“This is a really powerful story and it must be told.”
So I’ve been told by numerous Hollywood producers and studio heads, TV journalists, book publishers, and newspaper editors. But in the 20 years, I’ve been writing and attempting to promote this extraordinary story, no one has stepped forward to assist me in telling it. Laudatory commendations notwithstanding, and truth be told, this project of mine has been lingering in “development Hell” aka: “screenwriters purgatory” longer than I care to admit here. Many writers would’ve given up on it by now. But I cannot. It is too vitally important to me personally, and I dare say to this nation as a whole.
During my years of toiling in what I have come to refer to as screenwriters’ purgatory, writing “on spec”, taking potentially promising meetings that resulted in no deal, submitting free rewrites, and time-consuming networking — all while attempting to deftly juggle life as a divorced, working single mother of four, an extraordinary situation was developing in my own familial backyard that would forever change the trajectory of my life.
In the fall of 1999, on what was to have been a weekend visit with my brother, Winston E. Willis, in Cleveland, he revealed to me the intimate details of the decades-long, racially-motivated conspiracy perpetrated against him by corrupt city government officials and the equally corrupt local judiciary. Even though I had witnessed a great deal of this shameful activity during the 14 years that I lived in Cleveland and worked for my brother, I was genuinely shocked by the hate-filled antipathy and cruelty leveled at him. That weekend visit morphed into a four-year stay in Cleveland and a multiplicity of confrontational courtroom dramas in defense of his property rights. With the doors of justice being slammed shut in our faces in local courts, Winston made the decision to petition the United States Supreme Court. And after completing the monumentally difficult task of writing and submitting his Petition for Writ of Mandamus to the high court, which was accepted and docketed, we were notified several months later that the petition had been denied. However, the fight continued and continues to this day.
All of this was triggered when in 1968, Winston purchased several buildings and plots of land at the famous intersection of East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue and built a wildly successful Black business empire, employing hundreds of black Clevelanders. From that time forward, my brother unwittingly became “public enemy number one” to Cleveland’s politically powerful white establishment community. The fact that he was fearless, militantly outspoken and rich, made him an even bigger target.
The Long-Hidden Untold True Story
105th and Euclid, a.k.a. East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue. The most famous and coveted commercial intersection in the city of Cleveland, with a storied history dating as far back as the 19th Century, when it was known as Doan’s Corner. But to believe that this same site witnessed the rise of an urban paradise; imagined, engineered, owned and operated by a lone young black man during the turbulent 1960s would be unimaginable. Yet it actually happened, and as reported recently in a local publication, that young black man, my brother, “Winston E. Willis created a miracle on 105th and Euclid.” A first of its kind black business empire. All under the resentful watch and scrutiny of the local white establishment community. But the ambitious and fearlessly outspoken young entrepreneur ignored the harassment, threats and attempted intimidation and went on to establish 23 wildly successful businesses on the strip, employing hundreds of black citizens and providing economic enrichment opportunities to the Eastside community. But his total ownership and control of the properties resulted in a decades-long and bitterly wrought struggle against Cleveland’s corrupt racist white power-establishment and resulted in his complete economic destruction by his powerful adversaries.
This is the long-hidden and little-known true story of a diabolical series of racially-motivated illegal land grabs and property thefts on the East side of Cleveland. The perpetrators are the City of Cleveland, the local judiciary and law enforcement, and University Circle Incorporated (UCI). The beneficiary of the crime is the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic. And the victim of the largest series of property thefts is my brother, Winston E. Willis, a formerly successful business mogul and real estate developer and an unsung local hero in the city. He is as much a part of the tapestry of Cleveland history as any of its local landmarks. But I dare say, and have long believed that the city of Cleveland and many of its historians suffer from a serious case of historical amnesia, and with your help putting this information in the hands of the world, the truth will, at last, be revealed in this film and cause justice to prevail at long last.
Winston is a legend in Cleveland. And he made his mark during turbulent times in one of the most racially polarized cities in the country. From former altar boy, growing up in pre-civil rights era Montgomery Alabama, to enthusiastic entrepreneur, idealistically in search of his version of the American dream, his story is one of extraordinary achievement and one that is unique to the annals of American economic history. But it is also the story of a fight. An unfair fight over land that evolved into a decades-long clash between an enterprising young entrepreneur and the powerful white establishment demigods he dared to defy.
In the summer of 1968, in a classic example of potential meeting opportunity, Winston seized a fortuitous moment that was created after the Hough and Glenville riots had rocked the city. Urban disinvestment, as well as a wide-spread wave of white flight, were triggered and Eastside business owners were fleeing to the safety of the suburbs, abandoning buildings up and down Euclid Avenue. Enter Winston E. Willis.
“One man’s wilderness is another man’s theme park.”
After a bitterly contentious period of negotiations with Cleveland Trust Bank, the titleholder of the properties, an agreement was finally reached and he began purchasing and refurbishing the structures and building his business empire, right in the middle of the city’s affluent University Circle area, the so-called “cultural oasis”.
In a very short time, with his talented construction crew, he transformed the previously crime-ridden blocks between East 105th Street and 107th Street, achieving enormous and immediate success. As he told the Cleveland Press at the time: “I simply humanized the area and made it something that people wanted.”
With bright lights, popular music, and 24-hour security, the previously deserted corner was newly revitalized, “humanized”, and transformed into a very popular attraction. From 1968 to1982, the famous corner was a unique hub of frenzied activity, frequently referred to as the “inner-city Disneyland” or “black folks downtown”. With colorfully lit retail stores, movie theaters, restaurants, penny arcades, bars, an adult book store, and giant billboards. The local press reported that “Winston Willis has accomplished the impossible…”, referring to his achievements in newspaper and magazine articles entitled “Winston Willis’ Miracle on East 105th Street”, “Urban Renewal Willis Style”, and “Winston Willis The Pied Piper of Euclid Avenue”.
Almost immediately, however, his astonishing success and visible wealth triggered the resentment of Cleveland’s previously unchallenged ruling circle of powerful racists. They made no attempt to hide or disguise their antipathy at the sight of the hundreds of black citizens Winston employed, actually referring to them in the local press as “undesirables” and referring to the strip of thriving businesses as “that eyesore on Euclid Avenue”. So, a vicious conspiracy was set into motion to remove them all and bring about Winston’s complete economic destruction.
Even realizing what he was up against, Winston refused to be intimidated or back down. Under his ownership, 105th and Euclid flourished and served the Eastside community, bringing new prosperity to the area.
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. His personal philosophy and vision were often obscured by his penchant for showmanship, but there was always, at the heart of his deeds, an inherent and genuine compassion for his people and their welfare.
Between the years, 1968 to 1972, the Carl Stokes mayoral years, Winston’s 105th and Euclid was allowed to thrive and grow, even though corrupt city officials continually approached the mayor with plans to remove Winston and his businesses from the University Circle area. But to his credit, the mayor, an old friend of Winston’s, deflected every nefarious attempt that came to his attention. Then, from the moment Stokes announced that he would not be seeking another term as Mayor, all bets were off and the illegal property seizures and thefts began in earnest. Winston was now in the fight of his life. A David and Goliath battle in defense of his property rights that went on for decades.
In 1977 Winston filed a $100,000,000 lawsuit against the city, Cleveland Clinic, UCI, and others, for their ongoing attempts to squeeze him out of the area. But as with all of his court actions in local courts, even though his team of attorneys was some of the best in the country, the suit was unsuccessful. His final billboard statement revealed the outcome.
“Farewell Friends & Neighbors. After 10 years serving this community, soon we must close our businesses to make way for…UCI — Cleveland Clinic — State of Ohio…To Build a New Hospital — for Whites”
Eventually, finding no justice in the local courts, and having had to deal with wide-spread corruption in the local judiciary, he created a powerful weapon of his own to speak out against the injustice he was encountering. With no other legal recourse available to him, Winston took full advantage of his First Amendment privileges and mounted a public forum. His community billboard.
Utilizing his skillful in-house construction crew and a talented artist, he erected a large, very visible billboard on the corner lot of his property. Utilizing the newly erected structure as his own personal platform and bully pulpit, he exposed, protested and criticized the rampant practice of racism by local government and city officials and so-called philanthropic institutions. He had at last seized the constitutionally guaranteed right to be heard so long denied him in the courts.
The billboard statements were definitely an irritant to city officials, but to Winston’s community and patrons of his businesses they were amusing and became a local tourist attraction. By today’s standards, they would be considered lampoons, or social networking. But at the time, they made Winston a target.
The threats and warnings were dire, and being one of my brother’s employees, I was frequently present when they occurred and an eye-witness to many of them. Multiple attempts on his life, kidnapping threats against his children, mysterious fires of unknown origin, constant police harassment, bogus fire inspections, wrongful arrests and imprisonments, judicial corruption and foreclosure fraud. All perpetrated against one black man who fought back valiantly and with everything he had. But not even his wealth or his team of high profile, high price lawyers could save Winston’s 105th and Euclid from the powerful criminal enterprise that was driving the taking.
Finally, in 1982, their dastardly deed was carried out, with grotesque, hate-filled flourish. In an incredible scene right out of a 1940s black and white gangster movie, with my brother wrongfully incarcerated and sealed away in solitary confinement in a Chillicothe Ohio prison, a huge army of Cleveland police vehicles and FBI vans and fire trucks surrounded 105th and Euclid and sealed it off from traffic and onlookers. Moments later, an armed SWAT-Team arrived, forming a phalanx around the wrecking ball vehicles as they arrived to demolish and level each one of the buildings. Neighborhood eye-witnesses said, “the scene resembled a war zone in a terrorist-ruled country.” Interestingly, not one word about this illegal seizure and demolition appeared in the local press and there was no TV coverage of the occurrence.
In the somber words of a popular song of the era:
“…they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Sadly, the bright lights and good times of 105th and Euclid were dimmed long ago, and all that remains are the memories and the eye-witness reflections of the few who remain to tell the story, and the steely resolve and determination and the singular obsession of Winston E. Willis.
Whether you are one of those who was there and remember or have only heard about the prosperity and visible racial pride he brought to the African-American community during racially turbulent times, there can be no doubt that his story is of vital importance and must be told. Because there was a time when the bright lights of East 105th and Euclid represented some semblance of prosperity for inner-city black citizens. When jobs were plentiful at his locations, and hope sprang eternal. But most importantly, it was a time when one man stepped out alone, speaking up for and galvanizing his community, and exposing rampant racism. All for which he has paid a heavy price.
Two years ago, Politico published How the Cleveland Clinic grows healthier while its neighbors stay sick. A lengthy in-depth investigation of Cleveland Clinic’s ever-expanding physical footprint and its negative impact on the surrounding communities. As revealed by the reporter, Dan Diamond, the community that surrounds the hospital “remains mired in poverty.” Counted somewhere in this community’s 34.5 percent poverty rate citizenry, is 79 year-old Winston E. Willis. And it is utterly inconceivable that today, he is one of the city’s invisible cast-offs. Never seen, heard or acknowledged. Yet, even in his dotage, he exhibits the same fierce determination he had as a young man. He has by necessity, become a legal scholar, the result of decades spent in the trenches of the legal system fighting to defend and protect his constitutionally guaranteed property rights, with knowledge of this nation’s laws that have provided absolutely no remedy or protection.
Living in the shadow of his former business empire, keenly aware of all that was illegally taken from him, as well as what lies beneath the mammoth steel-and-glass superstructures on Cleveland Clinic’s sprawling 8 Billion Dollar ($8,000,000,000) campus. The long discarded remnants and ashes of his American dream.
In conversations with my brother, he often expresses how it pains him to see that so many other Clevelanders are living under the same threat today that he fought so hard against so many years ago. The article in Politico touched him deeply and emotionally, and he agreed wholeheartedly with what a local Eastside resident Mrs. Shelley Wheeler said:
“Cleveland Clinic is just eating everything up that they can…At some point, Cleveland Clinic is going to come…When, we don’t know. I’m trying to save my house.”
Others East side residents have said:
Hasn’t anyone ever wondered why the Willis business empire was allowed to flourish and expand during the Carl Stokes administration? And why the troubles began and continued under the corrupt Perk/Kucinoch/Voinovicj/White machine? With the Clinic waiting in the wings for its “gifts”?
“Everybody knows Mr. Willis was forced out by the Cleveland Clinic…The Cleveland Clinic started taking everything there, which they are still doing today.”
“The Clinic has never been a friend to us black folks…When I was a boy in the 50s, we wasn’t even allowed to be treated there…Not even if you was sick…We had to go all the way to Forest City Hospital.”
“Even black doctors wasn’t welcome at the Cleveland Clinic until Winston Willis put up that billboard talkin’ about it…Next thing you know…they hired them one.”
Cleveland/Cuyahoga County has been engaging in the practice of redlining since the 1930s, and the socio-economic divide is still visible in declining neighborhoods. This discriminatory practice of fencing off areas signaling banks to avoid investing based on the communities racial demographics is still occurring today, and of great benefit to the Cleveland Clinic.
This multi-billion-dollar organization has been unlawfully occupying several of Winston’s properties for decades, and according to settled law, as the rightful owner of the properties, he is, at a minimum, entitled to the present value of the properties, as well as rents and profits accrued during those years.
The amount of “just compensation” for his properties, as well as relocation benefits for his displacements over these past decades is virtually incalculable. But if justice is finally achieved and this nation’s property laws are ever applied as they were intended to be, Winston E. Willis is, for all intents and purposes, a billionaire.