“…I’m not aware of any serious scholarship on black Cleveland in the 1960s…Thus I very much would want us to find some young historian who’d take an active research interest in Winston’s life history and fascinating achievements wholly apart from litigation prospects.”
David J. Garrow, 1987 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Biography for Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Sometime during the late 1960s, in the city of Cleveland Ohio, two reigning institutional Goliaths, University Circle Incorporated (UCI) and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation joined forces and initiated plans to form an alliance to create a sprawling medical-educational metropolis and become one of the most dominant medical facilities in the country. Included in this mega-billion-dollar project was a far-reaching and prodigious plan to expand the world-renown Cleveland Clinic’s campus and connect it with Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals, essentially creating their own private driveway.
SEE ALSO: CLEVELAND’S SECOND DOWNTOWN
The only “temporary obstacle” to their master plan was a strategically located strip of land and properties with twenty-eight wildly successful and thriving businesses perched right in the middle of the proposed expansion project.
Having successfully “handled” such “obstacles” with little resistance in the past, the powerful consortium’s expectation was for similar results. But this Euclid Avenue strip was owned and operated by a brilliant young black entrepreneur named Winston E. Willis, who quickly proved to be a formidable force and anything but “handleable”.
To further complicate matters, this shrewd and savvy self-made millionaire businessman who had exhibited remarkable business acumen and a unique flair for acquiring real estate, also owned and controlled several other businesses and key parcels of land up and down Euclid Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. Not only was young Winston in their way, he was also a fearless and unique presence in their previously racially-restricted community. Locals in the area were cautiously curious and intrigued by this young black man who had the audacity to speak his mind and demonstrated that he had the capacity to think for himself.
He was considered an intruder however, and no effort was spared in letting him know he was unwelcome. Every imaginable illegal and immoral means was utilized to try to force him out. But with every attempt to remove him and his growing business empire from the University Circle area, he gave as good as he got, challenging his opponents, confronting them with his constitutional rights and employing all the financial resources that his increasing wealth could buy to hold onto his properties. He let it be known in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t about to be removed without a fight. And what a fight it was.
Incredibly, during this time, in an era of racial turbulence all over the country, this one lone young black man held sway over more property fronting on Euclid Avenue than any other single individual. This did not sit well with the establishment and the wealthy nabobs of the community, and there was widespread resentment over the fact that Willis owned so much valuable and very visible property. With twenty-eight successful businesses thriving and growing adjacent and too close for comfort to the staid community, where the prestigious University Circle area, the so-called “cultural oasis”, encompasses the homes of Severance Hall, the Cleveland Art Museum, Western Reserve University, and University Hospital, this was previously unheard of. Such in-your-face notoriety was extremely irritating to Cleveland’s previously unchallenged ruling circle of powerful whites.
The attention Willis was attracting, his growing wealth and position in the community, as well as his seeming arrogance were unacceptable. To them he was a renegade outlaw. An annoyance. The harbinger of their city’s imminent apocalypse. The very idea of a wealthy, militantly outspoken young black man was deeply troublesome. That he was also apparently fearless was even more unsettling. His very existence in their community exacerbated their most inherent fears about the potential power of the black man. In this case, however, there was even more to fear. This young black man was also rich, and therefore dangerous. His arrival in their community was treated with the anxious apprehension of a town preparing for an approaching tornado. But no measure of boarding up or sealing off or white flight could keep him out. He blew into their town with the power and intensity of gale force winds, and his intention was to stay.
Willis and the several hundred blacks he employed were unwelcome and frequently referred to as “eye-sores” in the previously all-white community. Gradually, individuals who ran the city’s powerful institutions, the State of Ohio, the world-famous multi-billion dollar Cleveland Clinic Foundation, and certain other politically powerful entities, in concert, plotted and began to use every despicable device at their disposal to remove the “undesirables” from their midst. Specifically, the Cleveland Police Department, the local courts, housing inspectors, and several high-profile law firms consistently targeted Willis and his businesses, and the assault was relentless and vicious.
Acting through the corrupt local judiciary, a band of equally corrupt attorneys used the local courts, both State and Federal, as criminal tools and literally stole, without a penny of compensation, each and every one of the properties that Willis owned on and around Euclid Avenue, by way of one unlawful eviction after another. Not only were these SWAT-Team gun-point evictions and posse comitatus-style property seizures illegal, they were also followed in courtroom proceedings by willful violation of laws, especially the automatic stay provisions, numerous times, by complicit judges and officers of the courts.
The sprawling medical metropolis is now a reality, dominating the Euclid Avenue corridor and continuing its ever-widening and far-reaching expansion. But underneath the trespassing mammoth steel-and-glass superstructures lies a skeleton in Cleveland’s closet and the remains of a sizeable piece of the American Dream. The dream of a young black American citizen who, with youthful exuberance, dared to venture into and triumph in a racist community without compromise or apology, believing wholeheartedly that the dream was his to have.
The idea of the American Dream is deeply rooted in the United States Declaration of Independence which proclaims that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is also defined as “…the opportunity for everyone to seek those goals according to ability or achievement, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth, and which freedoms include the opportunity for prosperity and success.” Like most of us, Winston Willis held those truths to be self-evident for many years. Until it was demonstrated to him, time and time again in courtroom after courtroom that those truths did not apply to him.
This is his amazing story.
As a young Negro boy growing up and attending Catholic school in pre-Civil Rights Movement Montgomery Alabama, young Winston, a keenly intelligent and ambitious young boy, was the type of curious student who took things literally and relentlessly asked probing questions of his frustrated teachers. Particularly as relating to matters of history. And the founding fathers’ words that he studied in the fifth grade not only impressed him, but they laid a foundation for a belief system and world view that would inform his adult life. Even though living in the segregated South, as with most Southern Negro children of the time, he had the advantages of a loving home and two parents whose constant encouragement and assurance of their children’s worth and value launched them off into the world each day. This young boy interpreted the founders’ words as meaning that every man, black or white, has a right to strive for, build and achieve The American Dream on his own, which young Winston eventually did magnificently. Only to have it viciously cut down and destroyed in its infancy.
“A Visionary and a Warrior”
Long considered one of the most controversial figures in Cleveland’s history, Winston E. Willis’ life and legacy are complex. To some he is an unsung hero. A brilliant and insightful businessman who took on the white establishment and revitalized the black community. Others saw his wildly successful strip of businesses as an unwelcome intrusion into their previously “racially pure” sanctuary. What started out as a mildly adversarial rift between the fearlessly outspoken young millionaire businessman and the city’s powerful nabobs gradually morphed into an enmity and ill will of unimaginable hatred and cruelty toward one man. One man who has paid an extraordinarily heavy price.
Local newspapers repeatedly characterized him as “The Black Howard Hughes”, “Cleveland’s Porno King, “The Pied Piper of Euclid Avenue”, and “105th and Euclid’s Slick Young Landlord”. The White press would have had you believe he was the illegitimate son of some notorious gangster, continuing on a road of criminal activities. To the black press, he was “Mr. W.”, “Mr. University Circle”, and “The Baron”. In either case, he was always good copy, and a lightening rod of controversy and somewhere amid decades of journalistic hyperbole is a molecule of truth about him.
Spending his first fourteen years under segregation and Jim Crow laws, young Winston was keenly aware of racial inequities and intolerance and he challenged them, even as a boy. Growing up in a large extended family of landowners and businessmen as his early influences, young Winston’s sense of his own self-worth and his remarkable life trajectory were set early on. Among other influences in his early life were the dedicated priests at the Catholic school, St. Jude Educational Institute he and his four siblings attended, where he served as an altar boy, and with whom he regularly engaged in meaningful dialog and exchanges of world views apart from school, which he found unchallenging.
When his parents joined in the Great Migration and moved the family North to Detroit in 1954, Willis found that he had little in common with other teens of his age. Arriving in the big city at an age when the average teenager’s world consisted of school sports, hot rods, prom dates, and Rock-N-Roll, he soon found other interests, such as the local pool hall, on his walks to Chadsey High School. Even with a strict no-nonsense father monitoring his whereabouts and regularly removing him from the halls of ill repute, Winston became a uniquely skillful and talented pool player with a growing reputation and confidence.
Although forbidden in his home, his love of gambling and his impressive winnings were substantial. At the same time, his ever growing entrepreneurial spirit led him elsewhere as well. From the basement of his family’s home, he created, published and delivered his own neighborhood advertising newspaper, The Westside Advertiser, and sold Collier Encyclopedias door to door. The latter venture got him arrested on a regular basis for “loitering” (in a suit and tie) in affluent white neighborhoods.
Winston’s creation, The Western Detroit Shopping News. A weekly advertising circular for businesses in his West side neighborhood.
Soon afterwards, Winston’s parents were paid a personal visit in their home by the high school principal, who made a surprising suggestion. “Your son should be allowed to leave school immediately. He’s not a behavioral problem. He is just mentally too far advanced for high school. And until his chronological age catches up with his mental age, there is nothing more we can teach him.” Although reluctant initially, after much deliberation and discussion, Winston’s parents recognized that the principal was right. So, with his parents’ approval, he dropped out of high school in the tenth grade. By then, with so many lucrative and successful entrepreneurial distractions, the daily trip to school had become an unnecessary distraction.
His knowledge of the floor covering trade that he learned from his father ensured the financial success of the tile/floor covering store he was managing. With such promise he could have continued to establish a business stronghold locally, but he instinctively knew that the success and kind of life he wanted lay outside the boundaries of his strict parents’ rules and outside of Detroit. He and his high school buddy Joe Crosswhite had an escape plan. To head for Hollywood, where he would become the first successful black movie producer. But shortly before setting out and heading West on this odyssey in the 1941 Ford he’d been keeping alive with little more than recycled parts and crossed fingers, Winston was convinced by his mother to make a quick detour to Cleveland to visit relatives and get a hot homemade meal under his belt in preparation for the cross-country drive.
After an initial sumptuous and satisfying meal, the two guys decided to check out the action in the local pool halls. It turned out to be a detour of unimaginable fortuity. Following a four-day junket through Cleveland with his lucky pool cue and a few games of One-Pocket, which netted the pair of road dogs several thousand dollars; they decided to stay a few weeks, picking up games where they could to finance the trip to the West coast. During this time, he met and became fast friends with another pool hall devotee, Carl B. Stokes who later was elected mayor of Cleveland.
With his winnings piling up and his reputation growing, Winston saw an irresistible opportunity to set about acquiring property to build his own real estate empire. Hollywood could wait a few years. So, after successfully launching several small neighborhood businesses, he decided to venture into neverland. University Circle. But with his first attempt at a high-profile enterprise, he fell into official disfavor with Cleveland’s white establishment community.
Nevertheless, against seemingly insurmountable odds, he persisted. The experience of having operated several successful businesses led to a quick assessment of this college community. He instinctively sensed what would work, and in the blink of an eye, he secured a lease on a building in a former automobile dealership showroom and, with his girlfriend, Charlene, opened the Jazz Temple, a liquor-less coffeehouse/night club, to immediate and stunning success. Liquor-less, because he was too young to acquire a liquor license. Then, whether with charismatic aplomb or out of desperation, he approached such legendary jazz artists as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderly and Dinah Washington, to name a few, and convinced them to come to Cleveland to appear at his club.
Not only did they appear and perform before standing-room-only crowds, but such notable acts at the trendy establishment also attracted visits from many famous jazz enthusiasts and booked performances from other notables such as Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael, and comedians Red Foxx, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Dick Gregory. At the time, the Murray Hill/Little Italy section near and around the Jazz Temple was still racially restricted, and even well-known jazz greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie were refused service in local restaurants and hotels. So Winston, his girlfriend Charlene, and his sister, Aundra welcomed the performers into their large brick Tudor mansion on East Boulevard and prepared and served many meals for them. Among the many jazz greats and legends who appeared at his club, John Coltrane made the strongest impression on Winston and they became good friends. Trane frequently stayed at Winston’s house when he was in Cleveland and actually introduced him to health foods.
The Jazz Temple quickly became the hottest spot in town for the college crowd. Located adjacent to the Case Western Reserve University campus, the predominantly white student body, as well as others from surrounding counties, packed the small club each night. In fact, white college students made up almost 80% of the club’s clientele. In addition, as was typical of early ’60s jazz nightlife establishments, race-mixing and romantic interracial coupling were becoming very common. When word of the rampant racial interactions began to drift around town, it wasn’t long before city officials began expressing their displeasure — physically.
At that time, it was virtually unheard of for a black person to own/operate a business in the University Circle area. In fact, blacks were barred from most local restaurants and taverns. Yet young Winston had the youthful courage to challenge the city’s ironclad racial restrictions. Cleveland city officials were vehemently opposed to his ownership of real property, stemming from a deeply rooted assumption that since that area of the city was primarily institutional, the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital it was no place for a young black man to be cutting his economic teeth.
For a while, Willis, a devoted jazz enthusiast himself, enjoyed the popularity and nation-wide acclaim of the Jazz Temple, but after several years of open hostility and bomb threats from racial bigots in the ethnic enclave known as Murray Hill/Little Italy, his beloved club suffered a powerful middle-of-the-night dynamite bombing and was swept off the triangular lot on Euclid Avenue and Mayfield Road. The destruction of the Jazz Temple was a devastating loss, but not entirely a surprise.
Frequent telephone threats, police harassment, incidents of arson, special delivery gift packages of sticks of dynamite and Molotov cocktails were clear indications of the club’s unwelcome status in the previously racially restricted community. Black patrons and interracial couples were routinely taunted and harassed while standing in line and refused service in other businesses within walking distance of the club. But in spite of such challenges, the club’s demise turned out to be a temporary set-back and was soon followed by an unbelievably fortuitous twist of fate for its young owner.
At the time, Cleveland, a blue-collar town, was rated as the third most racially polarized city in the United States. The nation was awash in social unrest, civil rights and anti-war demonstrations; flower children; political assassinations; and riots. Among blacks, there existed a paradoxical scuffle in the pursuit of social change. From stoic, non-violent resistance and a multi-racial civil rights movement to stentorian cries for “Black Power!” and “Burn, Baby, Burn!” Although he was an acknowledged and outspoken disciple of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, Winston’s true allegiance was to economic empowerment and autonomous control of black communities.
1968: Another Long Hot Summer
During the racially explosive, turbulent, riot-torn summer of 1968, in an atmosphere of assassinations, national mourning, anti-war protests, political upheaval, and racial turmoil, Winston won over half-a-million dollars in cash in a three-day craps shooting marathon against a group of slick, notorious master gamblers. A veritable career criminal cartel. Entering the game with a mere $423.51 in his pocket, the confidence that he could win at this game that he had been perfecting since adolescence, and outrageous luck on his side, he skillfully out shot the seasoned group of high rollers and walked away with several industrial size black garbage bags filled with crumpled cold hard cash.
When the group of exhausted men finally emerged after being sealed and sequestered for three days and nights in the secret gamblers’ bunker in the rear of Winston’s Hot Potato restaurant, they were completely unaware of the explosive events that had overtaken the entire East side of Cleveland.
July 23 — July 28: The Glenville Shootout
The Glenville Shootout and subsequent Glenville Riots had exploded around them, and the National Guard was policing the city. Realizing that it would be virtually impossible, but above all, risky to navigate their way through the armored trucks and rifle brigades, the defeated, broken gamblers cartel went back inside the restaurant to wait them out. Winston, on the other hand, decided to take the risk and try to make his way home. Declining the other gamblers’ invitation to start another game, he replied:
“Nah, I’ll catch you later. I’m going to buy me some real estate!”
After making his exit from the craps-shooting marathon in his white Jaguar convertible, Winston began navigating his way through back alleys and side streets, avoiding an army of military tanks and National Guard vehicles. He was able to slip into his apartment unseen, and after he and his girlfriend secured half of his winnings in carefully selected hiding places in the apartment, Winston took the other half of the money to his sister Aundra’s house where he outlined his plans to her for making several bank deposits.
The normal and understandable expectation of a young man his age in sudden possession of such a staggering amount of cash would be that the money would be quickly squandered on narcissistic self-indulgences. But to the contrary, having learned the value of land ownership from all the males in his family, young Winston had something else in mind.
Shortly after the Hough and Glenville riots and the subsequent explosive Glenville Shootout, widespread fear took hold of the city of Cleveland and white business owners began leaving the East side area in record numbers. Stunned and shaken by the eruption of racial violence, their boarded-up storefronts and abandoned buildings signaled the mass exodus toward the safety of more ethnically controlled neighborhoods. Having been convinced in November of 1967 that the election of a black mayor, Carl B. Stokes, would be their in-house protection against such violent uprisings, and fearing an all-out race war, previously successful white business owners abandoned the inner city in droves and never looked back.
With increasing white flight exacerbating the already bitterly polarized Cleveland communities, business owners continued exiting the inner-city at warp speed, triggering a mass exodus to the West side and the suburbs and rapidly dwindling patronage of businesses on Euclid Avenue. The area between 107th Street and 105th Street was now a ghost town. Deserted, crime-ridden and no longer viable.
Riots, Desertion and Martial Law in a Racially Polarized City
Wisely parlaying his recent staggering cash winnings into capital, assessing the needs of the black community and taking advantage of the white flight epidemic, Winston was ready, cash in hand, to deal and purchase the Euclid Avenue properties. Fully prepared for the typical racial road blocks, and after several unsuccessful attempts, he engaged in several clever legal moves of his own creation, and soon his acquisitions were completed and the building of his business empire was off to a running start. At a time when very little prospect for economic advancement was open for local black Americans in the inner-city of Cleveland, Winston’s 105th and Euclid offered jobs and a path to the road to prosperity. He purchased valuable parcels of real estate, lands and buildings up, down and around Euclid Avenue, with properties straddling between Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic.
He established numerous businesses, one after another. Restaurants, movie theaters, office buildings, penny arcades, liquor stores, clothing stores, hotels and pawn shops; bars, adult bookstores, and beauty and barber shops, employing more blacks than any other organization in the entire State, creating a first-of-its-kind black business empire. All under the resentful watch and scrutiny of the local white establishment community. In a very short time, he took the blighted area of town and revitalized it with brightly lit colorful buildings, well-run stores, and 24-hour security, and created an “inner-city Disneyland”. Transforming the deserted 105th Street and Euclid Avenue corner block and bringing renewed prosperity to the black community. Through his well-run umbrella organization, University Circle Properties Development, Inc. (UCPD), Willis employed hundreds of people.
He also amassed a fortune in commercial and real property in the upscale University Circle area, thereby creating a lot of powerful enemies in the white establishment community. In doing so, he unwittingly set into motion a sustained and well-funded effort to remove him, his twenty-eight businesses and hundreds of black employees from the area, and to set a judicial bear trap for himself from which there would be no escape.
The mayor and Winston were old friends from their pool hall days down on Quincy Avenue. And although Stokes secretly kept his friend apprised of what was being said about him at City Hall, the two were careful not to be seen or photographed together in public, due to young Winston’s contentious relationship with local government and city officials.
Mr. Walker, a well-respected Civil Rights leader and titan of the community, and publisher of the local black newspaper, the Call and Post, was a trusted mentor and supporter of Winston’s as well. His paper focused on the positive aspects of Winston’s contributions to the black community and published scathing editorials exposing the police harassment and unjust treatment young Winston was enduring in the local courts. However, even these two highly influential men were powerless to hold off the raging racist posse that was hell bent on destruction.
After objecting through the court system, without success, to numerous bogus fire inspections, police harassment, and impromptu raids on his businesses, young Winston realized the severity of the judicial corruption he was up against. Not one judge ever ruled in his favor, no matter how ironclad the law. The levying of these bogus inspections became a blood sport, and local law enforcement was given a free hand to do as they pleased. It was obvious to the entire community what was being done, and the Call and Post printed a scathing editorial entitled “Fire Inspections As Weapons”, criticizing the city for their blatant, racially-motivated harassment and repeated targeting of young Winston’s businesses.
Over time, his numerous and contentious courtroom battles with the city began to attract attention. They were like theater and received widespread media coverage within the community. Eventually, finding no fair treatment or equal justice available to him in the local courts, and taking full advantage of his First Amendment privileges, he mounted a very public forum upon which to voice his objections. His very own social network.
Utilizing his skillful in-house construction crew and collaborating with a skillful and talented artist, Mike Kirkpatrick, he erected a large, very visible billboard on the side of his building overlooking Euclid Avenue. Posting provocative statements, he exposed the racist activities of the local judiciary and city government officials. These billboard statements reflected a fierce intellect and revealed tremendous racial pride. He made statements in defense of downtrodden blacks in his community, and he also addressed global issues. His initial posted comments were bold, fierce, astute, and provocative. Soon the billboard became the talk of the town, a tourist attraction, receiving folklore status. But this type of attention was considered an embarrassment to the staid University Circle community.
Whose Freedom? Whose Speech?
America has long boasted that freedom of speech is among the first of several ironclad principles of liberty set forth by our founding fathers. But the right of free speech also includes the right to offend. From this country’s duplicitous history however, one could rightfully conclude that there is an unwritten codicil to this amendment. “Unless you are outspoken while black.” So many outspoken black ’60s “radicals” — disciples of “free speech” to the core, learned the hard way that freedom of speech and the age-old American principle of “innocent until proven guilty” have no meaning when it comes to their ilk and that of other outspoken blacks who challenged and confronted racism. While certain questionable behaviors and acts of influential whites are routinely dismissed as “youthful indiscretions”, they have been held to a completely different standard. A painful lesson learned.
For the seemingly harmless exercise in youthful verbal joie de vivre and outspoken, militant insolence during the ’60s and ’70s, Winston has paid a heavy price for his own version of black financial power. Why? Because he courageously exposed, challenged and criticized the rampant practice of racism by local government officials and the local judiciary in his community.
Over the next few years, by way of a continuing pattern of courtroom manipulations, automatic stay violations, illegal seizures, and gun-point evictions reminiscent of Rosewood and Tulsa Oklahoma, and as if driven by a private re-screening of Birth of a Nation, each one of his vast number of properties and/or business enterprise, as well as private property were illegally seized, taken or destroyed. Without any payment whatsoever. The assault was vicious and relentless. And six successive Cleveland mayoral administrations, with one singular and notable exception, Mayor Carl B. Stokes, either sanctioned, approved, allowed, or actively participated in judicially-sanctioned racially motivated and illegal land takings and property thefts.
But to his credit, Mayor Stokes deflected every take-over attempt against Willis’ properties that came to his attention, holding firm to well-settled Fifth Amendment laws of just compensation. During the years from 1968–1972, the Willis organization continued its growth. But the hatred for Young Winston Willis was so intense and the desire to remove him so imperative, that the end of the Stokes administration was the only signal the corrupt avenging posse had been waiting for to declare open season on him again.
It is commonly known in Cleveland that for decades, Cleveland’s City Hall has been an ethnically controlled cesspool of cronyism and corruption, and very recently, stunning newspaper headlines quote FBI officials as stating that the on-going FBI investigation of public corruption in Cleveland, Cuyahoga County Ohio is “…the largest investigation of its kind in agency’s history.” It is also widely known that the city is run by specific ethnic groups who exist above the law. But most of these groups take orders from and are headed by one powerful hierarchical organization, the multi-billion-dollar earning Cleveland Clinic . This corruption apparatus extended to and permeated the Cleveland Police Department as noted by former Cleveland Mayor Carl B. Stokes in his biography.
Recent FBI Cuyahoga County Corruption Probe
Even after spending his formative years in the Jim Crow South, and after experiencing rank corruption as he built his business empire, Winston still believed strongly in America’s judicial system. But after countless courtroom face-offs with corrupt judges and lawyers, he soon learned that a civil killing was in progress and that a judicial bear trap was being set for him. One that he would never be able to escape. In legal parlance: “They Framed A Mischief and Called It Law”
The long paper trail of violations of the law included: Foreclosure Fraud; Phantom Foreclosures; Property Theft Proceedings Disguised as Foreclosure Proceedings; Fraud upon the court; Fraud by the court; Falsification of Proceedings; Grand theft.
For countless years, in Cuyahoga County courtrooms, the wrongful, illegal and fake “foreclosure”s were rampant. Following each and every illegal seizure of his properties, Winston, in courtroom after courtroom presented irrefutable evidence that the action was illegal and in violation of the law.
“How can there be a foreclosure when there was no mortgage?” he asked.
No judge ever ruled in his favor, and the properties were taken under illegal proceeding, time after time.
“Since it is a mortgage that gives rise to the right to foreclose in a court of law, what then, was foreclosed, and what titles passed, from a mortgage that does not exist?” ~ Winston E. Willis
Each and every attempt at reporting the corruption and federal crimes associated with a massive series of illegal property seizures and gun-point evictions that he endured fell on deaf ears and were completely ignored all the way to the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The fact is, judicial corruption is very common and endemic in the United States. This abhorrent conduct by government officials has been tolerated for so long that it has almost become normalized. For far too many years, sworn officers of the court, judges and lawyers and magistrates have blatantly ignored the rule of law, and knowingly and willfully manipulated court proceedings. Nowhere is this more evident than in Cuyahoga County, Cleveland Ohio, where there is presently being conducted, an on-going and far-reaching federal investigation of Cuyahoga County government officials as reported in the press — the largest investigation of public corruption in the history of this nation.
Although Winston Willis held these violators of the law off for decades, utilizing expert attorneys and shelling out millions of dollars in attorney fees, he was faced with the reality of case after case of blatant racially motivated judicial corruption, and knowing full well the outcome each time he entered a courtroom. So he began representing himself. But the final devastating and inevitable blow that came in 1982 was an atrocity that no one could have foreseen.
A “manifest injustice”…
Faced with monstrous judicial misconduct, ethics and civil rights violations, and numerous fake “foreclosures” his legal battles intensified. In every Cuyahoga County courtroom he entered Winston was confronted with an arrogant, racist and abusive judiciary that created a safe haven for the posse of property thieves who lay in wait for him. After years of constant legal combat, countless courtroom appearances, attempts on his life, and kidnapping threats against his children, the conspirators devised the perfect tool and mechanism to use to take Winston Willis down.
The trap was set-up by corrupt city officials and it was fool-proof. It involved the vulnerable to blackmail and easily “handleable” president of the failing local black bank, First Bank National Association, at which several of Winston’s corporate accounts were held. In an after banking hours sleight of hand the bank president was manipulated into diverting funds from one of Winston’s company checking accounts in order to dishonor a check that his company had written to a local vendor. That company was then manipulated into pressing charges and Winston was arrested and imprisoned on the bogus bad check charge.
Subsequently, six penal institutions refused to accept him for incarceration, as there was no evidence of a crime committed, as Winston had not signed the check. After being transported to the various penal facilities, the final facility, upon a late night phone call from “somewhere high up”, accepted him into a Chillicothe Ohio correctional facility. This was an actual kidnapping. Then, in a plot similar to a 1940s gangster movie, Winston was scurrilously taken from his cell in the pre-dawn darkness and held in solitary confinement for several days without access to his attorneys, without being allowed a phone call, while the city engaged in the massive unlawful taking and the immediate bulldozer/wrecking ball demolition of all of his Euclid Avenue buildings worth millions of dollars. Several of those land parcels were stolen and illegally taken without a penny of payment to the rightful owner, Winston E. Willis, and handed over to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
Non-stop legal battles in defense of his property rights drained millions of dollars out of Willis’ financial reserves and into the pockets of high profile high priced lawyers, taking him to the brink of financial ruin. But he fought back fiercely for his constitutionally guaranteed property rights in the courts, fending off constant police harassment and straddling and holding back the city of Cleveland, the Clinic and UCI as they attempted to force him out.
Suffering through decades of unimaginable punishment, attempts on his life, and total economic destruction, Winston educated himself in the law. He has been single-mindedly focused and engaged in unfaltering one-man combat against corrupt city government officials and the local judiciary ever since. With the same gritty determination and tenacity that drove his youthful acts of defiance and led to his being treated as an enemy combatant, the now 76 year-old has never given up the fight, and continues to mount fresh legal strategies to get paid for his properties that have taken him all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Today, as the city of Cleveland boasts of “…new life and paving the way to economic development”, Cleveland Clinic dominates the Euclid Avenue corridor and continues its massive expansion. But underneath the freshly paved parking lots and the mammoth steel-and-glass superstructures lay the remains of a sizeable piece of the American dream.
The dream of a young black American citizen who, with youthful exuberance, dared to venture into and triumph in a racist community without compromise or apology, believing wholeheartedly that the dream was his to have. Local historians may continue to overlook the facts, but no genuine chronicler of Cleveland history will be able to separate 105th and Euclid from the Winston Willis era. Like it or not, he is forever woven into the city’s tapestry.
A brief perusal through local media coverage of the time uncovers a man who never got his due. Archived front page newspaper headlines, television interviews and magazine profiles and articles colorfully describe Winston Willis as “an anachronism” the “bull-in-the-china-shop native of Montgomery Alabama, who dared to challenge and confront a racially polarized city.” But ultimately his is also a story of triumph and tragedy. A former altar boy from a good home who struck out on his own at the tender age of 19 and went on to become a force in the annals of American entrepreneurship during the turbulent ’60s, only to have it all ripped out of his hands and taken away.
In final analysis, however, even considering the unbelievable bigotry and racism he endured, young Winston was also a lightning rod for controversy. Outspoken, combative, and unflinchingly pro-black. By all accounts, black and white, he was somewhat of a renegade. A bellicose provocateur who confronted and publicly exposed racism at every opportunity. All but daring his powerful enemies to come down on him. Had he been willing to bow submissively to his oppressors, or had he represented himself as a so-called “good Negro who knew his place”, he most certainly would’ve been “handled” differently. But this was a young black man who refused to be “handled” at all.
He bowed before no man, feared no one, and fought back mightily against powerful adversaries, proclaiming his constitutional rights in stentorian tones. Some might reasonably conclude that, as in the fable of the sleeping giant, Young Winston poked the proverbial giant in the eye and suffered the consequences. And in his youthful exuberance, he may very well have underestimated the giant’s power and potential for rage. But in his enemies’ retaliation, laws were clearly broken, and if we are a nation of laws, how is it useful to have laws if those who violate those laws are not held accountable for having done so?
Winston’s storied business career, his success and affluence while still maintaining his racial pride and militancy were to be his eventual undoing. The warnings were dire, and omnipresent. Subsequently, city and government officials, in concert, with the local judiciary and law enforcement devised and mounted an even more elaborate and diabolical covert plan to take him down and get rid of him — once and for all.
Clevelanders who were around during the ’60s and ’70s will remember him and the successful and popular businesses he created on and around Euclid Avenue and 105th Street. Younger ones encountering the bearded, rumpled eccentric today and hearing his claims will question his sanity. In either case, the simple truth is that Winston E. Willis was once a force. But the high price of black financial power coupled with fearless outspokenness was his undoing and would destroy him economically.
Although he fought back mightily for decades with every resource available to him, in the end, as he would come to realize, it never was a fair fight, and his opponents and enemies were entirely too powerful and too racially motivated. As one of the old-time observers said: “Winston may have had millions at one time, but they had billions”, and the vengeful motivation to destroy him economically. This has now been accomplished, and the doors of justice are seemingly closed to Winston Willis.
Another Winston (Churchill) once said: “History is written by the victors.” But even victors bear battle scars. And in careful analysis of the opponents in this conflict, can there be a determination of who was right, or who is left? Perhaps the answer lies in an examination of the defensive wounds of Winston E. Willis’ gallant, decades-long fight.
READ ALSO: Torn From The Land: http://theauthenticvoice.org/mainstories/tornfromtheland/
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Cleveland Clinic Lets Slip That the “Opportunity Corridor” Isn’t About Opportunity At All by Angie Schmitt
Cleveland Clinic Lacks a Prescription for its Community by James Brasuell
East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue: Historically referred to as “the most famous intersection in Cleveland”, has a storied history dating back to the 19th Century, when it was known as Doan’s Corners. But this celebrated chapter in Cleveland history was later followed by another colorful era that has been all but ignored by local historians. Perhaps it’s difficult for some to accept the fact that this same corner witnessed the rise of an urban paradise; imagined, engineered, owned and operated by one lone young black man during the 1960s. But it actually happened, with David and Goliath overtones, when an audacious and charismatic young Winston E. Willis arrived on the scene, ready cash in hand, bringing with him, his own personal brand of showmanship and racial pride.
In the interest of recorded history, it is also worth noting that his is also the story of the triumph and tragedy of a man of immense personal and political courage. One can only marvel at the losses and all that he has endured and suffered over the past decades while defending his constitutionally guaranteed civil rights. All of which is documentably provable and a matter of public record.
“It’s a microcosm of the broader assault on black real estate holdings whether urban or rural that has occurred over the past 60 or 70 years.”
Thomas W. Mitchell,
Interim Dean, Professor of Law
Texas A & M University School of Law
Fort Worth, Texas
“The taking of land from black and indigenous people is the greatest unpunished civil crime in American history.”
Raymond A. Winbush, PhD., Director,
Institute for Urban Research
Morgan State University
SEE ALSO: From the forthcoming documentary: 105th and Euclid: The Winston Willis Story.
Aundra Willis Carrasco is a Southern California based writer-blogger and the younger sister of Winston E. Willis. Her work, in recent years has primarily been focused on racial, political and women’s issues and published locally. Although her formal education does not include a college degree, she studied Journalism and Screenwriting at UCLA, Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, Cal State LA, and the American Film Institute (AFI) with the intention of writing for the big screen. Holding down day jobs in the public relations fields and the entertainment industry while balancing the practical necessities of motherhood and family life, her writing journey continued and expanded into script editing and consultant work. Then, approximately 20 years-ago, news of her brother Winston’s tremendously compelling situation in Cleveland literally derailed her career aspirations and changed the trajectory of Aundra’s life. Her brother, a wealthy Cleveland real estate mogul, was entangled in a legal battle with the City of Cleveland over the racially-motivated thefts of his Euclid Avenue properties and the total destruction of his business empire. He was in the fight of his life. And he asked for her help. Shortly thereafter, what was to have been a weekend visit to assist with the writing and editing of his Petition to the United States Supreme Court, turned into a 4-year stay in Cleveland. A brother and sister partnership in and out of Cleveland courtrooms in a futile attempt to defend and protect his Constitutionally protected property rights. The decades-long fight is ongoing, and Aundra continues to devote her writing and editing skills to her brother’s legal battles. In addition, her other current projects include: 105th and Euclid: The Winston Willis Story, a 2-hour theatrical documentary; “WINSTON: His Incredible True Story” a theatrical screenplay; Stolen Lands: Exposing America’s Historical Amnesia, a blog series; and Blackberry Summers: A Childhood Memoir. E-Mail Contact: email@example.com
Produced on Medium by: Gabriel A. Tolliver & Eric Dominique Brown
Originally published at medium.com on August 4, 2017.