1968: Shots Fired, Glenville In Flames
1968 was a momentous year in a country torn apart by political and racial divisions. But it started well in Cleveland.
Citizens were excited about the possibilities of improving race relations under the new black mayor, Carl Stokes. He changed some police policies that had angered black residents, and he established a corporate sponsored fund, Cleveland: Now! that sent money into the poorest areas. And the people in the Glenville neighborhood felt things were on the upswing.
“I loved it,” said Sherrie Tolliver, who was a preteen at the time. “I loved living there. It was vibrant. There was music. It’s hard to describe. It was home.”
Shaii White was a 6-year-old in July of ’68.
“My parents felt a sense of freedom and trust in the community that my brother and I could take a ten minute walk outside of our house and around the corner to a candy store and walk back,” White recalled. “Not coming out to peek and see if we were there or following us or making sure there was an older person with us. All the kids would get together.”
African-Americans certainly felt the sting of discrimination and police brutality but disagreed on ways to combat that. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offered a non-violent answer and the late Malcom X had suggested separating from whites and taking up arms might be the answer.
A year earlier Sherrie Tolliver’s father, noted African-American attorney Stanley Tolliver, arranged a meeting between King and Cleveland militant Fred Ahmed Evans. She says it changed Evans.
“Dr. King taking the time to listen to him and not shun him and say, ‘you’re an embarrassment to us with all your fist shaking and ‘kill whitey’ mentality’,” Tolliver said.
She says Evans decided to work through political means and campaigned for Carl Stokes.
But his non-violent path suddenly ended on April 4, 1968, when King was assassinated.
“That’s it. That was the last straw,” said Tolliver recounting the reaction of Evans and other African-Americans following King’s assassination. “If you kill somebody who says that they love you and want to forgive you when you hit them. You’re killing people, you’re killing children in churches and putting children in jail and fire-hosing them, and you kill HIM?”
With the call for peace from Mayor Stokes and other black leaders, Cleveland became one of the only large cities in America that did not see violent protests after a white man killed King.
But in June, Bobby Kennedy was killed and it began to look like political means could be achieved though bullets.
Fred Ahmed Evans began using Cleveland: Now! grants to buy high-powered rifles for his group of 20-30 militants based in Glenville.
Black nationalist Don Freeman was not part of Evans’ group but knew him. He said police were the enemy.
“We regarded them as an occupation army. An army of occupation or paramilitary,” said Freeman, who says he knew Evans was buying weapons with Cleveland: Now! funds.
“In order for African-Americans to arm themselves they had to get the money from somewhere. And that was just one of the options.”
On July 22, FBI informants reported to Mayor Stokes that Evans was angry that his shop was being evicted from its location in Hough and he was being evicted from his house on Auburndale.
“He’s been evicted before,” Stokes would later tell reporters, “and at the time he was evicted then we did help him and thereby avoided an incident at that time”
Retired Cleveland Police Department detective Louis Garcia, who would become one of the lead investigators of the Glenville shootout, says Mayor Stokes sent Councilman George Forbes and black leader Walter Beach to talk to Evans on Monday July 23rd.
“And George Forbes said, ‘Hey, cool this! Let’s not get drastic here.’ And when he was talking to Ahmed Evans, Ahmed Evans had a carbine over his shoulder. He was ready for action,” Garcia said.
Two unmarked but obvious police cars with five plainclothes officers were parked outside Evans’ house and he was highly agitated by their presence.
“It was obviously a form of surveillance,” said Freeman. “But as they considered it, it bordered on harassment.”
One of Evans’ men aimed a rifle at the cars and they pulled away. But one officer said he heard a shot and saw a black man with a rifle following them in a car.
“They immediately slammed the brakes,” recalled Detective Garcia.
“When they slammed the brakes to see what was going on, the car which had been following them apparently shot at them. And, in my opinion, that was the first shot fired in this whole situation,” said Garcia. “That was the first shot fired.”
Fred Ahmed Evans and some witnesses said police fired first.
Either way, Evans’ men quickly spread through the neighborhood with their high powered M-1 rifles wearing bandoliers.
The first person reported shot was police tow truck driver William McMillan who was sent to pick up an old car on Beulah Avenue. The first call on police radio came in at 8:23 pm.
“Hurry up, step on it!! (car 58 with Roy Bensley & William McMillin)
“Give us the location!”
“123rd and Beulah” (Roy Bensley & William McMillin)
“We'll go there.” (car 591 with Chester Szukalski, Joseph McManamon)
“507, We'll go to 123rd and Beulah, what have you got there? (car 507 Franko & Childers)
“A tow truck in trouble ,shooting, they need an ambulance.” (Dispatcher)
It was a normal day up to then for Shaii White
“My parents were on the back porch. And I just remember my mon saying, ‘You guys have to go in and get on the floor.’ And at that time I could hear the sirens. I could hear the gunshots,” White recalled.
Police flew to the scene, parking their cars in the streets and running out with their six shot revolvers. They were outgunned.
Lieutenant Leroy Jones and Sergeant Anthony Gentile were in Car 651. These are the last words of Jones on the radio.
“651, What is the exact location? This is 651.”
Just as the lieutenant left the zone car, he was shot in the head.
Garcia says Patrolman Dick Hart was being shot by multiple snipers, who were on the upper floors of houses and buildings.
“And he describes how the blacktop is breaking up all around him. And Captain [Herbert] Dragella and the other people are saying, ‘Dick! Get up and run, get up and run!’ because they’re blasting the daylights out of him.
“So he gets up and he sees an arm laying in the street as he’s getting up, and he realizes it’s his arm. And he picks it up. It’s dangling by a couple ligaments from his arm. And he picks it up with his hand and starts walking away while he’s still being fired upon.”
Police radio at the time was intense.
“291, Get us some more cars down here. We can’t get to the policemen, they’re being shot at.”
“Get some cars down here.”
“Any car with high powered rifles, report to 123rd and Auburndale.”
A full hour later, policemen were still lying in the street bleeding. Other officers were pinned down unable to help.
“551, emergency, get a couple of ambulances down here right away. We’ve got a lieutenant and a sergeant shot down here. Get Car 6 down here with some tear gas and some high powered stuff.”
The militants had M1 rifles, 30-06 hunting rifles, and a stolen M2 automatic.
In the first hour, three officers were dead, 15 badly injured.
Three of the militants were dead, but Ahmed Evans was hiding in an attic.
More snipers were suspected to be in a house on Lakeview that caught fire. No one tried to put it out.
“Well, we know there were at least two, maybe three dead bodies in there when the house burned down,” said Garcia.
“And no one was allowed into the area. And Eli Wrecking Company, two days later, came out, knocked the house down. City hall said it was dangerous to have it and dragged it all away.”
Call & Post reporter Dick Peery arrived while the shooting was still going on to find the body of civilian James Chapman lying on the sidewalk in front of the Lakeview Tavern.
“The door to the tavern was right at the corner here, and this guy, James Chapman, was lying on the sidewalk,” Peery recalled. “The blood had congealed and nobody is paying attention to him. The cops were walking over him, stepping over his body. They just assumed that was one of the enemy and they didn’t care.”
A week later police said Chapman was a hero who had been helping police and then shot by the nationalists.
Others argue Chapman appeared to be killed at close range by police. They argued police made up the hero story to cover their mistake.
Another civilian James Haynes was shot to death that night guarding his apartment at Superior and 82nd from looters. Whether police or militants shot him is also unclear.
July 24, 1968 - Mayor Stokes’ plan to restore order
The next day at City Hall the mayor met black leaders who feared the police would seek vengeance.
“What they recommended to the mayor was that the white policemen be barred from the area,” said Peery, “and that community people would then patrol the area instead of police.”
At a late afternoon press conference, Mayor Stokes announced the plan.
“The police that will be in there will be Negro policemen. And possibly Negro deputy sheriffs.”
Reporter: “Are you suggesting that perhaps the police were at fault for last night’s disturbance?”
Stokes: “No sir, I’m not suggesting any such thing. We know that this is a problem, primarily in the black community, and the black leadership wants to handle their own problems. And it is in that regard that we have responded to it. It has no reflection of any kind upon the police department.”
Lou Garcia thought it was a good move.
“You know, there were a lot of angry people there. And this thing could have really, really got out of hand,” said Garcia. “We had guys with their partners shot. I mean, we had some angry people out there. A lot of things could have happened.”
Reporter Peery said it worked.
“[In] the history of rioting, the urban riots, the worst night was always the second night, not the first night,” said Peery. “But here in Cleveland, the second night was much better than the first night. Nobody was killed. There was some looting, some property damage, but not nearly as much as you might have expected.”
A neighborhood in ruins
Young Shaii White took her first look around the neighborhood on a trip to the local Sav-Mor store.
“There was a Sav-Mor grocery store, right beyond 105th and Superior, and it was amazing. You could see cars that were burned out. You could smell the char and so forth from houses that had been set on fire. There seemed to be National Guardsmen everywhere,” White recalled.
Sherrie Tolliver’s mother had a book store on Superior that was unharmed but others weren’t so lucky.
“Mainly because it was burned down – 105th and Superior -- those businesses were not rebuilt and reopened,” said Tolliver. “Once they burned down that was it.
“All the doctors in the neighborhood moved to Shaker Heights - that had been my neighbors.”
Five militants were arrested, including several juveniles. Fred Ahmed Evans was charged with first-degree murder for the deaths of the three officers and a civilian. He was convicted on all charges and died in jail.
Carl Stokes was re-elected but his promising career never recovered. Reporter Dick Peery says neither did Glenville.
“Then, people had hope that they had the power to make their futures better,” said Peery. “I think now so many people don’t have hope, and that’s why we don’t see street action because they don’t think there’s any future for them.”