Twenty-Five Stories

3 Strength, beauty, power – covering Cleveland’s long-ignored black community

Margaret Bernstein

“Margaret Bernstein, your columns are so sickeningly sweet that they make my teeth hurt,” came the email from a reader.

“Yeah, well, the dental pain is mutual,” I retorted, in print. “Feels like I’m pulling teeth as I try to motivate Clevelanders to do something other than complain about this city’s problems.”

Just being myself– the black writer with the Jewish name who often wrote about minority issues, poverty and those working to make a difference – I managed to trigger a lot of readers.

Long before the dawn of anonymous comments on Cleveland.com, it felt like the mere appearance of my byline could ignite PD readers who wished like hell they could return to the prosperous, and mostly white, Cleveland that they remembered. They wrote me unsigned letters and sent emails, or they called, freshly ticked off after reading something I’d written and ready to unload. When The PD’s voicemail system would cut callers off after 2 or 3 minutes, there were those who’d call back over and over again, just to squeeze out every bit of their rant.

I arrived at The Plain Dealer in 1989, hired by Living Editor Michael Bennett. I loved the not-so-hurried pace of being a feature writer and thought I would stay there forever. But my career’s been a journey. After 20 years in Features, editors moved me downstairs to Metro to take on the philanthropy beat.

And from there, I hammered out a new role as a metro columnist who was trying out this new thing called solutions-oriented journalism. Twice a week, I tried to shine a light on ways to move Cleveland off the poorest big city list. But the pushback to my efforts was surprising, and intense. This was especially true in articles where I attempted to humanize the poor. “They’re the problem!” was the general outcry.

One of my all-time favorite calls came from an older woman who was all worked up about poor people gaming the system. “When I’m driving on I-90, I can see that new Food Bank that they built. I’ve seen all the fancy cars in the parking lot,” she railed. “They’re driving Benzes and BMWs to go get their handouts!”

I was like, “Ma’am, the Food Bank doesn’t even work like that. No one picks up their free food at that location. All the food there gets sorted and then trucked out to pantries and soup kitchens across the region. What you don’t realize is the Cleveland Food Bank has a very big and devoted volunteer base. What you’re looking at are the cars of the volunteers.”

“You might want to get out of your car next time you drive by, and consider volunteering,” I told her, sensing I had silenced her and won the battle.

I don’t think the Food Bank gained a helper that day, but I thoroughly enjoyed needling her as I made my point.

I used to just consider it part of my job description to have to engage in some pointless jousting with intolerant readers. Such is the lot of reporters who are determined to show there are more facets to black life than thugs, criminals and athletes, I figured.

And that was something I was determined to do, since the day I arrived at The Plain Dealer. I could see that Cleveland was a profoundly segregated town. Yet The PD had one of the highest readership rates, especially on Sundays, of any newspaper in the country.

And so, I reasoned that if Clevelanders were deliberately choosing to live their separate lives, steeped in their stereotypes, then I was working at what had to be the most important stereotype-fighting weapon in town — the daily newspaper.

My first writing job had been at a black paper in my hometown, Los Angeles, so I guess advocacy journalism was already running through my veins. Then I was hired by Gannett, where there was a heavy emphasis on fair and balanced coverage of minorities. At Gannett properties, the editorial staff was trained to “mainstream” minorities into daily news coverage, and every paper took part in a quarterly contest where they were judged on how well they plied those diversity principles. At Gannett, I’d earned a name corporation-wide for helping boost diversity scores at the two papers where I worked.

When I arrived at The PD at age 30, I was surprised to see there were no similar guidelines and expectations. At Gannett, you were expected to go the extra mile every day to make sure women and people of color were depicted on section fronts, and to add a minority perspective to stories. At The PD, such representation simply wasn’t much of a priority.

My training kicked in as soon as I arrived. I immediately started proposing feature stories on subjects of interest to Cleveland minorities. In my first months, I profiled some of newly elected Mayor Michael R. White’s appointees for top city jobs, many of whom were people of color or women. For my first King holiday in Cleveland, I wrote a piece tracing Martin Luther King Jr.’s visits to the city during the 1960s.

I certainly wasn’t the only reporter making sure people of color and their concerns were being reflected in the newspaper. In the early 1990s, The Plain Dealer had a healthy and growing stable of minority reporters – Dick Peery, Alan Seifullah, Olivera Perkins, Paul Shepard, Dana Canedy, Roxanne Washington, Laura Yee, Frances Robles, Roger Brown, just to name a few.

We were all contributing our perspectives to the daily product, and providing coverage of minorities when feasible.

But The Plain Dealer had no formal policy on diversity. And it needed one.

I remember suppressing a smile one spring day in the 1990s when a group of Native Americans brought their annual Chief Wahoo protest right to us to 1801 Superior. Their beef wasn’t just with the Indians, but also with The Plain Dealer for not rejecting the offensive mascot. (Just for contrast: Our sister paper, the Portland Oregonian, announced in 1992 it would no longer refer to the Indians, Braves or Redskins in print.)

So, on the day of the Indians home opener, a crowd of Native Americans had come over to express their feelings to PD brass. And “somehow” more than a dozen of the visitors managed to get through the secure door into the newsroom, where they sat down for a peaceful protest among our rows of desks and computer terminals. (We all knew who let them in.)

That was a good day.

As the years rolled by, I had a variety of roles in Features: columnist, everywoman editor, consumer writer. But no matter my title, I still found myself pitching and writing stories about Cleveland’s black community. One year I even asked for a merit raise using the argument that I spent most of my waking hours, even off duty, serving as The PD’s de facto ambassador to the black community. It wasn’t a role that I set out to fill, especially not during my private time. But because black Clevelanders’ impression of the paper was never especially high during the time I worked there, I found that folks increasingly would seek me out and give me story tips.

Within Cleveland’s black community, I had gained a reputation as someone at the paper who would actually pick up my phone, return messages and be generally accessible.

I took that responsibility seriously. Like when R&B singer Gerald Levert was found dead in his bed, at his Geauga County home on a Friday in 2006.

I called the arts editor at home and offered to write something special for the weekend. I was told to wait until Monday and pitch the story then.

OK I thought to myself. “You guys have no idea what a megastar he is.”

On Monday, music writer John Soeder and I banded together to inform editors of Levert’s popularity. We wrote a series of great stories, including coverage of the memorial ceremony at Public Hall, attended by a stage full of black music superstars including Stevie Wonder and Usher, as well as athletes and other celebrities.

Black readers loved and appreciated the heavy coverage. But there was an outright rebellion from white readers who didn’t like it at all.

Ted Diadiun had to write a column to address all the reader complaints:  “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a greater disconnect between two major segments of our audience than in the wake of this newspaper’s coverage of Levert and his legacy….It is always dangerous to generalize about race, but it is impossible not to note the reaction separated along racial lines: Black readers were complimentary and grateful that the paper acknowledged Levert’s passing with such sensitive and vigorous coverage. White readers were puzzled — some even stunned — at the fuss over somebody many of them had never heard of.”

Just another day at work, as far as I was concerned. Trying to explain to Plain Dealer readership about the life of an extraordinary person of color who white folks never knew existed.

I considered that part of my mission.

As the years went on, I didn’t even have to hunt for stories. People would just call me with them. I absolutely fell in love with some of the characters I wrote about, and considered it an honor to work on some of the projects that I did.

I wrote most of my feature pieces in the dark days before Google, and so I enumerate some of my favorites here just because I fear they won’t ever be read again:

 

  • My profile of Odessa Salvant, a fair-skinned woman who could pass for white. Yet she volunteered her entire adult life for the Cleveland NAACP.
  • I reported on a meeting of the Minority Women With Breast Cancer United group. These formidable women won grants to pay for mammograms for uninsured women and got University Hospitals to send its mammography van to low-income black neighborhoods. They saved a lot of lives.
  • Through interviews I recreated the 1963 night that Malcolm X came to dinner at the Shaker Heights home of Morris and Adrienne Jones.

 

Once I tangled with fellow feature writer Fran Henry when we both showed up, notebook in hand, to cover the same event at the Fatima Family Center in Hough.

We had both heard about the extraordinary work that poet Honey Bell-Bey was doing with teen and preteen boys, teaching them to recite poetry in unison. Unbeknownst to each other, we were both there ready to introduce Cleveland to the Distinguished Gentlemen of Spoken Word.

I can’t stand confrontation and I dearly love Fran, but I would have engaged in fisticuffs on Hough Avenue to win the right to have my byline on that story.

It had Black Excellence flowing all through it.

I wanted it bad, and I told her so. It had become so obvious by then: Those rose-growing-through-the-concrete stories had become my signature.

Thankfully she relented.

Langston Hughes once wrote: “Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret the beauty of a people – the beauty within themselves.”

During my features heyday, I was pretty sure that this was my mission. To show off the strength, beauty and power within Cleveland’s black community.

I would say my greatest moment covering Black Excellence happened at the Lancer restaurant on Nov. 4, 2008.

I was part of the team covering the presidential election. I was posted up at the Lancer with reporter April McClellan-Copeland, as nearly 1,500 people gathered outside along Carnegie for the NAACP’s election party. A mix of black leaders and everyday folks were mingling inside and outside the restaurant, watching CNN’s election coverage on huge monitors. The evening was dragging on as election nights do. And then suddenly everyone went absolutely bonkers when the race was called for Barack Obama. April and I hugged and then went right back to trying to file on deadline.

Charlie Bibb of East Cleveland gave us the best soundbite that night. “Hands that picked cotton now picked the president,” he said.

Occasionally during my feature writer years, I got recruited to do stories and work on special projects for Metro. In 2001, I was invited to be on a team of reporters who would each write a profile of the 10 political hopefuls lining up to succeed retiring Mayor Michael White.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was up super-early for a breakfast interview with the candidate I would be writing about. I had been firmly instructed to question him about his extramarital affairs. “When he divorced his first two wives, he always had his next wife waiting in the wings. Ask him about that,” I was told.

I knew it would be an uncomfortable question to ask. But I didn’t want the Metro editors to think I was too soft to ask the hard questions, so I resolved to bring it up. As the last question, of course.

I got to the restaurant at 7 a.m. Everything went fine until the last question. He got so angry that his body trembled. He told me his marriages had nothing to do with his fitness to be Cleveland’s mayor, then stood up and left. Nothing surprising here. We both played our parts predictably.

I got in the car and arrived in the newsroom a little after 8 a.m. The TV was on in the features department and I could see smoke pouring from the World Trade Center. As we gathered around the TV, everything seemed to be unraveling. It was scary. We didn’t know if our country would soon be at war. We didn’t know what was coming.

But there was one thing I did know: This man’s marital history didn’t mean squat to me.

I sat down, wrote the story and didn’t mention one word about his questionable fidelity.

And nobody said a word about it.

In 2009, I made the move permanently from Features to Metro. And I struggled, trying to fit my sensibilities into their hard-news frame. One of my community connections had tipped me off to a great story about a quadriplegic woman who was opening her own nonprofit, Compassions, to train home health care workers. She had somehow found the will to establish a 501c3 organization after tiring of being repeatedly victimized by home health attendants who’d stolen from her and left her lying in bed all day. I breathlessly pitched the story to my editor in Metro.

Editor: “Use her story as an anecdote and go get the stats to flesh it out. Is any state agency even overseeing these workers? This is great! It’s an expose of rampant abuse of seniors and disabled people by their caregivers.”

Me: “No it’s not! It’s a profile of an inspiring woman who can’t walk, bathe or dress herself alone and was repeatedly victimized by her caregivers but managed to successfully start her own nonprofit and now has a stable of young devoted health care aides who say their hallmark will be compassionate care.”

We actually had to go get mediation from a higher editor to resolve our dispute. I was told to do it the editor’s way.

I tried. I really did! But I couldn’t even force my fingers to type it in such a hard-boiled way.

In the end, I came up with a hybrid approach that was equal parts news and feature. And my cranky editor gave in and glumly published it. OK, it was Rutti.

In 2010, reporter Stan Donaldson and I collaborated to research and write profiles of each of the 11 women who had been murdered by the Imperial Avenue serial killer. I had felt compelled to do it. Concerned that our coverage had concentrated only on the victims’ deaths and not their lives, I’d actually been clipping out from our paper what little biographical material we’d written about them in the months since the bodies were discovered in 2009. And for several of them, we’d published less than five paragraphs.

I felt like we owed it to those women to tell their stories.

So, Stan and I tracked down every family. We knocked on doors and introduced ourselves, often encountering hostile relatives who laid into us when we explained what we wanted to do. Stoically we let them complain to our faces about the news media. They had a point. We met family after family who had tried to publicize their missing daughters and moms but couldn’t get coverage in the paper or on TV.

I vividly remember victim Michelle Mason’s mom giving me the business. This woman had put up missing person fliers all over Mount Pleasant and had tried unsuccessfully to get the media to cover it. One day, she told me, she had been watching TV and happened to see a news story about a missing dog.

“A damn dog!” she fumed to me. “And I couldn’t get anyone to write about my daughter.”

Stan and I worked really hard to win her trust, and the trust of the other 10 families too. It took weeks of going back and meeting with them. Eventually, one of Michelle’s sons took me to her gravesite in a nearby cemetery via his personal shortcut, showing me how he would slip through a hole in the fencing to see his mom.

All that good intention and hard work is why it broke my heart when nearly every family I interviewed lashed out angrily at me when the stories were published. Michelle Mason’s family was livid that I mentioned she had been addicted to crack and heroin, although her convictions were public record and I had taken pains to make her successful recovery the focal point of the story. Victim Crystal Dozier’s mother – who had gotten used to sympathetic news coverage when the bodies were first discovered – was deeply hurt that I wrote that Mom herself had two drug convictions.

These were facts that I included because I had committed to shedding light on the circumstances that led each woman to Anthony Sowell’s doorway. Where they perished.

There were shards of hopelessness in each of the women’s stories, but we’d also uncovered moments of triumph. I saw the value of telling the unvarnished truth, but these families didn’t. And why should they? They hadn’t gone to journalism school, they already felt burned by the news; they were the ones who had actually lost a loved one, however flawed. If this was the only time their daughters’ stories were going to make it into print, they didn’t want the moment sullied with a litany of convictions and family failings.

I didn’t agree but I understood.

I had peered into a truly dark part of Cleveland. It was a cycle of helplessness, and I wasn’t feeling particularly like my articles had helped the situation.

That was a turning point for me.

I started challenging myself to do more, as a journalist. In 2012 I went to Managing Editor Thom Fladung and told him I was ready to write a “solution-oriented column,” identifying people and programs that were finding ways to move people out of poverty and improve the Cleveland landscape.

After I got the go-ahead, I started bombarding readers with ways they could take action: Support re-entry programs for ex-prisoners. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister. Adopt a vacant lot.

I wrote about programs such as the Baldwin-Wallace Scholars which established pipelines to college and careers for Cleveland schools’ students and urged more universities and companies to do something similar.

I wanted to spur activism. But it was still as painful as pulling teeth. Only a few columns generated much response, most notably something I wrote about College Now’s mentoring program for first-generation college students. It recruited so many volunteers that the organization had to create a waiting list.

The more columns I wrote, the more convinced I became that illiteracy was one of the main culprits dooming Cleveland’s children and adults to remain stuck in the poverty cycle. And Ohio’s soon-to-become-law Third Grade Reading Guarantee was scaring my socks off.

Everything changed when I spied my first Little Free Library. I saw my first one in October 2012, and wrote a Sunday column about how this little book box had sparked excitement for reading among Miles Park School students.

This time, something was very different.

With every subsequent column, I heard from dozens of readers wanting to help. They donated enough money to install 13 more Little Free Libraries across Cleveland.

I had white suburbanites offering to drive books into the inner-city, to put them into the hands of low-income black kids.

Eureka! I had finally tapped into that vein of compassion that I’d been seeking, the one that could unleash a flood of activism across racial and socioeconomic lines.

I could see a new pathway emerging for me, at the exact same time that The Plain Dealer announced it would be downsizing again.

And that’s how I ended my career at The PD. I volunteered for the Great Layoff of 2013, acutely aware that if literacy was to be my mission, then writing in the pages of The Plain Dealer was not going to help me reach my target audience.

I had outgrown my newspaper career, and was ready for the next chapter, as a literacy advocate.