I had never played in the street before. Just the idea of it made me giddy, but despite the two boys who lived next door, throwing a football over my eight-year-old head as I stood on the sidewalk, Mom forbade my participation. I was an obedient child, her only daughter who preferred Barbie over books, knew how to climb a tree and when to have my feet planted in the front yard before it got dark. Our house was almost dead center in the block; the one with the steepest sloped driveway, perfect for riding my skateboard seated so I could turn just in time to land on the soft tree-lawn grass.
We were the first family to integrate Biltmore Avenue, or so we thought, but within two years of our making our arrival in the Lee-Harvard area, the rest of the neighborhood resembled my family; a mom, a dad and more children to play with me. I made fast friends with both sides of the neighbor’s children, each had at least another young girl for me to play with; kickball or dolls in the back yard under the shade of overgrown trees and the watchful eye of either set of parents, since no fencing had been erected yet and gardens consisted of only flowering bushes adding color to backyards with plenty of grass that always needed cutting. Thank goodness I was not interested in boys (yet), so Mom would let me go with either neighbor’s son who showed up at the side door asking politely if I was available to play, requesting the accompaniment of my skateboard just in case.
My grade school was located across Lee Road, just under three blocks down my street, which made walking to school easy in my mind, but my father insisted that I ride in the car those three blocks, only picking up the neighborhood children we knew well, waving to those I knew I would only see again later in the hallway at Gracemount. Not until I reached teenager status and Dad’s recurring shift change at the post office did I learn what I had missed all those years; the chance to spend my allowance on penny candy and bubble gum and discovering the vast collection of cigarettes to choose from in a time I was sent to purchase whatever I wanted as long as I brought home a pack of Pall Malls for my mom. For a long time, the school’s yard was as far as I could go, but it sat just across the street from my childhood babysitter, Mrs. Hunter, whose family consisted of more children I could count, learning later who actually lived there, and those like me who were picked up at the end of the day so their parents could work. Mrs. Hunter had more toys than I had ever seen along with a double swing and a sliding board in her back yard. For eight years it was my home away from home, steps away from school, where I learned I liked Yoo-hoo chocolate drink, burnt grilled cheese sandwiches, and making the legs of the swing set slide out of the ground if I pumped my legs hard enough to make it go higher.
I always felt safe as I ventured throughout the three blocks to the south to Mrs. Hunter’s house and school. It was easy to get almost anything we wanted from Gardell’s on the corner, but back then wanting for anything more than a new drawing pad and crayons was rare. I purchased my first can of tennis balls about five years later outgrowing the candy treats forbidden by my new set of braces, learning to “play” with an old discarded racquet, hitting balls against the school’s brick wall imagining what a real tennis court would like. Gracemount only had basketball courts at the time and once school was let out, the older neighborhood boys filled them with laughter.
When I was not on my skateboard, I was on my bicycle navigating the sidewalk that separated the neatly cut grass from the stately grown trees. Everyone’s house was beautiful, neat, and well kept. Rarely was there a parked car anywhere but in the neighbor’s driveways, leaving the streets open for an occasional game of flag football or tag against the children across the street. At eight years old, life was uncomplicated and filled with fun. Every summer evening, we caught fireflies and filled at least two glass jars that Dad would punch holes into the lid to let the air in, just small enough to keep the trapped bugs from flying out.
On hot summer days, Mom would lay a blanket in the back yard under the large oak tree so we could sit outside after the sun set, letting the warm air and the cool grass cradle us to sleep. Of course, this only happened on Friday nights when work was on hold for the weekend and Dad had the late shift at the Post Office. As the noise of the neighborhood died down, you could hear the buzz of someone’s television in the background, muffled sounds discussing the day’s news until the crickets won your ear’s attention. It was not until the next day that we learned about the boy who got a liver from a monkey with Dad mentioning it was the strangest thing he had ever heard, especially with a war going on. I thought so too.
The war seemed so far away compared to the peaceful nature of Biltmore Avenue. Only two weeks prior Mom celebrated her thirty-eighth birthday in the back yard under that oak tree. Dad finished the brick patio the previous year and built a table out of an old pole and a door in form of a contraption that was assembled only for their backyard entertaining. Mom and I set up colorful folding chairs haphazardly around the yard while Dad flamed the charcoal fire in the grill, summoning the neighbors and their lifelong friends to the backyard. Dad had been a photojournalist at a local paper, the Call & Post, before working at the post office, a change he told Mom he had to make because the paper just didn’t pay enough for the new house, braces, and the new Cutlass Mom wanted. That day the grownups filled my summer slumber spot with hot dogs and tall glasses, ice ringing as they drank and cigarette smoke curling up to the branches as they laughed. On weekend party days, I was only allowed to go to the Winston’s back yard, just far enough that both sets of parents could keep an eye on the four of us from a yard away, forbidden from going inside incase mischief ensued with my playmates’ little brother.
I knew we were not poor. Dad said he grew up poor and owning a home made him anything but. I knew I was black. Back then Dad said we were Negroes and for some reason I sensed there was something special about the color of my skin. Not only was it a big deal that everyone around me on Biltmore Avenue was a Negro, but we were doing something good for the world, coming together and moving into neighborhood we had never lived before, despite the fact that no sooner than we had moved in, we never got to know the white neighbors before they moved somewhere else. It was alright with me because I got playmates that looked like me and wanted to be around me, unlike the people that only stayed in their homes shortly after we moved in. That was no fun from what I remember.
July was hot in Cleveland with days filled with sprinkler parties and balloon fights, bicycle rides to the corner and push up ice pops if you stayed out of trouble. Dad let me use an old camera albeit without film, to practice taking pictures in preparation for my future Girl Scout badge, but at the time my membership in the Brownies was on hold for the summer and I could only practice when he was awake to watch me do it just right. Dad’s late-night shift had him eating dinner before heading off to work during most days of the week. He read the newspaper every day and talked to Mom about the plight of the Negro, feeling agitated with everything that was going on across the nation and ultimately in our own “back yard.”
I had only been back to my neighborhood a month that July, after spending time with my grandparents on their farm in Oberlin, Ohio. There my community consisted of pigs, cows, three dogs, two stray cats that belonged to the landowners behind us, and a chicken coop with baby chicks. As much as I loved the farm, I missed watching the next-door neighbors’ children chase whatever newfound ball they took from another’s yard and playing board games with my new best friend who lived two houses down. Mom let me venture down an extra house once Sherri and I discovered each other’s love of Trouble and Life. Sherri’s mom and my mom starting meeting for lunch on occasion at the Arthur Treacher’s on Lee Road when the men of the house were home. Local restaurants were where the grownups went to “treat themselves,” not a place for children my parents would insist. I had just finished beating Sherri in our second game of Trouble when Mom said I had to come home. Now.
It was a Tuesday evening and Dad had been awake for over an hour, but instead of reading the Plain Dealer at the kitchen table, both he and Mom were glued to the television set with its multiple shades of gray images moving loudly across the screen. I recognized the quick flash of an image of Martin Luther King, but the rest was a blur. Dad said racial tension had reached its peak across America and had arrived in Cleveland. I remember thinking that I did not know what racial tension looked like but was afraid that it had arrived where I lived because it had both my parents on edge like I had never seen before.
For the rest of the week, I was not allowed to leave the yard and my days with Mrs. Hunter waiting for Mom to come home from work came to an end. Now my cousin Patty was my new playmate, someone who I rarely saw except for family events to the “other side of town.” I remembered that she was my babysitter on occasion in the third-floor bedroom when the adults played cards at her parent’s house. She had books and no board games, saying she had outgrown them years ago. I was half her age, but she attended a school called Glenville. I wondered if all schools started with G. Since it was the summer, she arrived with only her clothes, no books, hastily jammed in square, brown leather suitcase that had been made worse for wear. It was like I had a sister, but I was not sure I liked the idea since she appeared out of nowhere. She was older than all my friends, even the sister of my friend across the street who had been sent to reform school last year was younger and not interested in making her acquaintance in the summer heat. I was told to mind Patty during the day and to keep the noise outside and to a minimum because Dad slept during the day. Luckily, he slept in the cool basement, comforted by the low hum of the dehumidifier. There was nothing in the basement for me or Patty, so we had no reason to disturb him. It would be another ten years before the basement was transformed to the family room with a console television and a stereo inside.
The back yard was preferred by the adults and shaded by the oak tree, but we preferred to play in the front yard in the blazing sun, rolling down the hill, letting the grass cool our faces before landing next to the sidewalk which for the week was the battleground line that we were not allowed to cross. Getting close was exciting. If Vaniece was home next door we would play dolls in her driveway if I sat on the edge of my grass. Patty would perch on the front stoop with a watchful eye because dolls were for kids. The view was perfection. Our driveway was the highest and steepest on the block, allowing you to see all the way to the cross street about ten houses down in both directions. As long as no car was parked in the driveway before the houses, sometimes I could see traffic on Lee Road, but the lighting had to be exactly right and my imagination on overdrive.
On Wednesday, some of the neighbors gathered on the sidewalk, just the adults since most of the children were told to stay in the yard. Sherri’s baby sister was latched to her father’s leg, so I pretended that she was the spy to report back to the rest of us who looked on but had no clue to their discussions. Mom found me in the driveway sitting on my skateboard, announcing that dinner was ready. Patty ascended from the basement as I entered the side door of our colonial. Twelve steps to the right went down, and three steps to the right went up, but Mom must have sent her down there for a reason. It was never a place I freely wanted to go. Dad stepped in a few minutes behind me, clutching his edition of the Plain Dealer in his hand. “There’s a race riot in Hough. Unrest might spill out into other neighborhoods, let us just hope ours is not one of them.” Dad opened his newspaper as we gathered around the kitchen table, nestled safely inside, but the headlines confirmed his announcement.
By the end of the week of July 16, 1966, I felt vulnerable in my neighborhood for the first time. Play time was limited and although I loved my house and especially my yard, I missed walking about freely especially to Sherri’s house. Mom and Dad both had strict rules that week, but they lasted for the rest of the month. Patty stayed with us for almost two weeks, but her parents picked her up on a Saturday and drove her to Oberlin to stay with an aunt. I was not allowed to go. Mom said she preferred that I stay where she could see me. By the end of the week and despite the eighty degree heat, my friends were relegated to their back yards or trapped inside, instilled with fear about events beyond our neighborhood, afraid those riots would find us behind the tree lawn strips since the street was no longer a safe place to be.
Everyone’s fears were confirmed I was told, but I never saw a riot on Biltmore Avenue. Dad said the National Guard was in town to keep the peace, so I guess their purpose had been fulfilled. There were more riots on the television, somewhere else Mom said, but things would be different in Cleveland very soon. Mom had a friend named Carl (I think it was), and she was excited about some things he talked to her about doing again. In the meantime, we had to play safe and stay in the yard in the neighborhood I loved. As things quieted around town, slowly my friends reappeared in the streets, but I discovered the front stoop to eventually be my favorite of all. Dad took away my skateboard to be on the safe side, he said, and the oversized bushes in front of the stair railing provided shade and cover when Barbie, Ken, and I wanted to be alone. Mom knew where to find me when dinner was ready. I missed seeing Sherri but going two houses down was too far during the riots, despite there being nothing but peace permeating the avenue, same birds during the day and the relentless fireflies at night. Just as I heard Mom’s voice through the screen door calling for Dad that dinner was ready, I turned to look inside as her voice billowed above me. “Charles, look out the front window! Look now or you’ll miss it.” She stepped out onto the porch and placed both hands on my shoulder. With a calm voice and a gentle squeeze, she said to me, “Time to eat, Ladybug.” I stood up as I heard my father’s voice behind her, “Well I’ll be damned.” The three of us stood on the stoop, watching an armored vehicle, like something from the war movies Dad would watch, slowly gliding down Biltmore Avenue toward Lee Road, ensuring that there was peace in our neighborhood.
Of all the memorable events that occurred in my neighborhood, from new friends to prom photos, backyard birthday parties to losing touch with those that brought so much joy to my childhood, that single tank was galvanized as a pivotal moment of the area I called home. It reminds me today how the neighborhood and the world is connected in ways we may never actually visit but are intertwined just the same.
Leslie Price a native Clevelander who has fantasized about writing since childhood watching her photojournalist father read, write, and take photographs for the Call & Post. She finally has the time to pursue her dreams full time of author and artist. A graduate Capital University with a degree in Biology, Leslie developed her career from the laboratory, to pharmaceutical sales and marketing, retiring in 2017. Her first job while attending Beaumont School was at the famed Hough Bakeries in Cleveland. Leslie attributes her patriotism, work ethic and tenacity to her parents who instilled the American dream into her spirit, growing up in the Lee Harvard area, watching those around her pursue their goals of homeownership, working hard and fighting for equal rights during the Civil Rights era. Currently working on a novel, she writes to encourage, uplift, and inspire others to overcome life’s challenges through introspection and self-love with resilience and courage to reach one’s purpose of self-actualization and fulfillment.
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