WRITING WELL 11 - woodland & 55th

by Susan Weber

The patron saint of Ireland’s annual festivities challenged my plans to attend the swearing-in of my Indian friend. When his wife became a U.S. citizen awhile back, we sat among people with turbans, scarves, and hatless heads, anticipation swirling like spun gold through the crowd. Hands were raised and oaths declared. Smiles extended far beyond the steel and concrete walls of the Carl B. Stokes Federal Court House in downtown Cleveland.

But this time the ceremony fell on St. Patrick’s Day when Clevelanders typically swarm the parade route a few blocks from the court house. I had to work in the early afternoon. I couldn’t be sure parade traffic wouldn’t make me late.

On this auspicious day I was slated to tell stories with preschoolers at a library near Woodland and East 55th. It’s a modest brick building with an asphalt lot. I’ve often driven past it on my way to poor neighborhoods and rich suburbs. Police headquarters sits across the street. The post office is next door. The branch serves Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, home to the largest concentration of housing projects in the city.

The Seneca story I planned to tell was on my mind as I processed parade information and scratched my head over traffic patterns near the court house. The Seneca people lived around Lake Erie before they moved — or were relocated — to a reservation in Oklahoma. The grandmothers of the tribe told Forgets-To-Twinkle to the young ones, a story that reminded them to stay alert to danger and opportunity in the wider world. This was where my head was too. Alert, but still confused.

Lucky for me, my eyes flickered to the Carl B. Stokes Federal Court House website and the biography of the building's namesake. In 1968, Carl Stokes became the first African American mayor of a major American city, Cleveland. His older brother Louis was a U.S. Congressman for 15 terms. Their father Charles had died of diabetes when the boys were toddlers. Their mother Louise raised her sons in Cleveland’s first federally funded housing project for the poor, Outhwaite Homes. There were rats. There was hunger. There was dignity too. And with the next fact, my decision for the day shimmered into focus. Outhwaite Homes was located within walking distance of the Woodland branch that served the Central neighborhood then as now. I would miss the swearing-in, but I would be with children following the path of the Stokes brothers and others like them.

When we say we’ll be someplace in spirit, we dearly wish it were possible to be there in body too. But the location of the Woodland branch, the roots of the Seneca story, the naming of the court house, and the spirit of the swearing-in were united in body and spirit. Mine was the privilege of witnessing them all.

We are seeped in a nation of people who labor through heartache to prosper and lead. I didn’t see my Indian friend receive his citizenship, but my day was filled with the spirit he embodies, and soaring with its unrelenting grace.

Photo by Saffron Blaze CC BY-SA 3.0