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Encyclopedia of Cleveland History



The NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE (NAACP), Cleveland Branch, is an interracial organization formed to fight discrimination against AFRICAN AMERICANS. It was established 12 Dec. 1912, 3 years after the creation of the national organization. Local supporters of the national movement included CHARLES W. CHESNUTT and HARRY C. SMITH. The Cleveland branch was at one time among the largest in the U.S., and remained an avid proponent of moderate tactics in the 1980s. The group was responsible for the 1976 decision by the U.S. Federal District Court that led to busing to end segregation in the CLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS. The Cleveland Chapter was established in the home of Frances E. Young by 21 people concerned about discrimination in the post office. A mass meeting attracted 200 members, but the financially unstable organization grew slowly and lacked a headquarters until 1922. Under the first 3 chairmen, the NAACP was mostly a discussion club. A renewed effort in 1922 attracted 1,600 people. Vigorous leaders such as CLAYBORNE GEORGE, HARRY E. DAVIS, and CHARLES W. WHITE drew action-oriented professionals and white-collar workers. Prior to 1927, RUSSELL JELLIFFE of KARAMU HOUSE was the only white member of the local NAACP board, but during the 1930s and 1940s, it added whites to attract more money and public support from the white community. Though it had a somewhat middle-class emphasis, the Cleveland NAACP made a special effort to reach working-class blacks through meetings held in mills and factories, and derived some 40% of its funds from $1 memberships, presumably gathered from workers.

After 1920 the local chapter successfully challenged exclusionary policies in theaters, restaurants, and other public facilities, and stores such as the Higbee Co. (see DILLARD DEPT. STORES) that refused to allow black women to try on clothing. In addition, the organization led the legal fight for fair housing in the SUBURBS (see FAIR HOUSING PROGRAMS) and advocated for blacks extradited to the South on trumped-up charges. By 1940 the branch was active enough to warrant a part-time secretary; by 1945 a full-time executive secretary was hired. With a paid professional staff, the organization took on more cases and actively recruited members and publicized its work. As a result, the branch had 10,000 members within a year, the 6th-largest in the nation. The Cleveland NAACP of the 1940s and 1950s was at the forefront of efforts to eliminate discrimination in AMUSEMENT PARKS and other public places as well as housing, employment, and education.

By the 1960s NAACP tactics were labeled too conservative by many African Americans. For a time the local group united with other groups in the UNITED FREEDOM MOVEMENT and Operation Black Unity. Among the chapter's legal victories of the 1960s was the redistricting that led to the formation of the 21st Congressional District. The organization also challenged the building trades for their exclusionary policies. The local's membership peaked in 1963 at 15,240 and made it the largest branch in the country. In 1973 Cleveland was chosen as a site for the NAACP's long-term battle against school segregation. The Cleveland Chapter filed suit against the Cleveland Board of Education, which was found guilty of intentional segregation. In the 1980s the NAACP tried to broaden public perceptions of its purpose, but ongoing problems in implementing the desegregation decision demanded most of its resources. In 1993, a local pastor, Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., became the executive director of the national NAACP. The 28% membership increase for 1993-94 was among the largest in the nation. The branch received the Thalheimer Award from the National Office for outstanding recruitment of members.

While upholding its historic commitment to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination, the local NAACP chapter strove to expand its civic mission in the 21st century to address the crippling problems plaguing the African American community, such as unemployment and home foreclosures. Among the programs proffered by the local chapter to the city's residents were voter registration and information, the Carl B. Stokes Scholarship Program for graduating high school students, and the Afro Academic Cultural Technological Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO), an annual competition in performing arts, visual arts, humanities, science, and business for African-American students in grades 9 through 12. In cooperation with the PHILLIS WHEATLEY ASSOCIATION, the NAACP sponsored a leadership camp every summer for boys, ages 10 to 13, at Camp Mueller in the CUYAHOGA VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, where the youngsters learned team building, conflict resolution, and the role of fathers in a home. The local chapter also honored prominent national and local figures at the annual Freedom Fund Dinner.

The membership of the Cleveland chapter of the NAACP declined markedly in the last few years, reaching about 3,000 members in 2005, 85% of whom were over the age of 50. As of 2009, the membership stood at about 2,500. George L. Forbes, the former president of the Cleveland City Council, served as the president of the Cleveland chapter since 1992, earning the top honor bestowed by the organization, the Freedom Award, in 2009. Stanley R. Miller, a longtime member of the local NAACP board and a public relations specialist, assumed the duties of the executive director in 2005. The offices of the Cleveland chapter of the NAACP were located at 2131 Stokes Blvd.

NAACP, Cleveland Branch Records, WRHS