CAPERS, JEAN (EUGENIA) MURRELL (11 January, 1913-18 July, 2017) in 1949 became the first African-American woman elected to Cleveland City Council. Despite the challenges of being both black and female, she enjoyed a long, lively, and contentious career in public life.

Capers was born in Georgetown, Kentucky to two educators, Edward and Dolly Murrell, who moved the family to Cleveland in 1919. She went to WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY (now CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY) on a full scholarship, as one of its few black students. She taught briefly in Cleveland public schools and became active in the FUTURE OUTLOOK LEAGUE. During her brief first marriage, she made a name for herself as a tennis competitor, becoming the first black woman to win the Greater Cleveland Tennis Championship in 1938. Aspiring to a career in public service, she graduated from Cleveland Law School (now CLEVELAND-MARSHALL SCHOOL OF LAW) and passed the bar in 1945.

Capers had already begun her political career in 1943, staging an unsuccessful write-in campaign for Cleveland City Council.  She ran twice more, in the meantime being appointed assistant police prosecutor by Mayor THOMAS A. BURKE, before finally winning a seat in 1949.  As the first Democrat to be elected from what had been an historically Republican ward, she held the seat for ten tumultuous years, during which time she fought for a neighborhood swimming pool for her ward and sponsored a street beautification contest; her constituents remained loyal. But she quarreled with the Democratic leadership in council, who alleged she had ties with rackets figures and criticized her poor attendance record at meetings.  She in turn criticized the city's massive urban renewal program, maintaining that it destroyed African-American neighborhoods.  She also became a frequent target of the CLEVELAND CALL AND POST, the black-owned Republican weekly for which she had been a columnist in the 1930s.

After losing her Council seat in 1959, Capers became an assistant Ohio Attorney General. She staged two more unsuccessful bids for office – in the Democratic primary for state Senate in 1960 and in the primary race for her former council seat in 1963. In 1965, she supported CARL B. STOKES’ failed independent campaign in the Cleveland mayoral race. Two years later, however, she backed Republican Seth Taft in his unsuccessful mayoral run against Stokes. She continued to feud with Stokes, and, as the lawyer for Lee-Seville home-owners, she defeated his plans to put scatter-site public housing in that neighborhood.

In March 1971, Capers initiated a run for mayor as an independent but did not get enough valid signatures to put her name on the ballot. In 1976, she ran unsuccessfully for Juvenile Court judge as a Republican, returning to her parents’ political roots; her former foe, the Call and Post, now endorsed her. Republican Governor James A. Rhodes appointed her to a municipal judgeship in 1977, a position she held until her mandatory retirement in 1986. She was publicly reprimanded by the Ohio Supreme Court in 1985 for supporting an appellate court candidate in 1982.

Capers remained outspoken and politically active after her retirement. She was an advocate for women, especially black women, in public life, in 1968 establishing the Black Women’s Forum. In 1991, she filed a lawsuit again the Cuyahoga County Republican leadership for not appointing her to a Cuyahoga County commissioner’s seat. She opposed George Forbes' election as president of the local NAACP in 1993. At age 85, she ran as an independent for the 11th Congressional District seat vacated by LOUIS STOKES; she was handily defeated by STEPHANIE TUBBS JONES.  

Capers was recognized for her long, difficult years in public life by a lifetime achievement award from the Cleveland YWCA, by induction into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame, and with the Norman S. Minor Bar Association Trailblazer Award and the Ohio State Bar Association’s Nettie Cronise Lutes Award.

Capers died on July 18, 2017 and is buried at Highland Park Cemetery. Her husband of fifty-three years, Clifford E. Capers, died in 1996.

Marian Morton

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