Cleveland church the place the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X spoke to be cease on proposed civil rights path


CLEVELAND, Ohio – In the beginning, almost a century ago, the imposing red-brick building on Cleveland’s east side was a synagogue. Not just any synagogue, but the largest Jewish center west of the Allegheny Mountains with a basketball court, an indoor pool and an auditorium for 2,400 people.

Dedicated in 1922, it served as the center of Glenville’s Jewish community until the population migrated 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 milestone 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 around 3,000 in its heyday to about 150, and while the building is structurally solid, it is in dire need of costly renovation.

But the Cleveland Restoration Society announced this week that Cory will be the site of a historic marker in Ohio describing its importance to the civil rights movement. The Society also announced that the church will be one of 10 locations along a planned civil rights trail in Greater Cleveland (the only other location identified so far is Glenville High School, which will also receive a marker) that is being planned by A grant was supported by the National Park Service.

His place in history

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

Many black lights have visited Cory over the years to speak or perform.

Martin Luther King Jr. came to Cory more than once, including in 1963, days after Birmingham, Alabama’s Security Commissioner Bull Conner, pounded loose dogs on black protesters.

“Thousands lined up outside Cory Methodist Church early that day, even though King wasn’t supposed to speak until 7:30 PM and traffic receded for miles around the church,” writes James Robenalt in Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 in Cleveland. “

Once inside, King railed against segregation and oppression in his remarkable baritone, writes Robenalt while maintaining his commitment to nonviolence, saying, “We will encounter physical power with soul power.”

The more radical Malcolm X would use the same pulpit not quite a year later to deliver 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 on the ballot box to make changes bring about, but this violence may be necessary.

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

The shrine in the United Methodist Church

His common legacy

While the historical marker will focus on black history, the building still bears witness to its Jewish heritage.

The names of the Hebrew prophets, scholars, and sages are engraved on the terracotta cornice that sits along the top of the building just below the roof. And much of the iconography in the sanctuary is Hebrew, especially in the stained glass windows and the wall-mounted menorahs.

Albert Ratner, 93, former co-chair of Forest City Enterprises, shared fond memories of the place and The Plain Dealer. His paternal grandparents and various relatives lived nearby, and he spent many hours in the Jewish center. There his bar mitzvah and confirmation took place and there he also learned to play basketball.

“It was a place of worship as well as a gym and a Schvitz, in which the members of the temple could take a bath and something to eat,” recalls Ratner.

Ratner still drives around the neighborhood once a month, saying the building’s upkeep should depend on whether it can play a role in the rebirth of Glenville.

“It has to be part of what is happening in the neighborhood,” he said.

Jewish iconography in the Cory United Methodist Church.

Jewish iconography in the Cory United Methodist Church.

His current situation

The role of the church in the parish has diminished over the years. On Sunday morning – before the coronavirus pandemic switched everyone to zoom – Rev. Gregory Kendrick preached to perhaps 70 mostly elderly parishioners. Not exactly a thriving community.

Most of the building is used to supply the needy. It houses the pantry of the Cory Hunger Center and has two kitchens that prepare hot meals every Tuesday evening.

“It used to be a dinner together,” Kendrick said, but since the pandemic broke out, those in need have been picking up dinner.

The church is also home to one of the city’s recreation centers, including the old basketball court, which has a new floor courtesy of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the old swimming pool. The city is getting involved financially, which helps pay the utilities, Kendrick said.

But the Cory Credit Union, which was formed in 1958 to provide home loans and auto loans to members of the Church in the days of redlining, merged with another institution in 2016. While one branch in the church stayed open for business once a week, it has been closed since the pandemic broke out.

The ornate banquet hall in the Cory United Methodist Church.

The ornate banquet hall in the Cory United Methodist Church.

His future

Kendrick, who took over as pastor from Cory in 2019, is currently reviewing the viability of the ward and the building itself to see if either or both can be saved and play a role in the Glenville neighborhood’s rebirth.

But how? It will be expensive when it can, and you cannot rely on the community to pay the bill.

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

Kendrick said it will take some sizable fundraising drives to raise the money needed to make the building more relevant today. He has received estimates between $ 3 million and $ 10 million.

Some of the money would go to the exterior because it’s a local landmark, he said. “Hopefully we will be a milestone on a national level at some point.”

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

“We don’t know what has to happen yet,” said Kendrick.

One thing is certain, he said, the building cannot simply be restored. It must be prepared for the future so that it will benefit the community.

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

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

“I want it to be an important place where creators and entrepreneurs can come and try something,” he said. “… I want it to be a nimble and flexible place that can adapt. And I think that’s one of the most important things COVID taught us, which is rooms, and our plans have to be adaptable.”