On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Anyone who knows anything about Cleveland knows this story. But the truth is, most of us don’t know the whole story. The 50th anniversary we are celebrating this summer was not the river’s first fire, or its biggest. It was actually the 17th time flames lit up the water and it was much smaller than the dramatic stock photo Time magazine featured later in the summer—just a bit of molten metal that ignited oil and trash floating with the current. In fact, the fire was out before a single reporter could snap a photo. It was reported on the evening news more like a weather update than a crisis.
Had it not been for an ambitious young mayor, that fire, like so many before it, would have simply sputtered out in history, but Mayor Carl B. Stokes had an undeniable ability to create drama and a way with words. As the first black mayor of a major metropolitan city, the media followed his every move, and the next day he used that attention to lead reporters down to the river for a wake-up call. Through sheer will, Mayor Stokes turned a smoldering trash fire into a spark that helped to ignite our modern-day environmental movement. The image of water on fire captured the imagination of the nation. The mayor and his brother, U.S. Representative Louis Stokes, used that image to testify before Congress and partner with city, state, and national leadership to create the Clean Water Act and establish the Environmental Protection Agency.
“My father was in a unique position, and he figured out how he could parlay the incident at Cuyahoga River,” explains Mayor Stokes’s youngest son, Cordell. “The Glenville Riots and his role in pulling out the white police always takes prominence over the environment because [the environment] wasn’t sexy, but it is just as important.”
When asked to describe Mayor Stokes, Cordell reveals the man behind the public figure, the single father who created a home for him and his two siblings in those early days. Born just as the mayor was re-elected to his second term in 1969, Cordell’s recollections of Mayor Stokes are a mix of news clippings and family lore. Cordell’s earliest memories don’t really begin until the family had moved to New York, where his dad was launching his second career as that city’s first black news anchor.
An Early Riser
“When I was growing up, my father would come home late at night. He was a pool shark. So he’d come home after the bars closed, wake me up and have me join him at the table to relate to me what transpired during the day, and we’d eat barbecue together. We’d talk about what was happening politically. He was very open with me.”
In the morning, everyone had to get out the door early, leaving Cordell to make his own breakfast. His father showed him how to make eggs. “At age 5, I was making sunny side up eggs,” Cordell explains. “I’m at a stove with an open flame fire, so I had to learn how to cook grits and how not to burn them, keep low heat.”
In the Stokes home, cooking was a way to instill independence, self-respect, and to pass down recipes that were never written, but taught right in the kitchen. The memories of cooking include Mayor Stokes’s mother, who was close to her grandson even though she died when he was just 8 years old. “The thing I used to enjoy is when she would visit she would make scrambled eggs with cheese, grits, and brains,” Cordell says.
Traditional cooking wasn’t limited to breakfast. Cordell recalls a family recipe that goes back to his great-grandmother and further back to slavery—souse meat. “You know in slavery times they ate whatever scraps they had and they could make a meal out of it,” he says. Cordell recounts staying up late with his father in the kitchen, boiling the nose, the ears, and a little bit of the pig’s feet for hours to get it all nice and tender, then breaking it down, adding seasoning, and refrigerating it to let it set. “Now I’m not going to go toe to toe with whatever he made because we didn’t really measure how many spoons of this or that, you just used your hands and we do it to taste,” Cordell explains. “When it’s done, it’s in a block and the way we eat it is we slice it and fry it up in an iron skillet and let the fat drain. Then we scoop it up and serve it on toast.”
These days, Cordell is more health conscious, using grapeseed oil and olive oil to cook up his favorite recipes. “We’re losing a lot of legacy. I have three grandkids, so they watch me while I cook,” Cordell says. “It has to start in the home because a lot of times you put the fruit out and kids won’t eat it because they don’t get it at home. When I cook, my grandkids know Papa is going to cook right. Now I can get down and dirty and fry stuff, but I don’t do it on a regular basis. It starts at home.”
Like his father, Cordell is quick to understand the link between health and opportunity. “When I look at two brothers from the projects, environment wasn’t on their minds, but they lived it. My father would always talk about how he visualized seeing a white family with a nice warm fire in a comfortable home. You know, you’re talking about him living with his mother, sleeping in the cold with rat holes. It permeated into him, so as he grew in his career and attained power, he took what he wasn’t getting as a child and wanted to empower other children to be able to have access to the things that could provide them with a nice warm fire and that same warm feeling of what he pictured in his mind.”
As a bold leader who forged four short years in office into a turning point for Cleveland, Mayor Stokes understood that the environment was a part of civil rights for all—that all of us benefit from clean water.
It’s hard to understate the audacity of what Mayor Stokes accomplished. In 1969, no other big city in the country had elected an African-American mayor, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts had only recently been passed, and lynchings still occurred in America, Cordell explains. He hopes that when citizens reflect on our river, they’ll know that it flows clean today because a black man raised in the city’s projects, was talented enough to be elected mayor, brave enough to tackle the Cleveland’s biggest challenges, and smart enough to get results.
June 22, 1969 might not have been the first time our river caught fire, but thanks to Mayor Stokes, it was the last time. His leadership ensured that our dead river would become the foundation for what would be a movement toward urban renewal and a future when we could call ourselves a green city on a blue lake.