Melvin Blackwell is the pastor of Christ the Redeemer AME Church in Cleveland Heights. In this interview he recounts his journey through the Church- starting in the Baptist tradition, going to the Episcopalian Church, and his eventual move to Christ the Redeemer. He also discusses the changes within the Cleveland Heights neighborhood as well as changing perspectives about the church.
"Melvin Blackwell Interview, 18 September 2013" (2013). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 911089.
Mark Souther [00:00:00] Today is September 18, 2013. I am Mark Souther and I'm recording an oral history with Reverend Melvin Blackwell at Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.
Melvin Blackwell [00:00:15] Glad to be interviewed, sir.
Mark Souther [00:00:17] And please state your full name for the record.
Melvin Blackwell [00:00:19] My name is Melvin T. Blackwell and I am the pastor of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church here in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Mark Souther [00:00:27] Please tell me when and where you were born and where you grew up.
Melvin Blackwell [00:00:31] I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and shared time in Los Angeles, California, which consisted of around 18 to 19 years of my earlier life. And I attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, where I received a master's degree in therapeutic recreation.
Mark Souther [00:00:50] What brought you to Cleveland?
Melvin Blackwell [00:00:52] Well, seeing as though I'm a prodigy of Ronald Reagan's era, money brought me to Cleveland. The government had just taken the release off of hiring federal employees. And with the master's degree in my field and graduating number one in my class, I was sought after. And I was recruited to the Brecksville VA Medical Center, where I became a spinal cord injury specialist in recreation.
Mark Souther [00:01:22] And when you were there, I know that hospital has closed recently.
Melvin Blackwell [00:01:27] Yes, sir, it has.
Mark Souther [00:01:29] We have app site on that too, which in fact I have to look and see if it's live or if we have made the final revisions to it or not. That we either have one or will soon have one live. Where were you living then when you were at when you started working at the Brecksville VA?
Melvin Blackwell [00:01:49] Well, when I first arrived in 1984, I lived in the Brecksville Motor Hotel and I lived there for six months. And from there I moved to Broadview Heights, where I then got married to my lovely college sweetheart and brought her to Cleveland, Ohio. And we resided in Broadview Heights for two years before we moved to Cleveland.
Mark Souther [00:02:13] And when you moved to Cleveland, what neighborhood did you move to?
Melvin Blackwell [00:02:15] I moved in the Glenville area, what is known as the Gold Coast, East Boulevard, St. Clair area.
Mark Souther [00:02:25] I'm glad you brought up the term gold coast. We were just having a discussion about it earlier today at the center meeting and wondered where that term originated in the Cleveland context, because it's a term that I think is very well known in the African American community. But outside of that, I think today a lot of people hear gold coast and they say, oh, that's in Lakewood. That's a whole different place. How did a place that has no frontage on the water get termed the Gold Coast? Do you, did you ever heard that story?
Melvin Blackwell [00:02:58] I haven't heard the story, but I do have my idea or scenario about it, seeing as though we have the brook that runs from Cleveland Heights through Rockefeller Park, which possibly was originally a river before they actually brooked it up and put bricking on the side of it, it could have been the view of the water itself, of the river itself. So, therefore, with the luxurious houses back then, as some have grown older and dilapidated, I could see where the term gold means status, precious. And that's why I think the African American community which lives there still refers to it as the Gold Coast.
Mark Souther [00:03:52] That's very interesting, we speculated that it might be that in the time before the suburbs were more accommodating to racial integration, that Glenville was the sort of the pinnacle neighborhood for a while for African Americans when there were no other real options. We wondered if maybe it was as though one had reached the Gold Coast, one reached 105th Street, and maybe it was like moving on up and then you're like the Jeffersons moving...
Melvin Blackwell [00:04:21] Yes.
Mark Souther [00:04:22] On the East Side. And literally it's on the East Side, and here it's the...
Melvin Blackwell [00:04:26] It could fit, you know, I could buy into it. I, I see with the rich history of African Americans within Cleveland, Ohio, itself. Status possibly wouldn't have been a problem with them, it was just the place to move. Now, maybe the lower classes would have thought of it as being the Gold Coast because they couldn't afford it. But I know a lot of prominent families, African American families that have been here and it just doesn't fit.
Mark Souther [00:05:02] Well, I just wondered if the maybe it had to do with finally going to a neighborhood that matched the wealth of.
Melvin Blackwell [00:05:11] No, I could buy into that.
Mark Souther [00:05:12] Instead of, for example, being in the Cedar Central neighborhood, which, like other inner-city neighborhoods, everyone lived together regardless of their class.
Melvin Blackwell [00:05:21] Right. [I can] really I can buy into that one. I think so. I think so.
Mark Souther [00:05:27] Who knows?
Melvin Blackwell [00:05:27] Who knows. But it's we still have some individuals that are original second-time homeowners in that area. Ms. Dorothy Adams is a very good friend of mine and she's been there since it began to integrate. And she has a fine home and she does keep it up.
Mark Souther [00:05:48] Did, when you were growing up, what faith background were you from?
Melvin Blackwell [00:05:53] I came from Baptists. My dad was a bona fide certified degreed Baptist preacher.
Mark Souther [00:06:03] And did you, did you then continue in the Baptist Church for many years or, or not?
Melvin Blackwell [00:06:11] Until I became 23 years old and while pursuing my master's at Southern University, I met a beautiful lady named Pamela, who was an administrative assistant on campus. And in order to date her, I had to start going back to church. So that was a part of our date process. So she was an African American Episcopalian. So, therefore, I joined her faith while we were courting in our younger years. And I liked the doctrine and the discipline of the African American, African American church. So that particular church. So I, I join in
Mark Souther [00:06:56] For someone who does not know anything about the AME church vis-a-vis the Episcopal church or a Methodist church. How would you describe some of the similarities and differences in terms of maybe the liturgy?
Melvin Blackwell [00:07:13] Well, our doctrine and our discipline is written inside of our doctrine and discipline manual here in our book. This is what we govern ourselves by administratively. What I see the difference, having both backgrounds of Baptists and now Episcopalian and a Methodist, I see that the liturgy is more sound. It has more of a doctrine to it. Some would think that we are chanting, but as I stress to my congregation, one never knows when they will need to be able to recite some words from the Bible verbatim and to know the story behind them. Also, administratively, we are structured where that we do have a hierarchy of a bishop, presiding elders, and pastors, and laity plays a very important part in governing all of that. And that's really what sold me on the AME church, the structure and the discipline coming from a by a Baptist background. My dad was the CEO. No other word went over my father's head. There was not a bishop. He belonged to the Southern Baptist Convention, but they couldn't tell him how to govern that church. All they had was charters. And this made a big difference to me. Also, I saw. A. What you might say, an area of whether that I can excel in the ministry without just being a preacher or a pastor with the gifts that God had given me, I was able to branch out and exercise my gifts, which was therapeutic recreation, sports and recreation, and also talking to young people. And that's what I really like about the AME church and our doctrine and our discipline.
Mark Souther [00:09:30] When you came to Cleveland, what church did you join?
Melvin Blackwell [00:09:34] I joined Lee-Seville Baptist Church under Reverend Dr. Forman on Lee Road that was the closest African American church to Broadview Heights. And it's not that we didn't have the type of background to deal with African Americans who lived in the inner-city of Cleveland. But it was a Baptist church of status and it had culture and it had a lot of young people that were our age and who were entrepreneurs and who have since made it in the business world. So we felt that it was a perfect fit for us.
Mark Souther [00:10:16] Did you try any AME churches at the time since you had already started going to AME churches?
Melvin Blackwell [00:10:22] We have visited Lee Memorial AME Church, where after two years we made our permanent membership at Lee Memorial AME Church on 105 and Bryant, under the leadership of Reverend Dr. Wesley I.Reid. And we found that to be very comfortable. And that's where we are right now when we do worship in the morning at 8:00 a.m.
Mark Souther [00:10:49] So then. But let me ask a couple of, I could take this in a couple of different ways, and first, I wanted to ask if you got involved in this church at its inception or if you came later?
Melvin Blackwell [00:11:04] I came later on assignment here at Christ Our Redeemer. I view myself, and I'm quite sure that my presiding elder, who is Reverend Dr. James Harris, views me as an individual that is able to come up, come to an organization and build their spirit back. This was a broken church four years ago, spiritually. I would say so from my assessment. Others may think differently after hearing this, also administratively, this church had no paper trail. Which led to. Which would have led to and did lead to legal problems within the church and also we had to become a church where our deepest concern was the community at large, we had to develop here at Christ Our Redeemer, the attitude that we aren't, and I don't know if this is the word suburbanite, but we are common people on the playing field of God and that we need to reach out and help our brothers and sisters, no matter what their background or their dilemma is. So I think that's what I brought to Christ Our Redeemer. Also, I brought to Christ Our Redeemer a vision. And that's where a lot of programs have began to take off here within the church.
Mark Souther [00:12:38] Before we get back to your role, now that I know that you came in some years after the founding of the church. Tell me what you know about the earliest origin of this church? Who were the people, most, who were the sparkplugs, if you will, for starting Christ Our Redeemer?
Melvin Blackwell [00:12:56] Well, I've had the pleasure to meet. The Reverend Dr. McLemore, who was the first pastor of Christ Our Redeemer in 1982 upon its inception and beginning. A very literate and dynamic gentleman, a very concerned gentleman, which now he is a part of the Pittsburgh district and he is the presiding elder there. Also, I met a fiery lady who was on our back by the name of Reverend Mamie Wilson, whose husband was associate pastor here with Reverend Dr. McLemore, and she filled me in with a lot of the spiritual aspects of this church and some of the membership that was at the church and the things that they did. And also I know George and Helen Hurt were very instrumental. They came here 17 years ago. And. They've been instrumental in the church. Also, Stacy Griffin, whose children were born here, so she knows a lot about the church and not leaving out Gary Huntley and Charles Payne Lucas, who are very important to Christ Our Redeemer and the, the building and the upkeep. Especially Brother Gary Huntley, he is obsessed with the decor of this church and sometimes we could find him in here putting up plaster, or painting baseboards, or buying lamps or chandeliers to hang somewhere. So, you know, this guy's on fire for the church.
Mark Souther [00:14:57] When you, when we were walking around the building, you mentioned the origin, the sort of [the] inspiration for putting a church here in Cleveland Heights. And I've read that this was the first AME church in Greater Cleveland that was outside. Well, least close to Cleveland, that was outside the city of Cleveland. Tell me a little bit along the lines of what you were talking to me about earlier about the.
Melvin Blackwell [00:15:28] This historical background of this church was started with a venture of the pastors of the Cleveland District AME Church. Reverend Wesley I. Reid, who is my pastor now at Lee Memorial Church, spearheaded this particular venture to obtain this property to put an African Methodist Episcopalian Church within Cleveland Heights. If we look at [our] demographics around us, you would see and would. You will see that the AME churches that were prominent were St. John's, St. James, Lee Memorial and individuals would drive from the suburbs, which were Shaker in the '80s, they would drive from in this area and they would drive from the Bedford area and they would bypass Cleveland Heights so far to travel, to worship. And a doctrine and a discipline that you grew up with. So Reverend Reid, a visionary, along with the others thought it would be economically feasible and also spiritually feasible to obtain a church in Cleveland Heights and began a congregation where that individuals may be able to shorten their drive, but also become a viable part of the AME church.
Mark Souther [00:17:05] Is this, is it fair to say that this was the first, was this the first African-American or historically African-American church outside the city of Cleveland in the Cleveland area?
Melvin Blackwell [00:17:21] I would say it was the first African-American Episcopalian church in this community. I haven't did much research, but from the research that I've done and from some of the comments that I've received from individuals who have been here, yes, this was the black first black church in the community. We will just see it just as plain as that. And. Some people have problems with that.
Mark Souther [00:17:54] I was going to say something but can you explain?
Melvin Blackwell [00:17:56] Well, we, we ventured out to. When we first began to start our project, we wrote a proposal up to put a 24-hour homeless veterans shelter in the basement. These grants were given By the Department of Veteran Affairs, up to $50,000. Me being a veteran, a disabled veteran and showing a humane concern for my brothers and my sisters who had suffered psychologically or had come back from the war and parents didn't understand and put them out on the streets or drugs got into their lives and they lost everything or the fall of Wall Street which brought a lot of young men and young women back to be unemployed. I thought that it would be advantageous for Christ Our Redeemer to have a 24-hour center here using referrals from the police department if they found anyone on the streets after curfew hours and to, first of all, contact us if we had the entity of the Homeless Veterans shelter and we would then contact the Department of Veteran Affairs. This was written up in all the contacts were made and plans were laid. And all we needed was for the. Council of Cleveland Heights to okay it. The neighborhood saw it differently. We were accused of being why the crying was here. We were even approached verbally by a gentleman that said he was robbed right on this corner because this church and our people were here on this corner. It let's you it opens your eyes to the problems that. The United States is going through at this particular time when we can't worship together and when we can't look beyond to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, the content of one's mind versus one's character. And I think we've done a tremendous job here. Within Cleveland Heights, but I do think that Cleveland Heights truly needs to open its eyes to the ethnic change that is happening before their eyes, and it can't be solved with the police department and it can't be solved by moving away. It can only be solved by us working together to teach those who don't understand suburbial living. Can I say it like that? Because there is a certain standard in the suburbs and all African Americans or all people of color don't come from the ghetto. Some of us are well educated, and cultured and traveled.
Mark Souther [00:21:03] You bring up a really interesting point, because I know that for all of Cleveland Heights reputation of being an integrated suburb and truly it is an unusual place. In some respects, it was a leader. But if you go back some years, it certainly had its share of difficulties that some of the first African-Americans to move in they, you know, their homes were being bombed and are worried about threats and crosses burned, that sort of thing. And I wondered because I know some of the timeline of all this, a lot of that happened in the '60s and into the early-'70s, a lot of the violence. And I know that, by the way, through the '70s, there was such a movement in the Cleveland Heights that I would have thought that over time, for example, by the time or even by the time this church was founded, that it wouldn't have surprised anyone to find, for example, in the AME church going where the population was increasingly living. Now, what you've described, though, I want to ask, when did that happen? Is that, that's much more recent?
Melvin Blackwell [00:22:11] Yes, sir. About a year ago.
Mark Souther [00:22:12] Just about a year ago. Yes. Even takes us up even farther. But have you heard any stories about when Christ Our Redeemer first arrived – well, you know, it didn't arrive, it just, it was born here – were there problems with the neighborhood at that time that you've ever been told about? Was it a very smooth...
Melvin Blackwell [00:22:36] Very smooth transition. Well embraced. But from my opinion, when economic times get hard. When the struggle for jobs began to be played out by the color of our skin. When where we live at began to be a haven of protection for us and only we who look alike. Are allowed, it becomes a problem, and that's not to say that there is racism here. I, per se, can't say that. All I confronted was a conversation from the gentleman, but I'm not naive. And. Being an African American man, and being a standard-bearer, and a father of an African American man,and a grandfather of an African American young man; I would venture to say some of our young people just don't understand how to conduct themselves when they're outside of their element, as you well can see, there is a migration of East Cleveland, Collinwood, Euclid. That are beginning to move into Cleveland Heights and last year, I do believe. They had their first murder in Cain Park. Yes, so things are changing. And if we want to continue to live in this community in harmony, I think that all the ministerial, ministerial alliances should truly come together and I want to point that out. Should truly come together and not seek to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving and Christmas. But seek to find a solution to why our high school, which is predominantly African-American within this community, has all of a sudden went from the top tier of educating to almost the bottom tier of educating. Why are young people who are in the schools around here are very disgruntled and very angry about what is going on, and that's not to say that this community has failed them. But we as ministers and pastors have failed to embrace the vision that God has given us, that we all should live together as one. So when we began to find fault. With the way that the building looks, Christ Our Redeemer not saying to yourself as a Christian individual would say, what must I do to help? But you need to take care of or we're going to bring the housing authority in to slap you with a bunch of violations. And. We're not going to seek out a process where that we're going to help you to. Financially restorate this historical landmark. Thank God for you. Thank God for Koby. Thank God for Kara, Mr. Wolzak, the magistrate that I serve under, Judge Buchanan, those individuals, when I came here four years ago, I brought them a vision. And God had endowed me with the vision that this would be no failure here, we're going to become a credible part of this community once again, and we're going to be able to usher in the transition of ethnicity within Cleveland Heights, because as sure as you and I sit here, my brother, it's coming. So we need to be ready for it. Spiritually ready in order to be tolerant with those who don't understand. Forgiving for those who don't understand and with that element, it's it's going to come. The poor. It's going to come the addict. There's going to come the homeless. And we cry about tax dollars now within our government. But if we do nothing about it here in Cleveland Heights now, it will become a big problem. So socially, we need to really get together, and I think Christ Our Redeemer wants to serve as that beacon within this community.
Mark Souther [00:27:40] It's quite a vision. I really applaud that. I wonder if you could tell me and I am going to back up again for a little bit back to the early years of the church. You mentioned that Reverend McLemore was one of the real visionaries for the first inception of the church.
Melvin Blackwell [00:28:01] Yes, sir.
Mark Souther [00:28:02] And I know that Reverend Lucas became the pastor for some years.
Melvin Blackwell [00:28:08] Yes, sir.
Mark Souther [00:28:08] Of. That's very much associated with this church. Can you tell me in those earliest years how the preaching was handled in terms of and I read, for example, that there were, there were guest preachers for a while. Was that because they were just alternating with a, you know, the main pastor, or was there a time when there wasn't a single pastor until they got someone? Maybe you could give me a better understanding of how that was done in the early years?
Melvin Blackwell [00:28:41] From the way it was explained to me, each pastor that came to preach here would bring his congregation and it would supplement the finances of the church. So Reverend Reid would have a turn, would Lee Memorial, and he would bring his congregation and the contributions would go to paying off the mortgage of the church and different ones were assigned. [What a] mindset they had in order to pay the mortgage off and I think it was welcomed by the parishioners who were here and also welcomed by the third Episcopal district and also Cleveland district. It really made them feel a part of something. You know, it feels good to help something to be rebuilt, or restored, or to grow. And I think they felt real good about that.
Mark Souther [00:29:36] When was the first, or who was the first permanent minister and nothing is permanent but the first one who did full-time ministries here and when was that?
Melvin Blackwell [00:29:47] That would be Reverend Dr. McLemor And I wasn't able to pool up the history of when he began, but it had to be between at least 1984 and 1985.
Mark Souther [00:30:02] But he had been instrumental in starting the church.
Melvin Blackwell [00:30:04] Yes.
Mark Souther [00:30:05] Correct? So he was, was he here on a, I guess, day in, day out basis through that time, or was he sort of helping the church from, you know, from another church? And as you said, that's so many of the other guest ministers we're doing.
Melvin Blackwell [00:30:20] I couldn't really tell you. [I] know that we are appointed to our churches by our bishop, which is according to our doctrine and our discipline and. This was his assignment. And I know the Reverend Lucas was here for 13 years before I got here. And you had Reverend Dana Dawkins, who was here two years before I got here, so that was 15 years. And I was what they call a lycentric within those 15 years and I just began to minister in Lee Memorial as a youth pastor, but I recall seeing Reverend McLenor and the Association of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church. And. My greatest memories are with Reverend Charles paying Lucas who was a classmate of Reverend Reid's and a very good friend of Reverend Reid's, so I would see Reverend Lucas quite often, at least every Easter, I would see Reverend Lucas because he would preach the sunrise service. But that's basically the, the ministry or history that I know about this church, when Reverend Rick, Reverend Lucas was stricken with the spinal cord injury. He came back and began to pastor the church, but no longer could do it as efficiently as he had done it once before. So he transferred himself to an emerita status. And that's when Reverend Dana Dawkins came and I came two years after he came. The rest is history.
Mark Souther [00:32:20] You've been here four years?
Melvin Blackwell [00:32:21] Four years, yes sir.
Mark Souther [00:32:24] '09 and then she was here then from '07 to '09 approximately. And then we go back, you said, another 12 years.
Melvin Blackwell [00:32:30] 12 to 13 years with Reverend Lucas.
Mark Souther [00:32:32] Reverend Lucas. So let's see. That takes us back to 1995 or so. So he was here the longest of other than McLenor.
Melvin Blackwell [00:32:40] Right.
Mark Souther [00:32:41] Maybe was here all told maybe 10?
Melvin Blackwell [00:32:44] 10 years, possibly, possibly
Mark Souther [00:32:46] Pretty close. Yes, see it's really two people who were here the longest.
Melvin Blackwell [00:32:50] Right. Yeah, [and] taking nothing against Dr. McLenor because I don't know the background. I know he laid a foundation, but Reverend Lucas was a very prominent pastor in Kansas City, Kansas, and the owner of Lucas Funeral Home in Cleveland, Ohio. And also a politician chaplain under Mayor Jane Campbell, so the church had a certain swagger. And status to it under his leadership, very charismatic and good looking man he is and. Somebody, I wanted to be like I guess I would say.
Mark Souther [00:33:39] And you mentioned to me before that there were 66. What was it 66 people or 66 families when the church started?
Melvin Blackwell [00:33:47] 66 people. When I began to do my research when I came here, I did what they call an after-action report when I came here. Military teaches you that. So financially, spiritually, structurally, physically, I had to see what was working with. And there were 66 people who were on the membership roster at that particular time.
Mark Souther [00:34:12] When the church first started, I'm guessing it was a very small number of sort of people who said, I'm going to make this my home church, and then they were supplemented, as you said, by people coming in each Sunday from different congregations following their, their own pastors.
Melvin Blackwell [00:34:28] Right.
Mark Souther [00:34:28] And one detail I found in one of those articles that I sent you in the email as an attachment was the St., apparently the St. John's and St. James.
Melvin Blackwell [00:34:38] Yes.
Mark Souther [00:34:38] AME choirs were the first to sing.
Melvin Blackwell [00:34:41] Yes, sir. And they're still good choirs right now. And we still associate because they are what we call mother churches. We are the last with the exception of Fellowship AME Church was was created and chartered in Lyndhurst under pastor Tamica Freedreid, we were the last church in Cleveland to be incepted and brought out, so everybody's our mother and everybody looks out for Christ Our Redeemer.
Mark Souther [00:35:22] Did the church initially, from what I read, that's correct. The church leased from, leased the building initially from church, First Church of the Brethren, which had left it or I don't know if that church. What happened to that church after it left here and wasn't able to find anything on where it went. But it was here from the 1920s to the 1970s and then it left. And so I was wondering, one, if you ever heard of where it went after it was here? And two, when Christ Our Redeemer bought the building and how long it's owned it?
Melvin Blackwell [00:36:00] Okay, when Christ Our Redeemer bought the building, now the Church of the Brethren and in reference to that, I've heard that also. But I understand when they bought the building, I don't know historically whether they were leasing it or not. I just know the conditions from what I hear and understand, the conditions of the church weren't that. Well, some even questioned whether it was a solvent move. Most visions aren't solvent and the eyesights and the minds of those who don't truly know how God works in one's life. And it's proven to be a church that has no mortgage. That has the deed. And we have our problems. But still, God doesn't stop for man's problems. God is a God of visions, growth, and empowerment, and that's what we find ourselves right now. I implore my brothers and sisters to come out of the woodwork, who the churches that were formerly here Christ Our Redeemer if they had anything to do with the spirit that this church still holds from their prior worship, come back. Help us to continue to kindle that spirit within this church, not financially. You can just come as brother to brother and share with us because the same God that they worshiped under the Brethren we were worshipping here and we can feel their presence in this church and I see it every Sunday, that we feel the presence of those who worship here before because some worshiped here and in its sincerity and in truth. And some pray to a true and a living God here, and we can feel that. And sometimes this place can really catch a fire with those old spiritual souls that have gone on before in this church.
Mark Souther [00:38:35] And I know the Church of the Saviour was here even before the Brethren.
Melvin Blackwell [00:38:39] Yes, sir.
Mark Souther [00:38:41] You know, they had a different name, of course, and then it became the Church of the Saviour and went down to Lee Road. Well down Lee Road.
Melvin Blackwell [00:38:48] But I have some archives, and I would really like to present you with some things for CSU for you to view and look through and maybe within your research, you can see a rich and a deeper history that came from some of these recordings, some of these films that they have available and that they left within their archives area.
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