Standing Up For America

The riot that sent my family to the suburbs

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Don Surber

The riot that sent my family to the suburbs

The Washington Post owned by Jeff Bezos reported on October 30, 2019, “Former first lady Michelle Obama shared painful memories of growing up in Chicago’s South Side and gave a reminder to white people in attendance at the Obama Foundation Summit on Tuesday: ‘Y’all were running from us, and you’re still running,’ she said.

She’s a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law, y’all.

The Bezos Post story went on, saying, “Obama was talking about the white flight she experienced growing up in a South Side neighborhood. ‘White flight’ is when white people leave increasingly diverse areas in large numbers.”

Her family moved out of a largely black neighborhood into a largely white one.

In her speech, she said, “As we moved in, white folks moved out, because they were afraid of what our families represented. Y’all were running from us. And you’re still running.”

Via People magazine, she also said, “I want to remind white folks that y’all were running from us. And you’re still running, because we’re no different from the immigrant families that are moving in today. . . . But because we can so easily wash over who we really were — because of the color of our skin, because of the texture of our hair — that’s what divides countries, the artificial things.”

I believe she meant superficial.

White people left quietly.

She said, “There were no gang fights; there were no territorial battles. Yet one by one, they packed their bags, and they ran from us. And they left communities in shambles.”

Hers is an odd argument in which it is OK for black people to move out of black neighborhoods but it is not OK for white people to move because if the white people move out, the whole neighborhood will collapse.

But white people did not move out because her blockbusting family moved in; the whites moved out because they knew crime would follow and it did. I noticed that she now lives in largely white neighborhoods — Kalorama in DC and Martha’s Vineyard — and not in Compton or any other black neighborhood.

A year after the first lady’s speech, William Voegeli took on Missus Obama’s take that white people were just being racist when they moved out.

He wrote, “With the help of Carlo Rotella’s The World Is Always Coming to an End (2019), we gain a fuller picture. Rotella, a journalist and Boston College English professor, was born the same year as Michelle Robinson and grew up five blocks from her house.”

The fear of black people was not the texture of Michelle Obama’s hair but the crime brought by other poorer black people who followed her family in.

Voegeli wrote, “Whites’ fear of crime, Rotella says, ‘wasn’t unfounded, nor was it simply reducible to white people reacting to the arrival of black people.’ The many neighbors who moved away during his adolescence had their reasons, ‘but the way the story of their departure got told often took the form of ‘enough is enough’ after a gunpoint robbery, home invasion, or similar last-straw outrage.’ One former South Shore resident interviewed for Rotella’s book said simply, ‘Who wants to get used to living like that?’

“The last-straw outrage for some came in 1970, when, during an attempted robbery, a young black man shot and killed Manny Lazar, owner of the Wee Folks toy store. Lazar was ‘beloved by generations of children in the neighborhood,’ says Rotella. His daughter, Caryn Lazar Amster, published a memoir, The Pied Piper of South Shore (2005), which quotes one of her father’s former customers: ‘The day Mr. Wee Folks was shot was, for many of us, the day that South Shore died.’”

Real fears are neither phobias nor racism. Real fears are why a factory worker barely making above minimum wage to feed her five kids scrimped and saved to get a down payment for a home on the other side of town where you could again walk free at night safe from burglary. My mother wanted the safe and secure childhood she had at 10007 Hulda Avenue in Cleveland for the children she was raising there. It also was her childhood home.

Riots in the summer of 1966 — something unheard of before in Cleveland — forced Mom to move us.

200 Cleveland police officers were enough to quell the first riot in June. Mayor Ralph Locher then unveiled a bold reinvestment plan for black community on July 5. Two weeks, later, the black community responded with a week of thugs throwing rocks, snipers shooting, and arsonists throwing fire bombs that destroyed hundreds of white middle class business businesses. The mayor called in 1,700 National Guardsmen to restore order.

The message to white people was clear: Get Out. We did.

As victors get to write history, the Hough Riot is re-packaged now as an uprising for better homes and jobs — the very things Mayor Locher had offered two weeks before the riot.

Cleveland State University’s Cleveland Historical site spun it, “Sparked by a minor racially charged dispute at a neighborhood bar, the July uprising in Hough brought widespread looting, arson and destruction. While impacting the entire community, primary targets were white-owned stores, abandoned buildings, and residences owned by absentee landlords. As symbols of civic authority, police officers and firemen were met with violence; no white civilians were attacked. Conversely, an African American was fatally shot by a patrol of white vigilantes while driving to work. Three additional Black residents of Hough were also killed by unknown assailants during the week.

‘“Outbreaks of violence diminished in severity beginning July 22nd. Local ministers, civic leaders and community activists met the following morning in an effort to establish peace and address the problems that incited the tragic events. Mayor Locher refused to attend, but was presented with the underlying causes of the uprising on July 25th in City Council by Hough area councilman M. Morris Jackson.”

That minor dispute was not small to the Feigenbaum family. They owned and ran the Seventy-Niner’s Café bar at the corner of East 79th and Hough. They hung on as the neighborhood changed and had black customers.

Following a robbery on July 18, the staff refused to give ice water to a black man a few hours later. A mob quickly formed and stoned the place and then tried to burn the joint down with two Feigenbaum men in it. Police refused to respond. The family called the fire department. When firefighters arrived, the mob threw rocks at them.

The mob’s rationalization was someone may or may not have used the N-word — a word that so offends people that it is now used in every other rap song. Under liberal logic, you can destroy the livelihood of hundreds of innocent white shop owners because there is a rumor that someone said the word in a bar miles away.

Uprising? The mobs of rioters firebombed hundreds of white-owned businesses — most of them mom-and-pop enterprises — and destroyed the livelihoods of scores of white people for no reason at all. It was not an uprising. It was a week of kristallnachts. The scholars at Case Western Reserve and Cleveland State University ignore white plight. There is only one storyline in their fairy tale. The depth of their intellect is two grunts: Black good, white bad.

Their narrative is that righteous black anger justified the destruction of the livelihoods of hundreds of people who had nothing to do with the bar.

The next year, Cleveland elected the first black mayor of a major city, Carl Stokes. The year after that, it suffered the Glenville Riots. As a mayor, he made a good TV anchorman, which he became in New York after four years as mayor of Cleveland. But Cleveland later named a courthouse after him, so that was nice.

As for Hough, its population peaked at 71,575 in 1960. Then the whites moved out and the population fell to 45,487 in 1970. Then the blacks moved out until there were only 10,755 people left in the last census. The scholars blame white flight for the failure of majority black neighborhoods. The reality is black rioters destroyed Hough and adjacent areas.

Black flight is real, but it is OK. The scholars say black people are just trying to escape inner-city crime.

The Atlantic reported last fall, “The benefits of suburbanization for Black Americans have not been limited to money, but have also extended more broadly to quality of life. One recent study from the Philadelphia Fed showed that in 1980, Black commuters spent about 50 more minutes commuting each week than their white counterparts. The researchers speculate that ‘racialized patterns of suburbanization’ played a role in this gap as well. By 2019, the difference in commuting times between Black and white workers had dropped by more than half.”

In his story on white flight, Voegeli wrote, “The dangers that, 50 years ago, caused the Robinsons’ white neighbors to move away are now causing black families to abandon South Shore.”

We did not live in the Hough area but Mom did not want to wait until Woodland Hills became the next Hough.

Mom bought a house in Lakewood within a month after the Hough riots. Lakewood is a nearly all-white suburb way over on the other side of Cleveland. I would like to say we lived happily ever after but my problems unrelated to race prevented that.

In my 69 years, no black man or woman has done any harm to me. Many have helped me. And affirmative action did not keep me out of Harvard. I got that rejection letter on my own.

To write off as racist my mother’s sacrifice to move her family out of harm’s way is an absurdity and a libel. We weren’t running because of racism. We don’t care about Michelle’s hair. We just didn’t want to get hit by rocks or have our house burned down in the next riot because of the color of our skin.