Aaron: Hello. My name is Aaron Fountain. Today is March 17th, 2022 and I am with, state your name please.
Willie: Willie Wilson.
Aaron: And I’ll start off this interview with the question I’d like to ask everybody. So can you tell me about yourself? When and when were you born, your parents and childhood upbringing?
Willie: Well, let’s see. I was born here in Cleveland in 1941, and I was raised here in Cleveland and lived in the projects for a few years and then we moved to the Quincy area in Cleveland. Lived there until I went to go to go to college, Howard University in 1960. Graduated from there with a degree in electrical engineering. I came back to Cleveland to work for Jones Larkin Steel Corporation for about four years. Then I left here and went to work for Ohio Bell. Worked for Ohio Bell until I retired in 2000. Joined the Cory church in 1994, and I’ve been a member here since then.
Aaron: What did your parents do for a living?
Willie: Let’s see. Well, that’s kind of an interesting story. My mother, she never really worked; she was just a housekeeper. I’m one of four kids, and then my father. My father died when I was about four or five years old, so she had to raise four of us pretty much by herself. So, that was kind of a struggle for her. My oldest sister, who just passed away a couple of years ago, she helped out quite a bit. She was maybe 17, 18 at the time our father died. And so she just started work. So she did develop when she started working.
Aaron: What neighborhood did you live in growing up in Cleveland?
Willie: I lived in the Central area. That’s on Onway Road in the project areas. The projects are still there now. In fact, they’ve just renovated it. And then I moved from there, and I lived in Quincy area, Quincy Cedar area.
Aaron: How would you describe the neighborhood coming up?
Willie: How would I describe it? Well, I think I would describe it probably in terms of the people, the neighbors. Because the neighbors at that time, it seemed like a normal neighborhood. It seemed like everybody knew everybody. And so everybody was fairly close. Had a lot of friends in the neighborhood at the time. And it was just a lot different than it is now, I think. Where you live in the neighborhood, you may know the next door neighbor, but you don’t know as many people like you did at least when I was growing up. Seem like you noticed everybody on the street that time. So, that was to me the big major factor in the type of neighborhood I lived in.
Aaron: I know Cleveland, especially in the 50s and 60s, the schools were overcrowded, as well as the neighborhoods, particularly on the east side. So do you have any memories of over crowdedness in schools?
Willie: No. I went to East Technical High School and no, it wasn’t overcrowded at that time. As far as I am concerned. Now East Technical was a technical high school. It is still kind of emphasize trade like carpentry, electrical work, and mechanical. People were moving away from that as far as wanting to go into those types of jobs. A lot of the classes and programs that they had originally, they didn’t have enough people that wanted to take the classes. So slowly, those classes just started to be discontinued altogether. In fact, some of them went to the west side to Max Hays High School, which is also a trade-oriented high school. I’ll say for instance, they used to teach airplane engine repair and they couldn’t find any students that were willing to take that. And so that program left altogether. I took the electrical courses because I was really planning to become an electrician, so I took all the electrical courses at the time. It just so happened that. I was able to go to college and I studied electrical engineering.
Aaron: You stayed at East Tech the entire time?
Willie: Yes, I stayed there the entire time. The only problem with going to the technical school is that you don’t have as many academic courses that you need really to go to college. I was somewhat deficient, so I had to make up some when I went to college cause I got some courses I actually need I didn’t take because I was taking technical courses, even make some of your courses that you make up in schools so instead of four years it took me two and a half years.
Aaron: I’m curious about the teachers. Where the teacher is also African-American at Tech. I know a lot of black schools tend to, like, have a disparity.
Willie: Not very many. Only African-American teacher at that time that was Black was the music teacher. All the other one were, at least from my memory, almost all the other ones were not Black. I remember his name, Mr. Bennett, he taught music with all the other teachers. (Illegible) everything. Everybody else was non-Black.
Aaron: How do you describe this students’ relationship with the teachers? I know black schools as they grew sometime there was resentment among educators.
Willie: I thought the teachers were really. The teachers that I remember were very passionate in my opinion. I remember the English teacher, especially. He was especially passionate about what he was doing. You could tell that he loved what he was doing. I mean, he come in the class, he was enthusiastic all the time, all the time about teaching English. In fact, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Pygmalion, have you ever heard of Pygmalion, My Fair Lady? Yeah, he introduced us to that. In fact, he had a link to the play when they hit the Playhouse, Carnegie. He took the whole class to that to see that play. Pygmalion, which is the same as my fair lady, if you’ve ever heard of My Fair Lady. I mean, he just he wanted to play it. Stand on his feet. He’ll just get so excited about it. Yeah, he was a good teacher, really. I mean, you remember because of the way he felt about teaching. He was exceptional. But I always liked technical stuff. I just love to tinker with things. When I was a kid, I used to take clams apart and things like that to see how they worked.
Aaron: So you came of age during the civil rights era?
Willie: Yeah. When a lot of the civil rights and people were going down. In fact, Stokely Carmichael was one of my classmates. He was a classmate. They were very active. I just was never an activist like he was.
Aaron: He was a classmate in high school or college.
Willie: No, college. He was going down there doing sit-ins and all of that at the time. I was there when Martin Luther King gave a speech on the Mall there in Washington, DC.
Aaron: I do want to get to that. But first, do you have any memories of like Cleveland in terms of the United Freedom Movement was one organization.
Willie: No, no, no, no. Like I said, my whole thinking was not outward. My thinking has never been really outward oriented. It’s been more, I’ve been for a long time, kind of introverted and bored, just tinkering with things. I just wasn’t socially minded. I haven’t really been socially minded until I became an adult. And even then, I still have not been like an activist. (Illegible) Never been in that mode of thinking?
Aaron: No, that’s no problem. Sometimes people can be like that, but they might still attend a demonstration or know people who are actively involved.
Willie: No, just never.
Aaron: Okay. So I am about your experiences at Howard being an HBCU around a very dynamic time. You said Stokely Carmichael was one of your classmates and you went to March on Washington. How was your experience at Howard?
Willie: I’m sorry.
Aaron: How was your experiences at Howard during this period?
Willie: Well, I experienced, like I said I mean, I struggle somewhat academically. I just put all my energy into that just trying to study and pass each class. I just put all my efforts into that. I never did much of anything else. In fact, Howard being federally funded, they had ROTC. Used to be mandatory ROTC for two years. After two years, it was voluntary. So I was in ROTC because all men had to be in ROTC for at least the first two years. My plan at the time, I say, well, I was going to into the service because that time they had a program where you could go in and just serve like a couple of those, I think it was like six months, you serve six months in active duty and then six years or four years or something like that in an active reserve. That was my plan at the time. But the program changed because it was just at the start of the Vietnam War. Program changed so that if you were going to go into, if you were in ROTC and then you go into the service unit, you had to stay for four years. But I was willing to do that, except that I struggled academically. I joined the ROTC for the second two years. But with all the work that you had to do for just a couple of hours credit, to me I just couldn’t justify that kind of time commitment versus what I needed to do to try to keep up with classes. So I got out of the ROTC. The second part of it. So I spent more time just for studying. The engineering, it’s not trivial. In fact, we had a book we had a book that was written by two professors from Case Western Reserve. Physics books. I still have the book. They had some problems in that book that were very, very difficult. Everybody’s struggled to deal with those problems (illegible). We had one guy that was so smart. He was taking engineering as well. He had all A’s almost for his entire time he was there, and one B in a subject that he really didn’t have to take, physical chemistry. When he was graduating, he got an offer from Dell Labs. They were going to pay for his graduate work as well as his salary. That’s how smart that guy was. I had one class with him called dynamics in (illegible). The electrical people have to take mechanical courses. Mechanical people had to take electrical courses. They have these problems; they had the first few exercises from what you have read in the chapter or just standard. Then they had the asteroid problems. The ones that you have to think a bit more. He was so good. He was solve the asteroid problems put them on the board. That’s how smart he was. I would just love to see where he is at this point in time. And then another person that had taught ROTIC, well, he was my commander for us. They had people in the upper class in ROTC. They would untuck all the field exercises for the underclass men. A guy by the name of Dennis Hightower. He went to the Rangers. He was a couple of years (illegible0. He went into the Rangers, into the Army, he graduated. I mean, when he left the service, he went to work for Disney. He rose to a very high level. I think he was making (illegible). He was like in charge of the other, what is it, the operation of France. Another guy became secretary of the Army (illegible). Togo West, he was also secretary of (illegible). So there was a lot of Very, very, very smart guys there.
Aaron: What year did you graduate?
Willie: I graduated in 1964.
Aaron: What did you do after? You came back to Cleveland afterward?
Willie: Yeah, I went to work for GNL Steel Corporation. I stayed there for four years before (illegible). When I was at Plant Hill, building in construction department. We prepared the drawings and a sheet of construction for the central offices. The central offices where the house and telephone were, and there’s a central office in every area. The central office covers about a five-mile radius. Then you have to have another one that’s as far out, this is all before cell phones became available. Each central office covered about five houses. So you had a lot of growth in terms of the number of people using phones. Once the growth got to a certain point, what they’d have to do is add to the building in order to accommodate the additional equipment, that’s required in order to accommodate more phones. So our department, we had the responsibility of preparing the drawings for building additions or new buildings. And so at that point, that’s when I started doing what I was doing there full time basis. I started doing a part time basis as a part-time engineering. I got a license as a registered electrical engineer taking the exam. So you register because if you do drawings that are going to be used for construction, you have to have a license. Each state has to provide a license for an engineers. So I got the license and I started doing part time, part time on engineering for architects doing small projects. And so I did that for a long time. I don’t know if you ever heard of, There’s a black- engineering firm called Whitney Whitley. They are no longer in business. But when I got out they we’re just getting started (illegible). I did a lot of small jobs for them for a number of years. And in fact, see, because I wasn’t a part of church at the time at all. I grew up in the church. But once I went to college I got out of going to the church altogether. I did work for them and then they just happened to have, this was 1993 perhaps, they had a project with this church because this church, they have. The city operates a rec center in the street, so they had a project with the city to upgrade the electricity distribution in this church. So I was working for them part-time as electrical consultant. So that’s when I even became introduced to the church.
Aaron: This church?
Willie: This church, yes. And so we’ve had meetings with the trustees at the church at the time. The lady that was the chairman of the trustees, Katie Bawner, she was the chairperson of the trustees. So we met them in one of their meetings. I was attending the meetings. That was related to the project. But I got to know Katie Bawner and she started asking me if I knew how to do some work, physical work as far as she needed some lights replaced in the sanctuary. I said I would do it for her. And I got to know her and a couple other people. And that’s how I got introduced to this particular church, and I kind of like being a part of what she was doing with the trustees (illegible) and I’ve been here ever since,.
Aaron: And that was in the seventies.
Aaron: Oh so this is the 90s.
Willie: Almost 30 years.
Aaron: What was the name of the black engineering firm again?
Willie: Whitley, Whitley.
Aaron: Whitley, Whitley. How long was that around?
Willie: Well, when I graduated, they were already established. They were already established. So they were established as well as Madison. You heard of Madison Engineering? Madison? Well, actually, Madison was even before Whitley Whitley. Madison got started, like 1947. They were probably the first black architectural firm in Cleveland. And two brothers Rob Madison, can’t remember the other guy. One died some, but Madison are still around now. They were just an architectural firm initially. They added engineering to their services in the eighties in engineering, some of the engineers that they had broken away and started another company called Polytech. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Poly. But anyway, Polytech was around this was when they had a lot of requirements for minority participation in construction projects. That was done by government whether it was federal, state, local and a lot of the minority firms became a little more prosperous once they had those kind of programs. Madison is one of the few one that’s still left. Polytech (illegible) are no longer in business as well as Tyler Engineering. They dig their (illegible) they went out of business, but Madison is still one of the few ones that still left. Another one is called Roberts Consultants. They are still around. I did some of that myself but I never did it full time until I retire. I did on the part time basis. With primarily with Whitely Whitely. I did a little with Madison. I did some work once I left and retired altogether I did some work directly for the city of Cleveland. I did some projects for this building, as well as some other rec centers. Another project at Harvard Yard. So I did a number of projects once I retired. I’m still doing projects even now. I’m probably spend more time here than I do actually doing projects. But I still do projects. There’s another architectural firm, Shovel Singleton Associates. We’re doing work right now together. (Illegible) I spent a lot of time here as well as to the engineering.
Aaron: Okay. I’m kind of interested about the black engineering firms. I know at the time it was really hard for a lot of black people to get contracts with construction projects or even sometimes to work at construction sites. So were some of those firms as a way to get black people foot in the door or give them the skills necessary to?
Willie: What happened in the early eighties, they started having what they called these minority participation and minority set aside programs at the federal, state and local level. Now, there was a lot of opposition to these programs from the majority contractor. The general contractor association they fought all of these programs almost for a long time. So what happened, when they initially got started, say for instance, at the state level there was an original 10% requirement on, not all the projects, but a lot of the projects had like a 10% requirement for minority participation on the design side and the construction side. Then like I say some of the other contractors fought these programs and what happened is they filed lawsuits and went through a process and a lot of the programs got watered down. Okay. To the point where, say for instance at the state level, the requirement became like instead of 10%, it was 5%. Well, 5% is a requirement is, obviously not as desirable, but say even hard because you can’t make as much money to make it even worthwhile when they say the requirement is only 5%. The programs at the federal level have not been watered down. But those programs are a lot harder to participate in because there’s an awful lot of paperwork that you have to provide. First of all, prove that you are a legitimate minority firm. Because, see, the other thing that was happening, even though there was opposition on the one hand. Some other firms, some other contractors were using the program to say, okay, they would try to turn themselves into a minority program by making their wife the principal. Then they can say, I’m a minority program or contractor or something and participate in the program that way. So the requirements for being certified as a minority contractor or minority firm, there’s an awful lot of paperwork to prove that you’re just not in the front for a majority company. So even now you still, I had a certification with the city of Cleveland. You had to fill out an application, which has to be renewed every year. And you have to like I say, the whole idea of certification make sure that you are really a minority company, and not just a front for a majority company. The city of Cleveland still has a program for that. So contractors do have opportunities. Minority contractors have opportunities to do work.
Aaron: That’s more opportunities than probably when you’re starting out.
Willie: Right. Its more opportunities than when I started out. But some of the programs have been watered down compared to what they were when they first started. But there’s still opportunities out there. Then there’s also opportunities on the private side. You know there’s another organization called the National Minority Suppliers Council. Those are all private companies and not a government. You can interview, they have all kinds of events and opportunities for you to get to know the buyers at majority companies. To participate in construction like Sherman-Williams is building a new building downtown. They have a program where the minority contractors can participate in this process that you have to go through even with the private companies. So, there’s lots of opportunities there. In fact, I think there’s probably more opportunities than there are people to actually do work. One of the areas that’s especially deficient in minority contractors is what they call low-voltage wiring. Low voltage and all that. Anything that has to do with when you put any type of outlet or Wi-Fi, audio, fire alarm. All of that is low voltage wiring compared to a normal power type of wiring. And it’s hard to find minority contractors that do that. There’s a deficiency there. And there’s a demand, a lot of demand for that. Every new building there’s an awful lot of low-voltage wiring. Everywhere you go is Wi-Fi. Every space has to have that capability and you have to have a wiring done in order for that to be accomplished. So there’s a lot of opportunities there. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I think, there’s demand like a specific area like this in the Glenville area, where you have so many families on public assistance. To me, there’s a demand or need to be able to provide opportunities for young adults to learn those kinds of trades. As opposed to everybody thinking that the only way to really be successful is to go to college. There’s an awful lot of jobs available where you don’t need a college, but you need the technical skills. You need to be able to do what’s required. A lot those are good areas for good paying jobs. So I think that to me is a big need in this community.
Aaron: What neighborhood did you live in when you came back to Cleveland?
Willie: Well, I moved back home with my mother because she was still struggling financially.
Aaron: In Central?
Willie: No, when I came back, she lived not too far from here on Camden. That’s right down the street from here. Right off of park. So, I moved with her. Stay there a few years and we try to figure out how were going to do that because I didn’t want to live with my mother. For a long period of time, I was trying to figure out how could I manage to have my own place and still help out too. That was kind of a struggle here for a while.
Aaron: I know you said not too far from here, so were you aware of some of the social unrest that occurred during that period? Like there was a shoot down 68 and a subsequent riot.
Willie: Yes, I was aware of it. But I didn’t, like I said, I didn’t participated.
Aaron: I was just curious about your reaction to it. I mean, Glenville in 68 was like a dynamite.
Willie: It was. Hough area. All of that. Because that’s when 68 that’s when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Of course, the Vietnam War was still going on.
Aaron: So you came to Cory in the nineties. How has your experience been since coming to Cory?
Willie: Well, my experience has been, I have been involved either. I’m still a member of the trustee, of course, the membership has declined significantly since I was there. Mostly people just passing along. And so I’ve been a member of the trustees for a long time, as well as member of the Finance Committee. I’m chairperson of finance right now. My overall experience has been, I feel positive. Especially from a sense that the people are very dedicated to the church in terms of very reliable, committed people. I mean, especially the ones that that have passed on have been. I mean, you could imagine that a building this size, it is only like I would saw 50 really active members that contribute to the functioning of the church without any (illegible). We wouldn’t be able to even survive really. So this is an experience that I’m just glad I’ve had. For years we’ve been fortunate in having Gregory Kendrick assigned here. He’s been more active in terms of just not. But he’s been more active in wanting to be more oriented toward the community and getting Cory involved in the community. So we are hoping that we can start to make some changes in a positive direction in terms of church growth. The few members that we have, unless we do something is certainly not sustainable.
Aaron: How would you describe the Glenville neighborhood since you came back in the sixties? Because I’ve seen photographs. I know it looks different than it looks now. It’s not as populated. I know that that’s one factor.
Willie: My feeling is, I think that the Glenville neighborhood, like a lot of other predominantly black neighborhoods they need, in my opinion, is that we need more leadership from the outside. I think that the black churches are in a position to provide that leadership. I think it’s not happening the way I think it should. Most of the black churches tend to be too insular. Instead of being more outwardly focused. I believe that Pastor Kendrick is a little more outwardly focused. I don’t know if just one church alone can do it without starting to involve other churches to try to do something in the neighborhood in terms of. There’s just a lot of issues that need attention. In terms of housing, just a condition of housing maintenance. Health issues. People tend to go out and buy fast food as opposed to preparing their own food. Education, people need more attention to education. Just like I say, there’s a need for people in certain areas where there’s a deficiency. People need to be trained in some of these areas. In economics in general, people need to become more thinking in terms of being self-sufficient. There’s a tendency, I think, for people to be too dependent on public assistance. So all of these issues, I think, are areas where Black churches need to be. I know a lot of them just want to be spiritual oriented, which is fine, but I think that there’s just a big need to be more socially involved in some of the areas I was talking about.
Aaron: That’s all my question. I appreciate your time.