…Seneca Village in New York, … 105th and Euclid in Cleveland
Having written extensively, and with familial knowledge, on the subject of Black land loss in this country, I have noticed recently, and with no small amount of gratification, that the news media is finally taking notice of these rarely discussed property crimes. Seemingly, in the recent aftermath of the storm of publicity surrounding the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the descendants of the victims' efforts in pursuit of justice. However, a few lawyers, constitutional scholars, and academics have spoken out occasionally and offered their consensus view on the issue. Several years ago, commenting on my essay, Stolen Lands: Exposing America’s Historical Amnesia, Morgan State University Professor Raymond Winbush, had this to say:
“The taking of land from Black and indigenous people is the greatest unpunished civil crime in American history…In just one article, Sistar Aundra Willis summarizes all of Amerikkka’s land theft from First Nations people and Amerikkkan Afrikans. This includes her own family and land now worth Billions in my hometown of Cleveland Ohio. Reparations NOW!”
FACT: Land ownership is how wealth is accumulated and how generational wealth is transmitted. Unless…
Writing about “The Taking of Black Land” in his new New York Times bestseller, Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution, Elie Mystal, legal analyst and justice correspondent for “The Nation”, devotes the entirety of Chapter 9 to the topic of lands “taken” from Black people through the use of eminent domain. Mystal tells the story of the 19th-century settlement known as Seneca Village, which was a vibrant, 40-acre community of predominantly Black property owners that were displaced in 1857 to build Central Park. He concludes by writing:
“New York City should go and find all the descendants of Seneca Village and pay them what their land is actually worth. I bet the government would be more cautious and fair when using its power of eminent domain if the compensation were ever just.”
The effects of eminent domain abuse have been devastating to generations of Black families and have resulted in generational impoverishment. But another case in point is flat-out racially motivated property theft without compensation. “Just” or “Unjust”. As was the case with my brother, Winston E. Willis a former self-made millionaire businessman in the 1980s in the city of Cleveland. Winston arrived in Cleveland in 1959 at the age of 19 and began building a first-of-its-kind Black business empire in the racially polarized, ethnically controlled city. Our family is originally from Montgomery, Alabama, but we joined in the Great Migration in the early 1950s and settled in Detroit. Growing up in our large, close-knit extended family in the Jim Crow south, all of Winston’s familial role models were successful businessmen and property owners, and these examples definitely shaped his worldview. So, it was fitting and expected that he would set out on a similar path. Even as a young boy, my imaginative big brother was creating businesses and money-making strategies and launching them around our neighborhood. Within a few years, he went on to become a force in the annals of American entrepreneurship.
After opening the wildly popular Jazz Temple coffee house jazz club in 1962 in the University Circle area, where he went toe-to-toe with previously unchallenged racial restrictions, he encountered the first obstacle to his success. The racially motivated bombing destruction of the club. But it didn’t stop him. A couple of years later, expanding further down Euclid Avenue, taking advantage of the riot-induced White Flight epidemic of the 1960s, he purchased several abandoned buildings and transformed them into successful businesses, and expanded his business empire. Continuing even further, he subsequently went on to make wide, sweeping purchases of even more Euclid Avenue properties, thereby creating what became known colloquially as “Black folks downtown”, and an “inner-city Disneyland”.
105th and Euclid quickly became a Black utopia of entertainment venues and services of all kinds. Owned and operated by a militantly outspoken young Black businessman who was determined to bring quality entertainment and services to the Black community that had not been offered to them previously. Restaurants, movie theaters, penny arcades, adult entertainment, convenience stores. Employing hundreds of Black residents of the area and attracting hordes of patrons from all over the state. But even with all of the visible success, and while exhibiting fierce racial pride, Winston Willis was also speaking out against the institutional and systemic racism he was encountering and fighting a battle with corrupt city officials and the local judiciary. This eventually led to the illegal thefts and destruction of his entire business empire. Although he held on for over 15 years, fighting back valiantly, completely depleting his million-dollar cache, protecting his properties and defending his constitutionally guaranteed property rights in epic courtroom battles, his powerful enemies had the upper hand. Finally, in 1982, after being falsely arrested on a bogus “bad check” charge and while he was being held in solitary confinement in an Ohio penitentiary, Winston’s entire Euclid Avenue business empire was illegally seized and destroyed, and the land gifted to the Cleveland Clinic. A significant portion of what is now the 170-acre main Cleveland Clinic campus was literally stolen from him without a dime of compensation. Just or unjust.
Today, the Cleveland Clinic is a world-renowned medical metropolis valued at $12.6 Billion and continues its massive expansion, negatively impacting and wiping out previously thriving Black neighborhoods nearby. All while continuing their 40-year illegal occupancy of stolen properties still rightfully owned by my 82-year-old brother, Winston E. Willis. With the Clinic’s reported $3.2 billion in operating revenue and $339 million in operating income, theirs is the proverbial gift (of stolen land) that keeps on giving.
In retrospect, it is one of the miracles of modern American entrepreneurship that during one of the most tumultuous decades in the history of this country, one lone young Black man had the courage and insight to penetrate Cleveland’s previously racially restricted University Circle area and create a thriving business empire. Becoming a self-made millionaire in the process. It is even more miraculous that after decades of life in the crosshairs of vicious politically powerful White racists, he remains engaged and continues to fight to defend and protect his property rights. Even at such an advanced age, in frail health, and from his cramped room in a nursing home, to which he was sent in 2013 after a series of brain hemorrhages and subsequent surgeries, he remains hopeful. Ironically, the dank and dismal facility is located within the shadow of his former business empire. Where the view from his window provides a constant visual reminder of all that was taken from him. The ultimate cruelty cannot be ignored. This late-in-life punishment does not fit the so-called crimes he was accused of. For the seemingly harmless exercise in youthful verbal joie de vivre and outspoken, militant insolence during the turbulent, riot-torn ’60s, my brother has paid an extraordinarily heavy price for his own version of “Black Power”. Why? Because as a young, rich Black man, he had the temerity to speak out, frequently in stentorian tones, and expose the racism he was encountering in his community. And because he published provocative statements on an outdoor billboard exposing and criticizing local government officials. As history has shown, this country has a perverse predilection for retaliation against outspoken Black men.
“The most feared thing in America is a Black man with power.”
The crimes committed against my brother and the thefts of his properties are particularly egregious. However, as previously stated, the theft of Black land is not uncommon. And, as I have been writing for many years, Winston is not the only Black person to suffer property losses in the city of Cleveland. He’s just the only one who fought back, for decades. Over the years, I have personally reached out to several Black families in similar situations in Cleveland, but although they wished us well, they expressed their fears of retaliation by the City and the far-reaching power of the Clinic. My brother, however, having long ago girded his loins for this decades-long fight, has no intention of giving up. He fully intends to continue moving forward until the closed doors of justice are forced to open.