all my questions. The only thing else I can ask is just like in terms of Ludlow what do you think like the overall significance is? Just overall naturally in terms of your life personally.

MI:      Probably like it was for my father, the biggest thing in my life. It taught me about politics, the experience. It taught me about the kinds of issues that I understand on not a theoretical level as much as on a visceral level about housing and civil rights, and I keep saying fairness. You have to work hard to achieve these things, they don’t come naturally to people. Conventional wisdom can be so wrong as we’re seeing now. We’re in a period of really negative, terrible information going on about untrue information and prejudice and fear and all that stuff. Ludlow was the opposite of that. Ludlow was the teaching you about what people can achieve if they work together to create something that’s meaningful and lasting. This is last, but what do we what do we say 60 70 years. It’s still a very successful community, it works as a community. A lot of places don’t. I think people still have a feeling of the importance of what they’re what they’re trying to achieve there.

AF:      I appreciate it. I’ll probably end the zoom recording right now. Not the zoom just recording part.