The Voice of Black Cleveland
A record of black history in Cleveland, indeed in America, would be incomplete without mention of William Otis Walker. Known as the dean of black publishing, Walker was a journalist, a statesman, an advocate, a man of strong character and deep commitment to the black race in America.
Walker was a die-hard Republican who supported the party of Lincoln long after FDR’s New Deal and WPA had wooed the black vote away in the 1930s. Although soft-spoken, he took a hard-hitting editorial approach that made him a power in local, state and national politics.
His chief instrument was The Call and Post. Throughout the years, his editorials in the weekly newspaper consistently admonished blacks that the only way to achieve political and economic power was through individual determination combined with collective effort and action.
“We have more white collars but not enough work shirts,” Walker exhorted in a 1940 editorial. “The brightest economic ray discernible in the gray dawn of hope is the growing development of Negro business …. Politically the Negro is desperately trying to regain the ground he lost after Reconstruction. In the South … we are voteless. By the grace of immigration, we are seeking a political foothold in the North …. As we look at these dioramas depicting our progress, let us not forget that unless we stop our economic losses, we will soon wipe out all the gains we’ve made.”
When W O. Walker came to Cleveland from the Washington D. C. area in 1932, America was suffering in the grip of the Depression. The fledgling Call and Post had been formed in 1927 through the merger of The Cleveland Call, owned by inventor Garrett Morgan, and The Post weekly, edited by Perry B. Jackson. The black community of the day simply could not support two newspapers. Norman McGhee, an attorney, consolidated the two papers, serving as editor until 1932, when he invited Walker to manage the enterprise.
That same year marked Walker’s entrance into local politics. A bloody battle was brewing between Democratic mayoral incumbent Ray T. Miller and Republican challenger Harry L. Davis. Winning the support of the growing black electorate was crucial in facilitating a Republican victory.
City Council members Laurence O. Payne (who later became Walker’s business partner) and Dr. Leroy H. Bundy provided the political pipeline through which Walker drew the information that went into his editorials, which helped coalesce the local black constituency. Davis lost the election, but Walker won a major victory for The Call and Post, setting it on its way to an influential place in the city’s black community.
The next few years were busy ones for Walker. Working day and night, often without pay, he transformed The Call and Post from a floundering endeavor with two employees and a circulation of 300 (mostly unpaid) to a totally autonomous business – from story to printed product –– with, by 1939, a circulation of nearly 10,000.
In 1935, Walker joined John O. Holly and other talented, concerned blacks to form the Future Outlook League (FOL), an association dedicated to helping blacks find employment. Boycotting and picketing businesses that did not hire blacks, the league in the 1930s foreshadowed the tactics that would be used by civil-rights activists in the 1960s.
The league pushed the State of Ohio to hire blacks; in 1940, the pressure resulted in the hiring of the first black state troopers and the first black employees of the Highway Department. Artha Woods, now secretary of Cleveland City Council, became one of the first black employees of Ohio Bell in 1941, an early triumph for the FOL.
“It was a tumultuous time for the bringing of men to accepting Negroes as a part of America,” recalls Woods. “W. O. Walker and John O. Holly were the Moses’s of an era that opened the door for others to follow.”
The league also lobbied strongly for black acceptance into the national trade unions. These efforts met with a great deal of organized resistance. One local baker brave enough to hire black truck drivers was hounded and threatened until he felt compelled to sneak out of town in the night, forsaking his business and workers. Despite such opposition, the league continued to fight for the economic well being of blacks until World War II brought jobs in defense and war-related industries.
W. O. Walker consistently publicized the work of the Future Outlook League in his Call and Post editorial, “Down the Big Road.” He urged blacks to live frugally so that they could start their own businesses and hire their own people. His influence grew by leaps and bounds until, after seven years in Cleveland, he had acquired such a following that when Dr. Bundy’s council seat was vacated, Walker was elected councilman of Ward 17.
He began his tenure in 1940 against a backdrop of contrast and controversy. That year, the anti-lynching bill passed the House amid white backlash in the South. War analysts predicted the time had passed for a major move from Hitler. The Wings Over Jordan Gospel group made its first major appearance on the New York stage. Despite improvements in economic conditions for white America, black America still languished in the depths of the Depression. In Cleveland, two black women were fired from the WPA office on their first working day. According to the front page of the February 1st issue of The Call and Post, the women, who had been hired by a lower-level executive, were rejected by the organization’s director because “no colored clerks or typists were being accepted on the project to which they had been assigned.”
The Metropolitan Housing Authority was then seeking to buy homes in Ward 17 to build a major housing project. Walker stressed to black homeowners the importance of intelligent real-estate appraisal; buyers must get the best possible price for their property. To help protect the rights of his constituents, he organized the Negro Property Owners Association and appointed as its adviser Charles H. Loeb, who was the assistant editor of The Call and Post.
Despite his staunch support of the Republican Party, Walker in his editorials often took white Republicans to task for reneging on campaign promises made to black voters. He believed such broken promises contributed heavily to the party’s loss of black support. In an editorial dated February 8th, 1940, Walker wrote, “Instead of realizing the need of a new approach to the Negro question, the Republicans and their convention of 1936 resurrected all the old, time-worn and, in many ways, discredited non-voting leaders and placed them in charge of Negro activities. The result was the complete turning of the Negro vote in the North, South, East and West into the fold of Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
His political clout still growing, Walker steadfastly supported Truman in the election of 1944. In 1945, the President asked Walker to tour American military bases in Europe and report on the treatment of black soldiers.
By 1956, Walker had been elected to the Central Executive Committee of the Ohio Republican Party. During this period, he waged another of his characteristic fights for his race. The Ohio Republican chairman, Ray Bliss, chose a white man, Joseph Rainey, to run the drive for black votes. Incensed, Walker insisted the appointment should have gone to a black man. The battle proved bitter, and though Walker had the backing of a group called the Eisenhower League, he lost. Still, he stayed with his party, continuing to attack its problems from within.
In 1963, Governor James A. Rhodes, whose campaign Walker had supported, appointed him Director of Industrial Relations. Walker served well in that capacity until 1971. Never idle, he helped form such black self-help groups as Operation Alert, a black think tank, and the Surrogates. He served as Coordinator of the Ohio Republican Council and on the international advisory board of the African American Institute.
When Carl B. Stokes first ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1965, Walker backed him and helped plan his campaign strategy. Supporting a Democrat did not constitute a compromise in philosophy for Walker; if race and party clashed, he went with race. He backed the 1969 McDonald’s boycotts, which opened the way for blacks to buy franchises, despite the reputation of the movement’s leader, Rabbi David Hill, who had a predilection for wealthy female members of his flock. Walker was not bothered by Hill’s notoriety; the cause drew him into the fray.
Often criticized for sensational journalism and chameleon-like changes of political position, Walker remained a force to be reckoned with until the day he died. In March 1981, he suffered two heart attacks. Many close to him thought he had gone down for the count, but the determination and resiliency that had marked his career enabled him to bounce back almost as if nothing had happened.
Walker’s trek down the big road finally came to an end on October 29th, 1981. At age eighty-five, he succumbed to a heart attack in the halls of The Call and Post. At the time of his death, he was one of three finalists being considered by President Ronald Reagan to chair the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. For almost fifty years Walker had helped brighten the political and economic outlook for blacks across the country. A giant had fallen, and his like would not be seen again.