Cleveland church where King, Malcolm X spoke on proposed civil rights trail


By Peter Krouse - cleveland.com (TNS)



CLEVELAND, Ohio – In the beginning, nearly a century ago, the imposing red-brick building on Cleveland’s East Side was a synagogue. Not just any synagogue, but billed as the largest Jewish center west of the Allegheny Mountains with a basketball court, an indoor swimming pool and auditorium that could seat 2,400 people.

Dedicated in 1922, it served as the hub of Glenville’s Jewish community until the population drifted east to the Heights and a largely Black congregation bought the building for $125,000 and named it Cory United Methodist Church after a white missionary. The church then became a fulcrum of faith for the Black community and a notable landmark in the civil rights history of Cleveland and the country.

Today, the structure at 1117 East 105th St. faces an uncertain future. The church’s membership has shrunk from some 3,000 in its heyday to about 150, and while the building is structurally sound, it’s sorely in need of costly renovations.

But the Cleveland Restoration Society announced this week that Cory will be the site of an Ohio historical marker describing its significance in the civil rights movement. The society also disclosed that the church will be one of 10 sites along a proposed civil rights trail in Greater Cleveland (The only other site yet identified is Glenville High School, which will also get a marker), planning for which has been aided by a grant from the National Park Service.

Its place in history

While the Ohio marker will mention the Jewish history of the building, it will focus on the civil rights period, said Kathleen Crowther, executive director and president of the Restoration Society.

Many Black luminaries paid a visit to Cory to speak or perform over the years.

Martin Luther King Jr. came to Cory on more than one occasion, including in 1963, days after Birmingham, Alabama’s safety commissioner, Bull Conner, had turned loose dogs on black protestors.

“Thousands began lining up outside Cory Methodist Church early in the day, though King was not scheduled to speak until 7:30 p.m., and traffic backed up for miles around the church,” writes James Robenalt in “Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland.”

Once inside, King railed against segregation and oppression in his notable baritone, Robenalt writes, while maintaining his commitment to non-violence, saying, “We will meet physical force with soul force.”

The more radical Malcolm X would use the same pulpit not quite one year later to give one of the most famous civil rights speeches, known as “The Ballot or the Bullet” in which he told Black voters to use their power at the ballot box to bring about change, but that violence might be necessary.

Malcolm X would be assassinated on the streets of New York City in 1965, three years before King met a similar fate in Memphis.

Its shared legacy

While the historical marker will focus on Black history, the building still bears evidence of his Jewish legacy.

The names of Hebrew prophets, scholars and sages are etched in the terra cotta cornice that runs along the top of the building, just below the roof. And much of the iconography inside the sanctuary is Hebrew, most notably in the stained-glass windows and the wall-mounted menorahs.

Albert Ratner, 93, former co-chairman of Forest City Enterprises shared fond memories of the place with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. His paternal grandparents and various relatives lived nearby and he spent many hours at the Jewish Center. His bar mitzvah and confirmation took place there and it’s also where he learned to play basketball.

“It was both a house of worship and a gymnasium and a schvitz that the members of the temple could go and take a bath and get some food,” Ratner recalled.

Ratner still drives through the neighborhood once a month and said he believes preserving the building should hinge on whether it can play a role in the rebirth of Glenville.

“It’s got to be part of what happens in the neighborhood,” he said.

Its present situation

The church’s role in the community has diminished over the years. On Sunday mornings – before the coronavirus pandemic switched everyone to Zoom – the Rev. Gregory Kendrick would preach to maybe 70 mostly elderly parishioners. Not exactly a thriving congregation.

The building in large part serves to provide sustenance to those in need. It houses the Cory Hunger Center food pantry and has two kitchens that cook hot meals every Tuesday night.

“It used to be a congregate dinner,” Kendrick said, but since the onset of the pandemic those in need pick up dinners to go.

The church also houses one of the city’s recreation centers, incorporating the old basketball court, which has a new floor courtesy of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the ancient swimming pool. The city pitches in financially, which helps pay for the utilities, Kendrick said.

But the Cory Credit Union, formed in 1958 to provide church members with home and car loans in the days of redlining, merged with another institution in 2016, and while a branch office remained in the church and was open for business once a week, it has been closed since the onset of the pandemic.

Its future

Kendrick, who took over as Cory’s pastor in 2019, is now assessing the viability of the congregation and the building itself to see if one or both can be saved and play a role in the rebirth of its Glenville neighborhood.

But how? It will be costly, if it can be done, and the congregation can’t be counted on to foot the bill.

“The future is uncertain,” Kendrick said, “but it’s not hopeless.”

Kendrick said it will take some considerable fundraising to raise the kind of money necessary to make the building more relevant today. He has received estimates ranging from $3 million to $10 million.

Some of the money would preserve the exterior because it is a local landmark., he said. “We will be a landmark, hopefully, nationally at some point.”

But the bulk of the funds will be needed to redesign the interior, but how and into what is not clear.

“We don’t know yet in some ways what needs to happen,” Kendrick said.

One thing is for sure, he said, the building can’t simply be restored. It has to be primed for the future so it will be beneficial to the community.

That probably won’t mean getting rid of the sanctuary, he said, because he always envisions a faith component to the building. But perhaps the sanctuary can also serve as a space for performing arts, such as when the Cleveland Orchestra performed there in the past on Martin Luther King Day.

Kendrick said it should be up to the Glenville community to decide how the building should be used, but he has some ideas of his own.

“I want it to be a vital place that is an incubator for creators and entrepreneurs to come and to trial something,” he said. ” … . I want it to be a nimble and flexible place that is able to be adaptive. And I think that is one of the most important things that COVID has taught us, that are spaces and our plans have to be adaptive.”

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By Peter Krouse

cleveland.com (TNS)

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