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Carl Stokes Remembered 50 Years After Becoming America's First Big-City Black Mayor

Carl Stokes

Fifty years ago this Election Day, Cleveland voters picked their first black mayor, Carl Stokes – also the first black mayor of any large American city. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports on one recent panel that discussed Stokes’ legacy.

Cuyahoga Community College’s Mandel Humanities Center has spent the past year hosting events looking back at Stokes’ election and impact.

Cleveland State University Urban Studies professor Ronnie Dunn was on a panel at the City Club Friday, and says the Hough Riots of 1966 set the stage for Cleveland to elect a black mayor. But two years later, the Glenville riots dissipated much of Stokes’ support after three police officers were killed and he ordered white officers out of the neighborhood.

“So that kind of sets the context within these continual issues and divisions between – particularly – the African-American community and the police, which we’re wrestling with to this very day.”

On its website, the Cleveland police union says its formation was a direct result of the 1968 riots, when there was a “shortage of necessary equipment” for officers.

Randy McShepard, co-founder of the nonpartisan African-American think tank PolicyBridge, was also on the panel, and says Stokes’ legacy in housing was about more than just bricks-and-mortar.

Stokes first year set the contextt for relations between the African-American community and the police, 'which we're wrestling with to this very day.'

“The biggest lesson from Carl Stokes in my estimation is courage, because it took courage for him to build those public housing units. We need courage right now in Cleveland. You think about some of the neighborhoods that are being ignored [or] disinvested. I mean, let’s talk about the southeast side of Cleveland. We need to have the same courage that Stokes had and say,  'Enough is enough. Our whole city needs to benefit; let’s invest where we know the investment is needed.”

McShepard and his fellow panelists also discussed “Cleveland: Now!" -- a public-private neighborhood rehabilitation effort that Stokes launched during his first year in office. The organization eventually funded four new community centers.

After Carl Stokes left office in 1971, he signed on with WNBC-TV, making him the first black anchorman in New York City, and later returned to Cleveland to work as general counsel for the United Auto Workers and as a judge. He died of cancer in 1996.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.