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Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church honored with Cleveland Civil Rights Trail marker

Two people lift off the cover of the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church's new Civil Rights Trail marker in front of the church.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Members of the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church unveil the new Civil Rights Trail marker on Nov. 2, 2023.

A historically Black church in Cleveland was honored Thursday for its part in the Civil Rights Movement. The Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church was added to Cleveland’s Civil Rights Trail.

The Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church has been the headquarters of the United Freedom Movement, which challenged overcrowding and segregation in Cleveland's public schools.

Its pastor of 62 years, Rev. E.T. Caviness, is considered a civil rights icon to many. Under his leadership, the church became a hub for civil rights activism. Caviness and the congregation helped Carl Stokes become the first Black mayor of a major American city when elected in Cleveland in 1967.

A friend of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Caviness raised money for his Montgomery movement and supported his voting registration efforts in Cleveland. Caviness was enshrined in the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2012.

The Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church's sanctuary
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
On March 23, 1965, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at this pulpit inside the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, seen here on Nov. 2, 2023.

In recent years, Caviness has restarted the Cleveland chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, fought for fair housing, helped save a historically Black college, protested the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and led a movement against Sherwin-Williams, demanding the company name a Black contractor as a key partner in building its new global headquarters in Cleveland.

And now, the church will be a stop on Cleveland's Civil Rights Trail.

The Civil Rights Trail is meant to tell the story of Cleveland's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement through 11 historical markers, according to its website. Thursday's unveiling is the 9th marker on the trail.

Members of the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church gathered around the new marker on a chilly November day to celebrate the legacy of the church and Caviness.

Deacon Joseph Parnell holds a folder and speaks into a microphone in front of the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church. To his left, Stephanie Phelps with the Cleveland Restoration Society stands behind a podium. To his right, the marker stands covered up.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Deacon Joseph Parnell reads the marker on Nov. 2, 2023.

Deacon Joseph Parnell read the back of the newly unveiled marker.

“The Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, GABC, for more than 75 years has fought for civil and economic rights," he said.

The trail marker is a display of Caviness' impact, Stephen Caviness, the civil rights leader’s grandson, said.

“Frankly, the work of justice is very difficult, and a lot of times you can be down and out," Stephen said. "But guess what? You’ve got to move forward, and you’ve got to get up and keep on moving.”

The Ohio History Connection provides historical markers to designated sites around the state, including the ones on the Civil Rights Trail. The marker indicates the church’s importance to the community, Ohio History Connection Chief Operating Officer Stacia Kuceyeski said.

“The marker program started in 1953," she explained, "and it really is driven by what communities decide are important to preserve for themselves, to share their story with their greater community, the Ohio community, whoever happens to be walking past.”

The church is one of three new local sites to be added to the Civil Rights Trail this year, along with the Ludlow neighborhood, which has received its marker, and Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, which does not yet have it historical marker.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.