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Museum Founded by Flewellen Remains Closed and Ignored

Feb. 17, 2011

By Angela Ison

History logoMany Clevelanders and residents of surrounding cities are unaware of the 57-year-old historical landmark, the African American Cultural & Historical Society Museum, that housed artifacts and cultural exhibits of African American history. The museum has been closed for the last five years after the black history pioneer and founder of the museum, Icabod Flewellen, fell ill. There were also not enough funds or support to keep the organization running.

The museum was one of the first African American museums in the United States founded in 1953 by Flewellen. The West Virginia native began his collection of African American memorabilia at the age of 13.

Flewellen opened his first African American museum in 1928. The African American artifacts, letters and portraits were housed and displayed in Flewellen’s home on Harkness Rd. The museum later moved to 1839 E. 81st St. (pictured right). Many artifacts and tools worth $3000 were stolen from the museum when it was forced to close in 1976, due to lack of operating funds.

Even after an arson fire in his home destroyed most of his original collection, Flewellen continued towards his dream of establishing a black history museum in the United States.

“Somebody started the fire. I guess whoever it was didn’t like what I was doing,” said Flewellen in a 1978 Plain Dealer article. “Too bad. I had a much richer collection then.”

Then in 1953, Flewellen bought the building located at 1765 Crawford Rd. This building was built in 1905 as a branch of the Cleveland Public Library, then known as the Carnegie Library building- Treasure House Branch. In 1987, the building was renamed the Icabod Flewellen Building, after the founder of the museum.

Icabod Flewellen BuildingFlewellen worked as a maintenance man at Case Western Reserve University. He spent most of his earnings on buying and preserving black history memorabilia. Yet, the building was deteriorating, plumbing and wiring were an issue for the historian in the 1980’s.

This wasn’t the first time the museum struggled financially to keep Flewellen’s dream alive.

“I have a lot of great ideas, but there is not enough money to carry them out, “ Flewellen said in a 1975 Plain Dealer article. The building was falling apart and the costs were rising from a $30,000 roof repair to the building on E. 81st to delinquent utility bills.

Due to the age of the building and lack of financial help, some of the historical artifacts donated have been removed. Some of the individuals who have donated artifacts to the museum decided to remove them for safety concerns.

The leaking roof of the museum frightened Willa Morgan, daughter in law of the African American man, Garrett Morgan, who invented the traffic signal.

“If there was a fire, that signal is made of wood and it would burn. It was time for me to bring it home. It was taken care of - I just felt better if it was in my possession,” Morgan said of the prototype of the traffic signal that was displayed in the museum, according to the Plain Dealer in 2002.

In its history, the museum was most known for its educational elements but was established to preserve and protect African American culture and to share information and contributions of African Americans in Cleveland of both struggles and joy in the past and present.

The exhibits ranged from black scientists and inventors to information on black life in Cleveland.

Slavery has been a major part of African American history in the First museum buildingUnited States, yet the museum not only displays the struggles with slavery but also other experiences and traditions of African Americans in Cleveland.

Although the organization has consistently lacked the funds to progress, in 1981 the Plain Dealer wrote, “the museum of his [Flewellen’s] dreams does not look like much, but within its walls you’ll find the pride of a people”. Some local institutions have contributed to events.

For example, Cleveland State University’s Department of Urban Affairs is one of many educational institutions that sponsor music, dance, and poetry events at the African American museum to help bring in income, states a 1999 Plain Dealer article.

In 1998, the black history museum joined together with several churches in an Imani Partnership agreement, which asked churches to donate at least $1,000 to the museum or to hold an offering on the third Sunday of February or to designate a liaison from the church. That person would collect $25 from church members to go to the museum in order to get the community involved in helping sustain the history in Cleveland.

The African American museum was classified as an official Cleveland landmark on May 17 1976 by the Council of the City of Cleveland for having aesthetic value.

The building was closed for four months in 2002 because there was no heat due to a delinquent gas bill, only to reopen in time for Black history month the following year.
The Plain Dealer reported that there was debris on the floors and exhibits, dead plants, and some nonworking exhibits, such as the solar powered exhibit, during those months that the museum was closed.

After Flewellen passed away three years ago, there has since been no one in charge to take over the preservation and dissemination of his African American memorabilia.