“Winston”: A name that would draft the blueprint for the rest of his life.
“Cleveland has never seen anything like him. Willis is an anachronism, and he would have it no other way.”
“He is outspoken, residing and working in a community ill at ease with Blacks who confront their morality.”
“It is his style, a combination of street theater, civil rights, legalese and screaming spoiled child.”
If Willis were white his financial ties would be with bankers. He is a shrewd, savvy, black entrepreneur.” — OHIO Magazine, January, 1980
His story is epic. He’s a local legend and an unsung hero to many Black people in the city of Cleveland. Another hidden figure whose remarkable history is largely untold. But let it suffice to say that the Winston E. Willis story is one of extraordinary achievement and one that is unique to the annals of American entrepreneurship. Yet, it is also a story of triumph and tragedy. A former altar boy from a strict Catholic home. Born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama and Detroit, Michigan, he struck out on his own at the tender age of 19 and went on to become a force in his community. Only to have it all taken away.
If this story was to be written as a descriptive blurb, it would read:
In the turbulent, riot-torn summer of 1968, in racially polarized Cleveland Ohio, a brilliant, 28-year-old Black businessman wins a staggering Half-A-Million Dollars in cash in a three-day Craps shooting marathon. After wisely parlaying his winnings into building a wildly successful, first-of-its-kind Black business empire in an area where no Blacks had ever been welcome, he unwittingly sets into motion a city-wide enmity that results in his eventual economic destruction by a corrupt,t racist city government, police force and local judiciary.
Winston saw opportunity everywhere, and where he didn’t find it, he created it. What others didn’t want, he would buy, and what others refused to sell, he would take. When other businesses divested, he invested even more. Recognizing the hidden opportunity created by riot-induced White flight, Winston swept through the East side of Cleveland like a whirlwind. Purchasing properties, transforming abandoned buildings, creating successful businesses and announcing his arrival on the scene in stentorian tones. Within a very short time, his successful and very visible Euclid Avenue business empire had earned the names, “Black folks downtown” and “Winston Willis’ Miracle on 105th Street”, “Urban Renewal: Winston Willis Style” and “The Inner-City Disneyland”. That’s when several politically powerful forces began to view him as a problem. What started out as a mildly adversarial rift between a brilliant and charismatic young Black businessman and Cleveland city officials soon escalated into a full-scale, and very public war, and the East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue intersection became the visible battleground.
Euclid Avenue is the main thoroughfare and central artery linking downtown Cleveland with the culturally prestigious University Circle area. It is also the spine along which the city developed culturally and economically. For many years, the famed avenue was well accustomed to West-bound traffic leading to downtown and Public Square and beyond to the West side, ethnically controlled suburbs. Due to its storied history dating as far back as the 19th Century, East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue held the distinction of being the most famous commercial intersection in the city of Cleveland.
Currently occupying approximately 173 acres, up, down, and around Euclid Avenue is the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, the sprawling medical-educational metropolis that is one of the most dominant medical facilities in the world. The city’s massive crown jewel with a cluster of modern, state-of-the-art medical buildings. For those who have never been to Cleveland, the Clinic’s location, its buildings jutting skyward and spreading widely, hides beneath it a city akin to Atlantis, where legend gives life to its existence but rarely is any evidence excavated to support the truth. What Atlantis may lack in verified authenticity, the earth under which the Clinic is built has an eyewitness to the events that laid waste to an empire, built by a Black entrepreneur, and later destroyed, setting in motion the events that turned Cleveland into one of the most racially polarized and segregated cities in the country. It also holds the distinction of now being one of the poorest large cities in America with a Black poverty rate of 42%. The boarded-up abandoned buildings, barren vacant lots, and ubiquitous images of inner-city deterioration and grinding hopelessness never had to happen. All of it was in response to one young Black man who dared to dream and make a significant contribution to the community. I am that eyewitness. I am Winston Willis’ sister, and I saw it all from the very beginning.
The Cleveland Clinic was not always what it is today. Back in the 1950s, it occupied a relatively small area of land adjacent to the University Circle area. But they had aspirations of greatly expanding their physical presence, and with the full support of the “city fathers” and UCI (University Circle Incorporated), they went about doing so in a ruthless manner, and there is a darker side to the inner workings of this world-renown medical 501(c)(3) tax-exempt medical facility.
Admittedly, and without question, the Cleveland Clinic has made phenomenal medical inroads in the areas of research and medical sciences. And they have definitely earned the distinction of being on the cutting edge of medical technology. Moreover, it is commonly accepted in the city of Cleveland that the Cleveland Clinic is its most valued and most visible asset, a place where medical miracles are performed by highly acclaimed physicians and scientists. I actually have personal knowledge of this fact through my friend, Christine Rankin, who received a heart transplant at the Clinic in 1991. She not only survived the surgery, but she was one of the longest surviving heart transplant recipients in the country. However, and notwithstanding such a stellar history worldwide, the Clinic’s coexistence in the community has been much less than peaceful and amicable, definitely not friendly, and certainly not adhering to the “first do no harm” Hippocratic oath. And their negative impact on neighboring, predominantly Black communities has not escaped national attention.
Recently, several national print and online publications have published articles criticizing the Clinic’s negative impact on neighboring Black communities and the scrutiny is continuing. Shawn Donnan, of Bloomberg Business Week, wrote: Cleveland Clinic Thrives While Its Black Neighbors Fall Behind. And Dan Diamond, reporting for Politico wrote: How the Cleveland Clinic grows healthier while its neighbors stay sick. Also, several prominent journalists and book authors have reached out to me for comment after reading my blog posts about the thefts of my brother’s Euclid Avenue properties. From numerous conversations and interviews and subsequent reporting, it stands to reason that these reporters determined that the multi-billion-dollar Clinic, for all its weak boasts of community outreach, has some serious answers to provide.
My personal visits and casual perusals around Cleveland’s East side are genuinely depressing, as are a few minutes of conversation with residents of the area who have suffered under the Clinic’s widespread presence. Numerous Black businesses have been driven out and over 60 blocks of once thriving neighborhoods have been swallowed up by the Clinic’s ongoing ruthless expansion. What stands out to me more than anything, however, is the visual imagery of how my brother’s Euclid Avenue business empire was taken, swept away and replaced. How the erasure of Winston E. Willis from economic, social, political, and historical records have been accomplished. But no matter how many diabolical attempts have been made to destroy his legacy in Cleveland, I continue to maintain that he is as much a part of Cleveland's history as any local landmark one could name.
It cannot be disputed that with the complicit local judiciary and numerous corrupt judges and attorneys, laws were manipulated and refashioned into instruments of evil and weaponized against my brother. Their hatred and resentment for Winston ran so deep, that it was grotesque to witness. They wanted his properties and they flat-out refused to pay him. It also cannot be disputed that the Cleveland Clinic was the lone beneficiary of Winston’s stolen lands and properties. Using his East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue business strip, it was replaced by the clear rise of amorphous space, then populated by the hulking presence of gargantuan high-rise steel and glass skyscraper Cleveland Clinic buildings with ribbons of steel and curtains of glass. Many of which are illegally occupying and trespassing on the stolen properties. The entire area that encompassed Winston’s former thriving business empire is now gone and 105th and Euclid as we knew it, has been swept completely clean of Winston’s imagery and influence.
Having encountered numerous doubters to my recollection of these events, I expect no less going forward. But having witnessed as much as I did and having been at my brother’s side in countless court appearances during which it was crystal clear, from the illegal actions of the local judiciary, that the law had been weaponized against him, I can only say that I know what I know because I saw it happen. Moreover, I was told by one of Winston’s former attorneys that while the City of Cleveland was “acquiring” Winston’s properties in the 105th and Euclid area, they had a secret agent who purchased and assembled properties in the area for much less than their appraised value. Then they seized and boarded up the properties, artificially depressed their value, and transferred them to the Clinic for a nominal amount. Sometimes as minimal as one dollar. Winston’s $100 Million Dollar Antitrust Lawsuit against the Cleveland Clinic was a front-page headline story in the Plain Dealer in 1977, but as was typical during the time, the ruling was not in his favor.
Simply stated, Winston was in the way of the billion-dollar expansion. They wanted him gone, and he refused to be intimidated and he refused to leave. It was the classic “David and Goliath” scenario. But in order to understand the magnitude of this epic battle, we have to look back at just who Winston Willis was, who the Cleveland Clinic was dealing with, and, most importantly, how much they underestimated him. And with benefit of hindsight, it can reasonably be concluded that from the moment he arrived in Cleveland in 1959, Winston was on a parallel track with the City of Cleveland, UCI (University Circle Incorporated), and the Cleveland Clinic that would eventually lead to an inevitable collision.
Witnessing these events over several decades, as well as being at my brother’s side in countless courtroom appearances as he exhausted every available legal remedy, I often recalled the boy Winston was during our childhood in pre-civil rights movement Montgomery Alabama. He was always fearless and adventuresome, sometimes disobeying or parents’ ironclad rules concerning venturing into forbidden territory. And he questioned racism wherever he encountered it. One of his favorite possessions was a Slingshot, and like the Biblical David, he was adept at felling his targets. Usually Pidgeons, wild animals or figs and peaches from trees in our neighborhood. And when he refused to allow me to play with the Slingshot, pesky kid sister that I certainly was, I created what I thought was an appropriate nickname for him. ‘The Slingshot Altar Boy’, which he hated. And decades later, there we were, in numerous Cleveland courtrooms as he exhausted every available legal remedy. I soon came to realize the necessity of changing my focus to simply writing and telling his story. As I did in the following blog post in 2010.
“Until lions have historians, hunters will be heroes.” — Kenyan Proverb
The Slingshot Altar Boy Meets Three Goliaths
Sometime during the late 1960s, in the city of Cleveland Ohio, two reigning institutional Goliaths, University Circle Incorporated (UCI) and 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. 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, but 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 and trying 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, 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 young Winston owned so much valuable and very visible property. With twenty-eight successful businesses thriving and growing adjacent to the staid community where the prestigious University Circle area 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 he 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. Young Winston’s 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.
Winston and the several hundred blacks he employed were unwelcome and frequently referred to as “eye-sores” in their 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 courts, housing inspectors, and several high-profile law firms consistently targeted young Winston 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 from young Winston owned on and around Euclid Avenue by way of one unlawful eviction after another. Not only were these SWAT-Team gun-point evictions illegal, they were also followed in courtroom proceedings by willful violation of laws and 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.
As a young Negro boy growing up and attending Catholic school in Montgomery Alabama, Winston, a fiercely 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 a 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 Al Capone — continuing the late mobster’s career 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 lightning rod of controversy and somewhere amid decades of journalistic hyperbole is a molecule of truth about Winston E. Willis. Spending his first fourteen years under segregation and Jim Crow laws, young Winston was keenly aware of racial inequities and intolerance and 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 father monitoring his whereabouts and regularly removing him from the halls of ill repute, Young 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 Western Detroit Shopping News, and he also 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.
Although he was a good student, Winston was independently well-read and he frequently challenged and questioned his teachers to the point of disrupting class. Soon afterward, his 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’ rule, and outside of Detroit. He and his friend, 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 on this odyssey in the 1941 Ford he’d been keeping alive with little more than recycled parts and crossed fingers and heading West, young 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 serendipitous 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 friends with another pool hall devotee, Carl Stokes, who later was elected mayor of Cleveland.
With his winnings piling up and his reputation growing, he 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 never land. University Circle. And with his first attempt, he fell into official disfavor with Cleveland’s white establishment community. The experience of having operated several successful businesses in Detroit 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 Packard automobile dealership showroom and set about making his long-time dream of opening a jazz club come true. He secured a lease on a former Packard auto showroom at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Ford Road in the University Circle area. The location was known as the Mayfield Triangle and it was directly adjacent to Case Western Reserve University. During the remodeling of the building and the planning for the grand opening, a nationwide newspaper strike curtailed all print advertising possibilities. So, with his original plans interrupted, Winston purchased and refurbished a used UPS truck and converted the vehicle into a traveling billboard. His friend, local artist and teacher, Nelson Stevens, painted large, colorful “coming attraction” signs heralding the club’s approaching opening and presence in University Circle. The eye-catching vehicle, with jazz music wafting out from its speakers, was then driven around the city. Soon, as planned, Winston and his girlfriend, Charlene, opened the Jazz Temple, a liquor-less coffeehouse nightclub, to immediate and stunning success. Then, whether with charismatic aplomb or out of desperation, he approached such legendary jazz artists as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn, 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 other notable figures, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Rev. Martin Lutherr King, Jr., and booked performances from comedians Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, and Nipsey Russell. At the time, the Murray Hill/Little Italy section near and around the Jazz Temple was 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 young Winston and his girlfriend Charlene welcomed the performers into their large mansion on East Boulevard and prepared and served many meals for them.
The Jazz Temple quickly became the hottest spot in town for college crowds. Located adjacent to the Case Western Reserve University campus, the predominantly white student body, as well as others from surrounding counties, packed the 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 race mixing began to drift around town, it wasn’t long before city officials began expressing their displeasure. 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 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. But for a while, he enjoyed the popularity and nationwide 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 setback and was soon followed by an unbelievably fortuitous twist of fate for its 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.
The Local Press
At times lionized, but more often vilified in the local press, 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. During these years, in his hey day, he was always good copy, and a lightning rod of controversy. And somewhere amid decades of journalistic hyperbole is a molecule of truth about Winston E. Willis.
One of the iconic faces of the black community in 1970s Cleveland, Winston was the first black man in the Plain Dealer’s 130-year history (besides Mayor Carl B. Stokes) to ever appear in a front-page headline feature story that was not crime related. Even so, the distinction was dubious. The reporter, after several days of “in-depth” interview questions still wrote a story smearing him, exaggerating the existence of one adult bookstore that was in operation among his corner businesses at the time. A lengthy 1980 profile in OHIO Magazine related: “If he were White, his financial ties would be with influential bankers…” But in the social climate in which young Winston cut his financial teeth, the fact that he was black was a hindrance.
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, Young Winston won over half-a-million dollars in cash in a three-day craps shooting marathon against a group of six, slick, notorious master gamblers. A veritable career criminal cartel. Entering the game with a mere $425 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 outshot the seasoned group of high rollers and walked away with several industrial size black garbage bags filled with cold hard cash. When the group of men finally emerged after being sealed and sequestered for three days and nights in a secret gamblers’ bunker in the rear of young Winston’s Hot Potato restaurant, they were completely unaware of 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 cartel went back inside the restaurant to wait them out. Young 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!”
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 large extended family, young Winston had something else in mind. After their three-day gambling marathon, the exhausted, bleary-eyed gamblers stepped out into the light of day and into the stunning, city-wide presence of martial law.
Riots and Marshal Law
The Glenville riots completely stunned and unraveled white Cleveland. They had been comfortable that the election of a black man, Carl Stokes, as mayor was insurance against any future racial upheaval. But the unrest had been brewing for far too long, and when it finally erupted on the evening of the Glenville Shootout, the violent fallout was massive, and beyond Stokes's control. White businesses frantically fled the city in record numbers, with many abandoning long-standing successful stores and businesses for the safety of suburbia and ethnically controlled neighborhoods. With increasing white flight exacerbating the already bitterly polarized Cleveland communities, business owners were exiting the inner city at warp speed. The explosive riot triggered a mass exodus and rapidly dwindling patronage of numerous businesses on Euclid Avenue.
Wisely parlaying his recent staggering cash winnings into capital, assessing the needs of the black community, and taking advantage of the white flight epidemic, young Winston was ready, cash in hand, to deal and purchase the Euclid Avenue properties. Fully prepared for the typical racial roadblocks, and after several unsuccessful attempts their way, he engaged in a clever move of his own creation. After collaborating with a loyal Caucasian business associate who “fronted” for him for the purchases, his acquisitions were completed, and the building of his 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, young 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 him from which there would be no escape.
Cleveland mayor, Carl Stokes and Winston were old friends from their pool hall days down on Quincy Avenue. And although Stokes secretly kept Winston 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 Winston’s contentious relationship with local government and city officials. Mr. Walker, a well-respected Civil Rights leader and a titan of the community, was the publisher of the local Black newspaper, the Call and Post. When he first became aware of Winston’s activities, he admired Winston tremendously and became a trusted mentor and supporter. 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 Winston was enduring in the local courts. Mayor Stokes consistently deflected the city’s numerous attempts to take Winston’s properties without just compensation, but even these two highly influential men were powerless to hold off the raging racist posse that was hell-bent on carrying out Winston’s economic destruction.
After objecting through the court system, without success, to numerous bogus fire inspections, police harassment, and impromptu raids on his businesses, 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 and repeated targeting of 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. The next two billboards depict Winston’s long-running and contentious battle with Cuyahoga County prosecutor, John T. Corrigan, who was overtly racist and not shy about expressing it. Corrigan had the power to manipulate the law into a criminal tool, and Winston had the impudence and the money to challenge and confront Corrigan in open court and on the face of the community billboard.
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.
The Price Paid by Outspoken Warriors of the Time
For the seemingly harmless exercise in youthful verbal joie de vivre and outspoken, militant insolence during the ’60s and ’70s, young 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.
The Framing of The Mischiefs
When lawmakers legalize mischief by framing it in law. Thereby making legal what is illegal. The term originally comes from the King James version of the Old Testament, Psalms 94:20–21: “Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which frameth mischief by a law? They gather themselves together against the soul of the righteous, and condemn the innocent blood.”
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.
“Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely!”
It is commonly known that for decades, Cleveland’s City Hall has been an ethnically controlled cesspool of cronyism and corruption, taking orders from and headed by a powerful hierarchical organization, the multi-billion-dollar Cleveland Clinic Foundation, and run by specific groups who exist above the law. This corruption extended to and permeated the Cleveland Police Department as noted by former Mayor Carl B. Stokes. For many years of his life, Winston believed strongly in America’s judicial system, but his experiences with racist local government officials and after facing off in court with corrupt judges and lawyers, he soon learned that a civil killing was in progress and that a judicial bear trap was being created 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 and illegal “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?” No judge ever ruled in his favor, and the properties were taken under illegal proceedings, 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 endemic in the United States. Misconduct by government officials has been tolerated for so long that it has festered, disease-like, into a serious pandemic. For far too many years, judges and lawyers, sworn officers of the court, 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 official public corruption in the history of this nation. Although he held them 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 not 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 young 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 young Winston down. The vulnerable and easily “handleable” president of the failing local bank at which several of young Winston’s corporate accounts were held. In an after-banking hours sleight of hand, the bank president was manipulated/blackmailed into diverting funds from one of young Winston’s company checking accounts in order to dishonor a check that his company had written to a local vendor. The company was also manipulated into pressing charges, and young 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 young 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 young Winston into a Chillicothe Ohio correctional facility. This was an actual kidnapping. Then, in a plot similar to a 1940s gangster movie, young Winston was scurrilously taken from his cell in the pre-dawn darkness and held in solitary confinement, for ten days without access to his attorneys, or being permitted a phone call, while the city engaged in the massive unlawful taking and immediate bull dozer/wrecking ball demolition of all of his Euclid Avenue buildings worth millions of dollars. Several of those land parcels were stolen/illegally taken, without a penny of payment to the rightful owner, Winston E. Willis, and handed over to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
Winston’s final billboard statement:
“Farewell Friend & Neighbor. After 10 years serving this community, soon we must close our businesses to make way for U.C.I., Cleveland Clinic, and the State of Ohio …. To Build a New Hospital for Whites”
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 both 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, young 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, Winston has never given up the fight.
Today, as the city of Cleveland boasts of “…new life and paving the way to economic development”, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation 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 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. Front-page headlines, television interviews and magazine profiles and articles colorfully describe Winston 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 the 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 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?
Young 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. Yes, as one of the old-time observers said: He may have “…had millions at one time, but they had billions”, and the vengeful motivation to destroy him economically. This has now been accomplished. SEE: The Closed Doors of Justice
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.
Historically referred to as “the most famous intersection in Cleveland”, East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue has a storied history dating back to the 19th Century, when it was known as Doan’s Corners. But it is an undeniable fact that 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 documented, provable and a matter of public record.
Tracing Winston E. Willis’ Euclid Avenue Business Empire 1963–1982
11339 Mayfield Road on the Mayfield Triangle, the former street address of the Jazz Temple, is now 11400 Euclid Avenue. Home of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) building.
105th and Euclid Today
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” — and a significant portion of Cleveland Clinic’s main campus.
Winston is now 82 years old. And even though he’s in fragile health, physically, he has retained his old fighting spirit and he continues to come up with legal strategies to challenge the legal system for the return of his stolen properties and payment for his losses, which, after 40 years, are virtually incalculable.
To Make Him Whole Again:
There is a legal expression used in the law, “make one whole”. Which means to return the injured party who was damaged back into the position that he/she would have been in without the fault of another, and/or to pay or award damages sufficient to place the injured party in an otherwise favorable condition. The question then becomes: How can Winston be made whole again when everything he worked so hard for all of his adult life has been taken away from him? His livelihood. Every one of his businesses. Millions of dollars worth of property. His personal belongings. Family memorabilia. An entire fleet of automobiles, limousines, and service vehicles. Office and restaurant equipment. His pets! His gardens. His health. His autonomy? The very fabric of Winston’s identity was ripped away, and he now lives out his dotage in poverty in the shadow of his former business empire.
If, the so-called “… arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”, compensatory justice is long overdue for Winston. At the very least, he is entitled to:
· The accumulated loss of revenue from his businesses for the past 40 years.
· Compensation for the deprivation of heir property rights and generational wealth due to his children and grandchildren.
· Punitive damages for wrongful incarceration.
· Relocation benefits due to federally classified dislocated persons as guaranteed by the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act (URA).