Phillis Wheatley Association

The Phillis Wheatley Association is known for providing a plethora of social services throughout Cleveland, but many do not realize how long the Phillis Wheatley has been in operation and its dedication to housing women. Although the Phillis Wheatley opened in 1911 as a “home for working girls” regardless of their race or nationality, the seed for a home for young African American working women was planted much earlier. When Jane Edna Hunter was a child in South Carolina, she realized the obstacles facing many young African American women. After college, she determined that she could provide more opportunities in the North for African American women than she could in the South. Hunter eventually was able to make her dream come true when she purchased a home at 2265 East 40th Street. She decided to name the home Phillis Wheatley after an enslaved woman who became the first African American poetess.

When the Phillis Wheatley first opened in 1912, it had 15 boarders, a kitchen, a place to entertain visitors, and laundry facilities. From its inception, more women were interested in living at the Phillis Wheatley than Hunter could accommodate. The Phillis Wheatley was originally only supposed to be temporary housing; however, the Great Migration of 1917 generated even more interest in the Phillis Wheatley due to more black families coming to Cleveland. As a result, the Phillis Wheatley took over the Winona Apartments, which had 72 rooms, doubling the number of long-term residents and tripling the number of transient residents the organization could house. The Phillis Wheatley likely made its way into the Green Book because it provided housing for women who were in Cleveland temporarily or were looking for more permanent housing. Moreover, after a fundraising venture, the Phillis Wheatley purchased a nearby building called the Annex, which housed additional meeting rooms for the organization.

 In 1925, Miss Hunter raised $550,000 and purchased the current nine-story Phillis Wheatley building located at 4450 Cedar Avenue. Completed two years later, the building offered more activities and housing for the Cleveland community. The new building provided safe and affordable housing in 135 dormitories on its top six top floors for young African American women living and working in Cleveland.

Finding safe housing for young women is always difficult and that was certainly the case in Cleveland. Some young women who lived or worked at the Phillis Wheatley in the mid-1930s were harassed by “mashers” who were men that persistently molested young women outside the Phillis Wheatley. Some of the men would even follow the girls to the doors of the Phillis Wheatley or follow them in their cars as they walked to or from the Phillis Wheatley. After repeated harassment, the young women pleaded with Miss Hunter for more protection. Miss Hunter immediately asked Mayor Harold Burton to provide more security outside the Phillis Wheatley. Burton appointed Deputy Inspector of Police, Charles. O. Nevel to handle the mounting molestation problem. Nevel sent undercover officials to the area to catch the mashers, as well as catch men who would steal purses or run illicit alcohol businesses. There were some officers in and out of uniform who patrolled 40th and Cedar to East 55th from 4 pm to 8 am to catch men who engaged in illegal behavior. In one month, there were 49 arrests for a variety of crimes, such as street soliciting and molestation. The Phillis Wheatley acted against the mounting molestation claims to not only protect the young women living and working there but also to ensure the security of the community. The Phillis Wheatley surely lived up to its claim of providing safe housing for young women as if they were in their mother’s homes, which helped make a name for them in the Green Book.

In addition to safety, any young woman living on her own for the first time seeks a place that has a wide range of amenities. By the 1950s, the Phillis Wheatley was offering single or double bedrooms with access to laundry facilities, parlors devoted to dating activities, a gym, counseling services, a piano, a Cleveland Public Library branch, a television room, record players, a self-service elevator, and parlor and kitchen facilities in the Ford House, which is located at 2174 East 46th Street. The Ford House’s cafeteria area provided food services for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as offered a variety of classes for men and women in the community, such as tailoring, dressmaking, upholstering, catering, and millinery. Moreover, the Ford House also had adult education courses that were tailored to an individual’s unique educational needs and social activities, such as bridge games. The Phillis Wheatley wanted to give its community skills that could help people gain employment and, in many cases, helped people find employment. Due to these amenities and the promise of security, the Phillis Wheatley housed 150 residents at its peak. The Phillis Wheatley gave its residents and community members access to anything they would need to be successful young women.

By the late 1960s, demand for housing in Cleveland for young African American women was decreasing. In addition, every year more and more young women were leaving the Phillis Wheatley because they wanted larger rooms, the ability to cook in their rooms, rent costs were going up, and they wanted more bathrooms and phones on each floor. Funding for the Phillis Wheatley was also dwindling. As a result, the residence floors closed on October 31, 1970, while the community services and activities continued on the first three floors of its headquarters building. Although the Phillis Wheatley closed its dormitory for young African American women, it opened its doors as a subsidized housing facility for the elderly in 1972 with the assistance of a HUD 221-D3 grant. Just like earlier in Phillis Wheatley’s history, the residents were given access to Phillis Wheatley’s programs, such as hot meals and recreational activities. The Phillis Wheatley continues to house those 62 years of age and older who need affordable housing.

Green Book Details

Phillis Wheatley Association appears in the Green Book from 1939 to 1962 at the erroneous address 4300 Cedar Ave. under the category Hotels.

Resources

  • “At the Phillis Wheatley: Residents Find a Home Away from Home.” Call and Post (1962-1982), Feb 02, 1963.
  • “City to Hail 50th Year of Phillis Wheatley.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), January 4, 1962.
  • Cooper, Cindy. “Phillis Wheatley Opens Senior Apartments.” Call and Post (1962-1982), Apr 21, 1973.
  • House-Soremekun Bessie. Confronting the Odds: African American Entrepreneurship in Cleveland. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2002.
  • Kusmer, Kenneth L. A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976.
  • “Phillis Wheatley Association.” Cleveland Historical. https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/19.
  • “Phillis Wheatley Association.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. https://case.edu/ech/articles/p/phillis-wheatley-association.
  • “Phillis Wheatley Offers Home Life.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Apr 11, 1953.
  • “Phillis Wheatley Story: Ford House is Community Hub.” Call and Post (1962-1982), Feb 16, 1963, City edition. 
  • “Phillis Wheatley Trustees Plan Suites for Elderly.” Call and Post (1962-1982), Dec 25, 1971.
  • “Police Jail 49 in Area Around Phillis Wheatley: Part of Drive to Stop Molestation of Girls by ‘Mashers.’” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Aug 25, 1938.
  • “Wheatley to Close Residence Floors.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), September 23, 1970.
4450 Cedar Ave (First listed in Green Book at 4300 Cedar Ave)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *