Telling the Larger Story: What Ohio Humanities funding has meant to us
The following is a guest blog post by:
Kathleen H. Crowther, President, Cleveland Restoration Society
With vital support from Ohio Humanities, the rich tapestry of Cleveland stories is coming to life through Cleveland Restoration Society’s work in Ward 1. As a local heritage organization and a Partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, our expertise is in architecture, historic styles and the many methods to preserve older buildings and landmarks. A couple of years ago, Cleveland Restoration Society embarked upon a journey to create deeper meaning in our work by engaging with residents to tell the story of place. Prompted by Ward 1 Cleveland Councilman Terrell Pruitt, we selected Lee-Harvard, an under-appreciated neighborhood that at the time, had no formal record of its distinctive Cleveland history. C.R.S. staff conducted oral histories with community elders and discovered what residents there had known all along: that it was the historic “move-up” neighborhood for Cleveland’s middling class of African Americans where many of Cleveland’s nationally notable African American leaders were born and raised. Here, a rising generation achieved the American Dream of home ownership, an excellent education for their children, a car in the drive, and a grill in the back yard. By analyzing the design and development of Lee-Harvard we also discovered it was a rare example of a mid-century modern “suburb in the city.” One distinctive part of the neighborhood was developed by an African-American builder named Arthur Bussey who came north during the Great Migration. With this history well documented, we needed help in taking the next step, to tell this important story to larger world.
We approached Ohio Humanities for funding through their competitive grants program. Right from the start, it was clear that Ohio Humanities program staff were willing to support our effort in ways beyond simply helping to secure funds. They became vital collaborators in our work and have helped shape the project in countless ways. They started by recommending a talented, emerging scholar, Dr. Todd Michney, who—fortuitously—was just then completing a book that spoke directly to Lee-Harvard’s significance: Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900–1980s. They made thoughtful recommendations on program format and asked us to consider strategic outcomes at this early stage.
With funding from Ohio Humanities in place, Dr. Michney adapted his research to the specific story of Lee-Harvard. This was presented to the public when he gave two well-attended talks to hundreds of Clevelanders. He researched and wrote a biography of Arthur Bussey that was presented in a printed brochure that helped us share this unique story, even as it was unfolding. We worked with partners at Cleveland Memory to establish an online Lee-Harvard archive that would make these initial findings publically available. With additional coaching from Ohio Humanities staff, Cleveland Restoration resubmitted an application to the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “Common Heritage” program, for funding to gather and digitize photographs and other materials to expand the story. And this time we were successful!
With this important groundwork in place we needed to take the final important step of gathering all these strands together to produce a commemorative publication that would represent this important neighborhood in a permanent fashion. We applied again to Ohio Humanities for a major grant to cover the significant costs of the project. Once again, Ohio Humanities program staff worked with us, making helpful suggestions that streamlined the application writing process and led us to success.
These efforts have lifted up Lee-Harvard’s remarkable stories of black agency and success despite systemic barriers, and celebrated an important American place. And it is clear that this multifaceted project will continue to grow: We are just now beginning to work with the Cleveland Public Library and schools serving Lee-Harvard to create research projects for students to integrate this important local history into the curriculum.
Without the active support of Ohio Humanities, all of this would not be possible. It has been and continues to be a joint effort. The Lee-Harvard project will significantly expand our understanding of how one demographic group navigated countless barriers to achieve the American Dream and create a distinctive place with a rich legacy. The story is just beginning.
Kathleen H. Crowther is the long-time director of the Cleveland Restoration Society. During her tenure, the C.R.S. has grown dramatically into a large and influential preservation body. The organization is particularly adept at developing partnerships that align historic preservation with economic development goals. Ms. Crowther has served in leadership capacities on the state and national levels, particularly in association with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (USA). Ms. Crowther was selected as the first local executive director to chair the National Trust’s Statewide and Local Partners Program. In 2010-11, she was a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome where she conducted research on the links between Cleveland’s urban fabric and the legacy of ancient Rome.