Carl B. Stokes
Stokes, Carl B. 1927—
Carl B. Stokes 1927—
Politician, broadcaster, jurist, diplomat
Carl Stokes gained national recognition on November 13, 1967, when he was elected mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, becoming the first black ever elected to that office in a major American city. After serving two terms as mayor, he became a television news correspondent and anchorman in New York City. Returning to Cleveland, he served for many years as a judge in the city’s municipal court before being appointed U.S. ambassador to the African Republic of the Seychelles.
Stokes was born in 1927 in Central, Ohio, a poor, predominantly black Cleveland neighborhood. His father, Louis, a laundry worker, died two years later. Carl and his younger brother, Louis, were raised by their mother, Louise, on her small earnings as a cleaning women and supplemental welfare aid. “Study, so you’ll be somebody,” she constantly exhorted her children, according to Time.
The struggling family lived in the first floor of a rickety old two-story house in the black ghetto. They covered the house’s many rat holes with the tops of tin cans. A coal stove in the living room provided the only heat. All three shared one bed, wrapping heated bricks or a flatiron in flannel to keep the bedroom warm in the winter.
Cleveland was the first city in the country to accept federal funds to construct housing for the poor. In 1938, when Carl was 11, the family moved into a new housing project. For the first time they had hot and cold running water, a washing machine, refrigerator, central heat, and two bedrooms. One block away from their new home was the project’s recreation center, complete with swimming pool, boxing ring, ping pong tables, and art classes. Carl took full advantage of the facilities, learning to box and play ping pong.
Once Stokes reached high school, his formerly good grades began to deteriorate. “Reading was against the mores,” he later told Time. “All of us looked on boxing as a way of life. You had to fight.” He began hanging around pool halls instead of the recreation center. At 17 he dropped out of school and went to work in a local foundry. Shortly after his 18th birthday, Stokes joined the army.
Basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, was an eye-opening experience for this ghetto youth. In his autobiography,
Born Carl Burton Stokes, June 21, 1927, in Cleveland, OH; son of Charles (a laundry worker) and Louise Stone Stokes (a domestic worker); married Edith Shirley Edwards, 1958 (divorced, 1973); married Raija Kostadinov; children: (second marriage) Carl, Jr., Cordi, Cordell, (third marriage) Cynthia Sofia. Education: Attended West Virginia State College, 1947-48, and Western Reserve University, 1948-50; University of Minnesota, B.S., 1954; Cleveland Marshall Law School, J.D., 1956. Military service: U.S. Army, corporal, European Theater of Operations, 1945-46.
Enforcement agent, Ohio Department of Liquor Control, 1950-52; partner, Minor McCurdy Stokes & Stokes (law firm), 1956-58; assistant city prosecutor, Cleveland, 1958-62; state representative, Ohio State Assembly, 1962-67; mayor of Cleveland, 1967-72; news correspondent and anchorman, WNBC-TV, New York City, 1972-80; senior partner, Green Schiavoni Murphy Haines & Sgambati (law firm), 1980-82; partner, Stokes & Character (law firm), 1982-83; Cleveland Municipal Court, presiding administrative judge, 1983-86, chief judge, 1986-94; U.S. ambassador, Republic of the Seychelles, 1994—.
Addresses: Office— American Embassy, Victoria House, Victoria, Mahé, Seychelles, Indian Ocean.
Promises of Power, Stokes recalls it as the time when he learned to hate white people. So fearful was he of being racially humiliated by the local southern townsfolk that he never left the shelter of the base throughout his training. Sent to U.S.–occupied Germany, Stokes continued his boxing, won the table-tennis championship of the European Theater of World War II, and became involved in a serious relationship with a local German woman. His two army years convinced him of the wisdom of his mother’s advice about scholarship; discharged in 1946, he returned to Cleveland and completed his high school degree.
The next year he enrolled at West Virginia State College, a black school. To get a better education, he transferred after a year to Western Reserve University in Cleveland. While in school, he began to work with John Holly, the chief political organizer of Cleveland’s black community. Holly became Stokes’s mentor, securing for him an after-school job at one of the Ohio Department of Liquor control stores. But Stokes left school in 1950 to take a full-time position as a state liquor enforcement agent. His first posting was in Canton, Ohio. His assignment there was to close down illegal bootleg operations in the town’s black neighborhood. On his first case, he pistol-whipped the owner of an unlicensed bar into submission. Before long, he had the second-highest arrest record among the department’s 85 inspectors.
Transferred to Dayton, Stokes met and married Edith Smith, a girl from a middle-class black family, in 1951. Toledo was his next posting—until a shoot-out in a bar forced a career reassessment. Setting his sights higher, Stokes decided that becoming a lawyer would be his next step. In 1952 he enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s undergraduate law program.
It took Stokes two years to get his bachelor’s degree in law. During this time his marriage broke up. He worked weekends as a waiter on the Rock Island Rocket passenger train to Dallas to make ends meet. After graduating in 1954, he returned to Cleveland, moved back in with his mother, enrolled in the Cleveland Marshall School of Law, and began working as a probation officer for the Cleveland Municipal Court. Two years later he had his law degree. The day he passed the bar in June of 1957, he quit his probation job and entered into a law practice with his brother. That year he also joined the Young Democrats and began to get involved in local politics. He became the campaign manager for a black candidate working to defeat a white incumbent in a black city council district. That campaign proved a success.
Stokes quickly became acquainted with the leaders of Cleveland’s black community. Following their advice, he started working with many of the city’s civic and civil rights groups, including the Boy Scouts, community councils, NAACP, Urban League, and black churches. He volunteered his time to help with events, campaigns, and fund drives. He was learning the art of politics—working with people—and establishing valuable contacts for the future.
By 1958 Stokes was spending too much time on these activities to concentrate on building his law practice. His old mentor, John Holly, helped him receive an appointment as assistant city police prosecutor. From this secure post, Stokes made unsuccessful runs in Democratic primaries as a candidate for the Ohio State Senate in 1958, and the state legislature in 1960. Two years later, however, the results were different: Stokes won his party’s nomination and the general election to the Ohio House of Representatives, becoming the first black Democrat ever to sit in this body. He believed this victory was due to his ability to appeal to both black and white voters.
Stokes proved a hardworking legislator and a political moderate, strongly supporting civil rights and welfare bills—he helped draft legislation establishing a state department of urban affairs, wrote a new mental-health services act, promoted gun control and tougher air-pollution control—while also sponsoring a bill giving the governor power to send the national guard into a city in advance of a potential riot. Re-elected twice, Stokes traveled 125,000 miles throughout the country during his legislative years calling for more black political action. He was about to begin practicing what he preached.
Cleveland was the nation’s tenth-largest city, with a proud and prosperous history, a diversified economy, and renowned cultural institutions. Like many industrial cities along the Great Lakes, it was composed of numerous ingrown ethnic neighborhoods, home to a diverse population descended from many European nationalities, as well as southern blacks. But by the mid-1960s, its economy had slowed and middle-class whites were fleeing to the suburbs in large numbers, taking their tax dollars with them—thereby choking off future development of the central city. Unemployment climbed, particularly in the black ghetto, leading to racial unrest.
Between 1960 and 1965, median family income in Hough, Cleveland’s poorest black neighborhood, declined by 16 percent, while the number of families headed by women rose from 23 percent to 32 percent. Blocks of old homes, mostly in black inner-city areas, were bulldozed for urban renewal, but few new homes were built for former residents. City government under Mayor Ralph Locher made no attempt to alleviate these mounting problems. Inertia ruled City Hall, while the police held a growing, increasingly angry minority populace in line.
In 1965, in this climate, Stokes decided to run for mayor. The United Freedom Movement, an association of civil rights groups, gathered enough signatures for him to be put on the ballot as an independent candidate.
Mayor Locher and his Republican challenger split the white vote and Stokes came in second in the close election, losing by just over 2,000 votes. Instead of being discouraged, Stokes immediately began campaigning for the 1967 mayoral election. Cleveland continued to decline in the intervening two years. On a hot July night in 1966, the Hough neighborhood exploded in a riot. For three consecutive nights, arson, looting, and shooting were rampant as blacks battled the city police. Finally, the Ohio National Guard restored order.
The riots brought national attention to Cleveland—earning it the nickname “mistake-on-the-lake”—and shook up its business and community leaders. But little was done at City Hall. Unemployment continued to climb, particularly in Hough, rising to 15.7 percent the next summer, the highest in the nation. The city’s urban renewal program was so far behind schedule that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took the all-but-unprecedented step of canceling $10 million in previously approved funding.
Changing electoral tactics, Stokes decided to run in the 1967 Democratic primary against Mayor Locher. His strategy was simple: register and organize blacks into a solid voting block behind him by demanding change, while stressing his record as a political moderate to whites. The local Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) used a Ford Foundation grant to finance a voting registration drive in the black community, helped by Dr. Martin Luther King’s periodic visits on the organization’s behalf. Militants passed the word around Cleveland’s ghettos to “cool it for Carl” and keep calm during the summer, so as not to spoil his chances at election.
Frustrated with Locher, the business community, led by The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the leading newspaper, endorsed Stokes in hopes that he could unite their troubled city. The candidate also used his considerable personal charm to his advantage, impressing white society women with his affability and long-range plans, as well as black ghetto denizens with his call for change.
His strategy worked; Stokes received approximately 93,000 black votes, 96 percent of those cast, and 17,000 white votes to beat Locher by nearly 20,000 votes and take control of the local Democratic machine. His opponent in the general election was Seth Taft, a blue-blooded Republican who was the grandson of President William Howard Taft, son of a former mayor of Cincinnati, nephew of Senator Robert A. Taft, and cousin of Congressman Robert Taft, Jr. Unlike his more famous relatives, though, this Taft was a liberal with a set of specific ideas to reform Cleveland. But Cleveland was a staunchly Democratic city that had not elected a Republican mayor in 26 years. In addition, Taft was stigmatized among the city’s large working class by the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act sponsored by his uncle. To his credit, Taft refused to make race a campaign issue.
Stokes realized that he had to win the votes of more than just Cleveland’s 300,000 black citizens, 38 percent of the population, to be elected mayor. He concentrated his efforts in the city’s white ethnic wards, home to approximately 125,000 Polish Americans, 75,000 Slovakian Americans, 50,000 German Americans, 50,000 Italian Americans, and representatives of numerous other nationalities. By making as many campaign appearances as possible before white groups, he helped convince some that, except for skin color, he was much like them.
Even with the overwhelming support of the black community, most white liberals, some leading businessmen, and the continued endorsement of the city’s two newspapers, the election was close; Stokes won by only 1,644 votes, a plurality of just 0.6 percent. Taft was gracious in defeat, calling Cleveland “the least bigoted city in America,” according to Time.
Stokes’s election brought more national attention to Cleveland. Though not the first black American elected as mayor—Richard Hatcher had become mayor of Gary, Indiana, a short time earlier—Stokes was the first black elected as mayor of a metropolitan city without a majority black population. “This is not a Carl Stokes victory,” he told an election night crowd, as quoted in Time, “not a vote for a man but a vote for a program, for a visionary dream of what our city can become.”
Stokes began his administration with the high hopes of most of Cleveland behind him. He appointed talented people to key positions and convinced the business community to raise $4 million to back CLEVELAND NOW, a project to support city programs that could not be financed by federal funds. He also used his friendship with Vice-President Hubert Humphrey to restore the cancelled $10 million HUD grant.
But by the the summer of 1968, the tensions besetting Cleveland had brought the city’s temperature back to the boiling point. The Glenville neighborhood broke out in a riot with more casualties than the Hough riots had amassed two years earlier. It shook the confidence of whites who assumed that electing Stokes had guaranteed racial peace and harmony. Even more damaging was the arrest of Fred (Ahmed) Evans, a black militant who had bought guns for himself and others through funds from CLEVELAND NOW. This signaled the end for that organization and much of the mayor’s support from the white community.
Despite these setbacks, Stokes won re-election in 1969 by 4,500 votes, a significantly greater margin than had defined his first victory. But his troubles continued into his second term. He broke with his police chief, antagonized the city council president, and granted wage increases for city workers without securing adequate funds to make the increases a reality. Voters refused a tax increase, city workers had to be laid off, a sewage pump broke and released millions of gallons of raw sewage into Lake Erie, and the city was all but shut down by a devastating snowstorm. An unimproved economy forced the closing of several major downtown businesses, and crime continued to rise.
Realizing he had lost the support of the business community, the newspapers, and many blacks, Stokes announced that he would not run for re-election in 1971. Instead, he supported Arnold Pickney, the black president of the school board, who ran as an independent candidate. But Pickney ran second to Ralph Perk in the mayoral election, the Republican capturing the great majority of Cleveland’s white ethnic voters.
Pickney’s defeat marked the end of Stokes’s political power in Cleveland. He left town in 1972 to become an award-winning television anchorman and reporter with WNBC-TV in New York City. The following year he divorced his second wife, Shirley, whom he had married in 1958. In 1980 he returned to Cleveland, becoming a senior partner in a firm specializing in labor law.
Three years later, Stokes was elected a presiding administrative judge on Cleveland’s municipal court. And in 1986 he became that court’s chief judge, holding that position until 1994, when he was appointed by President Clinton to be United States ambassador to the Republic of the Seychelles, an island nation off the coast of Africa. “Seychelles will be quite a change for me after a long career in public service,” Stokes told Jet magazine. “I have looked all around home in Cleveland and in Ohio and there was just not anything that was challenging for me. I have been interested in the foreign service for a long while.”
Quality of the Environment, University of Oregon Press, 1968.
Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography, Simon& Shuster, 1973.
Porter, Philip Wiley, Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw, Ohio State University Press, 1976.
Stokes, Carl, Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography, Simon & Shuster, 1973.
Weinberg, Kenneth G., Black Victory: Carl Stokes and the Winning of Cleveland, Quadrangle Books, 1968.
Zannes, Estelle, Checkmate in Cleveland: The Rhetoric and Confrontation During the Stokes Years, Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1972.
Ebony, January 1968, p. 24.
Jet, April 25, 1994, p. 33; September 19, 1994, p. 4.
New York Times Magazine, November 5, 1967, p. 30; February 25, 1968, p. 26.
Time, November 17, 1967, pp. 23-27.
—James J. Podesta
Carl B. Stokes
Carl B. Stokes
Carl B. Stokes (1927-1996), mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, was the first elected black mayor of a major American city.
Born of a poor black family in Cleveland on June 21, 1927, Carl Stokes was raised by a hardworking mother (his father died when Carl was 3) who constantly stressed the value of education. After receiving his discharge from the Army, he attended West Virginia College and the Cleveland College of Western Reserve. He received a BS degree from the University of Minnesota Law School (1954) and the JD degree from the Cleveland-Marshall Law School (1956). He passed the bar examination in 1957.
In 1962 Stokes resigned as Cleveland's assistant prosecutor and with his brother founded the law firm of Stokes and Stokes. Stokes was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1962 and was twice reelected. In the House he served on committees of judiciary, industry and labor, and public welfare. While urging civil rights and welfare bills, he sponsored a measure empowering the governor to send in national guard troops to defuse a potential riot.
In 1965 Stokes lost the Cleveland mayoral election by a small margin. Deciding to run again in 1967, Stokes worked hard to win the white vote by showing that he was a moderate who was concerned with the welfare of all Cleveland citizens regardless of race. By winning the primary, Stokes became a symbol not for Cleveland alone but for the United States; several national news magazines and Ohio newspapers made this point. The Cleveland Plain Dealer said, "By electing Carl Stokes in the primary we have shown the nation, indeed the world that Cleveland is today the most mature and politically sophisticated city on the face of the earth."
Stokes next faced Republican Seth C. Taft, scion of the famous family, in the mayoral election. Stokes refused to make race an issue in the campaign and based his candidacy on his abilities as a politician. In television debates between the candidates, Stokes showed his expertise concerning urban problems. Cleveland's leading industrialist and its leading banker supported Stokes, while economically disadvantaged blacks raised $25,000 for his campaign. The election was close, with Stokes winning with 20 percent of the white vote and 96 percent of the black vote.
As mayor, Stokes addressed a number of immediate problems typical in urban America. He made a special effort to reduce crime by using more policemen but insisting that the police treat all citizens with courtesy and respect. He won praise for his handling of a disturbance which followed the ambush of a white policeman by black nationalists in 1968. He fired an administrative assistant because of her interest in an illegal liquor establishment, saying that maximum integrity was "imperative" for all members of his administration.
Stokes's reelection in 1969 revealed that he again received practically all of the black vote and the majority of votes in 8 of the 11 all-white wards. His administration continued to battle problems such as pollution, housing, urban renewal, and federal assistance to state education. In 1970, the National League of Cities, comprised of mayors and county officials from across the country, voted Stokes as its first black president-elect. However, Stokes did not run for mayor in 1971, and in 1972 made a major switch in careers. He became the first black anchorman to appear daily on a New York City television outlet, WNBC, NBC's flagship station. He was with WNBC for eight years, serving as urban affairs editor and foreign correspondent to Africa.
Stokes returned to Cleveland and became the first black lawyer to serve as general counsel to a major American labor union, the United Auto Workers. He jumped back into the political arena, being elected as a judge in Cleveland's Municipal Court. With that election, he completed service in all three branches of government—legislative, executive and judicial.
In 1994, Stokes served in the Clinton Administration as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Seychelles, a cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa. He served in that post until he was forced to take a medical leave of absence, suffering from cancer of the esophagus. He died in Cleveland on April 3, 1996.
Kenneth G. Weinberg, Black Victory: Carl Stokes and the Winning of Cleveland (1968), is good. Information on Stokes's election is also in Leonard I. Ruchelman, ed., Big City Mayors (1969). A good background study is Chuck Stone, Black Political Power in America (1968). Stokes's administration is analyzed in "Carl Stokes," a chapter by James F. Barnes in Seven on Black: Reflections on the Negro Experience in America, edited by William G. Shade and Roy C. Henenkohl (1969). □