Sharp-eyed Clevelanders can still spot John Anisfield’s name on the side of his old garment factory, which employed more than 700 workers a century ago. The clothing manufacturer at E. 22nd and Superior Avenue has been shuttered long decades, but the imprint of Anisfield, his fortune, and his progressive notions carry briskly into the 21st century.

John Anisfield was 16 and nearly penniless when he arrived in Cleveland in 1876, but he had an uncle, Dr. James Horowitz, who was able to place his Viennese nephew into the employ of the D. Black Cloak Company. Young John proved a quick study, rose to become a manager, quit and struck out into garment making on his own, just six years after he set foot in Cleveland.

The Civil War had remade the way Americans clothed themselves, as it remade so much of the country. The U.S. Army had taken millions of measurements of boys and men, begetting a system for sizing men’s clothing. This system and increasing mechanization fueled the ready-to-wear market from the 1860s through the 1880s, which coincided with young John’s arrival.

For approximately a half century after the 1890s, seven percent of Cleveland’s workforce toiled in the city’s garment factories, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

Many of the founders and owners were Jews of German or Austrian-Hungarian extraction. Four of the nine founders of the Jewish Federation – the Federation of Jewish Welfare Charities of 1903 – led the local garment-making firms, said Dr. Sean Martin, curator for Jewish History at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

During this fertile period, John Anisfield began inviting his only child, Edith, downtown to his office on Saturdays, where the two would consider the family’s philanthropy. She was just 12 in 1901 when this consultation began – a full 19 years before the country decided to give women the right to vote with the 19th Amendment.

The forward-looking father and precocious daughter (Edith could read French, German, and English) sent money to Mount Sinai Hospital, the first such Cleveland institution to accept patients regardless of creed or color.  When John Anisfield died in 1929, his daughter took five years to decide how to honor him: a literary prize that became the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.

“The most important legacy of the garment industry is its philanthropic legacy,” historian Martin told a packed audience at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. “The wealth they generated – not just for themselves but for their employees – is still with us.”

Several years ago, Clevelander Anne Trubek attended the Anisfield-Wolf ceremony with an interest in hearing that year’s crop of winners speak. As she left, she realized that she had been exposed to one of Cleveland’s best kept cultural secrets.

The writer-in-residence at Oberlin College, author and literary critic tucked her experience in her back pocket and went on to co-edit Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. The idea was to share Cleveland stories that only Clevelanders could tell. After a huge response, Trubek’s format morphed into another repository for Cleveland stories — Belt magazine.

“I want Belt to tell some of the many amazing Cleveland stories that have not yet been told,” she said. “The Anisfield-Wolf Awards is one example. I decided, sometime in May, that it would be the first story.”

Trubek assigned the story to Kent State journalism professor Jacqueline Marino, who reported extensively to uncover the award’s history and provide a glimpse into the life of Edith Anisfield-Wolf. Marino said she was surprised how low-profile the woman remains, exactly 50 years after she died.

“I had never heard of the award,” Marino said. “But once I read about the winners, the jury, and especially founder Edith Anisfield-Wolf—this intriguing character from Cleveland’s history that no one seems to know much about—I was enthralled. She and her father contributed so much to Cleveland.”

Read the Belt magazine feature on Anisfield-Wolf and let us know if you agree.

The Anisfield-Wolf book prize turns 75 this year. Quite an accomplishment from a shy poet and philanthropist in Cleveland, who in 1935 had the insight to see race relations as the nation’s critical issue; one that could continue to eat away and destroy us if progress wasn’t made.

Edith Anisfield Wolf was passionate in her belief that we could break down stereotypes that arise from fear, myth, and ignorance. She wanted to encourage people to think beyond what they knew and what was familiar; to read works that open new worlds and ideas; and debate these critical issues to open and challenge our ways of thinking. It was her desire that through these conversations, participants and future generations would gain better understanding of others and appreciate the richness in our differences.

That’s why she created the Anisfield-Wolf book prize. Thanks to her vision, some of the world’s greatest literary voices are known and respected for their contributions to our nation’s cultural identity. Familiar authors, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Thurston, Ralph Ellison and Gwendolyn Brooks, weren’t always as well received as they are today due to the color of their skin or the subject matter of the works. That level of respect changed with the Anisfield-Wolf book prize, often referred to as the “Black Pulitzer” in its early years.

In today’s ever-more-global society, issues of race and cultural identity continue to both unite and divide us. Thanks to efforts such as the Anisfield-Wolf book prize, a greater number of diverse voices are participating in the conversation, opening and challenging our minds.

What works and writers have influenced you?

Are we closer to achieving Edith Anisfield Wolf’s vision of gaining a greater understanding and appreciation for others?

Tell us what you think.