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Touring Hough a Half Century After the Riots to Learn the Legacy

Amid the empty lots and new apartment and town house developments there is a small vineyard today in Hough.

Cleveland kept it cool downtown during the RNC last week, but 50 years ago during that same week, parts of the inner city were in flames.

Four people died and whole city blocks were in ashes following the Hough riots.  

WKSU’s Vivian Goodman toured Hough with a scholar of Cleveland history for a look at the legacy of the riots.

This story contains language which may be offensive to some.

John Grabowski, vice president of the Western Reserve Historical Society, teaches at Case Western Reserve University.  In his office, not far from the riots’ epicenter, we talk about how they began.

“The Hough riots were really not unexpected,” Grabowski says, “because in the city of Cleveland in the years before that you had the United Freedom Movement protesting the construction of new schools that would be segregated. In 1964 in Little Italy there was a fracas, if you will, when they tried to bus black children into Murray Hill School. There were seeds there.” 

Disappointment leads to discontent

John Grabowski
John Grabowski is a history professor at Case Western Reserve University and the editor of the online Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

Grabowski notes that most of Hough’s predominantly black population had migrated from the south during and after World War II.  “They came up with the hope for acceptance and freedom, and the hope of jobs that would allow them to become part of the middle class to use the cliché.” 

He says instead they found discrimination, poverty, crime, and poor police-community relations.  “The police force is over 2,000 people at that time and only 163 are African American.”

In 1966 most housing in Hough was dilapidated and overcrowded. “And as much as Hough was a wonderful middle class development in the late 1800s, early 1900s, it’s 70 years old. These were old structures that had been subdivided by that time.” 

Subdivided, and crawling with rats. Neither the city nor absentee landlords did much to control the infestations.

“So you take that, “says Grabowski, “and you take a very hot summer day on July 18th.” 

Sparked by a sign on a bar door
The riots’ spark came at dusk on that scorching day. Grabowski says the protest started after a black man was refused a glass of water at a neighborhood tavern.

The owner threw him out and put a sign on the door.  “No water for niggers. A crowd of African Americans maybe 50 or so gather outside the bar. The owner out there with shotguns patrolling.”

The crowd grew as the sun went down. Bricks were thrown, shots fired, shops looted. Fires set. Police and the National Guard couldn’t quell it for six terror-filled nights.

The neighborhood was left devastated, and though it keeps coming back, our tour of Hough Avenue reveals 50-year old scars.  

The tour

Lynn's Deli
Historian John Grabowski says neighborhood businesses and housing developments continue Hough's comeback, but many empty lots remain.

We drive first to where the riots started.

“And right now we’re at 79th Street and the site of what used to be the 79er Café. The site we’re looking at is grass, “says Grabowski. “There’s nothing there. There’s no commercial intersection. But Lexington Village which is one of the landmarks of the rehabilitation, the comeback of Hough, is here. And if you didn’t know you were in Hough, you didn’t know the history of Hough, you would feel that you’re just in an ex-urban, suburban neighborhood.

“The riots and most of the arson and damage was done about a block or two to the west of us, and it would stretch past that, from the center of the community, from the 79er Café where the original protest was, it began to spread to other parts of the surrounding neighborhoods.

“And so you’re looking at over 240 fires that were fought during this. And I can remember in the summer of 1966 I was a helper in a food delivery, and I still remember the jeeps and the National Guard there in the summer. So the presence of the violence, the arson so to speak, would spread from beyond where we stood.”

John Grabowski stands next to one of the few buildings in Hough that survived the summer of 1966.

Completely changed
The historian notes that nothing looks the same as it did in 1966.

“It is entirely different. It is hard to find a building along Hough that would have been standing here in 1966. Most of them are gone.

We drive a little further west.

“We’re parked right now at Lynn’s Deli at 8125 Hough, and I can tell from the stonework here that Lynn’s Deli is one of the buildings that, brickwork I should say, that predates the riots. But with that exception almost all the buildings here are new. It’s a newly rebuilt neighborhood.”

Long comeback continues
But Grabowski says rebuilding and reinvestment didn’t begin until long after the riots. “It took a while. One of the policemen who was at the center of the riots said he hadn’t seen anything this destroyed since London after the blitz. Well, frankly London came back faster than Hough did. As did Berlin, as did Hamburg, as did Tokyo.”        

Urban historian John Grabowski credits a crusading councilwoman, the late Fannie Lewis, and a public-private partnership forged in the ‘90s by then Mayor George Voinovich for starting Hough’s comeback.

Today in addition to the Lexington Village apartments that comeback is also evidenced by the Renaissance Village and Beacon Place apartment and townhouse developments.