LEE-SEVILLE is a Cleveland neighborhood and Statistical Planning Area (SPA) on the city’s southeast side. It is bounded roughly by Miles Ave. on the north, I 480 on the south, the suburbs of NORTH RANDALL and WARRENSVLLE HTS. on the east, and E. 141st St. and E. 144th St. on the west.
Prior to the 1920s the area now known as Lee-Seville—then a segment of WARRENSVILLE TWP.-- was largely unsettled. This began to change in 1920 when the People’s Realty Co., founded by African American (see AFRICAN AMERICANS) businessman HERBERT S. CHAUNCEY, purchased about 100 lots in the already subdivided Bella Villa allotment, just west of the intersection of Lee and Seville rds. The Great Migration was bringing black southern migrants to the city and numerous families were looking to leave the overly crowded Central neighborhood. Chauncey believed that black families would buy lots in Bella Villa and then save to build their houses, much like others had already done in the MOUNT PLEASANT area.
About 20 houses already existed in Bella Villa when Chauncy began selling lots in 1921. Also in use was Beehive School, built in 1917 and which remained open until 1980. The building was demolished in 2009. In 1925 the area’s first church—Canaan Missionary Baptist—was erected, and by 1927 the People’s Realty Co. was reputed to be “the largest realty organization managed by colored people in the city of Cleveland.” That same year, the area was incorporated into the new village of Miles Hts.
In 1929 the mayor of Miles Hts. died and Arthur R. Johnston, president of the village council, became one of Ohio’s first African American mayors. At the time only about one third of Miles Hts.’ population was black, and Johnston won formal election later that year with white support contributing to his margin of victory. However, amid fiscal challenges and allegations of corruption, Cuyahoga County Commissioners voted to dissolve Miles Hts. and annex it to Cleveland in December 1931. In 1932 a majority of villagers approved annexation, making what are now the Lee-Seville and Lee-Miles SPAs part of the City of Cleveland.
By 1930, 135 black families lived in the Bella Villa enclave—roughly 95% of the total population. Ninety percent owned their homes. A grocery store, delicatessen, another church (Original Church of God) and even a “Sportsmen’s Club” were in operation by the end of the 1940s.
White and Black residents coexisted in reasonable harmony in early Miles Hts., but by the late 1930s more racist policies descended on Bella Villa. In 1939 the Home Owners Loan Corp. redlined the settlement as a bad investment, calling it a shantytown with a “very detrimental effect on surrounding area property values.” A 1945 newspaper article referred to the area as “Cleveland’s Tobacco Road.”
In 1943, citing a severe housing shortage in the Central neighborhood, the CLEVELAND METROPOLITAN HOUSING AUTHORITY filed to build the Seville Homes as “temporary war housing” for black foundry workers arriving from the South, on 49 acres at the intersection of Seville Rd. and E. 153rd St. Objections from residents of MAPLE HEIGHTS and GARFIELD HEIGHTS delayed construction until 1944. Designed by ABRAM GARFIELD, the project ultimately comprised around 2,000 residents in more than 100 low-rise buildings. The structures remained until 1958.
In the late 1940s a group called the Miles Heights Progressive League launched a campaign demanding sewers, paved roads, sidewalks and door-to-door mail service. The city responded by instituting mail delivery, repairing streets, installing some sidewalks, upgrading streetlights and initiating sewer construction. However, full water and sewer service was not completed until 1954. By 1950 3,400 African Americans lived in Lee-Seville.
Attempts to obstruct black settlement in Lee-Seville continued. In 1951 a zoning change from residential to industrial was approved for a parcel of land at Lee and Seville rds. The underlying purpose of this zoning change was to make less land available for black residents and to sabotage their chances of getting favorable FHA-insured loans. Despite a citywide campaign organized by the NAACP, the change went through and the Electric Controller Co. opened for business. Its owners quickly reneged on their promise to hire black workers. In 1961 zoning for another industrial park was approved for the area, prompting one black community leader to remark “We are trying to build up a nice neighborhood but instead we’re being surrounded by factories.”
Nonetheless, black residents and community leaders persisted, even making an alliance of convenience with white residents in rejecting 1952 proposals for more permanent public housing and for private apartments that would have been open to African Americans, (the latter demonstrating that residents prioritized single-family housing above all else). During the 1950s and 1960s, black-owned construction companies and contractors worked to build dozens of houses for middle-class black families, with white-owned firms also contributing several hundred additional homes. In 1968-69, Lee-Seville homeowners frustrated Mayor CARL B. STOKES’s plans to build “scatter-site” public housing in the neighborhood, prompting him to call them “black bigots.”
Most recent statistics show that, Lee-Seville remains a scatted mix of residential enclaves and manufacturing/distribution facilities. The neighborhood’s population is roughly 4,600, 95% of whom are black, 1% are white and 4% classified as “other.” Just over 30% of Lee-Seville’s citizens live below the poverty line.
Michney, Todd. Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
Michney, Todd, and Gimbal, Carolyn. The Making of Cleveland’s Black Suburb in the City: Lee-Seville & Lee-Harvard (Cleveland Restoration Society, 2019).
Moore, Leonard. “Class Conflicts over Residential Space in an African-American Community: Cleveland’s Lee-Seville Public Housing Controversy,” Ohio History (2002).
Watson, Wilbur. The Village: An Oral Historical and Ethnographic Study of a Black Community (Village Vanguard, 1989).