These days along a stretch of Route 6 on the western side of the city of Lorain, the property along the lakefront is on the sparse side.
In the distance there’s a mobile home park and other housing developments, but the most prominent feature is a set of train tracks that runs along the shoreline.
A hundred years ago, this was known as On-Erie Beach. For about two decades beginning in the 1920s, this was one of the only Black-owned and operated beaches in Lorain.
The 33-acre property featured cottages and a resort and often held lectures and religious services for patrons who consisted of professionals and members of Oberlin’s Black elite class.
“It was seen as this almost utopian kind of community, a summer colony,” Mark Souther, historian and director of Cleveland State University’s Center for Public History and Digital Humanities said. “Where Blacks not just from Northeast Ohio, but potentially from around the country might gather.”
"The Negro Motorist Green Book" was published annually from 1936 to 1967. Its purpose: to inform Black travelers of locations, businesses and other establishments they could visit and be safe from the horrors of the Jim Crow era.
Souther is leading a collaborative effort with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, students and other local partners to highlight Green Book sites in Northeast Ohio through an online database called Green Book Cleveland.
Places like On-Erie Beach welcomed the Black community and provided them with services or amenities that may have been difficult to access elsewhere.
"The Negro Motorist Green Book" listed On-Erie Beach and other destinations and businesses as a guide where Black travelers could feel safe, Souther said.
“Owners were cognizant of the fact that they were operating in an environment of racial discrimination,” he said. “Many times, they referred explicitly to that fact that this was one of their goals was to open a place that would be nondiscriminatory because either they themselves had experienced discrimination at a similar venue, or that they know that their patrons had.”
For Black people during the period from the end of the Civil War to the passage of the Civil Rights Act when discriminatory laws and practices were prevalent throughout the U.S., the risk of trying to go to a racially segregated outdoor space could include arrest, assault or even death regardless of age, gender or severity of the perceived crime.
Cleveland’s historic Euclid Beach Park is an example of that, Souther said.
The reality of racial segregation
From its first season, the amusement park was racially segregated, limiting Black access. Black people were able to enter the park, but didn’t have access to amenities that were deemed “white only” like the dance pavilion, swimming beach and skating rink.
There were several documented altercations with park security and Black people, Souther said, that resulted in the attendees being assaulted, arrested or even shot over accusations of cutting in line or protesting the parks segregation practices.
“When we think about nostalgia, we have to ask, ‘For whom?’ Of course, the nostalgia was largely white nostalgia because for much of its history, it was not a very welcoming place for Blacks who were there always, but they were there on unequal terms.”Mark Souther, Director of Cleveland State University’s Center for Public History and Digital Humanities
“It’s just flat out racist,” he said. “It strikes me as obviously that there were concerns other than just running a business and making money because Black people's money wasn't good enough. If you're running a business, theoretically, you shouldn't care who's paying you to be there.”
The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit which advocates for equitable access to the outdoors, is partnering with Souther on Green Book Cleveland. Sean Terry, director for the organization’s Ohio office, said lack of access to the outdoors exacerbated negative health effects in the Black community like asthma, heart disease, obesity and poor mental health.
But, regardless of their treatment in segregated white spaces, Terry said the desire and need for outdoor, green space remained in Black communities across the state.
“We had to figure out places to recreate because the access may not have been there, or maybe we had to ... cross social boundaries that didn't make it safe,” he said. “So, people had to come up with alternative means.”
The Green Book Cleveland project includes an entry for Euclid Beach Park even though it was never included in any edition of “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” That distinction speaks to what Souther is trying to accomplish with the project.
“The Green Book Cleveland project is interested in places where … we found African Americans seeking recreation. Whether they were feeling welcomed or not is another matter,” he said. “We're going well beyond what was actually in the Green Book guides to try to curate the larger, broader Black experience of leisure, recreation and entertainment.”
Lorain’s On-Erie Beach lost business during World War II, when things like transportation and gasoline were hard to find. Other Black-owned spaces had to shut their doors after owners were harassed, their property was vandalized or went unsupported by their local governments.
Hardships for Black property owners
Cleveland resident Louise Smith opened Pinecrest Country Club in August of 1952. The 23-acre property included cottages, a pool, a beach and many other amenities, and often featured hayrides, horseback riding and water sports for attendees.
But Smith experienced backlash from the community and the Twinsburg zoning board, which refused to include the country club as part of the town. Smith accumulated nearly $10,000 in loss due to property damage, theft and even the killing of three of her horses, all done by unknown parties.
“You can read between the lines and see that this was a Black-owned business in the midst of a largely white area at a time when there was resistance to [Black] presence,” Souther said. “So, it's hard not to read this as a race hate crime.”
Stonibrook was founded in Peninsula by married couple Bill and Anna Johnson in 1957 with the goal of creating a summer camp for underprivileged Black youth. There’s little known about the Johnsons and their 45-acre property as the Green Book Cleveland team could not find documentation of the Johnsons’ purchase of the land.
“If I die, I am going to make certain that this property is made available to Negro youth, who have no opportunity to attend a summer camp.”Bill Johnson via Call & Post on July 13, 1957
This could be due to what Souther said was a common practice at the time involving a white person who would formally purchase a property on a Black person’s behalf to avoid some of the dangers of being a Black land owner in a non-Black community.
“It was done in part only partly because they were denied — when you go to the bank and they won't loan you the money,” Souther said. “And partly because ... if you were in this position by buying a property, you might want to hide the fact that you were the actual owner for a while until you got settled.”
According to the Green Book Cleveland entry, the Johnsons intended to invest $250,000 – equivalent to more than $2.4 million today – to create a resort and camp for underprivileged Black youth. But the land fell victim to multiple arson attacks, again by unknown individuals, that prevented the couple from fully developing the property.
Bill Johnson, a World War II veteran, was prepared to defend his property, and told the Call & Post, “I was told during the war that this was a fight for democracy overseas – well, I’m fighting for it right here at home now, and if necessary, they may come to call this Johnson’s tomb.”
“That was a common sentiment for African Americans who served in the armed forces in World War II, that they were ostensibly fighting a war for democracy abroad, that they were invited to protect American democracy, but they didn't fully enjoy all the rights of American democracy at home,” Souther said. “When they came back from the war, they were determined that things were not going to be the same, that they shouldn't be the same.”
Stonibrook in Peninsula, Pinecrest Country Club in Twinsburg, On-Erie Beach in Lorain and other Northeast Ohio sites of Black recreation and leisure — including many in the original Green Book editions — are long gone, with little indication of what was once there.
Souther said he wants to collect oral histories to paint a fuller picture of these sites and others. But he remains hopeful the Green Book Cleveland project will put them back on the map and give all Northeast Ohio residents a better understanding and awareness of what the Black community faced in the 20th century.