The Phillis Wheatley Association first opened in 1911 at 2265 East 40th Street as a “home for working girls” regardless of race or nationality and could only accommodate fifteen boarders who had access to a kitchen, a place to entertain visitors, and laundry facilities. From its inception, more women were interested in living at the Phillis Wheatley than the founder, Jane Edna Hunter, could accommodate. The Phillis Wheatley was originally only supposed to be temporary housing; however, the Great Migration generated even more interest in the Phillis Wheatley as more Black families came to Cleveland. As a result, the Phillis Wheatley took over the Winona Apartments, which had 72 rooms, doubling the number of long-term residents, and tripling the number of transient residents the organization could house. Moreover, after a fundraising venture, the Phillis Wheatley purchased a nearby building called the Annex, which housed additional meeting rooms for the organization. The Phillis Wheatley likely made its way into the Green Book because it provided housing for women who were in Cleveland temporarily or were looking for more permanent housing.
In 1925, Miss Hunter raised $550,000 to fund the current nine-story Phillis Wheatley building (now called Emeritus House) located at 4450 Cedar Avenue. Completed two years later, the building offered more activities and housing for the Cleveland community. The new building provided safe and affordable housing in 135 dormitories on its top six floors for young African American women living and working in Cleveland. The Phillis Wheatley Association was so dedicated to ensuring the young women’s safety that Hunter appealed to Mayor Harold Burton in the mid-1930s when there was an issue with “mashers” who would harass women coming to and leaving the Phillis Wheatley building. This issue was swiftly handled, and Deputy Inspector of Police Charles O. Nevel led a police operation that led to 49 arrests in one month for a variety of crimes including molestation and street solicitation. The Phillis Wheatley provided safe housing for young women as if they were in their mother’s homes, which helped make a name for it in the Green Book.
In addition to safety, any young woman living on her own for the first time seeks a place that has a wide range of amenities. By the 1950s, the Phillis Wheatley was offering single or double bedrooms with access to laundry facilities, parlors devoted to dating activities, a gym, counseling services, a piano, a Cleveland Public Library branch, a television room, record players, a self-service elevator, and parlor and kitchen facilities in the Ford House, which is located at 2174 East 46th Street. The Ford House’s cafeteria area provided food services for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as offered a variety of classes for men and women in the community, such as tailoring, dressmaking, upholstering, catering, and millinery. Moreover, the Ford House also had adult education courses that were tailored to an individual’s unique educational needs and social activities, such as bridge games. The Phillis Wheatley wanted to give its community skills that could help people gain employment and, in many cases, helped people find employment. Due to these amenities and the promise of security, the Phillis Wheatley housed 150 residents at its peak.
By the late 1960s, demand for housing in Cleveland for young African American women was decreasing. In addition, every year more and more young women were leaving the Phillis Wheatley because they wanted larger rooms, the ability to cook in their rooms, rent costs were going up, and they wanted more bathrooms and phones on each floor. Funding for the Phillis Wheatley was also dwindling. As a result, the residence floors closed on October 31, 1970, while the community services and activities continued on the first three floors of its headquarters building. The upper floors became federally subsidized housing for seniors in 1972. Just like earlier in Phillis Wheatley’s history, the residents were given access to programs such as hot meals and recreational activities. Emeritus House continues to house those 62 years of age and older who need affordable housing.
Green Book Details
Phillis Wheatley Association appears in the Green Book from 1939 to 1962 at the erroneous address 4300 Cedar Ave. under the category Hotels.
- “At the Phillis Wheatley: Residents Find a Home Away from Home.” Call & Post. February 2, 1963.
- “City to Hail 50th Year of Phillis Wheatley.” Plain Dealer. January 4, 1962.
- Cooper, Cindy. “Phillis Wheatley Opens Senior Apartments.” Call & Post. April 21, 1973.
- House-Soremekun, Bessie. Confronting the Odds: African American Entrepreneurship in Cleveland. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2002.
- Kusmer, Kenneth L. A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976.
- “Phillis Wheatley Association.” Cleveland Historical. clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/19.
- “Phillis Wheatley Association.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. case.edu/ech/articles/p/phillis-wheatley-association.
- “Phillis Wheatley Offers Home Life.” Call & Post. April 11, 1953.
- “Phillis Wheatley Story: Ford House is Community Hub.” Call & Post. February 16, 1963, City edition.
- “Phillis Wheatley Trustees Plan Suites for Elderly.” Call & Post. December 25, 1971.
- “Police Jail 49 in Area Around Phillis Wheatley: Part of Drive to Stop Molestation of Girls by ‘Mashers.’” Call & Post. August 25, 1938.
- Spain, Daphne. How Women Saved the City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
- “Wheatley to Close Residence Floors.” Plain Dealer. September 23, 1970.