Friday, August 13, 2010

Thomas Fleming, Cleveland's first black councilman, profiled in August issue

How many Clevelanders know that the city's first black city councilman took office 100 years ago? Though Thomas W. Fleming was a pioneer, he is all but erased from our history, because his career doesn't offer a simple tale of racial uplift.

In February 1929, Fleming's career was marred by a sudden, shocking scandal that sounded notes all too familiar to Clevelanders in 2010: money exchanged at a clambake fundraiser, his angry accusations that his enemies and the press conspired to bring him down. Throughout his 15 years on council, even as he became one of City Hall's most powerful men, questions trailed Fleming about his part in a ruthless political machine, his work as a lawyer defending gamblers and prostitutes, the lawless growth of vice in his ward, his alliance with a swaggering saloonkeeper who controlled a grimy underworld.

Fleming was one of Cleveland's great characters of the 1910s and 1920s. Cheerful and optimistic, yet a shrewd ward politician, Fleming was blacks' lone voice at City Hall and their one-man hiring hall. At a time when African-American leaders debated whether to agitate for social equality or focus on self-improvement, whether to join political machines or oppose them, Fleming, a classic politician, chose the machine. He made deals, granted favors and called them in. Until he granted one favor too many.

To read my feature story on Thomas Fleming's life and career, pick up the August issue of Cleveland Magazine or click here.

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