Where we live is bedrock to our identities.

For half of the 20th century, racial covenants embedded in the property deeds of homes in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and nearby Forest Hills “deferred but did not defeat the suburban dreams of Jews and African Americans,” reports historian Marian Morton.

An emeritus professor of John Carroll University, Morton gave a lively, standing-room-only talk at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood, Ohio. She showed a 1930 advertisement for new homes in Forest Hills, a neighborhood straddling Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland, which promised “surroundings . . . where your neighbors are inevitably people of tastes in common with yours . . . The careful restrictions placed on Forest Hills today will not be lowered.”

Racial covenants rested on the assumption that undesirable racial groups lowered property values. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional for cities in 1917, but in 1926 declared that private individuals or corporations could engage in them.

“I hate the 1920s,” Morton told her audience. “The only thing good that happened was women got the right to vote in 1920. The bad?  A resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, federal immigration restrictions, and restrictive covenants targeting ‘unwanted races and Hebrews.’”

Shaker Heights began as a planned community, developed by Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen, who bought 1,200 acres in 1906 from the religious Shakers. The brothers oversaw early property deeds that allowed growing flowers, but not vegetables, and prohibited “barns, stables, or water closets.” Their new village thrived; its population soared from 200 in 1910 to 1,600 in 1920.

Early in 1925, the Van Sweringens began to add restrictions on resale of Shaker Heights homes. Two ugly racial incidents marred that year: the bombing of a black doctor’s home in University Circle and an attack on the Huntington Road residence of a second physician, Dr. Edward A. Bailey, by angry whites.

Virginia Dawson, a Shaker Heights historian, spoke up during Morton’s presentation to add details. She said that when Bailey’s chauffer tried to clear the crowd by firing shots in the air, the Shaker Heights police surrounded the house and set up a search of everyone going inside and out.  The Bailey family sued the city for harassment in 1925, and lost. They moved away.

Even as restrictive covenants proliferated, Morton noted, they were worded cagily to avoid naming who was excluded. The homeowner was required to obtain the development owner’s permission on any sale or lease, or get the nod of surrounding neighbors to transfer the property.

“In 1948 the Supreme Court had ruled that restrictive covenants could not be legally enforced,” Morton writes in an elaboration of her talk for the Teaching Cleveland web site. “The court decision did not preclude informal or extra-legal means of enforcing covenants, however, and the vagueness of the Shaker Heights and Forest Hills covenants meant that any group considered undesirable could still be excluded.”

By mid-century, African Americans, “like other Americans in the prosperous postwar period . . . dreamed of green lawns, fine homes, and social acceptance,” she writes, adding that “World War II brought a big shift in racial and religious tolerance.”

Still, Jews and blacks faced restrictive covenants, and blacks occasionally met outright violence. When the Shaker Heights home of the prominent attorney John Peggs was bombed in 1954, some community groups were galvanized to fight blockbusting and white flight. Still, in 1970, Cleveland Heights was only two percent black. “I’m ashamed to admit that blacks were most unwelcome in Cleveland Heights,” said Morton, who has lived in the Heights for 48 years.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Fair Housing Act of 1968 was a breakthrough, and both Shaker and Cleveland Heights passed fair housing legislation.

And, with each passing decade, Morton observed, restrictive covenants became harder to enforce. They didn’t cover all properties, and the region grew more tolerant. Jews had been prominent merchants on Coventry Road since the 1920s. Members of Morton’s audience stood up to recall personal incidents of being rejected as home buyers. One man asserted that in 1937, “no blacks, no Jews, no Catholics, no Italians, and no bartenders” were allowed in Forest Hills. Another recounted his family being made uncomfortable for being Jewish. Morton noted that the Van Sweringens made it difficult for a Catholic Church to break ground in Shaker Heights; St. Dominic had a difficult time establishing itself.

“Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights today pride themselves on their racial, religious and economic diversity, a diversity that their founders never imagined,” Morton writes. “Suburbia is still about dreams – same dreams, different dreamers.”

Mark Davidson, manager of school and family programs at the Maltz Museum, saw encouraging signs. “We want to be part of the new Cleveland that is being born – friendlier, let’s say, and more willing to visit each other’s turf.”

Not enough, says a group of concerned women and girls, who have signed a letter to the president, calling for inclusion in his private-public initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper.” 


The initiative, which the Obama Administration announced in February, brings together foundations, nonprofits, and businesses to address the social, economic, and judicial challenges facing young men of color. Inequalities within schools and the criminal justice system are its urgent focus, alongside increasing mentoring and strengthening families in minority communities. 

But for the 1,200 women who signed the letter—including activists Angela Davis, Rosie Perez, Alice Walker, and Janet Mock—this approach leaves young women of color “waiting for the next train.”  Some 200 black men signed a similar letter last month asking the president to include their sisters in the initiative.

“We simply cannot agree that the effects of these conditions on women and girls should pale to the point of invisibility, and are of such little significance that they warrant zero attention in the messaging, research and resourcing of this unprecedented Initiative,” the petitioners write in a statement posted by the African American Policy Forum. “When we acknowledge that both our boys and girls struggle against the odds to succeed, and we dream about how, working together, we can develop transformative measures to help them realize their highest aspirations, we cannot rest easy on the notion that the girls must wait until another train comes for them.” 

Some of the critical policy issues of President Obama’s second term, such as LGBT rights, education and health care reform, will affect women of color, but signers of the letter are looking for specific, intentional efforts to improve the lives of Black and Latina women and girls. 

It’s worth noting that in 2009, the Obama Administration created the White House Council on Women and Girls, chaired by adviser Valerie Jarrett, “to ensure that federal programs and policies address and take into account the distinctive concerns of women and girls, including women of color and those with disabilities.” 

Since its creation, the council has championed equal pay, higher representation of women in STEM careers, and broader steps to prevent violence against women. It is a continuation of the Clinton Administration’s White House Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach, which the George W. Bush Administration quietly closed in 2001. 

“Our youth do need help, they need to be shown that they matter and all of them need a targeted initiative, and that doesn’t mean reducing it to boys of color.  That is the move we are asking them not to make,” Kristie Dotson, a philosophy professor at Michigan State University, told the Washington Post. “We applaud the initiative, now let’s talk about who needs to be included in it and targeted. Black boys can’t afford to have black girls not be a central part of this discussion.”

Actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis met in 1946 in New York City when they were both cast in “Jeb,” a play by Herman Shumlin about racial intolerance.

Davis stopped to fix his tie during rehearsal and in an instant, Dee was captivated. “My attraction to him was the one miracle of my life,” Dee would say later.

Their love for one another is the basis of the upcoming documentary, “Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee,” produced and directed by their grandson, filmmaker Muta’Ali Muhammad. Dee died June 11, mere days before its world premiere June 22 at the American Black Film Festival in Manhattan.

Born Ruby Ann Wallace in 1924, Dee moved with her parents from Cleveland to Harlem as an infant. There she grew up amongst the lush backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and pleaded with her father, at age 16, to allow her pursue acting.  She married Davis in 1948 and remained his partner onstage and off for more than 50 years.

Dee came back to Northeast Ohio for stints at Playhouse Square, and the actress taught up-and-coming actors at the historic Karamu Theatre, which bears her likeness in a 40-foot-tall mural facing East 89th Street. “She’s a national treasure of American theater—period,” Terrence Spivey, artistic director at Karamu, told the Plain Dealer.

Indeed – and in other contexts, too. Dee emceed the 1963 March on Washington with Davis. Davis delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral. Together they raised bail money for arrested civil rights workers. At every turn, the duo used their platform to bring greater awareness and pressure to advance their message of equality.

After Davis died in 2005, Muhammad realized he had questions about the life of his legendary grandparents—and only one of them remained.

Muhammad began production on a documentary with the hopes of completing it by his grandmother’s 90th birthday. After a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, which raised $53,000, he began, capitalizing on time with Dee, who shared valuable insights into a life filled with art, love, and activism.

“Our marriage was a whole lot of learning, and talking and discussion and a little fighting in there too,” Dee said in a teaser for the film. “It was the most magical experience of my life.”

Watch the trailer below:

By Lisa Nielson, Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow

Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studes, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.

In the fall of 2013, during the first week of my first-year college seminar, “Reading Social Justice: The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards,” the students and I read Rita Dove’s haunting poem Trayvon, Redux.

As we discussed the poem and the killing of Trayvon Martin,one of the students stated, “Everyone is racist.” There was an immediate uproar. Perhaps I should have intervened, but I wanted to hear what the group had to say. Several students related startling stories of racial and gender discrimination, told casually because such experiences were almost routine: Being profiled at the airport.  Placed “accidentally” into the remedial or honors class by high school teachers based on their ethnicity.  Propositioned by strange men with “yellow fever.”

Others talked about stereotypes related to being bi-cultural or agonized about their privilege. Questions like “What kind of Asian are you?” and observations like “Your English is really good” were familiar to many.  It was incredible to hear such honest reports of these young lives even as my heart was breaking.

I am obsessed with identity.  What makes us who we are? How are those choices mediated by family, friends, and society at large? Growing up in an educated, activist family molded my politics towards social justice, yet the rootlessness of our lives also generated bone-deep fear. Where did I fit in the world? Like many Americans, I am a cultural and ethnic hybrid. I use my ambiguity purposefully in the classroom, as it is difficult to tell “what” I am. My mother is Egyptian and Finnish, adopted into a family that so violently denied their Jewish heritage, they changed their name and converted to a militant Christianity. My father is mostly of Norwegian extraction, raised partially in England and later Washington, DC by my linguist grandfather and activist grandmother. Which identity was appropriate?  Who was my community?

Locating community, I have always believed, is a powerful avenue on the road to social change. We do not have to like or fully understand one another to build bridges, but we do need to have the blocks upon which to build. The books honored by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards become some of those blocks, made out of the interstitial places between communities. The prizes have been quietly establishing vital connections for nearly 80 years. As the Anisfield-Wolf Fellow to the SAGES (Seminar Approach to General Education Scholarship) program at Case Western Reserve University, I’ve had the privilege not only of being connected to the awards, but to engage questions of identity and change with talented and diverse students.

The classes I teach are related to my own research, including a course on the courtesan, the harem, and world slavery. In all my classes, we read widely, listen to music, discuss taxonomies of gender and sexualities, and confront racism, religious assumptions and social class. I ask the students to craft their own definitions for tolerance, acceptance, diversity, and gender; challenge them to see “discovery” and “progress” through different lenses. We use the board to map stereotypes that underscore our cultural fears and study the continued justifications for dehumanization, slavery, and racism.

Last year, I taught the first class at Case Western Reserve University focused on Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winning books and authors. It grew out of discussions and collaboration with Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards and Arthur Evenchik, who coordinates the Emerging Scholars program at CWRU. In this class, the students initiated the conversation about their identities and how society responds to difference. I had to fight my instinct to offer platitudes or attempt to shelter them.

The next time we met, I thanked them for their honesty and gave them some of my own. I affirmed that we live in a culture of institutionalized racism, sexism, classism and homophobia, and these systems color everything we do, think and see. We must confront the edifice of what Ta-Nehisi Coates recently (and rightfully) called the foundation of white supremacy in the United States, and, arguably, the world.  We need to stop justifying our past, and instead bear witness and listen. If we could do so with compassion, respect and acceptance, even when we ourselves feel threatened or ashamed, then we will start to inhabit change. Using Anisfield-Wolf books as their workshop, that is precisely what the students created over the course of the semester. They instituted their own community of change.

When I am asked how I teach in this arena and why, I experience an acute sense of panic.  There is no clear answer. Why do I teach things that keep me up at night?  Because I am part of the system. I am culpable. And I’m absolutely furious that my young, brilliant students are regularly degraded by racism, sexism, religious intolerance and homophobia. What is different in my approach? Are my materials different?  Do I use clever assignments or cutting edge technology? What I do is I stop talking. Every morning, before each class, group and meeting, every night, I tell myself: “Stop. Listen. It’s not you, it’s about them.” I try to hear the ideas and experiences of my students and meet them where they are in their lives.

Listening to my students, I find a generation that thinks creatively about politics, gender, race, sexualities.  They consume music and media differently than I do and express themselves in new ways. Their desire for inclusion and capacity for acceptance astonishes me; they inspire me to think more fluidly about myself. They have changed me profoundly as a teacher and as a human being.

Edith Anisfield Wolf created the book awards to recognize literature dedicated to fostering conversations about tolerance and cultural acceptance. Through these books and my students, I am constantly working to hear what I think was her real message: Listen.

Anisfield-Wolf winner Toni Morrison found herself on stage at the Hay Festival in Wales May 28, the same day her friend Maya Angelou died in North Carolina at the age of 86. The obvious question—”Do you have any words to say about her life and legacy?”—was coming.

“She launched African-American women writing in the United States,” Morrison said, choosing her words carefully. “She was generous to a fault. She had 19 talents…used 10. She was a real original. There’s no duplicate.”

The friendship between Morrison and Angelou spanned more than 40 years. In 1973, Angelou wrote to Morrison after she finished reading Sula, telling her, “This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read.” Their friendship deepened as they continued to cross paths and support one another’s work over the decades. When Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, Angelou threw a party at her Winston-Salem home.

In 2012, Angelou traveled to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to toast Morrison’s contributions to literature. Poet Nikki Giovanni organized “Sheer Good Fortune,” a two-day celebration on the Blacksburg campus where she has taught since 1987. The guest list was historic, with Rita Dove, Edwidge Danticat, Sonia Sanchez and Angela Davis in attendance.

The writers assembled at Giovanni’s request, as a show of solidarity after the quick death of Morrison’s son Slade from pancreatic cancer in 2010. The gathering took its name from the dedication for Morrison’s 1973 novel, Sula :“It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”

Former poet laureate Rita Dove read from Song of Solomon. Poet Toi Derricotte selected a portion of Sula. Members of the Toni Morrison Society, now relocated to Oberlin, Ohio, performed a stirring passage from Beloved.

On stage, Maya Angelou smiled at the crowd and praised her friend for liberating her as a younger woman. “That is what this woman has done through 10 books: loving, respecting, and appreciating the African-American woman and all the things she goes through.”

Later, Morrison said, “This is as good as it gets.”

She gave credit to Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings for helping her discover the meaning in her work. “I had not seen that kind of contemporary clarity, honesty…sentences that were more than what happened, but how….I took sustenance from that. The door was open, so black women writers stepped through.”

Sheer Good Fortune – A Documentary from virginiatech on Vimeo.

The world almost lost Lorraine Hansberry’s most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, before it ripened. 

In a moment of frustration, Hansberry threw the script in the trash. Luckily for us, her husband retrieved it from the wastebasket in their New York City apartment and set it aside for her to complete. She did. 

Two years later, on March 11, 1959, it debuted on Broadway, earning Hansberry the distinction of being the youngest dramatist and the first African-American to win the Best Play award from the New York Drama Critics Circle. The story focuses on the Younger clan, a hard-working Black family in Chicago dreaming of moving up in the world after their patriarch’s passing. 

After several revivals, the play continues to speak to the nation’s racial turmoil and inequality. The current iteration, starring Denzel Washington as the dreaming and scheming Walter Lee Younger, wraps its run on Broadway this month. 

Co-director Tracy Heather Strain has been working nine years to produce the first full-length documentary on the artist, with the hopes of releasing the film in time for the 50th anniversary of her death. (Hansberry was only 34 in 1965 when she died of pancreatic cancer.) Strain’s previous work includes the six-part PBS series I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts, which included a short segment on Hansberry. Strain has completed interviews with some of Hansberry’s close friends and family, as well as several of the actors who starred in her plays—Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, and Louis Gossett Jr.

The documentary has reached 75% of its $100,000 goal, poised to hit its target in the final two weeks. The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded the producers a $500,000 production grant, but the money is contingent on making the $100,000 goal.

Watch the Kickstarter video below. Tell us: would you be interested in supporting this film?