The death of Louis Stokes last week brought back memories of his brother Carl. And because their amazing lives were so often intertwined, it is fitting that this week’s “Classroom” is devoted to Carl, the first African-American mayor of Cleveland.
At the very start of their lives, coming of age in the projects, Carl and Louis experienced what it meant to be brought up by a single parent after their father died in 1928, when Carl was 2. Their mother, Louise, worked as a maid, giving her boys the love and provisions they needed to succeed in life.
Born Carl Burton Stokes June 2, 1927, in Cleveland, the future lawyer and politician resided with his mother and brother in the Outhwaite Homes, the city’s first federally funded housing project. A year after Louis entered the military in 1943, Carl dropped out of high school and joined the Army. In 1946, both brothers were out of uniform and on their way to college.
After completing his high school education in 1947, Carl enrolled at West Virginia College and later attended Western Reserve before earning his B.S. degree from the University of Minnesota. In 1956, he earned his law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where his brother got his degree three years earlier. He passed the bar examination in 1957, then became an assistant prosecuting attorney for Cuyahoga County.
For the next five years, Carl Stokes worked as a prosecutor, leaving in 1962 to form a law firm with his brother and other partners. By this time, he had also married Shirley Edwards, but they divorced in 1973. Later that year, he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, the first African-American Democrat to hold such a position, and where he served three terms. As when he was a lawyer, civil rights and welfare issues were his top priorities as a legislator.
In 1965, Stokes entered the mayoral race in Cleveland but was defeated. Two years later, he tried again and this time was successful, becoming the city’s first African-American mayor. His election followed closely behind Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind., and he was the second Black mayor of a major American city. Getting a front-page endorsement from the city’s largest newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, enhanced his chances of winning. Out of 250,000 votes cast, he won by a narrow 2,500.
During his campaign, Stokes told audiences, “My style will be management by being on the street, management by walking around. Third persons won’t have to tell me what’s going on in our city. I’ll hear it, I’ll see it and I’ll touch it myself.”
And there was a lot to hear, see and feel. It came as no surprise that he had inherited a racially polarized city—it was something he had realized all along. One response to his divided city, where most of the Black residents lived on the east side of the Cuyahoga River, was the creation of a program called “Cleveland Now!” It was a privately funded organization to assist and deal with a number of community needs.
He was hardly settled in the mayoral office when a major riot erupted in 1968 in the Glenville section of the city. Later, it was disclosed that the organizers of the riots, chiefly political activist Fred Ahmed Evans, were recipients of funds from Cleveland Now! The incident ended the program, and the mayor’s credibility took a devastating blow. Afterwards, he found it futile to improve relations between the police and the community; the disturbance had left considerable property loss and a practically irreparable chasm among residents. It was so damaging that Stokes, after being re-elected in 1969, decided against running for a third term.
His legacy as a mayor was fraught with political difficulties, racial turmoil and fiscal problems. Even so, there were some accomplishments, most notably his persuasion of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to allocate renewal funds that had been frozen during the previous administration. Almost simultaneously with this measure, he requested that the City Council increase the city income tax from .5 percent to 1 percent. Under his watch, the Equal Employment Opportunity Ordinance was passed, requiring firms doing business with the city to have active programs to increase their minority employment. Also, spending was increased for schools, welfare and public safety. Stokes oversaw a $100 million bond issue that was approved by voters to improve the city’s sewage treatment facilities.
In 1970, he was elected as the first Black president of the National League of Cities. He achieved another breakthrough in 1972 as the first African-American television news anchor on WNBC in New York City (a similar position now held by his niece Lori Stokes at WABC-TV). He won an Emmy Award for his reporting. The reporting may have spurred his inclination to write because he published his autobiography, “Promises of Power,” in 1973.
His second marriage was to Raija Kostadinov in 1981. They divorced in 1993 and then remarried three years later. He had three children from his first marriage, Carl Jr., Cordi and Cordell, and a daughter, Cynthia, and stepson, Sasha Kostadinov, from his second marriage.
President Bill Clinton appointed Stokes as U.S. ambassador to the Seychelles, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, in 1994. Among his numerous awards were 12 honorary degrees. He represented the U.S. on several goodwill trips abroad at the request of the White House.
Stokes was serving as ambassador when he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Upon his return to Cleveland for treatment, he died April 3, 1996.
The U.S. Federal Courthouse Tower in downtown Cleveland, completed in 2002, is now called the Carl B. Stokes Federal Court House Building. There are several other locations that bear his name, including Stokes Boulevard.
Both Stokes brothers were honored in 2006 at Western Reserve Historical Society with an exhibit citing their contributions to politics, having arisen from the projects. The exhibit, encapsulating their lives, ran up until September 2008.