Carl Westmoreland on growing up in Lincoln Heights and how America's 'got ugly we can fix' – WVXU
As the Village of Lincoln Heights celebrates its diamond jubilee of 75 years since incorporation, WVXU has been telling stories from the community as part of our series Round the Corner. We sat down with renowned historian Carl Westmoreland to hear about his experiences growing up in Lincoln Heights in the 1940s and 50s.
A warning: Westmoreland talks about the systemic and personal racism he experienced, and that includes a racial slur. You’ll hear Westmoreland say that word un-censored and see it below.
Becca Costello: I want to start with your father. Tell me about his involvement in establishing Lincoln Heights as a community.
Carl Westmoreland: Dad was the youngest person in the group that incorporated the village. And he was the clerk twice, a total of about 50 years. I was nine when the Village became a village, the day it was incorporated [in 1946]. It was a town gathering.
Costello: What was that like? Because obviously, the fight for incorporation was difficult, and it was refused.
Westmoreland: It was America. And they didn’t want us there and they don’t want them there.
Costello: Still, to this day?
I don’t know how they let the land get away from them. But they did. And the village wanted to be a village where people knew each other and were able to safely do the things that Americans say they want to do. And they physically had a difficult time and institutionally had a difficult time. It was never the size that it was when they applied for incorporation. And they got less than half the land they requested, land on which they’d been living and working, [just] not in the numbers that are there now or that peaked out in the late ’70s. They never had the real estate that was theirs, for example. General Electric is in a Black neighborhood. And it was a Black neighborhood, where the men and women who worked in a fertilizer factory that was a part of the community when they applied for incorporation. They never had it for one second. It was given to Evendale. The farmers in Evendale lived on farms while Lincoln Heights already had 2,000 or 3,000 people. The land began at Shepherd Lane, and went north to 126. And then went west over to Springfield Pike, Route 4, and then back down to Shepherd Lane.
I saw my dad cry three times. The first time I saw him crying was when he and Ted Barry came back from their trip to Columbus to meet with the Supreme Court of the state of Ohio. And they were told that the land that they had been given was all the land they were entitled to. He held it back until he got to our house on Chester Road. And when he got out, he just came apart. And I’d never seen that before.
And then the next time I saw him do that was when the man from the post office brought a special delivery letter, letting them know that our uncle has been killed at Ramitelli in Italy on a bombing run, coming back from Berlin. He was a Tuskegee Airman. And of course we were proud of him.
And then the next time was when his mother passed. And by then I was a father. And my grandmother was 95. And I think they thought she was going to live another 95. At least I did. She was a tough lady – tall, as tall as I. And when we lost her, Daddy came apart.
Costello: So you were nine years old when Lincoln Heights did finally get the incorporation. Do you remember what that was like for the community? Was it still a celebration, even though it wasn’t what they actually should have had?
Warning: The racial slur we warned about earlier appears in this response.
Westmoreland: Yeah, it was every good thing that a child would want. And then to see it reflected in the eyes of most – not all, but most – of the people in the community. And then to hear the anger. I went to Woodlawn Elementary School because of gerrymandering; I should have gone to elementary school at Lincoln Heights Elementary. But going into Woodlawn every day and listening to Mr. Meter, and a lot of the other white merchants… Meter ran a garage on Chester Road. He also had some flat ground in front of his building. And I shot marbles with David Daniels who was white, and Jerry Whitaker was white. And my friend Satori who was Black, but had taken a Muslim name. We knew him initially as Mervyn. And Meter would, I think, take a joy of seeing us come around because then he would tell us that Lincoln Heights was going to fail. “They didn’t know what they were doing. Black people didn’t run in anything but their mouths.” And then he’d go in and work on somebody’s truck, a car that belonged to one of either our family or one of our friends, and mumble about, “niggers don’t know what they’re doing.” And he was right. Because he understood they didn’t have enough money from day one. And they were never gonna have – the longer it went, the more demands they had. They couldn’t keep up. For a long while there were people in the county commissioner’s office who were sympathetic the way white people are sympathetic: “We’ll see that you get enough to stay alive.”
By the late ’70s, early ’80s, you could see the wheels coming off. Until just 20 years ago, I was involved in real estate development and establishing neighborhood real estate development companies where working class people, where poor people could create a vehicle to control the land they were sitting on. Because one of the things I learned from my father in the books that he had, my brother and I read, was you’re nobody if you don’t own something. America hates you. The world hates you.
I remember sitting in my dad’s 1936 Ford Coupe on Wyoming Avenue on Saturdays and he and the men from the neighborhood would picket this little white restaurant; you could go in and buy something and take out. That was America. But that’s the America that right now somebody is listening and saying, why would he bring that up? He’ll bring that up because that’s what happened. That was the Negro health nurse that came to Woodlawn Elementary School, or Negro Health Day. The white kids had a white nurse. My dad and the Black man who worked at DuPont, on a Sunday we went to the building that’s at 12th and Elm and asked the AFL CIO (union) to represent the Black man at DuPont. We came to ask you because your local representative said he’d lose his job if you are found out he was talking to us. Daddy was 26, 27. And he said, “I don’t want my son growing up in the America that I’ve grown up in.”
Why bring it up? Because I lived with it. Why bring it up? Because I’m asthmatic, and when I would go to Children’s Hospital I was there because Dr. Matthews from Wyoming got me in. And when I went, it was always on a day where I never saw a white person in the waiting room. So that’s what living in Lincoln Heights was like.
What living in Lincoln Heights was like, was watching the men work for years to be able to get money enough to buy a used fire truck. And they would dig up a fire pit at the Lincoln Heights Elementary School every year, every night before Labor Day, and the men could hang out at the fire pit. If you didn’t get down there and get in line by noon forget it. And I don’t care if the line went all the way back to Lockland. You may not eat until nine at night. And they were doing that not only to buy a fire wagon, but to help meet some of the costs of operating the place. But it was on life support from the very beginning. And it was on life support with dignity.
My mother, her dad had a government job in Sharonville. But he also did the furnaces on Burns Avenue. Four different churches, every church on Burns. My grandfather had to get up at 5:30 in the morning and walk Burns Avenue, get the furnaces so they stayed, had enough fuel until he got back that evening, and he had to walk it again. And that was typical of the men around whom I was reared. My great grandfather, my grandfather, my grandmothers, both of her sisters, that’s what it took to send a third sister of four to college. And my great aunt graduated from Wyoming High School in 1915 and graduated from Howard University School of Nursing 1919 and worked for the Cincinnati Health Department for 49 years. Well, I married a Black Appalachian, as an extension of the story, why it’s important. And she was the daughter of a Black coal miner in West Virginia. They did the same thing. She was the oldest girl. I guess the first 10, 12 years we were married, I’m taking her to the post office sending money to West Virginia to Bluefield State. And the point of my telling you this is that everything we’ve attempted to build, never had enough. And if it started with enough, you figure out how to keep it going. So that’s what Lincoln Heights was confronted with.
The real estate speculators are already at work about Lincoln Heights.
Costello: What do you mean by that?
Westmoreland: They’re going to buy it when it goes down.
Costello: Do you think that’s the direction they’re headed?
Westmoreland: I know it is.
Costello: There’s a bit of a resurgence, as they describe it, happening in Lincoln Heights with some new leadership and this idea of trying to bring in more development and bring in residents to expand the tax base. You don’t seem to have much hope that it’s possible for them to bring it back around. So why is that?
Westmoreland: Because they won’t have enough dollars. Anybody who knows the I-75 corridor; the only piece of ground that you can buy – or will be able to buy, it’s just a matter of when – for a reasonable price is Lincoln Heights. And it sits within rock-throwing distance of GE [and] Evendale. All you got to do is wait, and if you have big bucks, it’s there. But if you had a partnership between GE and Lincoln Heights, and somebody out of Glendale and somebody out in Wyoming who says, this is their community, and then help them not just be given money, but be installed in a position where you can borrow it cause you can pay it back, cause you can pay it back, cause you can pay it back not because somebody gave it to you.
Costello: Is that a possibility, though?
Westmoreland: No. Because that’s not the way America functions. I admire the young people who are attempting to put it back together, but nobody wants to help them do something about the land distribution, or creating a fund that provides a cash flow that makes up frankly, for theft, just plain old theft. And let’s move forward. And don’t just give them the money. Give them the technical skills, the training to manage it.
Costello: Do you think that enough people are aware of the history of Lincoln Heights? And how should that be talked about and taught? Why is that an important part of what’s happening today?
Westmoreland: I had a classmate, Jerry Whittaker. His dad and my dad worked together at DuPont. Both of us were from lower class America. We had these fathers, we had these churches, we had these communities that demanded that we do something when we got back from fishing, or telling lies. “Now go do your night work.” And it wasn’t perfect. But for America to understand that you got this working class Appalachian and this working class Negro, and they’ve never said cross word to each other except, “man quit crying.” And there’s value to that.
You have at this very minute millions of people in this country who have been seduced by the anger and the racism that will bring this entire experiment, this democracy, to its knees if we don’t understand that there’s some things that Jerry and I could do together, couldn’t do with other people.
How we get through where we are? I’m frightened. I’m frightened. I’m in my 80s. If I was in my 60s, I’d leave. Except I don’t know where I could go. As good as this place is, this America, it’s got ugly that we can fix. When Daddy graduated from Lockland, he was second in his class. They wouldn’t let him speak until 1996. But they let him speak. And on top of that, they let him say what I just said to you. And guess who got it so that he could speak – his classmates. They went to the Board of Education in Lockland and talked about this Negro guy who finished second in his class to a white woman. She was with him. Daddy should have just sat down; they applauded for five minutes before we started. But that doesn’t happen often. There are good things that happen in our country, we have to share those things. [The] equipment that you’re sitting behind – look at what you’re doing with it. You’re teaching. You’re asking people to at least just listen. Thank you.
Costello: Well, thank you. It’s a privilege to listen and I really appreciate the time.