On Thursday, Nov. 2, the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church was the site of a Cleveland Civil Rights Trail historical marker unveiling. The Cleveland Restoration Society held the unveiling ceremony under the watchful eye of longtime church pastor, Rev. E.T. Caviness. The site, located at 1161 E. 105th St. in Glenville, was selected for its contributions to the modern civil rights movement (1954–1964) and the “second revolution” (1964–1976).
The Civil Rights Trail was established in 2019 with seed funding from the National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Grant program. In total, the Cleveland Civil Rights Trail is intended to include 11 historical markers, each significant in the fight for equality.
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Markers are currently installed at The Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, Cory United Methodist Church, Glenville High School, the African American Cultural Garden, Ali Summit and National Industrial Economic Union at Cleveland Browns Stadium, Ludlow Community Association, and Cleveland City Hall (honoring Carl B. Stokes). Future marker site unveilings are planned for Olivet Institutional Baptist Church and The Hough Uprising.
Greater Abyssinia’s history in the fight for civil rights
Serving as Greater Abyssinia’s pastor since 1961, Caviness has shepherded the church through various stages of community activism. During the ‘60s, Caviness had seen civil rights marches, civil unrest (including rioting within his own Glenville community), and the death of a fellow clergyman while protesting, all while in service of his congregation, his community, and the city of Cleveland.
While talking to The Land during the marker unveiling, Rev. Caviness stated, “This moment is destiny. It epitomizes our efforts to try to help our community.”
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During the height of Cleveland’s civil rights era, Greater Abyssinia served as headquarters for the United Freedom Movement (UFM), the Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and various other groups.
Rev. Caviness is known to be flamboyant in his charismatic elocution, but during the unveiling the southern-born preacher seemed a bit more humbled by the day’s activities. “I find myself filled with profound serenity, tranquility and calmness because of what this means,” said Caviness. “This [historical marker] means that we have on this corner tried to make somebody happy, somebody who was down and out, and we were there to lift them up in the light during times of darkness.”
Glenville’s Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell stated, “I grew up in this neighborhood and the church (Greater Abyssinia) was and still is active in the community. It was out of this church that CORE and the United Freedom Movement fought against discrimination in the schools so that African American students would not get [old] books while the students on the west side were receiving new first edition books. They fought for that and they fought also against the overcrowding of schools to make sure African American children grew up with a good education.”
Reverend Bruce Klunder is killed while protesting school segregation in Glenville
Rev. Klunder was a 27-year-old Presbyterian minister who headed the local chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Klunder, along with protestors from the United Freedom Movement had been meeting at Greater Abyssinia to oppose construction of Stephen E. Howe Elementary school, at 1000 Lakeview Road. The groups felt that the school would contribute to patterns of segregation in the Cleveland school system.
On April 7, 1964, Klunder, a founding member of CORE, laid down behind a bulldozer while others got in front of the vehicle in protest. According to reports, the driver didn’t know Klunder was behind him, and backed up to avoid hitting the protestors who were laying in front of the vehicle. The night of Klunder’s death police used tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd. News reports stated that 13 people were injured and 26 people were arrested.
Greater Abyssinia activism continues
It was during this time that Greater Abyssinia served as the headquarters of many of the groups involved in the school segregation protest. One of the most vocal and active of these groups was the United Freedom Movement led by Lewis Robinson. In his book, The Making of a Man, Robinson wrote “We chose to meet with Reverend Caviness because we could not get any other local Black minister to take the lead in the civil rights movement. He had been active in East St. Louis before coming to Cleveland and now agreed to let us use his church offices as headquarters.”
Caviness added, “Our actions were never about self interest, it was then and should always be our attempt to help our brothers and sisters. This has never been about me, it’s about the effort and the argument that we always make that everybody is somebody and everybody needs somebody to aid and assist them along the way.”
As a 17-year-old preacher from Marshall, Texas, Caviness saw at an early age established political practices of racial separation. Before moving to Cleveland he pastored two churches in Texas and one in East St. Louis, Illinois.
At the marker unveiling, Kelly Falcone-Hall, President and CEO of the Western Reserve Historical Society said, “It’s just an absolute pleasure to be here on this historic occasion. The recognition of significant contributions of this church and the legendary Reverend E.T. Caviness and his contributions to civil rights in American history are long overdue.”
Neighbors in historical significance
In December 2021, Greater Abyssinia’s neighbor, Cory United Methodist Church held its own Civil Rights Trail marker unveiling.
The marker commemorates its history, including the time in May 1963 when Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at Cory to a standing-room only crowd. The same church was also the April 3, 1964 location where Malcolm X gave his famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech.
During Abyssinia’s unveiling festivities, Cory Methodist pastor, Reverend Gregory Kendrick, Jr., took time to share his thoughts with The Land.
“It’s critically important to ensure that we have history preserved, particularly in a community that has faced and seen a lot of transition,” states Rev. Kendrick Jr. He adds, “To be able to have on just on one street, right across the street from each other, two churches to be on the Civil Rights Trail is an important testament to the history because it helps us to be able to preserve that for future generations, to be able to look back and see what are some of the ways in which that we can learn and glean from the past, to then be able to help secure and ensure that the future is well.”
The goal of Cleveland’s African American Civil Rights Trail
Each stop on Cleveland’s African American Civil Rights Trail tells its own story, one that’s part of a greater history. It invites people to step back in time at each stop to learn more about the struggles, triumphs, leaders, and sites that all played a role in creating a more equitable future for African Americans in Cleveland, and across the country. The trail can be followed sequentially for a high-level history of the civil rights movement, or one can visit individual sites to understand their significance in shaping our city.
At the conclusion of the historical marker unveiling at Greater Abyssinia, Reverend James P. Quincy III, pastor of Lee Road Baptist Church shared these comments with The Land.
“I just want to say it’s great to have this event, and to recognize the history that is here in Cleveland. A lot of people only look to civil rights history down south, but a lot of [things] took place up north and in Cleveland.”
To learn more about Cleveland Restoration Society’s historic preservation project and programs, please visit clevelandrestoration.org. To learn more about the Cleveland Civil Rights Trail and to explore the sites, visit clevelandcivilrightstrail.org.